Postmodernism and Education

A postmodern education should be diverse, individualised and allow choice. The British education system is not particularly postmodern!

A postmodern education might be individualised, more diverse and offer more choice of subjects and learning pathways to learners, one might also expect it to be more playful, more hyperreal and express a certain incredulity towards metanarratives.

This would mirror changes associated with the shift from modern to postmodern society (especially since the 1980s). Postmodern society is more diverse, consumerist, fragmented, media-saturated (hyperreal) and allows individuals much more freedom of choice than in the previous modern society.

This post considers the extent to which our mainstream education system (mainly schools and colleges) might be characterised as postmodern or responding to postmodernisation.

You might like to review this article on modern and postmodern society before continuing.

Postmodern education or education responding to postmodernisation?

OK so this might sound like a pedantic semantic issue, but I think there is a difference to be made between a postmodern education and an education system (which may remain predominately modern) responding to society having become more postmodern (a process known as postmodernisation).

A postmodern education

As I understand it a postmodern education would display a certain incredulity towards metanarratives (maybe manifested through a scepticism about religion, science and politics and the possibility of progress), and maintain a relativistic attitude towards what knowledges are taught as part of a curriculum, and probably even abandon the concept of a curriculum altogether.

A postmodern education might also be more diverse, playful, not take itself too seriously, and allow parents choice and children the freedom to explore their own individual learning paths.

An education system responding to postmodernisation

The postmodernisation of society has resulted in societies becoming more diverse, individualised, consumerist, globalised, uncertain and risky.

An education system could respond to the postmodernisation of society by becoming more consumerist (by creating a market in education for example), but also by simply becoming more global in outlook and teaching children strategies to cope with new global risks and uncertainties, and it can do all of this through a relatively modernistic, centralised curriculum.

Personally I’d characterise the latter as a late-modern education system rather than postmodern.

The above type of education system is very different to a ‘postmodern education’ and might not be effective if there was a radically relativistic and playful approach to knowledge, BUT these can also be part of a late modern as well a postmodern approach to education.

One further change which could be either or both the postmodernisation of education or a late modern response to postmodernisation is the move to more online learning within schools.

Is education in Britain becoming more Postmodern?

To determine if mainstream education is becoming more postmodern then we might expect to see evidence of all or any of the following:

  • More diversity of school types and more freedom of choice for parents
    • More home education of pupils
  • Less centralised control of schools and more autonomy for individual schools.
  • A move away from a prescriptive national curriculum.
  • More personalised and individual learning programmes for students within schools.
  • Schools making use of more online learning platforms.
  • A greater diversity of educational experience, more relativism.

Do parents have more choice of schools?

There has been a definite trend towards increasing diversity of types of school over the last 40 years.

Back in the early 1980s most parents had no choice but to send their children to the local education authority, and in some areas the actual specific school the child went to was determined by the local council.

Fast forward to 2022 and parents do have a choice of their preferred school AND there are a number of types of different school: LEA maintained or academies/ free schools, specialist schools and faith schools to name just a few.

And because most secondary schools are now academies which don’t have to follow the national curriculum there is potentially a greater diversity in the range of subjects that these schools offer.

However, while there is more choice and diversity today, it’s important to not overstate the increase in these trends. The vast majority of academies choose to follow the national curriculum, and they still focus mainly on getting students the best grades in their GCSEs or Ebacc subjects, and STEM subjects still have more status than the critical thinking subjects, all of which are very modernist.

Even free schools aren’t really innovative

The case of free schools also shows how little innovation is actually happening in the state education sector…

The promise of free schools when they first launched was that parents in local communities would be able to create their own schools which would increase school diversity, but 10 years on from the creation of the first free schools in 2010 only a third of now more than 500 free schools are ‘innovator schools’ having been set up by locals, the majority are either run by academy chains or faith groups, so are maybe better characterised as late modern rather than post-modern.

There is also some evidence that in some areas they have led to polarisation. Melanie Carvalho describes how here children were thriving at an ethnically diverse primary school in her local area until a Free School: Belham School was set up nearby.

This resulted in ‘middle class white flight’ as it was mostly white middle class children who left the old school to go to the new free school.

In the Free School, only 7% of children were eligible for Free School Meals, compare to 24% locally and 70% were from white British backgrounds compared to only 19% in other local schools.

So it’s more a case of white flight and ethnic segregation rather than more choice and diversity.

Homeschooling isn’t that significant

Homeschooling is possibly the postmodern form of education there is: taken to its extreme if every household chose to educate their children at home we’d have more than 20 million ‘learning centres’ at home with, presumably, children studying the most diverse array of subjects possible given the extreme level of decentralisation involved with homeschooling.

And there has been a rapid increase in the number of parents choosing to homeschool their children in recent years in the United Kingdom.

Between 2013 to 2018 there was a 130% increase to bring the number of homeschooled children to just over 57 000 by 2018. (1) with a further survey in 2019 reporting that there were 60,544 registered home educated children in England, an increase of around 15% compared to 2018 (2)

However, with a total of 9 million children in school this is less than 1% of children who are being home-educated, so clearly we are not talking about sufficient numbers for us to say that there is a significant trend towards the postmodernisation of education in this respect.

One also might question the extent to which a hypothetical mass movement towards home education would actually involve ‘education’ – for some households ‘home ed’ may just mean children being taken out of school and hem receiving no education, so this might be regressive rather than progressive, not that this distinction would matter to postmodernists anyway as they don’t believe in the concept of ‘progress’ anyway!

Do schools today have more autonomy?

Academies and free schools are free from Local Education Authority Control and receive their funding directly from central government, which means in once sense the majority of secondary schools now have more control to manage their own budgets because of that freedom.

