The Condition of Postmodernity, David Harvey: Chapter 3: Postmodernism, A Summary

Condition PostmodernityA summary of David Harvey’s (1989) The Condition of Postmodernity’: An Inquiry Into the Origins of Cultural Change.

This is a summary of chapter three. You like to read my summaries of chapter one and two first of all:

Most would agree with Huyssen’s 1984 statement:

What appears on one level as the latest fad, advertising pitch and hollow spectacle is part of a slowly emerging cultural transformation in Western societies, and  change in sensibility for which the term ‘post-modern’ is, for now, wholly adequate. I don’t want to claim that there is a wholesale paradigm shift of the cultural, social and economic orders, but in an important sector of our culture, there is a noticeable shift in sensibility, practices and discourse formations which distinguishes a post-modern set of assumptions, experiences and propositions from that of a preceding period.

With respect to architecture, Charles Jencks dates the symbolic end of modernism and the passage to the postmodern at 3.32 p.m. on 15 July 1972 when the Pruitt-Igoe housing development in St Louis (a prize-winning version of Le Corbusier’s machine for modern living) as dynamited as an uninhabitable environment.

From thereon, architecture was to be about diversity and learning from local landscapes, to build for people rather than for man.

In planning there as a similar evolution – in the 1960s planning was all about developing large-scale integrated models of cities, but by the 70s it had become more pluralistic, employing ‘organic strategies’ – rather than pursing grandiose plans, development would be approached as a cottage of highly differentiated spaces and mixtures.

Shifts of this sort can be documented in all sorts of fields – McHale (1987) argued that the postmodern was a shift form an ‘epistemological’ to an ‘ontological’ dominant – Rather than seeking to find the best perspective from which to understand complexity, questions about how radically different realities might coexist, collide and interpenetrate came to the foreground. The boundary between fiction and science fiction thus effectively dissolved.

In philosophy, there was a rage against humanism and the Enlightenment legacy, and a deep aversion to any project that sought universal human emancipation through mobilisation of the powers of technology, science and reason.

Even the Pope (John Paul II) and the Prince of Wales resorted to postmodern rhetoric in the 1980s.

Yet there was still abundant confusion as to what the ‘new structure of feeling’ might entail – Modernist sentiments may have been displaced, but there was/ is little certitude about what had replaced them:

Does postmodernism represent a radical break with modernism, or is it just a revolt against certain forms of high modernism – is it a style, or a periodising concept? Does it have revolutionary potential, or is it simply the commercialisation of modernism and part of neo-conservative politics? And how does it fit in with post-industrialisation and late-capitalism – is it just the cultural logic of late-capitalism?

Harvey now suggests that we can use the schematic differences between modernism and postmodernism as laid out by Hassan in 1975/1985, as in the table below in which Hassan sets up a series of stylistic oppositions in order capture the way in which postmodernism might be a reaction to the modern.

modernism postmodernism.png

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Hassan’s oppositions may be caricatures, but there is scarcely an arena of present intellectual practice where we cannot spot some of them at work.

The most startling fact about postmodernism is its total acceptance of the ephemerality, fragmentation, discontinuity, and the chaotic that formed the one half of Baudelaire’s conception of modernity.

Postmodernism does not look for the other half, the immutable, it swims, even wallows in the fragmentary and the chaotic currents of change as if that’s all there is.

Foucault instructs us for example to ‘develop action, thought, and desires by proliferation, juxtaposition, and disjunction, and to ‘prefer what is positive and multiple, difference over uniformity’.

Nietzsche (who Foucault draws on) made much of the deep chaos of modern life, and how rationality could not make sense of it or control it.

Embracing fragmentation and ephemerality in an affirmative fashion brings consequences – Firstly there are those such as Foucault and Lyotard who attack the possibility of there being any kind of ‘meta-theory’ – condemning meta-narratives such as Marxism and insist upon the plurality of ‘language-games’. Lyotard of course defines postmodernism simply as ‘incredulity towards meta-narratives’.

Foucault’s ideas focus on the relation between power and knowledge. Foucault (1972) breaks with the notion that power is ultimately located in the state and argues that we should conduct an ‘ascending analysis’ of power with infinitesimal mechanisms, which each have their own history, and then see how these mechanisms are invested, colonised, utilised and transformed by more general mechanisms and by forms of global domination.

The prison, the school, the hospital and the psychiatrist’s office are all examples of sites where the micro-politics of power is played out, and there is an intimate knowledge between the systems of knowledge (discourses) and the exercise of social control (power) which is independent of any systematic strategy of class domination and cannot be understood by appeal to a general theory.

The local is everything for Foucault, and the body is the site on which all forms of repression are ultimately registered – and no grand Utopian scheme can help any individual to escape the power-knowledge relation in non-repressive ways. The only way to ‘eliminate the fascism in our head’ is to explore and build upon the open qualities of human discourse and thereby intervene in the way knowledge is produced at the particular sites where a localised power-discourse prevails.

Foucault believed that it was only through a pluralistic attack upon localised forms of oppression that any global challenge to Capitalism might prevail and his ideals appealed to various social movements in the 1960s such as feminists, gays and ethnic groups, but this strategy leaves open the question of how such localised struggles might add up to a progressive rather than a regressive attack on the central forms of capitalist exploitation and oppression.

Lyotard argues that the social bond is linguistic, but it is not woven with a single thread, but by a number of indeterminate ‘language games’, and the social subject dissolves in the dissemination of these, with ‘social reality’ consisting of nothing more than flexible networks of language games, with each individual resorting to a quite different set of codes depending on the situation in which they find themselves.

Given that knowledge is the principle source of production these days, power is dispersed within the heterogeneity of language games – individuals can bend the rules of ordinary conversations to shift meanings.

Lyotard made a lot about how institutions (Foucault’s non-discursive domains) try to circumscribe what can be said and how it can be said – the law, science, politics for example – but the limits the institution imposes on potential language moves are never established once and for all – so we ought not to reify institutions prematurely, but recognise how the differentiated performance of language games creates institutional languages and powers in the first place.

Lyotard also suggests that if there are many different elements to language games they can only give rise to institutions in patches – local determinism.

One way of trying to understand Lyotard is to think of social reality as consisting of various interpretative communities made up of both consumers and producers of knowledge within particular institutionalised contexts such as the university, or divisions of cultural labour, such as architecture, or places, such as nations, and groups control mutually within these domains what they consider to be valid knowledge.

Within resistance movements – writers such as Aronowitz have taken this on, railing against master discourses, and emphasising that all groups have a right to speak for themselves – women, gays, blacks etc. etc.

This same preoccupation with otherness and other worlds exists in postmodern fiction – heterotopia is an important aspect of the genre – characters no longer contemplate how they can unravel or unmask a central mystery, but are forced to ask ‘which world is this’ and ‘what is to be done in it’ – Blue Velvet is a good example of a Postmodern film, in which the central character co-exists in two world, one a conventional small town American world, the other a crazed underworld of drugs, dementia and sexual perversion.

Lyotard’s postmodernism is rooted in Bell’s and Touraine’s thesis of the passage to a post-industrial society – modernism is no more because the technical and social conditions of communication have changed and the use of knowledge is now the principle force of production.

Postmodernists also accept a different theory to what language and communication are all had about – modernists had presupposed that there was a tight and identifiable relationship between what was being said (the signified) and how it was being said (the signifier), postmodernism sees these as continually breaking apart and re-attaching in new combinations.

Deconstructionism here is a powerful stimulus to postmodern thought. Deconstructionism is a way of thinking about ‘reading texts’ – writers who create texts do so on the basis of all the other texts they have read, while readers deal with them in the same way, and thus cultural life is a series of intersecting texts which produce more texts. This intertextual weaving has a life of its own because whatever we write conveys meanings we could not possibly intend, and it is vain to try and master a text because the perpetual weaving of texts and meanings is beyond our control.

Derrida thus considers the collage/ montage as the primary form of postmodern discourse. Culture is inherently heterogeneous and both producers and consumers engage in the postmodernist style – hence the postmodern focus on performance and ‘happenings’, and the effect is to break to the power of the author to impose meanings or offer continuous narrative.

There is more that hint of this sort of thinking within the modernist tradition – Marx observed how Capital was continually breaking things apart for example.

One problem for postmodernism is that of how we aspire to act ‘coherently’ within the world – Rorty argues that action can only be understood (judged?) by reference to localised contexts, while Lyotard argues that the idea of consensus is outmoded and suspect – the challenge then is to arrive at an idea of justice that is not linked to that of consensus.

Habermas tried to combat this kind of relativism by arguing that within communication speaker and hearer are necessarily oriented to the task of reciprocal understanding and that consensual and normative statements do arise, and thus ‘communicative reason’ is grounded in daily life (part of the problem with the enlightenment being that instrumental reason overtook communicative reason). However, Habermas has many critics.

The most problematic facet of postmodernism is its suppositions with respect to personality, motivation and behaviour:

When the signifying chain snaps, we have schizophrenia in the form of a rubble of distinct and unrelated signifiers, and there is an inability to unify past, present and future in our own biographical experience of psychic life and experience is reduced to a series of pure and unrelated presents in time.

Delueze and Guattari hypothesis a relationship between capitalism and schizophrenia – ‘our society produces schizos is the same way it produces Prell shampoo or Ford cars, the only difference being that the schizos are not saleable.’

A number of consequences follow – we can no longer conceive of the individual as alienated in the classical Marxist sense because the concept of alienation presupposes a coherent self in the first place.

The Modernist idea of pursuing a better future through focussing on projects over time rested on the idea of a centred self; the theory of the schizoid self posits a self which fails to find a coherent reality in the first place, let alone a strategy to improve it (although Modernism did have its schizoid moments, and failure to live up to one’s ideas of progress led to paranoia).

To sum up the above ‘the alienation of the subject is replaced by the fragmentation of the subject in postmodern aesthetics’.

The reduction of experience to a series of pure and unrelated presents means that the present becomes overwhelmingly vivid and material – the spectacle becomes everything (following Jamieson)

The idea of progress and continuity are eschewed – postmodernism takes bits and pieces from the past and mixes them together at will. For example Rauschenerg simply reproduces, whereas Manet produces.

The only role of the historian, as with Foucault, is to become an archaeologist of the past – ‘to decry the notion of having a view while avoiding having a view about having views.’

