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Post-Modernity and Postmodernism

‘Post-modernity’ refers to the view that the institutions and ways of living characteristic of modernity have been replaced by new institutional features to such a profound extent that it is no longer plausible to look at the 21st century as a continuation of modernity.

Postmodernism is a term that refers to new ways of thinking about thought – to new ways of understanding ideas, beliefs and knowledge, rather than to new ways of living and organising social affairs.

From Modernity to Post-modernity?

There are many social problems which Marx, Weber and Durkheim did not address, but need addressing today – such as the environmental crisis, and the risks surrounding new scientific and technological advances.

Social Life in the Twenty-First Century

What have been the dramatic changes which have led some to talk of contemporary life as a time of post-modernity?

Globalisation is one of the most fundamental changes which according to Jones has five key characteristics

  • The rise of global capitalism
  • The declining power of the nation state
  • Population growth and urbanisation
  • The globalisation of markets and marketing
  • The rise of the network (information) society.

Identity in post-modernity

Postmodern analysis of social life tend to focus on issues of identity. In the past, work was one of the most important aspects of an individual’s identity – people tended to see themselves as what they did for a living – and two key features of modernity in terms of identity were class membership and trades union membership.

For may post-modernists, one of the central features of post-modernity is they way work and production have given way to consumption as the lynch pin of social cohesion and as the source of individual identity.

This is linked to the fact that jobs have become less stable, the idea of a job for life has disappeared, and thus work no longer provides an ‘identity’ we can just slip into.

As a result, we need to be more creative in the way we construct ourselves, and we do this through the consumption of consumer goods, to the extent that consumption has become the central feature of our existence and the main means of expressing who we are.

This has two major consequences – Firstly, it produces a new form of stratification – based on people’s ability to consume – those able to consume have the choice of a huge range of lifestyles, but those unable become disenfranchised – Bauman calls these flawed consumers, and they end up with outsider status. Secondly, post-modern life brings new uncertainties and insecurities – the individual has to ‘keep on consuming’ in order to ‘go on’ in post-modern society – to keep up with new products – to keep discarding the old and purchasing the new.

From Modernism to Post-Modernism?

Postmodern thinking applies to all sorts of human activity – to production, art and literature – and the focus is on pluralism, and on competing accounts of the nature of virtue, style, and truth (relatively in other words!). It is also on the transience and impermanence of definitions.

Postmodernism thus represents a reaction to the Enlightenment-sponsored modern search for THE truth, ultimate meaning and nature of reality.

In Postmodernism, because of the transient nature of truth, fashion and trend are just as important.

In postmodernism, the cultural dominance of the mass media are also emphasised – because the media constitutes most of what we know, and because there are so many images and sources of knowledge which we are exposed to, our sense of reality is impermanent – what we know is only here temporarily, until it is replaced with the next transient story.

According to postmodernism the social construction of knowledge works in the same way as the fashion industry promoting a new line of clothing – there is no objective or inherent beauty which makes one item of clothing better than any other – it is merely a matter of what the trend setters judge to be beautiful – which in turn is influenced by how much money/ power is expended through advertising – the same is true of knowledge – one set of ideas is not more correct than any other set – they just seem more accurate because more power is being excercised to promote one set rather than the other.

Modernism versus Postmodernism

For Modernist thinkers we can only be free if we live as we should, for post modernist thinkers we can only be free when nobody else tells us how to live.

Modernist thinkers believe that their analysis of existence – their metanarrative – is the correct one – thus they tend to be truth merchants – there are both religious versions of this, and secular versions – e.g. Marxism.

The postmodern critique of the above is that what ‘truth merchant’s do in the name of truth has too often resulted in oppression or death of those who do not agree with them.

A better solution than looking for the truth according to postmodernists is to accept that there is no ultimate truth and allowing other people the freedom to be different, to be tolerated even thought they are ‘other’.

A final reason why we can never get to the ‘truth’ is because postmodernists believe we cannot step outside the culture which made us – humans can every know via languages and discourse, and these can never be ‘true or false’ – think of the idea of a ‘true language’ – it doesn’t make sense!