However, there are still conditions which determine how money can be spent – most of it has to go on wages and teachers have to be paid a legally binding minimum salary, buildings have to be maintained to safe standards and Pupil Premium Funding has to spent on disadvantaged students.

And on top of this schools are still monitored by OFSTED, which is, by proxy, inspecting how effectively they are spending their budgets.

So in reality ‘independent control over budgets’ maybe means the heads of academies get to pay certain teachers a bit extra, maybe spend a few thousand more on fringe-subjects they value, but really 95% of the budget is already determined.

Have we moved away from a centralised curriculum?

As with the issue of autonomy more broadly, independent schools, academies and free schools do not have to follow the national curriculum, so this means that we currently have an education system which has the potential for radical diversity.

HOWEVER, the vast majority of schools spend most of their time teaching the standard national curriculum and Ebacc subjects: English, maths, the sciences, geography and history, and focus on getting their students through their Key Stage 4 exams with the best grades possible.

It may be true that outside of the mainstream exam-focussed subjects academies and free schools offer a rich ‘extended curriculum’ offering a range of sporting, creative and career-development programmes but realistically these are fringe offerings – schools are still 90% focused on national curriculum subjects because that’s what parents want.

Has learning become more personalised?

While personalised learning became a formal part of government policy in 2004 under New Labour, in reality schools remain for the most part exam factories focused mainly on getting students the best grades possible in the mainstream GCSE subjects such as English and Maths.

Personalised learning happens but most schools pay lip service to it – working with students to produce ‘personalised learning plans’ which are in reality not that unique to each student (lots of cutting and pasting going on for similar students) and then only reviewing these infrequently a few times every academic year.

The shift to online learning?

Global companies such as Pearsons are now offering purely online private education to 14-16 year olds covering their own GCSES.

However, this is a very narrow offering to only older students and not available to all students.

At the level of state education schools in England and Wales were forced to shift to mostly online learning for the majority of students during the two government imposed lockdowns of 2020-21 during the Covid-19 pandemic. This provides us with a natural experiment to test out how successful online learning is for school aged children.

According to research from the Office for National Statistics teacher assessments students who were studying purely online only covered from between 50-75% of what the few in-school students covered during that period, suggesting that online learning is drastically less effective that in-person education:

Moreover this recent review of online learning during the pandemic by the government suggests that both the quantity and quality of education received by students fell with over half of parents saying they felt it challenging to support students and that quality of education students received at home varied greatly depending on the level of education of parents.

In short, the ‘natural experiment’ in online learning that took place during the lockdowns seems to have been judged as a resounding failure by the government.

So far the available evidence suggests that while schools are becoming ever so slightly postmodern, this is really only on the fringes, and they remain around 95% modernist institutions, but how successfully has our education system made rational adaptations to the postmodernisation of society?

Education Responding to postmodernisation

The changes below are (to my mind) more likely to be characteristic of a late modern education system rather than a post modern education system…

  • the rise of apprenticeships and more vocational options in post-16 education
  • Schools having a more global outlook and teaching more about global issues such as climate change
  • Schools teaching students strategies to cope with the risks of living in post/ late modern society.

the rise of apprenticeships

The last 40 years has seen a significant increase in the variety of vocational options on offer.

The increasing variety of apprenticeships especially suggests that the system is adapting to an increasingly diverse and competitive global economy.

There are currently over 600 types of apprenticeship available with around 750 million people studying towards them, but in reality the diversity is even greater because there are thousands of employers who will be educating their young employees (apprentices) according to the specific needs of their companies, adapting the ‘framework’ of the apprenticeship to suit their specific needs.

Teaching about global issues

At the beginning of 2023 climate change is still not on the national curriculum. There is a private members bill currently going through its second reading in the house of commons but even if it makes this through and becomes law (it’s difficult to see how it can’t pass!) it’s incredible to note just how late in the day this is coming to fruition.

Although maybe we shouldn’t be too surprised by this lack of pace in getting climate change on the education agenda. After all, it is totally in line to the lack of specific action being taken to reduce global emissions.

This fact also suggests that schools are fundamentally failing to prepare younger people to cope with what is probably going to be the major challenge of their generation.

NB if the bill still hasn’t gone through by the time you’re reading this you can if you like sign this petition but together by Teach the Future.

Teaching strategies to cope with new risks in society

One example of this the government introducing the PREVENT strategy to deal with radicalisation and the threat of terrorism. HOWEVER, there is nothing at all postmodern about this because one aspect of PREVENT was to make schools teach British Values, which itself is a very modernist response, as is the potential for the policy to alienate Muslim students.

Most schools do offer lessons on staying safe online as part of their PSHE portfolio, but this is hardly front and centre of schools’ teaching agendas, rather many schools do their duty to teach this content but do so in a piecemeal and often cringeworthy and ineffective manner.

When it comes to issues of safety in general while schools do have safeguarding duties and the some of the more vulnerable students are protected, when it comes to the more subtle, everyday risks which ‘non-vulnerable’ students have to deal with, they are very much left to fend for themselves, left to figure out their own strategies for negotiating the risks of living in an uncertain world, and more often than not they have to first figure out what these risks actually are!

Postmodernism, Postmodernisation and Education: Conclusions

The education system has become more postmodern in some ways such as:

  • Education market, more consumerist, more choice of schools and subjects
  • Especially post-16.
  • More personalisation
  • Shift to online learning.

However, overall I would say this has NOT been a significant trend. There is very little within the education system to point to a shift towards postmodernism.

Rather, the education system as a whole for 5-16 year olds remains very modern in that most schools stick to the fairly narrow national curriculum, most try to instil a sense of shared values and solidarity, and the primary focus of mainstream schools is getting children through the national exams with the best grades.

And once we drill down into it there is little real choice for most parents, little real diversity, little in the way of innovation or experimentation.

Sort of a 10% postmodern fringe. 90% modern.

I think at best we might characterise our education system as ‘late modern’ – because it has adapted in some ways to reflect our society becoming more postmodern in response to the emergence of globalisation and digital technology. For example, history and english literature now have more options to look at global events and texts and the Pandemic saw a radical increase in the amount of online learning.

However in terms of equipping students with the skills they will need to cope with the risks associated with living in our global postmodern world schools lag way behind – there is little in they way of giving students the skills they will need to cope with the world of work (if that’s even possible to do in school), and very little effective education teaching about global issues such as climate change or how to stay safe online.

If education is becoming more post (or late) modern then this shift is happening outside of the mainstream education system (maybe even in spite of it), possible examples of which include…

  • the rise of online digital learning platforms such as Udemy
  • The increase in independent people offering education and training on YouTube and other channels
  • The increase in ordinary people sharing their stories, experiences and life-experiments, and the increased interest in people consuming these.
  • The increase in both children and adults using the above sources to educate themselves about what interests them (on top of what they have to learn for work or school).
  • Students increasingly using online sources to educate themselves rather than resources provided by the school they attend (such as text books).

If we were to explore the above we might well find that we might characterise informal child and adult-education outside of the mainstream education system as postmodern, but I can’t hand on heart characterise the formal educational institutions and practices as being postmodern in 2023.


This material is mainly relevant to the sociology of education.

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Postscript: a note on pedantic postmodern semantics.

Sorry, that’s postmodernism for you! Just suck it up and try to understand what you can!

The Sex Map of Britain

The Sex Map of Britain is a very interesting recent documentary series which ‘meets people for whom sex, sexuality and having children is far from straightforward.

The series covers the following topics:

  • The reality of being a ‘cheap prostitute’ – selling sex for as little as £4.
  • Why some people choose a career in porn.
  • Asexuality – why some people just don’t want sex.
  • Transgender escorts and parenting urges.
  • The journey of freezing eggs and ‘alternatives’ to IVF.
  • And a trip behind the scenes of a sexual health clinic.

Unfortunately the episode on polyamory has disappeared.

Relevance to A-level sociology

This is a terrific series to get students to explore the wonderful diversity of relationships and sexuality in postmodern society, and taken together, this collection clearly illustrates the postmodern view of modern family life – that there’s no longer such a thing as a ‘normal’ family or relationship!

There are nine available episodes available on iplayer for the next 10 months, and, suitably for a documentary series which explores the diversity of family life in postmodern society, they are all nice and short, so perfect for postmodern students with postmodern attention spans (i.e. short ones).

A Summary of Chapter Three of Liquid Modernity by Zygmunt Bauman – Time/Space

In the first section Bauman provides an overview of some of the key features of contemporary urban areas.

Firstly, that modern urban areas are increasingly gated – To illustrate this he offers a description of Heritage Park, a new 500 acre gate community about to be built not far from Cape Town in South Africa, complete with high-voltage electric fencing, electronic surveillance of access roads and heavily armed guards. Within the fortifications, Heritage Park contains several amenities – from shops to salmon lakes, but the most significant feature for Bauman, is the assumption that lies behind the project – that in order to build a spirit of community, we can only do so if we exclude others.

Secondly, he illustrates that a fear of strangers is common by pointing out that increasing amounts of people think they are victims of stalkers and, although there is a long-historical trend of people looking for the source of their misery outside of themselves, this fear of stalkers is just the latest manifestation of a society-wide fear of the ‘mobile vulgus’, the inferior people who are always on the move (stalkers are not generally of the places which they stalk).

He rounds of this section by drawing on Sharon Zukin’s description of LA to provide an overview of the current evolution of urban life which can be described as the ‘institutionalization of urban fear’ the key features of which include…

  • ‘defence of the community’ translated as the hiring of armed gatekeepers to control the entry.
  • Stalker and prowler promoted to public enemy number one.
  • Paring public areas down to defensible enclaves with selective access (thus reducing freedom to move about).
  • Separation in lieu of the negotiation of life in common.
  • The criminalisation of residual difference.

This is actually a very tame section for Bauman on this particular topic. There is a much stronger commentary in ‘Liquid Times’ in which he comments on ‘Fortress cities’, talking about how, for the marginalised, cities are increasingly becoming full of places where they cannot go.

(94) When strangers meet strangers

Drawing on Richard Sennet (which he does often), Bauman points out that ‘a city is a human settlement in which strangers are likely to meet’ – the encounters are likely to be without a past or a future, and such encounters require a particular set of skills which Sennet calls civility.

Civility is not an easy skill to learn, it involves putting on a mask to shield others from having to deal with the private burdens of one’s own self, and we expect the same from others. In other words, civility is based on the mutual withdrawal of the ‘true self’ – we don’t expect to be cajoled into expressing our inner most feelings to others in public spaces, instead we put on a ‘public persona’ and expect others to do the same and this is what enables us to share space with masses of other people. This, in short is civility, which the city requires. Something else Bauman says later in the chapter (to my mind this is the important bit, obscured by his artistic efforts to define the concept) is that civility is hard-work – it involves making the effort to get on (and I assume work with) people that are not like you! In order to work effectively, the city requires civility.