Postmodernism can only judge the spectacle in terms of how spectacular it is – Barthes for example suggests we judge something in terms of the extent to which it produces ‘Jouissance’ – sublime physical and mental bliss.

Another consequence is the loss of depth, Jameson describes postmodern architecture as ‘contrived depthlessness’.

The collapse of time horizons and the preoccupation with instanteity have in part arisen through the contemporary emphasis in cultural production on events, happenings and media images – and this re-emphasises the fleeting qualities of modern life, and even celebrates them.

This raises the difficult question of the relationship of the postmodern movement with, and integration into daily life – there are many intersections – in architecture, advertising, fashion, and the ubiquitous television.

Exemplary examples of postmodern culture include Disneyland, the Las Vegas Strip, and Pop Music, the kind of things which Venturi et al (1972) say appeal to the middle middle classes in the suburbs.

Venturi et al see nothing wrong with such cultural artefacts as being the ‘new norm’, they believe that architects should ‘learn from Mickey-Mouse’, and that ‘Disneyland is the symbolic American Utopia’, but others are more critical:

Daniel Bell sees this as a sign of the mindless hedonism of capitalist consumerism, the exhaustion of modernism through the institutionalisation of creative and rebellious impulses through what he cause the ‘cultural mass’ of the millions of people working in the creative industries.

Still others (Chambers 1986/7) see postmodernism as the democratisation of taste across a variety of subcultures as greater diversity of youth started to pro-actively shape and re-shape their identities from the 1960s onwards.

Harvey also sites mass television watching as crucial to understanding the shift to preoccupation with surfaces rather than roots and a collapsed sense of space and time given that this is the first time in human history that the mass population can see a range of events mashed together as one via this medium.

Television didn’t simply cause postmodernism, it is itself part of capitalism which encourages consumerism, and television is a very useful tool for creating ever new needs for new styles, part of the economic fabric of postmodern society.

Still other analysists see Postmodernism as the logical extension of the power of the market over the whole range of cultural production (e.g. Crimp 1987/85).

Harvey now seems to have a subtle dig at the ‘heritage industry’ noting that 3 museums a week open in Britain – suggesting that history forever is out of our reach in midst of more simulacra.

Finally there is Jameson who argues that ‘postmodernism is the cultural logic of late capitalism’, in which the production of culture has become integrated into commodity production more generally – the need to produce more new products at a higher rate of turnover means we have to emphasises the aesthetic aspects of production much more.

To round off the chapter Harvey summarises:

‘While some would argue that the counter cultural movements of the 1960s created an environment of unfulfilled needs and repressed desires that postmodernist popular cultural production has set out to satisfy in commodity form, others would suggest that capitalism, in order to sustain its markets, has been forced to produce new desire and so titillate individual sensibilities to create a new aesthetic over and against traditional forms of high culture. In either case I think it important to accept the proposition that postmodernism has not emerged in a political, social or economic vacuum’

In other words, postmodernism is fundamentally related to capitalism.

The Condition of Postmodernity: Chapter 2

Condition PostmodernityA summary of David Harvey’s (1989) The Condition of Postmodernity’: An Inquiry Into the Origins of Cultural Change, chapter 2.

In chapter 2, Harvey deals at length with the contradictions within Modernity, from the Enlightenment project to the 1968 counter-culture, suggesting that the fundamental contradiction is between Modernity’s quest for the immutable, which it continually undermines by producing constant change.

You might like to read my summary of chapter 1 before embarking on this chapter. 

Chapter 2: Modernity and Modernism

‘Modernity’ wrote Baudelaire in ‘The Painter of Modern Life’ (1863) is the transient, the fleeting, the contingent; it is the one half of art, the other being the eternal and the immutable’.

There are many conflicting meanings associated with Modernism – the cojoining of the ephemeral and the fleeting with the eternal and immutable’ is very important – and modernism as an aesthetic movement has wavered between both extremes.

Berman’s description of modernism is generally agreed on…..

To be modern is to find ourselves in an environment that promises adventure, power, joy, growth, transformation of ourselves and the world – and, at the same time, that threatens to destroy everything we have, we know and everything we are. Modernity cuts across all boundaries, it unites all mankind…. but it is a paradoxical unity – a unity of disunity, it pours us into a maelstrom of perpetual disintegration, of contradiction and struggle… to be modern is to be part of a universe in which, as Marx said ‘all that is solid melts into air’.

ModernityIn his excellent book, ‘All that is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity’, Marshall Berman shows how a number of writers tried to deal with this sense of chaos – such as Baudelaire, Dostoevsky, and Simmel – the common theme in their writing being a concern with the experience of space and time as transitory and arbitrary.

One of the pithiest examples of this is in W.B Yate’s lines…

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.

The consequence of this transitoriness is that modernity can have no respect for its past – if there is any meaning in history then it has to found within the maelstrom of change, but because everything is changing, the question of how to interpret the past and the meaning of change, and the attempt to find the universals, is a fundamental problem.

The quest for the Internal and Immutable were a central concern in Modernity 

Where to look for the eternal and the immutable has been the central concern of modernity since the Enlightenment.

What Habermas calls the project of Modernity came into focus during the eighteenth century. That project amounted to an extraordinary intellectual effort on the part of Enlightenment thinkers ‘to develop objective science, universal morality and law and autonomous art according to their inner logic’. The idea was to use the accumulated knowledge of individuals for the pursuit of human emancipation from scarcity and the arbitrariness of nature – scientific domination of nature promised liberation from scarcity and rational forms of social organisation promised liberation from arbitrary power based on religion or despotism.

Enlightenment thought embraced the ideal of progress and activity and sought a break with the past… Doctrines of equality, liberty and universal reason abounded… Writers such as Condorcet truly believed that the arts and the sciences would promote control of natural forces, and understanding of the world and the self, moral progress and the happiness of human beings.

The 20th century, with its death camps and death squads, its militarism, two world wars, and threat of nuclear annihilation, shattered that optimism.

Writing in the aftermath of the holocaust and Hiroshima, Adorno and Horkheimer (in their book, ‘The Dialectic of Enlightenment’) even argued that the enlightenment project itself was doomed to turn in on itself and transform the quest for human emancipation into a system of universal oppression in the name of human liberation. For them Nazi Germany was the revolt of ‘human nature’ (culture and personality) over many decades of the dominance of purely instrumental reason over everything else.

Today there are those who still support the enlightenment project, but believe we need to rethink the relationship between means and ends; and there are those who are postmodernists who insist we need to abandon the project in the name of emancipation.

Enlightenment thought has always internalised a whole load of contradictions, and there have thus been many competing voices which seek to answer the following questions:

  • what should be the relation between means and ends? (with the role of ‘utopias’ being particularly interesting as far as I’m concerned)
  • who possesses the claim to superior reason? (and what is the role of science is central here)
  • under what conditions should that reason should be exercised as power? (obviously politics here is crucial).

There have been many competing visions put forwards to try and answer the above questions/ solve the above contradictions– from Adam Smith’s invisible hand to Marx’s work… but contradiction has been a mainstay of Modernity.

Critics of Modernity 

The Enlightenment has always had its critics, but by the early 20th Century there were two major branches of criticism:

Firstly there was Max Weber who saw a strong necessary linkage between the growth of science, rationality and universal human freedom but saw the ultimate legacy of the Enlightenment as the ultimate triumph of instrumental rationality which led to the creation of an iron cage of bureaucracy from which there was no escape.

Secondly, there was Nietzsche’s earlier attack on the premises of the Enlightenment which is the nemesis of the above.  Nietzsche saw the modern as nothing more than a vital energy, the will to live and to power, swimming in a sea of disorder, anarchy, individual alienation and despair…. Beneath the surface of knowledge and science the essence of humanity was primitive, wild and merciless, and the only path to self-affirmation was to act in a maelstrom that at the same time destructively creative and creatively destructive…. The end was bound to be tragic.

The image of creative destruction is very important to understanding modernity – and one of the classic characters which illustrates this is Goethe’s Faust who, in the very process of development transforms the wasteland into a thriving physical and social space, but recreates the wasteland inside himself, in an ethical sense – Faust ended up killing a much loved old couple who lived in a cottage by the sea because they didn’t fit in with his ‘grand plan’.

Hausmann’s creative destruction of second empire Paris is a good example of a real life Faustian figure; while the entrepreneur, championed by Schumpeter, is another more generalised figure, destroying that which was in order to profit and ‘drive society forwards’.

By the beginning of the 20th century it was no longer possible to accord reason a privileged status in the definition of the eternal and immutable essence of human nature… this gave a role and a new s. impetus to cultural modernism, basically the arts and philosophy.

This shift had a long history, in the romantics and Saint Simon, for example, saw it coming….

The problem with such sentiments is that aesthetic judgments are influenced by the societies in which they are embedded – and artists  can just as easily sway to the left or the right, even if the protagonists themselves think their artistic endeavours ‘eternal and immutable’.

Harvey now makes some very general points about the evolution of cultural modernism since 1848 (because it’s necessary to do so to make sense of the postmodern reaction).

The successful modern artist tried to distil the eternal and the immutable and the question of how to represent this in the midst of change was a key question, and they sought to innovate representations of the eternal and immutable – e.g. Joyce with his use of language; also Jackson Pollack.  Modernism tried to ‘freeze time’ in order to represent the eternal – collage and montage were popular, however, the ephemerality and change was a central part of modernism – equilibrium had to be continually re-established.

Commodification was a major part of modernism – every new artist attempted to change something in order to sell it…. ‘artists for all their anti-bourgeois rhetoric spent much more energy struggling against each other to sell their own products’. The resulting art and movement was arrogant and individualistic…. As with the Dadaists and early surrealists.

Ultimately Modernism internalised its own maelstrom of ambiguities, contradictions, and pulsating aesthetics at the same time as it sought to affect the aesthetics of daily life, and the facts of daily life had a profound effect on modernism – many modernists had a fascination with technique, speed and motion, inspired no doubt by the factories and production lines of modernity.

Modernism before the first world war was a reaction to the conditions of production (the factory), circulation (transport and communication) and consumption (the rise of mas markets and advertising) than a pioneer in the production of such changes.

Modernism consisted of diverse reactions to these changes (from William Morris to The Bauhaus) – it encompassed the futuristic, nihilistic, the revolutionary and the conservative, the naturalistic and the symbolistic, and it moves between different centres with different feels – London, Paris, Munich for example.

