Globalisation, Modernity & Postmodernism

Globalisation, Modernity & Postmodernity from the Theory topic of AQA A level Sociology


Modernity & Globalisation

Modern society first emerged in Western Europe from the late 18th century. It has a number of characteristics that distinguish it from previous traditional societies

The nation state - We think of the modern world as made up of a series of seperate societies each with its own state. The state is a focal point of modern society, organising social life on a national basis. Modern states have created educational/legal/welfare institutions to regulate their citizens' lives. The nation state is an important source of identity such as through the flag

Capitalism - The economy of modern societies is based on private ownership of the means of production resulting in class conflict. The nation state becomes important in regulating capitalism. Production is organised on Fordist principles which is the mass production of standardised products in large factories using low skilled labour

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Modernity & Globalisation

Rationality, science & technology - Rational, secular, scientific ways of thinking dominate with the influence of religious and magical explanations of the world declining. Bureaucracies and factories dominate social and economic life and Science becomes increasingly important in industry, medicine and communications

Individualism - Tradition, custom and ascribed status become less important as the basis of our actions. We experience greater personal freedom and can increasingly choose our own course in life and define our own identity. However, structural inequalities such as class can still restrict our choices

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Modernity & Globalisation

We are now increasingly affected by globalisation as we live in one interdependent global village and our lives are shaped by a global framework. Four related changes have helped bring this about:

  • Technological changes - Satellite communications, the internet and global television networks have helped to create time space compression which is closing the distances between people such as Skype. Technology also brings risks on a global scale with Beck saying we are now living in a risk society where the threats to our wellbeing come from human made technology rather than natural disasters
  • Economic changes - Economic activity now takes place within a set of global networks that are creating ever increasing interconnectedness. The global economic is an electronic economy where instead of producing physical goods much activity now involves the production of information such as music. These commodities are then consumed through global electronic networks like iTunes. 24 hour global financial transactions too contributes to the risk society
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Modernity & Globalisation

Political changes - Globalisation has undermined the power of the nation state. Ohmae argues that we now live in a borderless world in which transnational corporations and consumers have more economic power than national governments. States are now less able to regulate the activities of large capitalist enterprises

Changes in culture and identity - Globalisation makes it harder for cultures to exist in isolation from one another due to ICT. Today we live in a global culture where western owned media companies spread western culture to the rest of the world such as TNCs like Nike selling the same goods across the world which promotes similar tastes across the world. The increased movement of people as economic migrants, tourists etc helps to create a globalised culture

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We are now living in an era of postmodernity which is an unstable, fragmented, media saturated global village where image and reality are indistinguishable, we define ourselves by what we consume


Postmodernists draw on Foucault's ideas and argue that there are no sure foundations to knowledge - no objective criteria we can use to prove whether a theory is true or false. This view has two consequences:

1. The Enlightenment project of achieving progress through true scientific knowledge is dead. If we can't guarantee our knowledge is correct, we cannot use it to improve society

2. Any all embracing theory that claims to have the truth about how to create a better society is a mere meta-narrative which is just someone's version or reality. Therefore there is no reason to accept the claims that the theory makes

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Postmodernists reject meta-narratives such as Marxism as they have helped to create oppressive totalitarian states that impose their version of the truth on everyone such as the former Soviet Union where they believed communism was the only answer and used that to set up labour camps etc. Another example is the dictator Pol Pot who put the Cambodian population into collective farms and anyone who disagreed was killed, appox 1.7 million people

Postmodernists take a relativist position where they argue that all views are true for those who hold them. No one has special access to the truth and all accounts of reality are equally valid. We should therefore celebrate the diversity of views rather than impose one version of the truth on everyone

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Baurillard: simulacra

He argues that knowledge is central to postmodern society. Society is no longer based on the production of material goods but buying and selling knowledge in the form of images and signs. These signs don't bear any relation to physical reality and instead stand for nothing other than themselves, which he calls simulacra. An example of this is newspaper headlines about soap stories

The media creates hyper-reality when the signs appear more real than society itself through an endless stream of ever changing images, values and versions of the truth. People are bombarded with so many ideas so they are less likely to trust meta-narratives such as Marxists loosing faith in the idea of rational thought progressing society. Baurillard is pessimistic about this as if we cannot grasp reality we cannot make positive changes

The virtual reality game Second Life allows players to live two lives and make a living from the game in real life too

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Criticisms of Postmodernism

Philo & Miller make Marxist criticisms:

  • It ignores power and inequality such as the ruling class using the media as a tool of domination
  • It ignores how poverty can limit how we freely construct our identities
  • It can also be criticised on logical grounds - it is self defeating as why should we believe a theory that claims no theory holds the truth?
  • Political decisions do make a difference to people's lives and their knowledge can be used to solve problems
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Theories of Late Modernity

Unlike Postmodernism, Theories of Late Modernity argue that the rapid changes we are witnessing are not the dawn of a new postmodern era but just a continuation of modernity itself. They recognise that features of modernity have been intensified so we are in a late phase of modernity

Giddens: reflexivity

We are now at the stage of late modernity where society experiences rapid change because of two features of modernity:

Disembedding - Today we no longer need face to face contact in order to interact as we have broken down geographical barriers and made interactions impersonal

Reflexivity - As tradition no longer tells us how to act we have to constantly monitor, reflect on and modify our actions in the light of information about the possible risks and opportunities that they may involve

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Theories of Late Modernity

Reflexivity means we are continually re-evaluating our ideas and theories so everything is up for challenge so culture in late modern society is unstable and subject to change

In late modernity we face a number of high consequence risks to human society such as military risks like war, economic risks such as recessions and environmental risks like climate change. All of these are human made rather than natural risks. Giddens however rejects the postmodernist view that we can't do things to improve things and believes we can make rational plans to reduce the risks

Criticisms of Giddens

  • Not everyone has the option to reshape their lives to reduce exposure to risks as the poor are more exposed to pollution because they cannot afford to move to a healther area
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Theories of Late Modernity

Beck: risk society

Beck believes in the power of reason to create a better world. However he believes that today's late modern 'risk society' faces new kinds of dangers. This is because in the past society faced dangers due to its inability to control nature such as famine and disease but today the dangers we face are manufactured risks resulting from human activities

Beck sees late modernity as a period of individualism where we have to constantly take account of the risks attached to the different courses of action open to us, he calls this reflexive modernisation. Risk consciousness becomes central to our culture so we seek to minimise the risks

Criticisms of Beck

  • Rustin argues that is is capitalism that is the source of risk, not technology
  • Hirst says movements like feminism are too fragmented to challenge capitalism
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Marxist theories of postmodernity

Marxists believe that today's society has indeed moved into a stage of postmodernity but instead of seeing it as a fundamental break from the past they just see it as the product of capitalism

The capitalist crisis of the 1970s gave rise to a new way of achieving profit to replace the Fordist system called flexible accumulation. This involves using IT, an expanded finance sector and the requirement for workers to be flexible such as through zero hour contracts. These brought about the production of customised products so there is easy switching from one product to the other which encourages constant shifts in fashion and turned leisure and culture into commodities and an important source of profit leading to a compression of time and space such as the rise of foreign holidays

Harvey & Jameson argue that flexible accumulation has weakened the working class movements replacing them with women's liberation etc to hopefully form a rainbow alliance to bring about change

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