Bauman doesn’t go into too much depth here about what ‘civility’ actually is btw, but crucially it clearly doesn’t involve just doing whatever you want, it involves restraint, and not just of your actions, but of your ‘true’ self-expression

BC – I’m not at all comfortable with the analytical divisions stopping with the distinction between ‘public-persona’ and ‘true (private?) self’ – I’d me much happier with a distinction between ‘public-persona’ and ‘that confluence of aggregates which people in their ignorance label their true-selves’

Bauman then argues that there are two general types public space which are removed from the above ideal-type model of civility –

The first of these categories of public-yet-not-civil spaces are public squares such as La Defense on the right bank of the Seine which are designed to be kept empty by their inhospitable architecture.

The second category is meant to serve the consumer – the most obvious example of which is the shopping mall in which the primary task to be performed is individualised consumption with a minimum of human interaction. In such spaces, encounters are kept shallow and strangers are kept out to minimise the disruption to consumptive acts

On this note, something interesting to explore further are how successfully counter-movements devoted to subvert the logic of such consumer-spaces. Reverend Billy and The Church of Stop Shopping is the most obvious example of this, and some aspects of the UK Uncut protests here in Britain might also be read in the same way.

(98) Emic places, phagic places, non-places, empty spaces

Our consumer spaces, such as shopping malls, are completely ‘other spaces’ – the temples of consumption may be in the city, but they are not of the city. The temple of consumption, like ‘Foucault’s boat’ maintains a distance from daily life, it is anchored out at sea. Temples of consumption are also purified spaces in that diversity and difference are cleansed of all threats to us, unlike the more threatening and potentially disruptive differences in daily life (such as the increasing likely threat of losing your job!), and so these unreal spaces offer us the near perfect balance between freedom and security.

I’m reminded of two things – the contrast to the relative lack of purity and increased uncertainty when shopping in markets in developing countries, and the attendant requirement to pay close attention to the dynamics (and it is more dynamic) of barter – this contrast is useful for criticising western notions of development; secondly, the fact that such purity really is lulling consumers into a very false sense of security because the ‘security’ gained through the act of shopping is so very short-lived.

In such places as shopping malls we also find a sense of belonging, in that we are all there for the same purpose, and so it is here that we find (a very limited idea of) community. The problem with this, as Sennet points out, is that any idea of community, of sameness is a fantasy… it is only achieved through ignoring differences. However, inside the temples of consumption, fantasy becomes reality and we find a sense of belonging for a few hours in a ‘community’ of shoppers. In these ‘egic’ spaces, for a short-time we can ignore differences because we are all united by the urge to shop, we all share a common purpose. The problem is that this is a shallow community that does not require empathy, understanding, bargaining or compromising.

From personal experience, he may as well be describing every sit-down cup of coffee I’ve ever had in a Cafe Nero or Costa Coffee… Such an EASY feeling of non-community. At some point I must try and work out the average cost per hour per table, I’d like to put a figure on the cost of non-community.

Bauman now turns to Claude Levi-Strauss, who suggested that just two strategies were deployed in human history whenever the need arose to cope with the otherness of others:

Anthropoemic strategies – which traditionally involves vomiting out strangers, which today takes the form of deportation and incarceration.

Anthropophagic strategies – ingesting strangers, which traditionally takes the form of cannibalism, but today takes the form of enforced assimilation.

The first strategy was aimed at the exile or annihilation of the others, the second aimed at the suspension or annihilation of their otherness.

Bauman now brings the above threads together to argue that the public square is the emic stratgey, the shopping mall the egic straegy, both are a response to our having to live with strangers combined with our lack of skills with civility. Rather than learn the skills, our urban spaces are designed to either exclude others or nullify otherness.

Quick Commentary – I think Bauman might be the world master in dualistic constructions (no wonder he likes Levi-Strauss.)

Bauman rounds off this section by (much more briefly) outlining two other types of space found in cities (I think the idea is that they also prevent the development of civility, although I’m not sure what his opinion is on the later)

Non-spaces, such as airports and hotel rooms, are those which discourage settling in, and share some features of the first kind of space. These are uncolonised, free of all identity markers.

This is an eerily accurate description of my one (and never to be repeated) experience in a Travel-lodge. As if the sterility of the room wasn’t enough, the final straw was having to pay for breakfast first and then showing the receipt to collect a plate, bowl and cutlery set, although they did give us unrestricted access to the plastic cups.

Finally, there are empty spaces – Those which are unmapped, to which no meaning is ascribed. These are basically the poorer and unknown bits of the city.

(104) Don’t Talk to Strangers

The main point about civility is the ability to interact with strangers without holding their strangeness against them and without pressing them to surrender it or to renounce some or all of the traits that made them strangers in the first place.

All of the above four places are designed to strip out any of the challenges of togetherness by rendering strangers as invisible as possible and minimising interaction with them.

However, even though we have arranged our public places so we minimise the risk of having any meaningful interaction with them, they are still full of strangers. (Bauman argues that our preferred is to try and organise our lives so we do not have to interact with them at all, but for most of us this is simply not possible.)

And so, following Sennet again, we have arranged our cities into ethnic enclaves where we mix with people ‘just like us’ and we end up with little islands of people bound together by a shared sense of ‘being like these people, but not like other people’ – We have avoided the difficulties of forging relationships with and negotiating how to live with people who are different to us, and this creates a self-fulfilling prophecy – because we avoid dealing with people ‘not like us’, those people are more distant, so they appear more dangerous, and the idea of constructing an ‘ideal-society’ of shared interest in the midst of cultural difference becomes ever more fanciful. Or, to summarise all of this succinctly in the words of Sharon Zukin (again) – ‘No one knows how to talk to anyone anyone else’.

