Anthony Giddens – High Modernity and Religious Revival

Anthony Giddens argues that the shift to late modern society results in religion becoming more popular.

Giddens is one of four ‘sociologists of postmodernity’, all of whom argue that postmodernisation results in the nature of religion changing, but not necessarily declining in importance.

NB – see this post (forthcoming) on how to avoid getting confused over the terms ‘postmodernism/ late modernism etc…

Anthony Giddens: late modernity and religion

Giddens recognizes that ‘religious cosmology’ is undermined by the increasing importance of scientific knowledge in late modern society. However, he argues that is traditional ways of life rather than religious beliefs and practices which are more profoundly affected by this shift.

In Modernity and Self Identity, Giddens argues that the conditions of late modernity actually lay the foundations for a resurgence of religion.

Giddens argues that as tradition loses its grip on individuals, they become increasingly reflexive: they increasingly question what they should be doing with their lives, and are required to find their own way in life, rather than this being laid down by tradition.

However, individuals face problems in constructing their own, individual self-identities for two main reasons:

  • Competing experts provide different advice – scientific knowledge may have taken over from religion, but different scientific experts provided different, and often conflicting advice on ‘how to live’.
  • Existential questions become separated from every day life – according to Giddens, the seriously ill and dying and the mad are separated out from ordinary every day life and hidden from view in institutions. These are precisely the kind of people which would make us confront the big questions of existence, but in late modernity society is structured in such a way as to stop us thinking about the ‘big existential questions’.

The institutions of modernity thus fail to provide sufficient structure to guide people through life, and people’s lives are lived in a moral vacuum with a sense of personal meaninglessness the norm. People en mass suffer from what Giddens calls ontological security – they don’t really know who they are, or what to do with their lives.

It is in such a situation that religion can perform a vital function – by providing a sense of moral purpose, as well as answers to the big existential questions of life.

However, unlike modern or pre-modern societies, individuals now have to choose for themselves which religion to follow…. an this might be anything from New Age religions to one of the various strains of religious fundamentalism…



Critical Responses to Postmodernism

Anthony Giddens attacks post-modernity firstly because he believes that we have not yet left modernity – and thus the sociology of modernity still provides the correct tools for analysing contemporary society, and secondly because he believes that there is still a social structure with both constrains and enables human action.

Structuration Theory

Giddens theory is that there is a ‘duality of structure’ – not only do structures constrain and determine certain forms of behaviour, but they also enable behaviour. Furthermore, the structural circumstances within which human action take place are reproduced (and changed) but this process.

For Giddens, structure is a moving thing – a moving body of rules and resources which agents use for action. For example, we are to an extent constrained by the use of language, but we can still modify it over time.

Risk and Reflexivity

Giddens distinguishes between two types of risk – external risks and manufactured risk – it is the difference between worrying about what nature can do to us, and worrying about what we have done to nature as a consequence of our own actions. Manufactured risks are central to late-modern society – and they infuse every aspect of our lives – both at the level of society, and at the level of intimate relations

Giddens – Reflexivity in Late Modernity

According to Giddens there are some very real (rather than just discursively mediated) institutional changes going on the world – the increasing pace of globalisation (especially the rise of global media and the spread of huge volumes of information), and the threat of nuclear proliferation, environmental decline and the challenges of migration all pose very real challenges which effect our lives.

The simple fact of the matter is that in light of these new problems, no one is certain about what to do about them, there are competing experts who have different opinions – however, we don’t just accept that anything goes – at an institutional level scientists and politicians do their best to meet the above challenges, even if this is in a climate of uncertainty. Meanwhile at the same time, exposure to new cultures via IT means that all of our traditions are now open to question.

As a result of all of these changes, the self becomes a reflexive project – we have to continually remake it in the light of continually produced new knowledge – everything becomes a choice, and the self has to be ‘worked on’. People start to put the self-first because this is a psychological requirement under conditions of social uncertainty.

The nature of self-identity changes – constructing a ‘narrative of the self’ becomes something we are forced to pay attention to – and the ‘obsessive’ process of self-reflection, self-construction and self-expression become the norm.

Two general social forms emerge as a result of this – firstly, the rise of therapy to help us get through the uncertainty of late-modern life and secondly the rise of the body as being central to identity – the later because nothing else is as ‘grounded’ as the body – hence why we obsess with our looks and clothes today.

One key part of what isn’t in Jones’s summary of Giddens also argues that the process of constructing a self-identity – which requires that we continually respond to changing social conditions – takes so much effort, that most of us ask fewer moral and existential questions, although some of us do – as is evidenced in the emergence of new social movements.

%d bloggers like this: