A modern society is characterised by the following features:
• Industrialisation: manufacture of goods in factories using machinery rather than human power.
• Urbanisation: the movement of the majority of the population from rural areas to towns and cities.
• The creation of a wealthy class who owned businesses and a working class who worked for wages.
• The increased influence of military power.
• The nation-state: a clearly defined community with power over its citizens.
Traditional beliefs, such as religion, are gradually replaced by rational thought.
People would live and work close to where they were born. Jobs and marriage would be for life. Identities would be fixed, often through occupation (e.g. coalminer = masculine identity).
Functionalism and Marxism are both modernist theories. Modernist theories believe the principles of the Enlightenment project where society can be improved through rational reason and thought. However, this view is heavily criticised by postmodernists.
PoMo rejects the Enlightenment project. They argue there are no absolute truths. Postmodernist society (1970s+) is characterised by:
• Globalisation – global movement of people; nation state boundaries breaking down; global companies create a global culture (e.g. Nike, Ford, McDonalds); global media gives us images of what happens elsewhere; the economy of one country influences the economy of another
• ICT: internet, 24 hours TV, Skype, DVD, email, texts – all have led to a time-space compression – distances between individuals are reduced e.g. we can now buy goods from the USA at any time without leaving out homes
• Change and uncertainty: job and marriage no longer for life – certainty replaced by uncertainty.
• Identity – no longer fixed and shaped by what we consume (e.g. designer labels)
These features make postmodern societies unstable and uncertain, which create risk. Postmodern society is a media-driven global ‘village’ where image and reality have become blurred.
Lyotard: The decline of metanarratives
Metanarratives are grand explanations of events e.g. religion or science. However, these have been questioned. The metanarrative of religion has been challenged through rationalisation of scientific thought (Weber) and the greater awareness of alternative belief systems in a postmodern society. Similarly, people have lost faith in the metanarative of science given its role in the development of weapons of mass destruction, GM foods, genetic engineering.
Lyotard sees this as a good thing. There are many interpretations of the social world, rather than one single metanarrative. Each is as useful as another, and no one view is held as the best. This allows various marginalized groups, such as women, ethnic minorities, the elderly, the disabled etc to make their voices heard. However, suggesting all views are equally true is problematic. It means that morally unacceptable views, such as the views of those who deny the Holocaust, are as valid as any other view.
Furthermore, the problem with Lyotard’s view is that, following the logic of his argument that there is no single version of the truth, why should we accept postmodernism as any better than other theories?
Baudrillard: a crisis in representation
Baudrillard argues that are understanding of reality is distorted by media representations. This is done through the creation of knowledge in the form of signs, known as simulacra (i.e. simulations). These simulations often bear no relationship to reality. For example, the discussion of or writing to fictional soap characters; TV stories becoming news items (wedding in EastEnders, JR’s shooting in Dallas): the unreal being made real. The outpouring of grief over the death of Lady Diana reflects this: for most people she existed through the media only. Reality TV now brings ‘real’ people onto our TV screens every day.
Baudrillard describes this as hyper-reality: the signs are more real than reality itself (i.e. the characters, businesses and community in EastEnders do not exist in reality but people interact with them as if they are real.) Baudrillard argues such signs are meaningless because they do not represent anything real.
However, most people can see the distinction between reality and fiction. Individuals do not simply passively accept the image of events portrayed by the media.
Further criticisms of postmodernism
Marxists criticise postmodernists for ignoring inequalities of power. For example, the ruling class control the media; thus influencing the images the media pass on to their audience. Furthermore, those in poverty are not less able to construct their own identities through consumption of goods and images.
Postmodernists and objective research
Sociologists aim for their research to be objective and value-free, although many recognise that this is probably impossible. Postmodernists don’t even bother trying: all research is shaped by the values of the researcher who is trying to impose their view of reality onto their audience.
Sociologists use various categories to shaped their understanding of the world: e.g. social class, gender, age, ethnicity, culture, values etc. Thus sociologists understand religion in terms of these categories. Postmodernists argue that the social world is far more complex than that, and argue that we should move away from these predetermined categories. Defamiliarisation allows postmodernists to do this. This means looking at the world in a completely new way. Although some viewpoints might be far-fetched, they offer alternative views beyond the rigorous limitations of sociological categories.
Late-modernity is characterised by risk and uncertainty. Traditional norms and values are breaking down, creating rapid social change. Rather than representing a change to a new, postmodernist society, modern society itself is changing. Late-modernists also differ from postmodernists because they still accept the Enlightenment project and the belief that it is possible to improve humankind through objective knowledge.
Giddens: late modernity and reflexivity
Late-modern society is characterised by rapid change on a global scale. This is due to two characteristics of late modern society.
Firstly, disembedding – the breaking down of geographical barriers e.g. we can communicate via email or Skype with those elsewhere in the world.
Secondly, reflexivity – our actions are no longer guided by tradition and we have to reflect on our actions based on the information available to us and the possible risks involved.
This creates new risks such as economic problems in the USA affect economies elsewhere; industrial pollution affects the whole planet. In a late-modern society risks are man-made rather than natural (such as earthquakes).
Beck: late-modernism and the risk society
Beck follows the Enlightenment that reason can be a positive force for change. However, these changes create new risks; today, these risks are man-made, manufactured risks. We have now become more aware of these risks and, thinking reflexively, change our behaviour to minimise these risks. However, our source of these risks is usually the media, which may not present an accurate, unbiased image of these risks.
Late-modernism has, unlike postmodernism, suggested that the principles of the Enlightenment project can still be used for the benefit of humankind.
However, Marxists criticise late-modernists because those in poverty are often unable to avoid potential risks, such as pollution, because they cannot afford to move elsewhere. Also, Marxists argue the biggest risk is caused by capitalism and the ruthless pursuit of profit.