Ethnicity is the first and foremost way we retreat from the difficult realm of the heterogeneous society out there, the society which requires negotiating and effort to get along in. In ethnic groupings, we don’t need to talk to people, we just feel the same, our sameness is heteronomous, it is given, our right. Identity is about who you are, not about what you do.

Note to self – or question to self – how does this square with the Buddhist notion of transcending the self through ‘non-doing’ and non-identification. What is the difference between ‘doingness’ in Buddhism (ethics) and doingness in Bauman? Also, is Bauman saying that part of being ethical (being responsible) is ‘doing’ in the sense of making the effort to forge meaningful bonds with people who are not like us (in which case this could be a very noble, ideal reading of Habermas’ communicative utopia)… More to come on this…

Bauman sees such a carving out of ethnic niches as a rational response to a legitimately perceived crisis of public life, where the public realm (this is from the last chapter, remember?!) has been narrowed down to private confessions. Politicians in fact give the message that identity matters above all else, it is who you are, not what you are doing that truly matters. Once you have ‘identity’ as the central logic of existence, purging others not like me needs no further rationale.

Bauman now casts our obsession with purity and purging of strangers perceived to be dangerous as a public pathology – a pathology of public space resulting in a pathology of politics: the wilting and waning of the art of dialogue and negotiation, the substitution of the techniques of escape and elision for engagement and mutual commitment.

He finishes by saying…. ‘Do not talk to strangers has now become the strategic precept of adult normality.’ and providing the basic problem with the premise of the gated community…. George Hazeldon Heritage Park (the gated community mentioned at the beginning) would be a place where, at long last, all passers-by could talk freely to each other. They would be free to talk since they would have very little to talk about – except exchanging the routine and familiar phrases entailing no controversy, but no commitment either. The dreamt-of purity of the Heritage Park community could be gained only at the price of disengagement and broken bonds.

By way of commentary on this section – look at the picture below… from my local paper commenting on travellers using a piece of local grassland to graze their horses on. Odd how this is on my regular running route, and I’ve regularly run across this field, people, horses and all, and never felt particularly threatened by any of them.

(110) Modernity as History of Time

Today, if asked how long it will take to get from a to b, we will be asked about what method of transport, because the amount of space we can cross in a given amount of time is very much dependent on the mode of transport we use to get there. It is normal for us today to try to calculate how long tasks will take us given the technology we are using. We are normatively very time-conscious.

However, it has not always been thus. In pre-modern times, people did not think very much about time and space because such thinking was not required given the nature of their lifeworlds. If people were pressed hard to explain what they meant by space and time, they may have said that space is what you can pass in a given time, while time is what you need pass it, but they didn’t think to much about either because their conception of both was limited because their transportation and work techniques (what Bauman calls ‘wetware’) – humans muscle, oxen or horses – which made the effort and set the limits of what amount of space could be travelled in what time.

He now seems to celebrate the efforts of  Enlightenment thinkers such as Newton and Kant (who he calls the ‘valiant knights of reason’) for their efforts in setting apart time and space in human thought and practise – or as he puts it, their efforts in ‘casting time and space as two transcendentally separate and mutually independent categories of human cognition’ –  the distinction between which provides us with the ‘epistemological ground for philosophical and scientific reflection’ and the ’empirical stuff that can be kneaded into timeless truths’.

Bauman seems to be arguing here that the development of the basic conceptions of time and space have been historically useful, illustrating his modernist roots.

He then argues that it was the construction of such things as vehicles (hardware) that enabled us to travel faster and technologies more generally that enable us to do more in less time that gave rise to this widespread perception of time and space being separate fields of thought.

In Modernity, time came to be seen as something which could be manipulated and controlled, it became a factor of destruction, the dynamic partner in the time-space wedlock, and thus controlling time became crucial to controlling space – Whoever could travel faster could claim more territory. In a nice evocative phrase Bauman says that ‘modernity was born under the stars of acceleration’.

As modernity progressed, time became its central logic: rationalisation was essentially a process designed to make us more productive, to cajole us to do more in less time.

Bauman finishes off this section by saying that the main focus of what the powerful do with time (use their time for?) in modernity is to conquer space. Bauman casts the powerful as those who invade and redraw boundaries, and the faster they can do this, the better, whereas the the weak are those who must defend their territory, for them and their world, time is experienced as something which is ‘running out’.   (The very last line is my interpretation, but I’m 99% sure it’s accurate.)

I’m not sure how far Bauman takes his analysis of the differential experience of time in his later works, but one fairly obvious interpretation is that the wealthy, have time on their side, most obviously in the form of privileged access to high speed rail and air networks, the fastest broadband, and also their ability to employ people to do things for them. In contrast, middling people experience time as something that is scarce, and frequently have too much to do in the limited time available, especially where family and work need to be balanced. In addition, it is worth noting that those on the margins have ‘all the time in the world’ and are free to use this time as they see fit, according to their limited means, but if they are hooked on the synopticon, then much of that time will be spent watching the money-rich, time-rich worlds of the elite who take up such a disproportionate amount of media air-time.

I’m further reminded here of another two things – Firstly the 1960s futurologists such as Toffler who predicted a 4 hour working day once we were properly ‘teched up’ (whatever happened to that?!) and secondly I think there’s utility in developing a methodology for calculating how much of our time we give away in surplus value, most horrifyingly in the form of interest payments on our mortgages. The utility of this would lie in being able to calculate how much time we would gain if gave up these things.

NB – At some point in this section Bauman also makes the point that the conception of our place in physical space seems to have ontological significance in modernity – when he suggests that at the individual level we could replace Descartes’ well known ‘I think for I am’ with ‘I occupy space therefore I exist’ and the meaning would remain the same. This didn’t seem to flow with the rest of his argument but I quite liked the point so I thought I’d make a note of it!