There were many tensions within it – between nationalism and internationalism and between globalism and parochialism for example. For a while it had an international and universalist stance – but eventually diversity based in different cities such as New York and Berlin came to be one of its major defining aspects.

Modernism was also an urban phenomenon – most notably emphasised by Simmel in his essay ‘The Metropolis and Mental Life’ (published in 1911).

Simmel theorised that in the city we were liberated from the chains of subjective dependence and thus allowed more individual liberty but this was achieved at the expense of treating others in objective and instrumental terms. We had no choice but to relate to the other except through faceless, cold and calculating money exchanges which could co-ordinate a vast division of labour, and we also submit to our sense of time and space being disciplined by surrendering to the hegemony of economic rationality.

Simmel argued that this produced a psychological response known as the blasé attitude – we block out most of the external stimuli and cultivate a sham individualism through the pursuit of signs – the best example of which is fashion, which according to Simmel allowed for both differentiation, as it changed rapidly, and yet conformity.

Harvey argues that in the USA the city and the machine were important drivers of modernism in the 20th century, art less so, but in Europe, the arts were more important.

Five Periods in the Development of Modernism

Harvey now suggests there are five broad periods within the development of modernism:

The Englightenment Project

The Enlightenment project argued that there was only one possible answer the every question – there existed one correct mode of representation – we see this in Condorcet and Saint-Simon for example, and Comte.

Post 1848

After 1848 the idea that there was only one possible mode of representation began to break down – there is an emphasis on the diversity of representational modes – we see this in Baudelaire for example, which exploded in the 1890s

1910 to 1913

Most commentators believed that was a further qualitative shift between 1910 and 1913. Works published around this time which demonstrate this shift include Saussure’s structuralist theory of language; Einstein’s theory of relativity; and Taylor’s principles of scientific management.  The changes in this short space of time were affected by the loss of faith the progress and by growing unease with the categorical fixity of enlightenment thought.

This shift between 1910-1911 had much to do with class struggle – it was very unclear whether it should be the workers or the bourgeois who should direct the modernist project, it was also a response to the increasing sense of anarchy, instability and despair which grew with Modernism as emphasised by Nietzsche.

Modernism between the wars

Modernism between the wars was more ‘heroic’ – as the appeal to the eternal myth became more imperative. One wing of this appealed to rationality and the machine – logical positivism for example, and the Italian Futurists, and of course Nazism.

This was a period when the always latent tensions between internationalism and nationalism, universalism and class politics were heightened into absolute and unstable contradictions…. It was hard to remain indifferent to the Russian Revolution for example.

Post 1945

Modernism after 1945 (what Harvey calls universal or high modernism) exhibited a much more comfortable relationship with the centres of power – the search for an appropriate myth abated because (Harvey suspects) of the international power system organised along Fordist- Keynseian lines and under US Hegemony this became relatively stable.

The belief in linear progress, absolute truths, and rational planning of ideal social orders was particularly strong – and the result was a positivistic, rationalistic and technocentric system to be gradually wheeled out to the third world from the first.

In the realms of planning there was a real belief that we could organise cities and housing and transport so that everyone would have access to a decent standard of living.

Its nether side lay in the celebration of corporate power and rationality and the return to the efficient machine as a sufficient myth to embody all human aspiration.  Aesthetic modernism also became depoliticised, it became part of the establishment. Art basically became part of the Corporate machine – Coca-Cola and consumerism subsumed modernist art during this period.

The Counter Culture as the Harbinger of Postmodernity

It was in this context that the various counter-cultural movements of the 1960s sprang to life – Antagonistic to the oppressive qualities of scientifically grounded technical-bureaucratic rationality as purveyed through institutionalised power the counter cultures explored realms of individualised self-realisation through embracing an anti-authoritarian critique of daily life.

All of this came to the fore in the global turbulence of 1968 -it was almost as if the universal pretensions of modernity had, when combined with liberal capitalism and imperialism, succeeded so well as to provide a material and political foundation for a cosmopolitan, transnational, and hence global resistance to the hegemony of high modernist culture.

Though this 1968 movement failed, it was a cultural and political harbinger of postmodernism.

The Condition of Postmodernity, Chapter 1 Summary

A summary of chapter one of David Harvey’s (1989) Condition of Postmodernity

Condition postmodernity chapter 2 summaryA summary of David Harvey’s (1989) The Condition of Postmodernity’: An Inquiry Into the Origins of Cultural Change.

This is a summary of the introductory chapter of part one of this book, in which Harvey introduces us to some basic definitions of modernity and postmodernity.

Part 1 – The Passage from Modernity to Postmodernity in Contemporary Culture

Starts with a quote by Max Weber…

‘the general views of life and the universe can never be the products of increasing empirical knowledge, and that the highest ideals, which move us most forcefully, are always formed only in the struggle with other ideals.’

1. Introduction

Condition PostmodernityJonathan Raban’s Soft City – a highly personalised account of London in the 1970s written in 1974 was written at the cusp in intellectual and cultural history when something called postmodernism emerged as a cultural aesthetic in its own right (developing into something more than just being anti-modern).

Raban rejected the thesis of a city tightly stratified by occupation and class, depicting instead the spread of individualism and entrepreneurialism, where social distinction was broadly conferred by possessions and appearance – the city was an emporium of styles, and primarily about the production of signs and images – something not rationally planned and rigid, but more like a theatre in which people acted out a multiplicity of roles. Rather than a place of lost-community, the city was a labyrinth, a honeycomb, consisting of diverse networks.

Harvey recognises that this is just one view of the city, but his purpose is not to judge its accuracy, but to ask why this particular view was so well received at that time.

Raban’s vision of the city was one which could not be disciplined by rational planning, one where imagination and fact fused together – his vision appealed to ‘subjective individualism’ – casting it as a place where people were relatively free to act and where personal identity was fluid. – (it’s sort of in the title ‘soft city’…..

‘The city invites you to remake it into a shape you can live in…. cities, unlike villages and small towns are plastic by nature. We mould then in our images: they, in turn, shape us by the resistances they offer.”

Raban also recognised the downsides of urban living – too many people lost their way in the labyrinth and it was too easy for us to lose each other as well as ourselves; there was a lot of violence beneath the surface, and although we were free to play with images, ‘creative entrepreneurialism’ had the potential to impose an ‘imperialism of taste’ which could create a new hierarchy of values….

‘the very plastic qualities which make the great city the liberator of human identity also cause it to be especially vulnerable to to psychosis and totalitarian nightmare’.’

Raban was influenced by Roland Barthes, and Le Corbusier’s modernist style of architecture is the bête noire for Raban, however the text is more than simply anti-modern, and the tension between the two mark this text out as a sign that postmodernism has arrived.

Harvey now points to Cindy Sherman as one of the major figures of the postmodern movement.

Sherman’s work parallels the theme of the plasticity of the city in Raban’s work – All Sherman does is take photographs of herself in different walks of life (and somehow convinces people to pay her enough to earn a living doing it?!) – emphasising the ‘malleability of appearances and surfaces and self-referential positioning of the authors as subjects’.

So what is this postmodernism of which many now speak?

No one agrees as to what is meant by the term except that ‘postmodernism’ represents some kind of reaction to or departure from ‘modernism’. Since the meaning of modernism is also very confused, the reaction or departure known as postmodernism is doubly so.

Terry Eagleton (a literary critic) defined postmodernism thus in 1987:

The typical postmodernist artefact is playful, self-ironizing and even schizoid; and that it reacts to the austere autonomy of high modernism by impudently embracing the language of commerce and the commodity. Its stance towards cultural tradition is one of irreverent pastiche, and its contrived depthlessness undermines all metaphysical solemnities, sometimes by a brutal aesthetics of squalor and shock.’

The editors of the architectural journal PRECIS (1987) see postmodernism as a legitimate reaction to the monotony of universal modernism’s vision of the world.

‘Generally perceived as positivistic, technocentric, and rationalistic, being about linear progress, absolute truths, rational planning of ideal social orders and the standardisation of knowledge and production. Postmodernism by way of contrast privileges heterogeneity and differences as liberative force in the redefinition of cultural discourse. Fragmentation, indeterminacy and intense distrust of all universal or totalising discourses are the hallmark of postmodernist thought.’

 Examples of postmodernism include:

– The rediscovery of pragmatism in philosophy – Rorty (1979)

– New ideas about the philosophy of science – Kuhn (1962) and Feyerbrand (1975)

– Foucault’s focus on polymorphous correlations in place of simple or complex causality in history.

– New developments in maths emphasising indeterminacy – chaos theory a fractal geometry.

– the concern for ‘the other’ in anthropology and politics.

What all of the above have in common is the a rejection of metanarratives (large scale theoretical interpretations purportedly of universal application.

Eagleton’s full description of postmodernism…

‘Post-modernism signals the death of such ‘metanarratives’ whose secretly terroristic function was to ground and legitimate the illusion of a ‘universal’ human history. We are now in the process of wakening from the nightmare of modernity, with it manipulative reason and fetish of the totality, into the laid-back pluralism of the post-modern, that heterogeneous rnage of life-styles and language games which has renounced the nostalgic urge to totalise and legitimate itself… Science and philosophy must jettison their grandiose metaphysical claims and view themselves more modestly as just another set of narratives’.

The ‘Postmodern’ Tech Companies Embarking on ‘Modernist’ Projects

Technology Transnationals such as Apple, Google and Facebook have effectively embedded themselves into the lifeworlds of billions of people the world over through weaving their products and services into the fabric of daily life.

While in many ways these tech firms are quintessentially postmodern, there are some ways in which they seem to harken back to the modernist era.

Firstly, some of these tech giants are employing top architects to build massive buildings for them, spectacular symbols of their immense global power. While the design of these buildings is ‘obviously’ (?) postmodern, personally I think the sheer scale, cost, and the ultimate profitability-function of them  screams ‘modernism’.

The building that commands the most attention is the Apple/ Foster circle – so big that it’s said to be visible from space. It’s built on 150 acres, and is designed to cater for 12 000 workers. It’s something like a permanently landed space ship with a garden area in the middle.

Inside this building, you’ll discover a world of whiteness, greenery and silver, with a 100 000 square foot cinema, a cafe that can serve 4000 at once, which has sliding class doors 4 stories high, each weighing nearly 200 tonnes.

There is also a 1000 seat Steve Jobs cinema, surmounted by a 165 ft wide glass cylinder, for Apple’s famous product launches, and with a landscape designed to emulate a national park.

The doorways have perfectly flat thresholds because, according to a construction manager reported by Reuters, ‘if engineers had to adjust their gait when entering the building, they risked distraction from their work’.

Writing in the Financial Times, George Hammond also suggests that Facebook is ‘going back to the 19th Century’, more evidence of the modernist turn these postmodern companies are taking….

Facebook us trying to combat soaring rents in Silicon Valley by building new houses, which marks a revival of the 19th century concept of the ‘company town’: its new Willow Campus includes plans for 15% of the 15000 houses to be made available at below market rates, for example.

Hammond is sceptical about whether such a scheme will work, noting that there was a mixed record of success in the 19th century – Cadbury’s Bournville in Birmingham dramatically improved conditions for workers, but Henry Ford’s Fordlandia in Brazil was a spectacular failure.

Whether these massive-buildings and ‘city projects’ are successful or not, they certainly demonstrate the huge power these companies have alter the physical environment in which we work and live in addition to their power to influence the way we access information.

What next for Corporate Power? 

Sources:

The Week (5 August 2017 and 29 July 2017)

 

Postmodernism – An Introduction for A-level Sociology Students

Postmodernism is an intellectual movement that became popular in the 1980s, and the ideas associated with it can be seen as a response to the social changes occurring with the shift from modernity to postmodernity.

Postmodernists claim that the classic social thinkers took their inspiration from the idea that history has a shape – it ‘goes somewhere’ and is progressive. Jean Francois Lyotard argues that this idea has now collapsed and there are no longer any ‘metanarratives’ – overall conceptions of history or society – that make any sense.

The postmodern world is not destined, as Marx hoped, to be a harmonious socialist one, and thus Marxism (along with Functionalism and Feminism) and its promise of a better future are no longer relevant to the more complex and less predictable post-modern age.

Similarly, Lyotard argues that scientific research is no longer done purely to uncover knowledge to make the world a better place (like the original Enlightenment thinkers thought was the case), but simply to empower those with the money who fund it. This could explain why we have nuclear weapons but no cure for cancer.

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Jean-Francois Lyotard: A Postmodern Frenchman, or a French Postmodernist?

Moreover, it seems that the pursuit of scientific knowledge (and especially its application) has in some ways made the world a riskier, more dangerous place – nuclear weapons and global warming are both the products of science, for example.

Democracy has spread around the world, but in many developed political systems voters are apathetic and politicians reviled. In short, for many postmodern theorists, the grand project of modernity has run into the sand.

For Jean Baudrillard (1929 – 2007), the post-modern age is a world where people respond to media images rather than to real persons or places. Thus when Diana, princes of Wales, died in 1997, there was an enormous outpouring of grief all over the world. But were people mourning a real person? Princes Diana existed for most people only through the mass media, and her death was presented like an event in a soap opera rather than an event in real life. Separating out reality from representation has become impossible when all that exists is ‘hyperreality – the mixing of the two.

Zygmunt Bauman (1992) offers a helpful distinction between two ways of thinking about the postmodern. Do we need a sociology of postmodernity, or a postmodern sociology?

The first view accepts that the social world has moved rapidly in a postmodern direction. The enormous growth and spread of the mass media, new information technologies, the more fluid movement of people across the world and the development of multicultural societies – all of these mean that we no longer live in a modern world, but in a postmodern world. However, on this view there is no compelling reason to think that sociology cannot describe, understand and explain the emerging postmodern world.

The second view suggests that the type of sociology which successfully analysed the modern world of capitalism, industrialization, and nation states is no longer capable of dealing with the de-centred, pluralistic, media-saturated, globalizing postmodern world. In short, we need a postmodern sociology for a postmodern world. However, it remains unclear what such a sociology would look like.

Bauman accepts that the modern project originating in the European Enlightenment of rationally shaping society no longer makes sense, at leas not in the way thought possible by Comte, Marx or other classical theorists. However, since the turn of the century, Bauman increasingly moved away from the term ‘postmodern’ – which he says has become corrupted by too much diverse usage – and now describes our age as one of ‘liquid modernity‘, reflecting the fact that it is in constant flux and uncertainty in spite of all attempts to impose order and stability on the world.

Many sociologists reject the thesis that we are entering a postmodern age altogether, and one staunch critic of postmodern theory is Jurgen Habermas (1983), who sees modernity as an ‘incomplete project’. Instead of consigning modernity to the dustbin of history, we should be extending it, pushing for more democracy, more freedom and more rational policy. Habermas argues that Postmodernists are essentially pessimists and defeatists.

Whichever view you think more plausible, it is the case that postmodern analyses have lost ground to the theory of globalisation, which has become the dominant theoretical framework for understanding the direction of social change in the 21st century.

Sources 

Giddens and Sutton (2017) Sociology

 

 

Changing Education Paradigms

In this TED talk, Sir Ken Robinson argues that our current educational systems are still based on a industrial paradigm of education – education is increasingly standardised and about conformity, and kids, who are living in the most stimulating age in history, fail to see the point of going to school, which is about ‘finding the right answers to pass the tests’ rather than about stimulating divergent thinking.

One of our major solutions to the plague of distracted kids (alienated by a system the don’t identify with) is to medicate them to get them through school, whereas what really needs to change is the system itself – we need a paradigm shift, rather than mere reform.

Current Education systems are not fit for the future 

Every country on earth is in the process of reforming its education system. There are two reasons for this:

  • The first is economic – countries are trying to figure out how to prepare children for work when we simply don’t know what work will look like in the future.
  • The second is cultural – countries are trying to figure out how to pass on their ‘cultural genes’ while at the same time having to respond to globalisation.

The problem with current processes of educational reform is that we are trying to tackle the future by doing what we did in the past and we are alienating millions of kids in the process, who simply can’t see the point of going to school.

When generation X when to school, we were motivated by a particular story: that if we worked hard and got good grades, we could get to college, get a degree and get a good job. Today’s children do not believe this, and they are right not to: getting a degree means you will probably get a better job, but is no longer guaranteed to get you a decent job!

The education system is rooted in an industrial paradigm 

The problem with the current education system is that it was conceived in the cultural context of the Enlightenment and the economic context of the industrial revolution. It emerged in the nineteenth century, which was the first time which compulsory public education, freely available to all and paid for by taxes was established.

The Modern education system was originally founded on an ‘us and them’ mentality as many thinkers in the 19th century seriously believed that ordinary street kids could not cope with it, and it is also founded on an Enlightenment concept of the mind – which favours a knowledge of the classics and deductive reasoning, what we might call ‘academic knowledge’.

The system thus divides people into ‘smart people’ (academics) and ‘non-smart people’ (non-academics) and while this has been great for some, most people have not benefited from this system, in fact Ken Robinson argues that the main effect is that it has caused chaos.

We medicate our kids to get them through education

Statistics on prescriptions for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) suggest that America is suffering from an ADHD epidemic – we are drugging our kids with Ritalin as a matter of routine. However, Robinson suggests that this cannot be an epidemic as the rates of prescription vary from West to East – they are much higher in the East of America, which suggests that this is a fictitious epidemic – it’s the system that’s choosing to medicate a ‘problem’ which is only a problem because the system has labelled it thus.

What’s really happening is that our kids are living through the most information rich age in history – they are bombarded with information from many sources through T.V. and the Internet – they are in a way, hyper-stimulated, and yet our response is to punish them for getting distracted from ‘boring stuff’ in school.

Robinson suggests that it is no coincidence that the incidents of prescriptions for ADHD corresponds closely to the rise in standardised testing.

The increasing use of drugs such as Ritalin to medicate kids means that we are effectively getting our kids through school by anaesthetising them.

The school system is run for the benefit of industry, and in many senses along industrial lines, mirroring a factory system of production in at least the following ways:

  1. Ringing bells
  2. Separate facilities
  3. Specialised subjects
  4. We still educate children by batches (‘as if the most important thing about them is the date of their manufacture’).

Increasingly education is about conformity, and you see is in the growth of standardised curricula and standardised testing. The current paradigm is mainly to do with standardisation, and we need to shift the paradigm and go in the other direction.

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The factory model of education

The education system kills creativity 

There was a great study done recently on divergent thinking. Divergent thinking is an essential capacity for creative thinking – it is the ability to see lots of possible ways of interpreting and answering a question; to think laterally and to see many possible answers, not just one.

An example of this simply to give someone a paper clip and to get them to think of as many different uses for the paper clip as possible – someone whose good at this will be able to think of hundreds of uses for the paper clip by imagining that it can be all sorts of sizes and made out of all sorts of different materials.

Cites a Longitudinal study (taken from a book called ‘Break Point and Beyond) in which Kindergarten children were tested on their ability to think divergently, and 98% of them scored at ‘genius level’; the same children were retested at ages 8-10, but only 50% of them scored at genius level, and again at 13-15, where hardly any of them scored at genius level.

This study shows two things: firstly, we all have the inherent capacity for divergent thinking and secondly it deteriorates as children get older.

Now lots of things happen to these kids as they grow up, but the most important thing is that they have become educated – they’ve spent 10 years being told ‘that there’s one answer and it’s at the back, and don’t look and don’t copy’.

The problem we have is that the industrial-capitalist mode of education is deep in the gene-pool of the education system, it is an educational paradigm which will be hard to shift.

Shifting the Education Paradigm

We need to do the following to shift the industrial-capitalist education paradigm:

Firstly, destroy the myth that there is a divide between academic and non academic subjects, and between the abstract and the theoretical.

Secondly, recognize that most great learning takes place in groups – collaboration is the stuff of growth, rather than individualising people which separates them from their natural learning environment.

Finally, we need to change the habitual ways of thinking of those within the education system and the habitats which they occupy.

Relevance to A-Level Sociology 

This can be used to criticise New Right approaches to education, as well as New Labour, The Coalition and the present Tory government – because all of them have kept in place the basic regime of testing introduced in 1988.

There’s also something of a link here to Bowles and Gintis’ Correspondence Principle – in which the Hidden Curriculum mirrors the work place, because the system is still based an industrial model.

