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May 30, 2013 / C H Thompson

Understanding postmodernism continued (or the sociology of postmodernism)

Before pressing on with our understanding of postmodernism, it’s worth taking a pause to recognise the extent to which the term certainty was used to explain modernist ideals, as certainty and uncertainty are two words which become very useful tools in gaining understanding of postmodernism.

Firstly there are diverse strands to postmodernism from academics such as Derrida, Lyotard, Foucault and Rorty. Nevertheless they all share the principle of questioning the certainties of the Enlightenment project first broached by Nietzsche. The German philosopher had a profound impact on the way we think from the early stages of the 20th century by questioning moral and intellectual certainties.; particularly the notion knowledge is inherently objective and good.

For postmodernists knowledge isn’t objective because the universe isn’t mechanistic but relative. Objective knowledge isn’t there waiting to be discovered and understood instead knowledge is relative and indeterminate. For Lyotard knowledge had lost its objectivity as it had become another commodity (Delanty, 2000, p143) From this ‘we should consider postmodernity as either an increase of scepticism or, at least, a greater reservation (uncertainty) with regard to Grand Narratives and their goals’ (Lyotard, 1994, p189).

One example of this is the growth in new social movements such as Chime for Change creating a new discourse (which creates uncertainty or) in order to displace the existing ‘certainty’ (established truth) about something – in this case women’s social roles. Similarly Rojek and Roberts argue our identities are becoming much more uncertain. For example if you looked at a group of young people 50 years’ ago you’d be certain they were all heterosexual. However if you looked at a similar group of youngsters today you’d be ‘uncertain’ as to their individual sexuality.

Other examples of to which we can apply sociology of postmodernism become apparent when we look back at the ‘certainties’ of the social world for past generations. In the past people were brought up with certainties about having a career with one employer; a marriage for life; doctors had all the answers. In contrast we live in times of uncertainties regarding employment; pre-nuptial agreements; the growth in alternative medicine.

For French philosopher Michael Foucault these uncertainties are inevitable outcomes of Nietzsche’s ‘will to power’. Though Foucault’s position does differ slightly by seeing knowledge as an outcome of relations of power manifest through discursive claims to truth. Foucault, like Nietzsche concludes that ‘truth’ or objectivity is an outcome of which discourse dominates in a particular period (creating uncertainty about truth). An explanation of the power of discourses is available.

From this we can see modernity was about the certainty objective knowledge provides while postmodern thinkers see objective knowledge as relative and therefore uncertain. An accessible way of explaining this is by applying Lyotard’s quote above regarding the uncertainty of Grand Narratives to the formation of identity -(there’s more detailed reading on Nietzsche and postmodernism).

The image below provides more examples of this tension between certainty and uncertainty in the context of understanding for A’ level Sociology shown below.

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