(p113) From Heavy to Light Modernity

This section deals with one of Bauman’s most well-known dualisms

The term Heavy Modernity refers to the era of hardware, or bulk obsessed modernity, where size is power and volume is success. This is the era of ponderous rail engines and gigantic ocean liners. To conquer as much space as one could hold,and then guarding the boundaries was the goal.
In heavy modernity wealth and power were firmly rooted or deposited deep inside the land, empty space was seen as a threat, and heroes were made of those who penetrated the hearts of darkness.

In terms of production Modernity meant the factory, and the bigger, more routinised, more homogeneous the logic of control and the clearer the boundaries in many respects of the word,  the better.  Daniel Bell described the General Motors Willow Run plant in Michegan as one of the best examples.

Heavy modernity also involved the neutralising and co-ordination of time; in this eara, time, and what one could achieve in a given amount of time, became the measure of progress.

The relationship between labour and capital was like a marriage, until death do us part, because the factory tied both labour and capital to the ground. Neither could survive without the other which meant conflict, but a conflict born of the rootedness.

This is now changed, as evidenced by Daniel Cohen in the example of Microsoft: whoever begins a career there has not the slightest idea where they’ll end up. Today’s management is concerned with loser organisational forms, with adaptability, and as a result of thisthe idea of a ‘career’ seems out of place.

Behind this watershed change is the new irrelevance of space, masquerading as the annihilation of time. Space no more sets limits to action because of the instantaneity of communications. The instantaneity of time devalues space. Since all parts of space can be reached in an instant, no space has special value, and thus there is less reason to bear the cost of perpetual supervision of such spaces, given that they can be abandoned and revisited in an instant.

This might make sense when we are talking about software development, but in many other areas of work this just doesn’t apply. Surely we still have heavy modernity in places? The mining sector for example, and even supermarkets, which are at the centre of our nexus of consumption, are rooted physically to one place.

(p118) The Seductive Lightness of Being

In this section Bauman contrasts power in heavy modernity with power in liquid modernity.

He uses Muchel Crozier’s Bureaucratic Phenomenon to illustrate how power worked in the heavy period. Crozier pointed out that people who manage to keep their own actions unbound, norm-free and so unpredictable, while normatively regulating the actions of their protagonists rule: the freedom of the first is the main cause of the unfreedom of the second, while the undfreedom of the second is the ultimate meaning of the freedom of the first.

In Liquid modernity, while this basic relationship remains the same, it is those who come closest to the momentariness of time rule. Today Capital does not concern itself with managing labour; surveillance and drill are no longer necessary. Labour (because it either has little interest or choice in the matter, dealt with at more length in the next chapter) allows capital to travel light and engage only in short term contracts, in hopeful search of opportunity, of which there appear to be many. In Liquid Modernity, domination consists in one’s capacity to escape, to disengage, to be ‘elsewhere’ and the right to decide the speed with which all this is done, stripping the people on the dominated side of their ability to resist their moves or slow them down. The contemporary battled of domination is waged with the weapons of acceleration and procastination.

The bit below is actually at the beginning of this section in the book, but I thought it made much more sense at the end…where he deals with how we are possibly beginning to view time differently.

In the extreme case of the liquid modern, the software world, time appears as Insubstantial and instantaneous, and so Bauman argues this is also an inconsequential time, in which we demand on the spot fulfilment , but which is also characterised by immediate fading of interest. Today, given that space and time are closer together, we have only ‘moments’ – points without dimensions.

Bauman provides two qualifications to the above –

Firstly, he questions whether this way of conceiving time (time with the morphology of an aggregate of moments) is still time as we know it.

Secondly, he says that the above only describes the developmental horizon of late modernity – the ever to be pursued yet never to be reached in full ideal of its major operators. It is a tendency towards rather than a state reached.

(p123) Instant Living

Bauman starts with Sennet’s observation that Bill Gate’s is very  willing to destroy that which he had created in order to bring into being the next best thing, representing the trend for Liquid modernity to devalues the long term, (possibly because instanteity makes every moment infinite?)
Bauman next spends another couple of pages outlining how, in modern society, we valued the long-term more, and there was basically a balance between stability and change.

Today the balance has shifted towards an incredulity towards the value of stability/ immortality and there has been a culture shift towards constant revolutionising of many aspects of life.

Rational choice in this culture means to pursue instant gratification while seeking to avoid the consequences. This ushers both culture and ethics into unexplored territory. Today’s generation is living in a present that wants to forget the past and no longer seems to believe in the future…. but the memory of the past and trust in the future have been thus far the two pillars on which the cultural and moral bridges between transience and durability,  human mortality and the immortality of human accomplishments, as well as taking responsibility and living moment by moment, all rested.

Postmodern Methods in Louis Theroux Documentaries

Louis Theroux documentaries are a great example of ‘postmodern’ research methods.

I say this for the following reasons:

  • Firstly, these documentaries select unusual, deviant case studies to focus on, which is especially true of the latest series – ‘Dark States’ which consists of three episodes about heroin users, sex trafficking and murder.
  • Secondly, they tend to have a narrative style, focusing on people’s stories.
  • Thirdly, there’s a lack of structure about the documentaries… Theroux makes a connection with people and sees where that leads.
  • Fourthly – there’s no real attempt to be critical, or provide any analyses of the role of economic and political structures which lie behind these stories. In short, they are not properly sociological!
  • Finally, these documentaries seem to be produced for entertainment purposes only – they simply invite us to marvel or gawp at the ‘messed up’ individuals before us, without offering any real solutions as to how they might sort their lives out, or how society should deal with them.