Robinson seems to be suggesting we have a more post-modern approach to education – freeing schools and teachers up so they can encourage more creativity in the classroom rather than being constrained by the tyranny of standardised testing.

Limitations of Ken Robinson’s Perspective

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bauman’s ‘The Individualised Society’ – A Summary of the Preface

It may sound odd doing a summary of a preface, but there is a lot of heavy stuff in here….

According to Bauman ‘Sociology can help us link our individual decisions and actions to the deeper cause of our troubles and fears – to the way we live, to the conditions under which we act, to the socially drawn limits of our ambition and imagination.’

This book just does this by exploring how Individualisation has become our fate, and by reminding us that if our anxieties are to be addressed, they must be addressed collectively, true to their social, not individual nature.

Lives Told and Stories Lived – An Overture

Bauman begins with Ernest Becker’s denial of death in which Becker suggests that society is ‘a living myth of the significance of human life, a defiant creation of meaning’ and that ‘Everything man does in his symbolic world is an attempt to deny his grotesque fate’ (his eventual death).

He now goes back to Durkheim and argues that connecting oneself to society does not liberate the individual from nature, rather it liberates one from having to think about one’s nature and that genuine freedom comes from exorcising the spectre of mortality (which is ever present when close to nature) by linking oneself to (a more complex) society. It is through society that one tastes immortality – you become part of something which was there before you were born, and which will continue after you die.

(At the individual level) knowledge of mortality triggers the desire for transcendence – and this takes two forms – either the desire to leave something behind, a lasting trace of yourself, or the desire to live gloriously now. There is an energy (?) in this desire which society feeds off – it capitalises on this desire by providing credible objects of satisfaction which individuals then spend time pursuing.

The problem with the economy of death transcendence, as with all economies, is that the strategies on offer are scarce – and so there must be limits to how resources can be used. The main purpose of a life strategy (which involve the search for meaning) is to avoid the realisation of the truth of one’s own mortality, and given that all the various life- strategies fall short of this ultimate need-satisfaction it is impossible to call one strategy correct or incorrect.

Two consequences happen as a result.. Firstly, there is the continuous invention of new life-strategies – industries are forever coming up with new strategies for death-denial. Secondly some people are able to captalise on the energy of the quest of death-denial and this is where we get cultural capital and hierarchy from.

So to date Bauman seems to be suggesting that there is a psychological need to escape facing up to our own mortality, and this is where society comes from. However because any life-strategy we adopt in the attempt to escape death is doomed to failure because all such strategies merely mask the truth of our own mortality which lurks in the background. Because of this, in truth, all such strategies are equally as valid (or equally as invalid) as each other. At the social level this then results in two things – a continues stream of new and improved life-strategies on offer to us from industry and secondly the emergence of cultural capital as those who are able to do so define their own life-strategies as superior which is where hierarchy comes from (and I guess this claiming of mythical superiority is also part and parcel of certain life-strategies of death-denial).

Pause for breath…. Bauman now goes on to say that…

However, just because all life-strategies are far from the truth of death-denial, this does not mean that all miss the targets by the same margin.

Some life-strategies on offer are the result of what Bauman calls ‘surplus manipulation’ of the desire to deny death.  These are at their most vicious when they are biographical solutions to systemic contradictions (following Beck) and rest on the fake-premise that self-inadequacy is the root cause of one’s anxiety and that the individual needs to look to themselves to solve this.

The result of this is the denial of a collective solution to one’s problems and the lonely struggle with a task which many lack the resources to perform alone which in turn leads to The result is self-censure, self-disparagement, and violence and torture against one’s own body.

I think the logic at work here is (a) Society is an invention which helps us deny death, however (b) in the post-modern age society falls apart – we find it harder and/ or it is less-rational to forge the kind of lasting bonds which will help us collectively deny-death (or strive for immortality to put in a positive phraseology) this results in (c) anxious individuals who are then (d) told by certain people in society (the elite – see below) that they need to find biographical solutions towards immortality (this is the surplus manipulation bit) but in reality this is impossible and so (e) this results in them killing or harming their social selves or actual physical bodies.

Bauman seems to be saying that, in the post-modern age some people, free of society, are thrown back on themselves, their true nature, and can’t handle it, they cannot deny-death alone, and so they kill themselves.

Bauman then goes on to say….

If we look at the whole life-story’ most of are simply not able to practice agency (articulation) – we are not free to simply construct of one set of relations out of another or redefine the context in which life is created. We may be able to do this in the realm of fashion or culture more generally, but not so with all aspects of of our lives.

To rephrases Marx – ‘People make their lives but not under conditions of their choice.’ It may be that we are all story tellers today, we all exercise reflexivity, but life is a game in which the rules of the game, the content of the pack and the way they are shuffled is not examined, rarely talked about.

The problem is that the individualisation narrative seems to assume that everything we do in our whole life is a matter of the choices we have made. This is, in fact, a narrative that only works for the elite who do have lots of choice – they have resources and are mobile and can use opportunities in today’s mobile age to their advantage.

This narrative, in fact, works for the elite, it is ideological – if everyone thinks everything is open to choice and their fate is their fault, this becomes a nice control mechanism – you don’t need panopticons when people are always trying trying trying and choosing choosing choosing.

Furthermore, what is often precluded in the individualised age are strategies which involve acting together to change the broader social conditions, which just further perpetuates the problem.

In other words if we wish to reduce human suffering and allow individuals the opportunity to get back to collectively denying their own death (or constructing their immortality) then people need to feel as if they can constitute society, at the moment the ideology of the biographical narrative serves to prevent people from realising this.

This book seems to aim to be a contribution towards bringing about greater genuine articulation (so it’s a shame you need to be educated well beyond graduate level to appreciate it)…..

As Bauman says towards the end of the chapter… ‘Genuine articulation is a human right but perform the task and the exercise the right in full we need all the assistance we can get – and sociologists can help in this by recording and mapping the crucial parts of the web of interconnections and dependencies which are kept hidden or stay invisible from the point of individual experience. Sociology is itself a story – but the message of Sociology is that there are more ways of living a life than is suggested by the stories which each one of us tells.’

Overall Comment

Very interesting to see Bauman starting with Becker – although he doesn’t seem to go back to him at the end of the section, so I really think he’s pushing the boat out a bit too far in terms of how much he tries to include in this introductory paragraph. It doesn’t hold together that well, and you have to read things into it to an extent to complete it, maybe that’s the point?

I’m not comfortable with the idea that society denying-death is OK because it is rational, and that our goal should be to get back to a situation where individuals are free to construct society and thereby get back to affirming themselves and thus denying their own death. This just strikes me as the equivalent of papering over the cracks of a deeper human suffering which The Buddha realised 3000 years ago.

There’s probably an interesting Buddhist response to this – but I’ll post that up when it emerges, which isn’t now, unless someone else gets there first. 

Summary of Zygmunt Bauman’s ‘The Individualised Society’ (part 1/3)

Chapter One  – The Rise and Fall of Labour

This chapter explains that the decline of the labour movement is due the extraterritorial power of Capital.

The industrial revolution led to labour being uprooted from its age old link to nature and then becoming tied to capital in commodity form, thus it could be bought and exchanged. In the era of heavy modernity, where profit derived from Fordist/ Taylorist big scale heavy production, capital and labour were dependent on each other for their well-being and reproduction because they were rooted in place,  hence the historic power of unions and the welfare state. It was in everyone’s interests to keep labour in good condition.

All of the above gave rise to a long-term (and collective?) mentality– as illustrated in collective bargaining through unions and also through the fact that pretty much all nineteenth century thinkers thought that there would be an end point to constant change, even if the means and ends to reach that end point differed.

All that has changed now – we have moved from a long term mentality to a short term one. The features of work today are as follows:

  • Short term contracts – partners no longer intend to stay long in each others company.
  • Flexibility – work is like a high achieving sport (following Geert van der Laan) – the people in it work very hard, but fewer of us actually compete.
  • Working life is saturated with uncertainty – the nature of work is that anyone can be sacked at short notice with no warning signs, and the logic of promotions are less apparent.

Such uncertainties are a powerful indivdualising force – when work is like a campsite (not a home) there is little incentive to take an interest in the organisation, and thus solidarity is lost. We find ourselves in a time of weak ties (Grannoveter) or fleeting associations (Sennet).

This disengagement between capital and labour is not one-sided – Capital has set itself loose from from its dependency on labour, its reproduction and growth have become by and large independent of the duration of any particular local engagement with labour. Extraterritorial capital is not yet completely free of local ties – it still has to deal with governments but, paradoxically, the only way for governments to attract Capital is to convince it that it is free to move away – and to give it what it requires.

Speed of Movement (following Crozier) now seems to be the main stratifier in the hierarchy of domination – ideas are now more profitable than production, and ideas are had only once, not reproduced a thousand times, and when it comes to making ideas profitable the objects of competition are consumers not producers, and this is now Capital’s primary relation – thus the ‘holding power’ of the local labour force is weakened.

Thus (following Robert Reich) we now have four categories of economic activity –

  1. Symbol manipulators – For example those involved in the knowledge economy and marketers.
  2. Those who work to reproduce labour – Mainly teachers.
  3. Those who work in personal services – A whole range of things from Estate Agents to Hairdressers.
  4. Routine labourers – low skilled people who make things – these are the lowest paid and have the least secure obs because they expendable and they know it!

Following Peyrefitte, Bauman now characterises Modernity as an attempt to build confidence and trust – in oneself, in others and in institutions – Modernity did this and work was its primary vehicle – there was trust in the general frame – now this is gone – when de-layering and downsizing is the norm, people no longer invest in it – they would rather trust (e.g.) the fleeting stock market than the collective bargaining power of unions.

Pierre Bourdieu links the decline of politics and collective action to people’s inability to get a hold on the present (because without a hold on the present, we cannot get a grip on the future). This is especially true of today’s mass labourers who are tied to the local while capital is extraterritorial –  means they are apriori in an inferior position – when they cannot control capital, why would they engage with politics?

It is the passage from heavy to light modernity that provides the context for the decline of the labour movement. Other explanations are insufficient.

Summary/ commentary/ questions

In the postmodern era Capital has (and requires) more freedom of movement than in the modern era. The primary reason for this is the growth of consumer markets – rapidly changing tastes mean people buying and throwing away at a faster pace, and to keep up with this Capital needs to be able to shift itself around faster – free to drop old ideas and production practices as they become unfashionable or unprofitable.

