Postmodernisation describes the transition of modern to postmodern culture. Modern culture was characterised by differentiation, rationalisation and commodification, but with postmodernisation these processes accelerate into hyperdifferentiation, hyper-rationalisation and hypercommodification resulting in postculture.
The concepts of postmodernisation and postculture were developed by Crook, Pakulski and Waters in 1992 in their book Postmodernisation: Change in Advanced Society (1)
During modernity modern culture underwent three transformations:
- Differentiation – the separating out of culture from other spheres of society and the development of specialist cultural institutions.
- Rationalisation – the increasing application of science and technology to the production of cultural products
- Commodification – increasingly turning cultural products into goods that could be easily bought, sold and consumed by the masses.
Differentiation is the separating out of different parts of society. It is where the economic, political, social and cultural spheres become more distinct and separate from each other and they come to be judged by different criteria:
- Science comes to be judged by truth-claims
- Morality and law come to be judged by justice and goodness
- Art comes to be judged by beauty.
in the modern era, each sphere develops its own distinct specialist institutions and occupations.
In pre-modern times individuals were able to become musicians, artists and authors because of the patronage of the rich. With the onset of modernity specialist art schools developed to train individuals to become specialists in cultural production, and institutions such as theatres, art galleries and concert halls developed to make these products more widely available.
These specialist cultural institutions formed the basis for the emergence of high culture, which became distinct from folk culture which emerged from ordinary local peoples.
As modernity developed, new types of popular culture emerged also as specialist institutions separated out from other areas of social life, such as music halls and seaside holiday resorts.
Rationalisation also shaped modern culture.
Music came to be more influenced by mathematical formula, leading to ‘harmonic rationalisation’ and there was also rationalisation in the mass-production of music.
Technology also contributed to the rationalisation of culture because it made it easier to copy complex forms of art and make them more accessible to wider audiences. Record players and radios for example made it possible to record complex forms of music meaning consumption of cultural products did not require people to be in the presence of a musician playing such songs.
Printing technology allowed for the mass production of artist and literary classics which enabled more people to access these works.
Crook et al argue that during modernity such mass production of high cultural products served to reinforce the status of high culture because it was mainly the classic high cultural works that were mass produced and consumed.
The commodification of culture involves turning cultural products into commodities that can be easily bought and sold.
Arguing against mass culture theorists, Crook et al believed that the commodification of culture did not undermine high culture during modernity.
The commodification of culture served to reinforce the status of high culture because people had a choice over what to consume and most people came to regard high cultural products such as classical music and literature as superior cultural products.
In modern societies, culture is differentiated from other areas of life and high culture is distinct from popular culture. Postmodernisation reverses this trend.
Postmodernisation is where an intensification of differentiation, rationalisation and commodification leads to a reversing of some of the cultural trends evident in modernity and a new culture emerges which Crook et al call postculture.
- Differentiation being superseded by Hyperdifferentiation
- Rationalisation being superseded by Hyper-rationalisation
- Commodification being superseded by Hypercommodification
With postmodernisation thousands of cultural products emerge and no one product is dominant. With so much variety it is increasingly difficult for anyone product to claim superiority.
High culture is subsumed into popular culture, for example, classical music is increasingly used in adverts and thus high culture loses its elite status. Conversely aspects of popular culture are increasingly seen to have serious status in the eyes of those who enjoy them.
Ultimately though, at the societal level, culture in postmodern societies becomes de-differentiated: we end up with several different cultural styles each with its devotees who use their cultural products as sources of identity and see their culture as superior, but taken as a whole the idea that there is a cultural hierarchy when there is so much diversity seems increasingly ridiculous.
Hyper-rationalistion involves the use of technology to privatise the experience of consumption of cultural products.
Digital technologies especially have allowed individuals to have much more freedom of choice over what music, television and films they watch, and over when they consume these products.
Such technologies have also made specific place-based venues such as concert halls and cinemas much less important as places where people consume music and film.
Following Baudrillard Crook et al argue that the hyper-rationalisation of culture erodes the distinction between authentic and inauthentic culture as media images come to dominate society. Media reproductions become more viewed than the underlying realities they represent and eventually their connection with reality is lost altogether and become what Baudrillard called Simulcra.
Hypercommodification involves all areas of social life becoming commodified.
In modern societies some areas of social life remained had escaped commodification, such as the family, community and class background. In modernity these spheres remained important sources of authentic, differentiated identity.
With postmodernisation, however, family, community and social class become increasingly subject to commodification.
Family life becomes increasingly invaded by the mass marketing of products and consumption increasingly takes place within the family-household. Part of this process is family members consuming different things. Parents and adults increasingly consume their own niche products, with children increasingly having their own T.V. sets in their bedrooms consuming their own children’s shows and adults watching adult shows in the living room.
This process drives families apart and results in the family no longer being a source of authentic collective identity as each individual family member increasingly chooses their own lifestyle.
Postmodernisation also undermines social class as a source of collective identity. With an increasing array of cultural products to choose from people from the same class increasingly choose different music, films, fashions and hobbies to indulge in which undermines traditional, modern social-class based identities.
Crook et al argue that with commodification identity is increasingly based on style which in turn is based on symbols rather than being rooted in shared experience based in the home or specific localities, thus identities are chosen and free-floating.
The end result of postmodernisation is postculture which is a culture characterised by diversity, choice and ultimately fragmentation, where lifestyle preferences replace a hierarchy of tastes based on social class and other social divisions.
At the time of writing, Crook et al saw postmodernisation as an ongoing process, believing that aspects of modern culture remained.
An interesting question to consider is whether we now live in a pure postmodernised postculture, 30 years on from their original theory!?!
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This material has primarily been written for A-level students studying the Culture and Identity option.
(1) Crook, Pakulski and Waters (1992) Postmodernisation: Change in Advanced Society (original misspelling of Postmodernization corrected here).
Adapted from Haralambos and Holborn (2013) Sociology Themes and Perspectives, edition 8.