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May 30, 2013 / C H Thompson

Understanding postmodernism – modernity

The best way to access postmodernism is to recognise the sociological theory of postmodernism develops from the concept of modernity.

Modernity (modernist social theory) is all the grand theories (sometimes known as Grand Narratives by postmodernists) you’ve been learning such as Maxism, Funtionalism, Feminism, Symbolic Interactionism etc. The reason these are known as modernist is in their assumption that each their own theory had all the answers and so established the ‘truth’. Therefore functionalists have an established truth about what a proper family should look like, a nuclear family. However this ‘truth’ doesn’t fit so well with family diversity or new emerging co-parent families

Modernism stems from the Enlightenment (otherwise known as the Age of Reason) period in human history. Rene Descartes laid the philosophical foundational for modernist thinking with his focus on the autonomous rational thinking self. In many ways Issac Newton optimised the thinking self by providing a scientific framework for modernity by explaining the physical world around us as a mechanical system with laws which could be discovered and explained by the objective human mind.

In many ways the industrial revolution was a manifestation of this change. The industrial revolution was a time where our modern values were born. Industry and commerce were slowly becoming the driving force of human existence with the growth in science helping us understand how the world around us functioned (now you can get the idea why the academic subject of sociology came into being).

As an aside – but also as a way of highlighting the connections between academic subjects no matter what level you’re studying at – the influence the mechanisation of society had on Humanities and the Arts is explored in these BBC documentaries through the work of Shelly, Keats and Mary Shelly.

The thinking, objective self uncovering the discoverable laws of the universe paved the way for what Hambermas termed the ‘Enlightenment project’ (Hambermas, 1992, p162). By this he means the enlightened self can unlock the secrets of the physical world around him in order to master it and improve the world around him/her (can you detect a similarity with Durkheim’s thinking regarding social-facts?)

Within the Enlightenment project is the assumption modernist thinking is objective, good and certain (J.M.Kee,1990). This pursuit of dispassionate objective knowledge assumes absolute faith in the specialist, neutral observer who has gained expertise in their chosen field of expertise. From this human progress through the application of science becomes inevitable, allowing mankind to control by gaining knowledge and understanding about the physical world around him.

In many ways Mr Spock from the original Star Trek series optimises modernist ideals described above. There was a certainty his objective and scientific solutions would regularly solved the challenges he and his colleagues faced, which is clearly evident in the clip below. Postmodern thinkers question these certainties.


Leave a Comment
  1. risteard mac fheorias / Jun 8 2013 8:55 pm

    i’m a teacher. This is a briliant site!

    • sociologytwynham / Jul 7 2013 11:17 am

      Many thanks for the compliment!

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