As a result workers mass-labourers are powerless – they are rooted to place, as are national governments – both can only compete in a race to the bottom to try and make things as attractive as possible to globally mobile capital.

For such workers, their efforts are in vein – they are expendable and they know it, hence they are less likely to join unions and less likely to get involved in politics – neither of these make any sense when they don’t have a grip on the present – when they do not have any purchase on security of livelihood.

Speed of movement seems to be the main differentiating factor in the post-modern society.

NB – There are some workers who do OK out of these arrangements, mainly the ‘symbol manipulators’ but these have to be extremely adaptable to survive in the era of globally mobile capital!

Q: This could be an untestable theory? How does one measure the ‘mobility of Capital’ and its effects on employment?

Chapter Two – Local Orders, Global Chaos

Order is a situation where you can predict the probability of something happening. Some things are probable, some unlikely. Order suggests a degree of predictability, and it is order which gives rise to the confidence that you can engage in an action knowing what the outcome is likely to be – order boils down to the manipulating the probabilities of events.

The opposite of order is chaos – or a situation where there is always a 50-50 chance of any two events happening.

The manipulating of events and the production of order out of chaos is what culture does on a daily basis.  We speak of a cultural crisis if the order of culture is breached too often.

Culture also differentiates. This is because order is created by categorising, setting boundaries – Difference is the result of this order building activity

However, in every culture there are those who transgress boundaries, who do not fit, those who are ambivalent, and such ambivalences are unlikely to disappear because in reality no attempt to classify the complexities of the world are ever going to be able to accommodate the actual complexity of the world, and hence the more culture or order there is, the more ambivalence.

Culture may well be an attempt to distance chaos by creating order but the result is ambivalence (a self-defeating process!).

Because of their unsavoury yet intimate connections with the state of uncertainty,  the impurity of classifications, the haziness of borderline and the porousness of borders are constant sources of fear and aggression, and these are inseparable from order-making and order-guarding exertions (33)

Order is also important in the global power struggle – Imposing order onto others is one way of gaining power. The more routine and predictable one’s life is, the more order, the less power. Order is something the powerless suffer and which the powerful impose, whereas they themselves (the elite) are relatively free to move as they please.

The above logic is at work in globalisation – Globalisation is a world disorder – It is presented to us as chaotic (a genesis discourse) rather than predictable (a Joshua Discourse) and order is an index of powerlessness. The new global power structure is operated by the opposition between mobility and sedentariness, contingency and routine, rarity and density of constraints. Globalisation may be termed ‘the revenge of the nomads’.

Escape and volatility rather than ominous presence (like bureaucracy and the panopticon) are now the means of power. Normative regulation (which was costly) is no longer necessary in the age of flexibility – what keeps the precariat in check today is their vulnerability – They race to the bottom in an attempt to attract ultra mobile capital, aided in this by state policies of precariatisation. It is irrational for them to mobilise collectively because if they do capital will just take flight.

In terms of knowledge, space matters much less than it did in the past, and according to Paul Virillio, it doesn’t matter at all. In the age of instantaneous global communications, local knowledges which are based on face to face interactions and gatherings have much less authority. We get our information through cyberspace, and thus actual space matters less. However, for those doomed to be local, this is felt as powerlessness.

The elite used to accumulate things, now they discard them and have to be comfortable dwelling in chaos. Bill Gates is the archetype – constantly striving to produce new things in act of creative destruction. Chaos is thus no longer a burden in the culture of the elite, who experience it as play, but this is a curse for those lower down the order, who would wish to slow down the changes that are imposed on them as a result of the elites’ creative destruction.

Those who can afford it live in time, those who cannot live in space. For the former space does not matter, while for the later they struggle hard to make it matter.

Summary/ Comment/ Questions

Culture is an attempt to create order out of chaos – and in doing so it sets rules/ norms/ boundaries. However, this is a self-defeating process, because the result of order building is ambivalence – the more a culture becomes obsessed with order building, the more differentiation occurs, and the more scope for the established boundaries being transgressed.

Order is important in the global power struggle – the ability to impose order on others is a mark of power, to subject them to a routine, to limit them, while the ability to avoid having order imposed on you, to be free, is also a mark of power. Having order imposed is something the weak have done to them.

However, the elite no longer have to be present to impose order – they manage to do this by being free-floating – it is volatility which keeps people individualised and thus powerless and doomed to be local. (Limited to only certain types of freedom, but not the freedom to construct a more stable society).

Furthermore, local knowledges facilitated by face to face communications are undermined by global communications networks. This further undermines the ability of the precariate to act collectively.

Those who can afford it live in time, those who do not live in space.

Question – Doesn’t this somewhat overlook Glocalism – especially Permacultural elements of the green movement – albeit extremely fringe?

Chapter Three – Freedom and Security: The Unfinished Story of a Tempestuous Union

Starts with Freud – In order to be happy man must fulfil his desires (individual freedom) but he exchanges these in ‘civilisation’ for security, so that he can be free from the suffering of his own body, other men, and nature. Security is gained when the impulses are tamed and replaced with order in the form of culture which imposes compulsive (habitual) action on individuals. However this compulsive action restricts our freedom, and human life is a situation in which the urge for freedom constantly battles against the damn put up by culture.

In other words, there is a trade-off between the need for freedom and the need for security – we need both, but to get one we have to sacrifice the other, and the sacrifice of either results in suffering. It follows that happiness can only ever be a fleeting thing as we flit between too much freedom or too much security, and finding the best-trade off is an ongoing process.

Between the Devil and The Deep Blue Sea.

Alain Ehrenberg suggests that rather than unhappiness stemming from man’s inability to live up to cultural ideals, it is rather then absence of any clear ideals which results in a not knowing how to act, this is the source of mental depression – and not knowing how to act rationally in particular. This is the malady of our post-modern times.

Impotence and inadequacy are the diseases of our late modern, post modern times. It is not the fear of non-conformity but the fear of not being able to conform, not transgression but boundlessness which are our problems. (Unlike in modern times, big brother is gone and there are numerous Joneses who couldn’t care less about our quests for our ‘true selves’).

This is freedom, but the cost is insecurity, unsafety and uncertainty (Unsicherheit) – We have the freedom to act but we cannot know whether our actions will have the desired result, yet we do know that we will bare the costs for bad decisions.

Individually we stand, individually I fall.

Following Norbert Elias’ book title ‘The society of individuals’ – society consists of two forces locked in a battle of freedom and domination – society shaping the individuality of its members, and the individuals forming society out of their actions while pursuing strategies plausible and feasible within the socially woven web of their dependencies.

However, it is important to note that the process of individualisation is different today from modern times.

In modern times class divisions arose out of different access to the resources required to self-assert – The working classes lacked the means to do so and turned to collectivism to assert themselves, while the middle classes were able to be more individualistic – yet they generally responded to being disembedded through attempts to re-embed.

However, individualisation today is a fate and not a choice. In the land of individual freedom of choice the option to escape individualisation and not participate are not on the agenda. We are told that if we fail it is our fault, and we must find biographical solutions to problems which are socially created.

There is a difference between the self-asserting and self-sustaining individual and the individualised individual.

Can there be politics in the individualised society?

The Self-Assertive ability of men falls short of what genuine self-assertion would require – the choices we are free to make are generally trivial.

There are two consequences of individualisation for politics – Individuals by decree do not seek to solve their problems collectively, they just look to others for advice about how to cope with their problems (e.g. chat shows), and they tend to to view committing to acting with others as too limiting on their own freedom. Individuals by decree do not see engaging in public life as a duty, they tend to see it as an investment and only do so when they can get something back, and as a result the only thing individuals by decree tend to ask of society is minimal – to protect their bodies from danger and to protect their property rights.

Hence why networks are the new norm in the postmodern society – which consist of shallow connections (weak ties) as they are easy to access and easy to leave. As a result, in the individualised society the individual is not really a citizen because they have invested so little of themselves in that society.

Togetherness, individual style

The gap between the right of self assertion and the ability to influence the social settings which render such self-assertion feasible or unrealistic seems to be the biggest contradiction of second modernity, and we would do well to tackle this collectively.

Short termism and selfishness are rational responses to a precarious world – We have all been hit by global economic forces over which we (or seemingly no one else) has control, or we know someone who has (downsizing etc.) and so the rational response to this is to look to oneself, not invest in collectivism. No one seems to be discussing the fact that this uncertain world is human made, and that what we are dealing with is the ‘the political economy of uncertainty’.

The root of the problem is the flight of power from politics – capital is extraterritorial and politics remains rooted to space – and the political solutions to the problems mobile capital creates is yet more freedom for capital – because there is no global institution that is capable of doing the job of regulating it. No one seems to have any solutions!

When individals accept their impotence en masse (following Cornelius Castoriadis) – society becomes heteronomous – pushed rather than guided, plankton like, drifting, it is like people on a ship who have abandoned any attempt at steering the vessel, and so at the end of the modern advernture with a self-governing, autonomous human world, we enter the era of mass confromity

Making the individualised society safe for democracy

Democracy is an anarchic force – one best recognises democracy when it is complaining about not being democratic enough. Democracy is a constant battle to find the right balance between freedom and security. For most of modernity the fight has been for more freedom, now we need to focus more on security. However, the biggest danger of all is that we call off the fight to get the balance right by opting out of the social process (and engage with society only as indivduals).

What is to be done? We need global instituitons to limit the flow of capital, at the state level – basic income. However, a bigger question is who is to do it?

Summary, Comment and Questions

I think Bauman is trying to say too much in this section – It’s much easier to understand some of what he says by cutting out about a third of it and reording it….

Capital is freefloating and the average person’s job is more precarious, and there are no global or national institutions capabable of controlling International Capital (power, says Bauman, has departed from politics). Because of this, people see no point people getting involved in politics, and thus we no longer seek collective solutions to social problems and we only ask society to do the bare minimum for us.

In short, structural changes in the nature of Capitalism have altered the way we perceive politics – we now see it as pointless and thus we are no longer contributing to the construction of our society.