A brief analysis of two episodes of ‘Dark States’ demonstrates the postmodern nature of these documentaries:

In the first episode in the series, H****n Town, Theroux looks at how the over-prescription of painkillers has unleashed a heroin epidemic. Theroux says that he largely steered clear of the pharmaceutical companies, regulators and politicians who permitted the disaster…. Instead, he hung out on streets where heroin and opioid addiction is “off the scale, unlike anything I’d ever seen before” and made addicts the stars, giving them space to express themselves and showing how many are beguiled by the romance of being outlaws.

The third episode, on Sex Trafficking in Houston, focuses on the relationships between sex workers and pimps, also shows the ‘postmodern documentary method – in which Theroux deliberately avoided making any value judgments:

Theroux says that he avoided the term “sex slave”: “If you overdo the abusive dimension, you strip the women of agency – it’s oddly disempowering and kind of neo-Victorian. The women are getting a kind of emotional fulfilment in their relationship with the pimps, even though it is poisonous and often damaging.” The pimps tended to be stylish, eloquent and intelligent. “These guys are, in their own way, deeply damaged, often the children of prostitutes, who may have had dads or family friends who were pimps. The closest analogy I have is that they are living in semi-apocalyptic conditions where the police are just not an option.”

Of course there are both strengths and limitations of these postmodern methods… I guess the biggest strength is that they allow the respondents to speak for themselves, and it’s down to the viewer to interpret the information as they will, and analyse deeper if they feel the need!


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Sociological Perspectives: The Basics

sociological perspectives are divided in structure/ action, consensus/ conflict, and modern/ postmodern.

Given that ‘society’ is complex and multi-layered, a key aspect of studying A-Level Sociology is being able to view society and social action through a number of different sociological perspectives, or lenses, because different sociologists (and different people in general) look upon the same society and see different realities.

For example, consider a busy street and imagine different people looking at that same street: a shopkeeper, a thief and a consumer. The shopkeeper sees profit, the thief victims and the consumer sees products to buy.

Sociology consists of various different perspectives, all of which look at society in different ways. All sociological perspectives have something valuable to offer to the individual who wishes to understand society and no one perspective is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. It is up to the individual student to present positive and negative criticisms of sociological perspectives throughout the course.

Sociological Perspectives in A Level Sociology

There are three main dividing lines for sociological perspectives as taught within A-level sociology:

  • Social structure and social action perspectives.
  • Consensus and conflict perspectives
  • Modern and Postmodern perspectives.

Social Structure and Social Action perspectives

Some Sociologists, known as structural theorists, emphasise the importance of institutions in providing social stability and regulating social action. They argue that such institutions form a structure that shapes human action and makes it predictable.

Other Sociologists, known as social-action theorists, argue that individuals have more freedom than structural theorists suggest. They also argue that society is more fluid and some interactionists go as far as saying that there is no such thing as society, just billions of individual level interactions.

Structural perspectives include

Examples of social action perspectives include social action theory and labelling theory.

Consensus and Conflict Perspectives

Sociological Perspectives are also divided into Consensus perspectives which argue that, generally speaking, society is characterised by harmony and agreement, and Conflict perspectives, which argue that society is better seen as being made up of competing groups, with the powerful controlling institutions in society and oppressing the powerless.

Functionalism and The New Right are consensus perspectives, Marxism and Feminism are conflict perspectives.

Modern and Postmodern Perspectives

Modernist perspectives include Functionalism, The New Right, Marxism and Feminism and believe in ‘social progress’. They believe that social research can reveal the truth about which types of societies are best and actively work to construct a better society through social policy and more radical means.

Postmodernists and to an extent Interactionists reject the idea of truth and the idea social progress is possible.

Sociological Perspectives summary grid

Below is a very brief summary grid including some of the main concepts within each of five main sociological perspectives…

Norms and values,
Value Consensus,
Positive functions of institutions,

Capitalism and private property, Bourgeoisie/ Proletariat, exploitation, ideological control, revolution, communismPatriarchy, sex and gender, public-private divide, gender scripts, deconstruction The self, the I and the me, social identity,
back stage and front stage, labelling, the fulfilling prophecy
Individualisation, Media-saturation, hyperreality, identity, social fragmentation, the end of metanarratives.

Signposting and Related Posts 

This material is fundamental to A-level sociology and should be taught early on as part of an introduction to sociology.

You might also like this post: Sociological Perspectives in Five Shapes

The Postmodern Perspective on the Family

More individual freedom and choice means more family and life course diversity.

Postmodernists argue that recent social changes such as increasing social fragmentation, greater diversity and technological changes have made family more a matter of personal choice and as a result families have become more unstable and more diverse.

In postmodern society there is no longer one typical type of family such as the nuclear family, rather there is huge diversity of family types and it is no longer possible to make general theories about the role of the family in society like Functionalists and Marxists have done in the past.

Postmodernity, Social Change and the Family

During the later part of modernity (around 1850-1950) society was clearly structured along social class lines with clear gender norms and the nuclear family formed part of (what at least appeared to be) a stable social structure.

Since the 1950s we have seen a shift to a postmodern society which is more global, fragmented (fractured), culturally diverse, consumerist, media saturated, uncertain and in which individuals have more freedom of choice.

The changes associated with postmodernity since the 1950s have changed the nature of the family: now that people have more choices, families are less stable and more diverse.

Postmodernity and The Family mind map

How has postmodernity changed the family?