This was a brief summary of one chapter of Pip Jones’s ‘Introducing Social Theory’

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Critical Responses to Post-Modernity (A summary of the next chapter of Pip Jone’s Book)

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Three Examples of Post-Modern Thinkers

Post modernists argue that we need new ways of thought to understand and conceptualise this new ‘post-modern society’ – the age old theories of modernity are no longer relevant!

  1. Lyotard – the abandonment of the Enlightenment Project

Lyotard refers to post-modernism as‘incredulity towards metanarratives’. A metanarrative is a theory that holds that it is the universal truth, or it contains within it a great hope of salvation if only everyone would go along with it! Science, religion, political ideologies are all metanarratives. According to Lyotard, in the postmodern world, people have seen all of these metanarratives turn to ashes, the promises they once held have turned out to be disastrous.

The greater diversity and freedom of the post-modern age means that individuals abandon the search for one universal truth. Lyotard argues that this is a good thing, because the search for universal truths has led to such terror and oppression in the past. Hence post-modern diversity is good because it should promote tolerance!

In a nutshell, Modernists tend to believe that if we can find the truth, then we can apply this to society and it will enable us to be free; while according to post-modernists, in order to be free, we need to be liberated from the concept of truth!

  1. Michel Foucault1 – Knowledge is not objective – rather it is distorted by power

Michel Foucault argued that the modernist Enlightenment project is a myth – throughout history knowledge has not been objective and it has not necessarily been used to make the world a better place. This is because the knowledge we collect about the world is shaped by the subjective views and values of those with power. Foucault illustrates this through exploring how societies have dealt with insanity and criminality throughout history. He basically argues that those in power define their own behaviours and values as ‘normal’ –and then those most unlike them as mentally ill or criminal – once these basic categories have been established, experts then emerge to construct ‘expert knowledge’ about why people are insane and how they are best treated. The labels ‘sane’ and ‘insane’ according to Foucault are subjective.

To illustrate this, in the 1940s the social norm was to have children within marriage. Women who had children outside of wedlock were labelled as insane, and sometimes put in mental institutions and subjected to study by experts. The point here though is that there is nothing objective, value free, or progressive about the original categories of ‘sane’ and insane’ – these are simply a function of power.

  1. Jean Baudrillard – Hyper reality is more important than actual reality

The post-modern era has witnessed a huge expansion in media technology. One consequence of this is that our society has an increased reliance on the media to tell us what is going on in the world. Jean Baudrillard argues that the media creates something called ‘hyper reality’ where what we see in the media is different from and yet more real than reality. Baudrillard argues that the media coverage of war for example is different to reality, yet is the only reality most of us know. The media is thus a world different from reality, and thus a modernist project that focuses on how ‘reality’ influences people’s lives and how we should try to ‘improve’ society seams irrelevant in a society where most people have not lived experience of this social reality.

A Sociology of Post-Modernity

Post-modernism has influence Sociology….

For Zygmunt Bauman2, the central feature of post-modern society is that we are all consumers. Rather than basing our identities around work (and hence class), we are much more likely to define ourselves through the products that we buy. It follows that post-modern sociology is much more focussed on how people use consumption to define and understand themselves. There is much more of a focus on how people construct their identities in a world of huge potentiality. Post-modern sociology is thus much more interested in describing the diversity of life and looking at how people cope in the hectic, post-modern world around us, and much less interested in social structures and how these shape people’s identities. The Sociology of post-modernity is also very interested in deviance and subcultures and in individuals and groups transgress ‘normative boundaries’

Transgression….. Because post-modern society is different, and as culture has become more important, it means that new areas have opened up for study. Such new areas include studies of rave culture, the study of new genders and the development of ‘queer theory’, and the emergence of cultural and media studies as sub- disciplines of sociology.

Narrative – Much of this new post-modern sociology limits itself to a description of the ways of life of these groups, and at best tentative attempts to theorise specific to that group under study. Post-modernists are not interested in constructing generalise able social theory as they believe such a mission is flawed.

1 Strictly a post-structuralist, but for A level we can let that distinction pass!

2 KT thinks the term ‘critical late modernist’ is a better way of categorising Bauman’s work

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Criticisms of Post-Modernism