Instead, we seek biographical (personal) solutions to these systemic problems – . Rather than getting involved in long-haul politics, we limit our range of vision, our range of options to choosing how to better surviving or cope in this precarious world – we spend our time re-training, or improving our C.V.  (marketing) to make us more employable or promotable, for example. (Bauman says that selfishness and shortermism are a rational response to a precarious world). We are spured on by our efforts because we know that if we fail in our efforts we will be held responsible for the the consequences of our inability to keep ourselves employable.

The key thing here is that this limited range of choices we are choosing between is forced on us – we haven’t actively decided to not engage with society as political beings, the social structure has changed in such a way that politcs is now (objectively?) pointless, and we don’t know how to fix it, thus we narrow our range of vision to focussing on that narrow range of events we think we can control, and doing so, Capital becomes freer, and so our lives become even more unstable.

This is why Bauman says…. The gap between self-assertion and the ability to affect the social settings which make that assertion realistic (which is required for ‘genuine self-assertion’ ) is the biggest contradiction of second modernity.This is because what we are currently witnessing is individualisation by fate which falls well short of genuine self-determination – In general the choices we are free to make are relatively trivial.

Comment

Firstly, Interestingly, this theory does not depend on there being a false consciousness  – whether we fail to see that there are systemic contradictions which are causing this need to continually update ourselves to keep ourselves employable or whether we see it but simply cannot see any alternative is moot – the point is the important thing is whether or not we perceive the systemic contradictions, we KNOW that if we do not try we will be held responsible for our failure by society, and it is this ‘responsibilisation’ which is compelling us to keep on keeping on.

Secondly, I guess this links back to why Bauman perceives the decline of the Welfare State is so bad, because it’s very existence assumes that it is not our own fault that we sometimes might suddently find ourselves unemployed.

Chapter Four – Modernity and Clarity – The Story of a Failed Romance.

When reason tells us that the world is an uncertain place, indecision of the will is the result. Ambivalence is a mixing of the doubts of reason and this indecision of the will.

The more my freedom grows in terms of the greater the range of future possibilities, then the less grip on the present I have. The less freedom I have, the greater my grip on the present.

In considering freedom we need to consider the difference between the range of viable possibilities on offer, which possibilities I wish to achieve and my ability to achieve them. If the volume of possibilities exceeds the capacity of the will then restlessness and anxiety are the result, but if I lack the means to attain a possibility I desire then withdrawal is the result.

Freedom, Ambivalence and Scepticism seem to go together.

After a few pages outlining the historical development of sceptisism in philosophy, Bauman points out that modern sceptics were pretty much universally obsessed with order building, as exemplified in the popularity of order building – Modernity was fundamentally a legislative process.

The mission of modernity was (in Freudian terms) was to restrain the pleasure principle with the reality principle, or (in Durkheimian terms) to socialise the individual so that they would never want what they couldn’t achieve  and would want to do what was socially useful – real freedom meant to live like a slave (to one’s desires), society’s job was to get people to agree to acceptable freedoms and duties. In short, Modernity was about cutting the ‘I want’ down to the ‘I can’. Restricting people’s desires was the way Modernity dealt with the problem of ambivalence.

Or to sum up – The modern project was about society determining what freedoms were possible and then legislating and socialising so that people internalised these legitimate wants. Here we can see the origins of modernity’s totalitarian tendencies.

Two things in retrospect – this project has failed, and it has been abandoned. One reason this battle with ambivalence failed because the powers of creative destruction and the individual’s desires played second fiddle to the ‘objective’ constraints imposed on them.

Today it is desire itself which fuels social change – Needs creation seems to be the main thing which Capitalism does (following Bourdieu). The way we integrate into society is as consumers – and we can only integrate if our wants constantly exceed our current level of satisfaction. (The only exception to this is the underclass, but they are the minority – their wants are managed, limited).

(p68) The permanent disharmony between wants and the ability to achieve them is for the postmodern era functional – hence why we have a high degree of ambivalence in identity formation, social integration and systemic reproduction.

Today the market requires ambivalence and we are free to enjoy its wares, but we are unfree to avoid the consequences (downsizing etc.) because the only solutions on offer to help us deal with the downsides of the free market are market-solutions.

A second reason why modernity failed to tackle ambivalence is because modernity was always local, and it resulted in many localities with different solutions to ambivalence. Hence why we have neotribalisms and fundamentalism – these aim to heal the pain of ambivalence by cutting down choices – but the nature of these responses is that they are unpredictable.

The 300 year war against ambivalence is not over, it has just changed its form – it is no longer carried out by conscript armies but by guerrilla units which erratically erupt occasionally between the brightly lit consumer malls.

Summary, Commentary and Questions

When we have too much freedom, ambivalence is the result (ambivalence is a mixture of the doubts of reason (uncertainty over the probability of events) and the resulting indecision)

Modernity attempted to reduce ambivalence by order building – society determined what freedoms were necessary and desirable and then socialised people into thinking in this way – restricting their freedom, replacing the ‘I want’ with the ‘I can’. People’s desires came second to the social.

With consumer-capitalism, however, things are now reversed. Needs creation is the main thing Capitalism now does – profitability requires us to desire things, and once we have those things to tire of them quickly and desire new things. Fuelling Individual desire lies at the heart of modern Capitalism.

However, there is a growing gap between our growing (unfulfilled) desires and our ability to achieve them, and this creates ambivalence, which today is functional for Capitalism.

There is nothing in mainstream society that offers us an escape from this, nothing that offers us structure and certainty and a limt to our desires – at the level of social integration, we integrate as consumers, at the level of identity construction we must make choices based on consumption, and at the level of societal reproduction, this requires people to be consumers. The message is clear – you are free to consume, free to make a choices.

However, we are not free to escape from this because the only solutions to our confused state of having too much choice are market-solutions. This is why Bauman said we are compelled to make these choices, forced into making more and more choices by a system that requires us to make choices.

There are movements which offer alternatives to consumerism – Fundamentalisms and Neotribalisms – but these do not offer the possiblity for systemic reproduction because they tend to be local, and are thus only ‘guerilla movements’ between the brightly lit shopping malls which perpetuate ambivalence at the levels of the system and the lifeworld in general.

Commentary

Again I think Bauman here is extremely verbose – He’s basically saying that the system requires that we keep on buying and discarding, buying and discarding at ever faster rates and so we are sort of forced into making consumer choices. This ‘built in obsolence’ is the very basis of the system and it destabilises us, bewilders us, makes us uncertain of what we should be doing and uncertain of who we are.

I think Bauman maybe ignores elemts of the green movement and the anti-consumerist movement – these have the potential to resocialise people into constraining their desires on the basis of a global ethics of responsibility for the other, and do, in fact, specifically focus on how the local and the global intersect.

Chapter Five – Am I my brother’s keeper?

The concept of the welfare state has changed from being a safety net to a springboard. Its success is judged by the extent to which it renders itself unnecessary – by getting people back into work. The unspoken assumption behind this is that dependence is something which is to be ashamed of – ‘decent people’ simply do not entertain the idea of being on welfare.

According to Levinas, our starting point should be ethics – I am my brothers keeper, because his well-being hinges on what I do and refrain from doing. He is dependent on me. To question this dependence by asking the question ‘Am I my brother’s keeper’, asking for reasons why I should care, is to stop being a moral being, because morality hinges on (internalising?) this crucial dependent relationship.

The need of the other and taking responsibility for meeting that need is the cornerstone of ethics according to Levinas. This has been the basis of the Judaeo-Christian form for a long time, and the idea underpinned the welfare state, but this idea is now well and truly under attack.

The welfare state came into being because of a conflation of factors – simultaneously a result of ethical intentions, labour movement struggle, and the need to diffuse political tensions, but also because it was in the interest of both labour and capital. Both industry and the state benefited from having a reserve army of labour – because profit was derived from the number of people employed and state-power was derived from the size of the reserve national-army.

However, the nature of unemployment has changed today – They are not a reserve army of labour because downsizing means they are unlikely to be recalled by industry, and they have no social function – they are not needed for work and they are not useful as consumers – because the products they need are low profit and they cannot afford anything else. Hence the recasting of them as the underclass – society would be better off without them, so best to forget them! Free floating capital has no need to keep local-underclasses nourished. To illustrate this Bauman draws on Beck’s ‘The Brave New World of Work’ – only 1 in 2 Europeans have regular, full-time employment.

We hear nothing of people’s lives turned around by social security,  but we hear a lot about the minority of welfare scroungers. The underclass in popular imagination is demonised.

Why? Because the life of the average worker is fraught with uncertainty and anxiety – as is the consumer lifestyle he adopts — Ordinary life in short is miserable – Cynically the creating of an underclass whose lot looks miserable and who we can look down on – a life even worse than our own – makes us a little less miserable. However, they do get some stability – in the form of welfare cheques and it is this that the average flexible worker perceives – rather than their suffering on account of their not being able to access the many opportunities on offer. This also means the prospects for solidarity with the poor are slim. To the average person, the welfare state gets no support.

Because there is no rational economic reason for the welfare state, we should go back and make the ethical argument for it….. I am my brothers keeper, we are all dependent on each other and a society should be measured by its weakest link.

What moral duty implies is inherently ambivalent – it requires constant communication, it is not open to measurability (bureaucracy etc.) – It is always asking the question what is best for that person, what do they need, without me becoming a mere tool of that person, and how do we negotiate around things when our ideas about what is good comes into conflict with theirs.

To sum up – there is no rational reason to support the welfare state, but the ethical argument does not depend on rationality – it is its own starting point – It is better to live for other other, it is better to stand in misery rather than to be indifferent – even if this does not make a society more profitable. This should be the starting point!

I don’t think this needs any translating, for once just summarising it once makes it understandable.

Chapter Six – United in Difference

Many aspects of modern living contribute to a feeling of uncertainty – the feeling that the world in which we live, and the future is uncontrollable, and thus frightening – Thus we live today in a culture of ambient fear (following Doel and Clarke).