  • The rise of consumer culture and individual choice: people have come to expect choice over what goods they buy, and the same applies to relationships: people choose when or whether to go get into a relationship, whether to get married, and when or whether they break up.
  • Technological changes and media saturation – ties into the above in the form of online dating and hookup sites – which set up a new norm of relationships being like shopping: if you can’t find someone ‘just right’ then either don’t bother or find someone that will do for now and ditch them when someone who does tick all your boxes comes along! This might explain the rise of serial monogamy.
  • Changes to work: there are no more jobs for life in the factory and this has led to a decline in the male breadwinner role. People have to spend longer training for careers, and change jobs more often during their working lives. Work is more pressured today, and there is less time for relationships which means more single people and more relationship breakdowns.
  • Changing gender norms: gender identity is more of a choice today which means we have more LGBTQ chosen families and also more gender equality within families, which leads to more diversity
  • The decline of religion – there is less social pressure to get married and stay married, meaning higher rates of divorce, potentially more reconstituted families.
  • Globalisation – more immigration means more ethnically mixed marriage, more relationships across borders, even more diversity.
  • Rapid social change, risk and uncertainty: instability in society affects relationships: if one partner loses a job or has to move for a new job, it might trigger a breakup, also awareness of high rates of divorce and the challenges of relationships might put people off getting involved in the first place.

To summarise: the shift to postmodern society has meant more individual choice which means more family and household diversity in society naturally means more types of family, for example:

  • More people staying single.
  • More short-term serial monogamy type relationships.
  • More cohabitation rather than marriage.
  • more people regarding their friends and other fictive kin as part of their families (see the Personal Life Perspective for more details).
  • more ethnic diversity within families.
  • changing gender norms mean an increase in more LGBTQ chosen families.
  • Higher rates of divorce and more single parent households and stepfamilies.

Furthermore there is no longer one dominant family type (such as the nuclear family). This means it is no longer possible to make generalisations about the role of the (nuclear) family society in the same way that modernist theories such as Functionalism did.

The rest of this post now considers two specific post-modern thinkers about the family – Judith Stacey and Tamara Hareven.

Stacey (1998) “The Divorce-Extended Family”

Judith Stacey argues that women have more freedom than ever before to shape their family arrangement to meet their needs and free themselves from patriarchal oppression. Through case studies conducted in Silicon Valley, California she found that women rather than men are the driving force behind changes in the family.

She discovered that many women rejected the traditional housewife role and had chosen extremely varied life paths (some choosing to return to education, becoming career women, divorcing and remarrying). Stacey identified a new type of family “the divorce-extended family” – members are connected by divorce rather than marriage, for example ex in-laws, or former husband’s new partners.

book cover: judith stacey family

Hareven (1978) “Life Course Analysis”

Tamara Hareven advocates the approach of life course analysis, that is that sociologists should be concerned with focusing on individual family members and the choices that they make throughout life regarding family arrangements.

This approach recognises that there is flexibility and variation in people’s lives, for example the choices and decisions they make and when they make them. For example, when they decide to raise children, choosing sexuality or moving into sheltered accommodation in old age.

Supporting evidence for the postmodern perspective on the family

Increasing family diversity

The 2022 Children’s Commissioner’s Family Review certainly supports the postmodern view that families are becoming more diverse over time. The review reports that family structure has gradually changed over the last 20 years: 

  • There are fewer married couples. 
  • There are more couples cohabiting.  
  • There are fewer ‘traditional’ nuclear family units today. 
  • 44% of children born at the start of the century, were not in a nuclear family for their full childhood, compared to 21% of children born in 1970.  
  • Over 80,000 children are in care, and many more in less formal arrangements, including kinship care. 

Stacey Dooley Sleeps Over is a recent documentary series exploring the diversity of family life in the UK. Most of the families are not nuclear families, but even those that are have non-standard lives, so even within the nuclear family set up, there is diversity!  

Marginalised Families is a website where people in diverse family structures can share their stories. It is designed to give more voice to non-nuclear families and provides some interesting case studies in family diversity.

More people are choosing to stay single than ever (5), but they are not isolated or lonely. In fact single people are more social than people in nuclear families and tend to have a broader conception of the family: in which they include friends, neighbours and ex-partners, thus challenging traditional definitions of the family.

(5) The Conversation (2017) More people than ever before are single and that’s a good thing. See also Bella de Paulo for the benefits of being single r

Low levels of belief in marriage

According to a 2022 YouGov Survey – does marriage matter 63% of UK adults think marriage is an outdated institution, although this is up from 68% in 2019.

Only 22% of the UK population thinks it matters that people are married before they have children: YouGov survey (2023) does marriage and children matter?

Criticisms of Postmodern Views on the Family

Late-Modernists such as Anthony Giddens suggest that even though people have more freedom, there is still a structure which shapes people’s decisions about the family.

Postmodernists over emphasise the amount of choice people have when it comes to relationships. However in truth, most people want to be in a stable long term relationship, but the social pressures of late modern life make this impossible for many to sustain. Thus people don’t ‘choose’ to get divorced or stay single as such, life just sort of pushes them into these ‘decisions’.

Contemporary Feminists disagree with Postmodernism, pointing out that in most cases traditional gender roles which disadvantage women remain the norm.

Signposting and Related Posts 

This post has been written primarily for students studying the families and households option in their first year of A-level sociology.

Related posts include:

The Personal Life Perspective on the Family.

The Late Modern Perspective on the Family.

Both of the above criticise the Postmodern perspective for over-emphasising the degree of personal choice individuals have, while still recognising that social changes have indeed made family life more chaotic!

If you like this sort of thing, you might also like these revision videos on YouTube.

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