The things which contribute to this are as follows:

  1.  The capacity of the nation state to put things in order, to classify things and set the future has dramatically declined since the collapse of communism (this is basically the collapse of metanarratives applied to politics). Moreover the rest of the world does not look to the ‘civilisational centre’ (the developed world) for guidance any more. The main relation between the two seems to be that the rich supply weapons to facilitate numerous tribal conflicts – The New Barbarism might be an apt way to describe globalisation.
  2. Universal deregulation – the tearing up of all other freedoms other than those granted to capital – so that everything else gets subjected to the irrationality of market forces. The freedom of capital benefits from weak states – this is a new world disorder. The vast majority lose out in this process – inequality increases but it is not only the marginalised who are harmed, very few of us feel secure in our homes or our jobs – human rights do not extend to the right to a job, the right to social secuirty, or the right to dignity.
  3. The self-woven safety net of the family and the community, based on people connections and indigenous knowledges (connections for the sake of connections, with long term commitments) have been severely weakened – at this level of social integration we are increasingly dependent on technologies and the market, and so such bonds reflect the uncertainties inherent to these things. Also, we increasingly cast the other as sources of pleasure, asking what we can get from them, rather than what we can do for them.  4. Culture is soft and indeterminate – human connections are cast into successive encounters and Human identities are fragmented, a series of masks. Rather than our identity being like us building a house, it is rather that we put up a series of pre-fabricated buildings, tear one down and then put up another. The fragments of life do not necessarily relate to the other fragments… In our culture the art of forgetting is more useful than remembering.

These are some, not all of the features of postmodern life which result in uncertainty – anxiety.

Modern cities are places of perpetual strangers – Strangers are by definition messy, they do not fit in with your system of order – and thus cities are patchwork places in which no one will feel comfortable everywhere. The chief stratifier in the modern city is the extent to which you have freedom of movement – the extent to which you can avoid the areas you don’t want to go into and get to the areas where you do want to get to. In other words, city dwellers are stratified by the extent to which they can ignore the presence of strangers.

For the better off the messiness of strangers can be avoided – For those in the suburbs, strangers are an occasional pleasure when they want to interact with them, and those who provide services for them. For the poor, however, dealing with strangers cannot be avoided, and they are experienced as a threat to their sense of orderliness. They live in areas where they are not able to choose, and lack the money to escape, so they vent their frustrations in other ways – everything from racism to riots for example. Following Cohen, people feel as if they are losing their sense of home because of the stranger (but the strangers are not the real cause of course, they are just a symptom).

Bauman now proposes  that specific forms of postmodern violence stem from the privatisation, deregulation and decentralisation of identity problems – the dismantling of collective institutions through which people can come together means people no longer discuss what the root causes of their shared identitity problems might be.

We have an opportunity here – of bringing to a conclusion the disembedding work of modernity – now the individual has been set free, we can move beyond nationalism and tribalism and rethink what it means to live as humanity – and here the rights of the stranger are fundamental. This will be an involved process… the sole universal guiding principle should be the right to choose one’s identity as the sole universality of the citizen/ human – we should celebrate this,and then work on how unity might be achieved with this new diversity. However, there is also ample scope for the balkanisation of politics and tribalism as a response.

We tend to see strangers as either exotic pleasure sources or as exaggerated threats… and this in turn stems from polarisation of wealth and life chances, but also of the capacity for genuine individuality… until we sort this out the detoxification of strangers and a move forwards to genuine new global concepts of citizenship are a long way off.

Commentary

I guess it’s passages like this that demonstrate Bauman’s Late rather than Post-modern attitude to a postmodern world – there is still hope for the future!

Sociological Perspectives in Five Shapes

If you could represent the five sociological perspectives in sociology as five shapes, I think they’d look something like this:

Sociology Perspectives Shapes

Functionalism – a rectangle as it emphasizes structure and order.

Marxism – a triangle to represent the class structure, Bourgeoisie on the top, Proletariat on the bottom.

Feminism – had to be an egg shape, because only women can produce them, albeit with a little thrust from men in the first instance

Interactionism – a cone – you start off looking at micro processes and see how these contribute to the bigger picture

Postmodernism – a spikey star because it emphasizes fragmentation, individual freedom and difference.

If anyone’s blood is boiling over because they think this is way too simplistic, below is a slightly more in-depth summary of the five sociological perspectives:

In case your blood’s still boiling about the oversimplification (‘blood’ ;0) click on the links for even more detailed notes; if it’s still boiling after that, you can always post an irate comment, I’m sure that’s make you feel better!

Functionalism

Functionalists see society is a self-regulating system which functions like a human body (‘the organic analogy’) – all institutions have unique functions and contribute to the maintenance of the whole.

Functionalists tend to analyse institutions by looking at the contribution that institution makes to maintenance of social order.

Functionalism is sometimes known as a consensus perspective– they think that social institutions are ‘neutral’ – they generally work well for most people, and they perform positive functions, maintaining consensus or harmony in society which ultimately benefits everyone equally.

Education acts as a bridge between home and school, promoting value consensus through secondary socialisation and preparing students for work, allocating students to appropriate jobs through a meritocratic system of exams and qualifications.

Marxism

Marxists argue that social class divisions are key to understanding everything else in society. In contemporary Capitalist society there are two basic classes – the Capitalist class (the Bourgeoisie) who own the means of production and effectively live off their investments, and the Working Class (the Proletariat) – all those who have to work for a living.

Exploitation lies at the heart of the capitalist system – the Bourgeoisie, who are the extreme minority, are wealthy because they exploit the proletariat.

Marxists analyse society and social institutions through a ‘class lens’ – they focus on how institutions maintain the power of ruling class elites and keep the system working for them.

Marxism is sometimes referred to as a conflict perspective because there is a fundamental conflict of interests between the two classes. Those with economic power control all other institutions, and those institutions function to maintain the power and privilege of the capitalist class and to keep the proletariat in their place.

According to Marxists the education system reproduces class inequality while at the same time legitimating class inequality by teaching pupils there is equality of opportunity (when in reality there is not)

Feminism

Feminism sees divisions between men and women as the most significant feature of society: radical feminism argues that society is patriarchal – men tend to dominant social institutions and occupy social roles which give them more freedom and power than women.

Feminists analyse society in terms of sex and gender inequalities – they are interested in how social institutions and social norms maintain gender inequalities, and the possible opportunities which exist to bring about greater gender equality.

The traditional nuclear family is of particular interests to feminists – the private realm of the family is typically associated with women, while the public realms of work and politics are associated with men. This public private divide is one of the fundamental norms which maintain male power.

Feminists argue that gender is socially constructed – the norms and values associated with masculinity and femininity are shaped by society, not by biology.

Interactionism

Unlike the previous three perspectives (which are sometimes collectively referred to as ‘structuralist’ perspectives) which take a top down approach to studying society, looking at trends and patterns, Interactionists focus on micro-level processes to explain social action.

Interactionists believe you need to understand the meanings individuals give to their own actions in order to understand why they do what they do. They use qualitative research methods to find out how individuals interpret their own actions.

Interactionists are especially interested the micro process of labelling – they argue that labels given to people by authority figures such as teachers and police can affect the way they see themselves.

Focussing on education, interactionists developed labelling theory to explain how middle class teachers label working class boys negatively, which creates a self-fulfilling prophecy and helps to explain working class underachievement.

Postmodernism

Postmodernism emerged in the 1970s – when the pace of technological change and globalisation really started to change society – around this decade, consumption became more central to society and individuals had much greater freedom to shape their identities.

Postmodernism argues that societies have become more fluid as a result of postmodernisation – the old structures of work, government, the nuclear family all lose their power to constrain the individual and thus human action becomes harder to predict. Life becomes more uncertain.

Pure postmodernism rejects the idea that grand theories of human action and society are possible – they thus reject the validity of all of the above theories (although to my mind, I see interactionism as an antecedent of aspects of postmodernism).

Sociological responses to postmodernisation, such as the work of Beck, Bauman and Giddens all argue that there are still structures and processes in place which steer human action, but these are now global and thus theorising about how these interface with human action is more complex.

NB – Be warned that many A level sociology text books tend to misrepresent ‘late modern’ sociologists as ‘postmodernists’.

Sociological Perspectives – Key Supporting Evidence

Below are a few quantitative and qualitative sources (case studies and statistics) that can be used to illustrate aspects of the main perspectives within A-level sociology – Functionalism, Marxism, Feminism, Social Action Theory and Post and Late Modernism

Functionalism

  • Bruce Parry: participant observation with ‘The Tribe’
  • Educating Yorkshire
  • Official statistics show declining family Size
  • Cross national statistics – positive correlation between economic development and social development
  • Official statistics – the positive correlation between truancy and crime
  • The Cambridge study in delinquency and development

Marxism

  • The correlation between increasing neoliberal policies and increasing global inequality
  • Official statistics show a positive correlation between material deprivation and underachievement in education
  • Official Statistics show an increase in childhood obesity, suggesting a link between advertising, pester power and poor child health
  • Case studies of the huge economic and social costs of corporate crime: Enron, Bhopal
  • Case studies of exploitation in the developing world. E.g. Ship breaking in Bangladesh
  • Case studies of elite criminals not being punished for their crimes – e.g. Mark Ashley of Sports Direct

Feminism

  • Official Statistics on gender equality and empowerment – no country on earth has gender equality
  • Statistics on the Domestic Division of Labour show that women spend twice as long on domestic chores as men
  • Official statistics on domestic violence show that ¼ women are victims in their lifetimes, more than men
  • A range of qualitative evidence from the Everyday Sexism Project
  • Statistics on gender and subject choice – 97% of hairdressing apprenticeships = female….
  • The prevalence of pornography and prostitution and their links with sex trafficking

Social Action Theory

  • Life-histories and Facebook profiles reveal complex and diverse family structures
  • Rosenthal and Jacobsen’s field experiment showing the self- fulfilling prophecy
  • Jock Young’s research on the drug takers
  • Self-report studies demonstrating that official crime stats are socially constructed
  • The fact that Gok Wan is famous
  • Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

Postmodernism

  • Judith Stacey: The Divorce Extended Family: show complex family structures
  • My Monkey-Baby
  • Research studies on the importance of identity in education – e.g. Carolyn Jackson and the Ladettes
  • Stan Cohen’s research on the Mods and Rockers
  • The happy pierced prostitute who has a client who shoves golf-balls up his ass
  • Vanilla vloggers such as Zoella

Late Modernism

  • Official Statistics on growing global problems such as climate change, global crime and migration
  • The increase in New Social Movements such as the Green Movement
  • Jock Young – The Vertigo of Late Modernity
  • The fact that many nation states have nuclear weapons
  • The high global expenditure on the military
  • The positive correlation between educational achievement and income – nationally and globally