Sociology 319

March 27, 2006

Postmodern Social Theory


Reading: Adams and Sydie do not discuss postmodernism in detail.  However, there are some comments on postmodern approaches in Chapter 12, especially pp. 265-268.


1.  Introduction


The postmodern perspective spans many disciplines – literature, linguistics, politics, architecture, and artistic fields such as music, visual art, film, and theatre – as well as philosophy, sociology, and even science.  Regardless of how one views postmodernism, there is no doubt that it has affected a wide range of theoretical and applied parts of the social sciences.  Whether or not one agrees with these postmodern perspectives, many aspects of their analysis appear to be sociologically useful and their critique of contemporary society and social theory must be integrated into social theory – whether by accommodation or critique.


Some of the major postmodernists are Jacques Derrida (1930-  ), Michel Foucault (1926-1984), Jean-François Lyotard (1927-1998), Jean Baudrillard (1929-   ), and Paul Virilio (1932-  ), all French writers and theorists.  Other European postmodernists include Gianni Vattimo and Zygmunt Bauman.  North American postmodernists include United States writers Richard Rorty and Frederic Jameson and Canadian political theorist Arthur Kroker.  Among the more understandable analyses of postmodern approaches are those by the United States writers David Harvey (a geographer), Douglas Kellner, Stephen Best, and Charles Lemert.  We will deal with only a few of these and a few of the ideas associated with postmodern perspectives.


2. Summary of Perspectives


a. Introduction.  A short summary of a few of the ideas of postmodernism is provided in this section.  Postmodernists generally consider social theory to have been constructed as a part of modernity.  We noted this at the beginning of the semester, that it was the separation of society from nature that led to the social theories that analyzed this process.  The social theorists from the Enlightenment to the structuralists were generally committed to the idea that the modern represented progress, that reason could be used to develop knowledge and understand society, that social theory could be used to improve society, and that knowledge and theory were universal – able to contribute to an understanding of human societies around the globe and through history.  Many of these theorists were critical of modernity, but even those with a critical approach were strongly committed to progress, even when it is difficult or impossible to achieve.  They were also committed to a sociological study of society, often through “scientific” approaches, considering these as contributing to social change and social progress.


In contrast, postmodern writers argue that there are “limits and limitations of modern reason” (Smart, p. 448) that are inherent in the forms and types of reasoning and social analysis that have characterized society and the modern.  Further, these writers question whether this form of reason and rationality can be equated with “progress in respect of ‘justice, virtue, equality, freedom, and happiness’” (Smart, p. 448).  As a result “the practical consequences of modernity seem to have been persistently at odds with its programmatic promise” (Smart, p. 449).  The problems of the contemporary social world, the rapid change, and the new forms of media and culture are all reference points for the postmodern critique and analysis. 


Some of the differences in approach are illustrated in the following table.




Necessity (natural and social laws)

Contingency or chance

Universality (across time and space)

Locality and the particular (can only know own experience)

Certainty and predictability

Uncertainty and provisionality

Truth and reality – comprehensive theoretical approach

Critique of tradition-bound analysis and deconstruction

Transparency or understandability


Order of nature and structures

Ambivalence of human design

Shared identities

Localized and multiple identities


Change, disillusion, crisis

Source: Adapted from Smart, p. 449.


While sorting ideas into these dualisms may itself be contrary to a postmodern approach, this illustrates a way of contrasting the postmodern with the modern. 


b. Identity.  In postmodern approaches, individual (or even group) identity is not clearly and unambiguously defined, rather it shifts over time and is generally considered unstable.  In addition, it is primarily local circumstances and experiences of individuals, rather than larger structural conditions or positions and locations, that are important in shaping these identities.  This means that social classes, ethnic groups, or status groups may not exist in the manner described in social theory, and analysis of these does not provide a useful way of understanding the contemporary social world.  That is, the shared circumstances or common situations of class, race, or ethnicity may not exist, and may be purely a theoretical construct that theorists attempt to impose of the social world.  Shared and common identities give way to shifting and localized identities that may or may not be shaped by the individual.  These identities are continually being formed, changed, and particular individuals shift in and out of these experiences and situations, thus changing their identities.  


c. Politics.  The political implication of this is that it may be difficult to imagine collective action, social movements, and social change toward some specific goal.  For extreme postmodernists, there may be no goals or plans that people can or should attempt to strive for or achieve.  Some postmodernists argue that identities and localized situations are all that we should be concerned with; others argue that political action can still be a useful means of improving society.  Some may not take a particular point of view on important social questions, arguing that all identities, statements, and texts are equally valid, and while these can be interpreted or read, no judgments on the validity or invalidity of these is possible or desirable. 


d. Metanarratives.  A feature that is common among postmodernists is to reject grand theoretical approaches or “metanarratives” entirely.   C. Wright Mills (mid-twentieth century critical U.S. sociologist) argued that the grand narratives of liberalism and socialism have collapsed “as adequate explanations of the world and ourselves” (Smart, p. 449).


e. Difference.  A related aspect of the rejection of grand narratives is that rather than searching for a theoretical approach that explains all aspects of society, postmodernists examine experiences of individuals and groups and emphasizes difference over similarities and common experiences.  In the view of many postmodernists, the modern world is “fragmented, disrupted, disordered, interrupted” and unstable – and may not be understandable on a large scale (Rosenau, p. 170).  Some of this involves examination of language and texts – this approach points to “the analytic centrality of language, discourse, and texts” (Smart, p. 450).  This requires the reader to interpret texts, but not impose on others the reader's interpretation of texts (Rosenau, p. 170). 


f. Reflexive?  Social theory in modernity was reflexive – composed of reflection, thought, and consideration of the world around us, with a view to understanding and changing the social world.  Further, such reflection “includes reflection upon the nature of reflection itself” (Giddens, quoted in Smart, p. 472) – consideration of the nature of social thought through subjects such as philosophy and the applied social science.  In the modern view, this created the possibility of knowledge or even truth, constructed through reflection, with this knowledge describing the social world around us.  This has led some theorists to the view that they have models that represent the natural and social world. 


g. Reality?   It is increasingly difficult to understand what are representations of social knowledge and what are the contexts or social realities (Smart, p. 464).  This can occur for a number of different reasons. 


·        First, social knowledge is used to construct social reality – e.g. attitudes (social reality?) are formed through public discourse, which is guided by various theoretical and practical aspects that are developed through social knowledge (Smart, p. 472).  Or the more tangible aspects of social reality such as urban structures, tax policy and its effects on income inequality, or media images and constructions are all products of social or economic policy or conscious intervention by those who attempt to influence social organization, and these are in turn guided by social knowledge.  The latter is developed by studies of the seemingly real, but where the real is a social product, where does knowledge end and social reality begin?  Perhaps the two are so intertwined that they cannot be separated.


·        A second interpretation is that of Baudrillard (see notes of March 29, 2006), whereby it becomes difficult to separate the social reality from its representations.  Disneyworld or the new Las Vegas may be representations or what Baudrillard calls simulacra (an image – a material or mental representation of a person or thing; something having merely the form or appearance of a certain thing, without possessing its substance or proper qualities. Oxford English Dictionary) but since more are familiar with the representations than with the originals, and since these representations become part of the experiences and knowledge of people, which is the social reality and which is the representation?  Similarly, media images become the social reality, and social reality is constructed with the media images in mind.  


·        A third example comes from recordings of music.  Originally it was clear what was the original and what was the copy.  The musicians made music and it was recorded on a cylinder, record, tape, or compact disk.  As new methods of manipulating the recordings developed, and as electronic sources of sounds developed, it became common to splice, mix, sample, overlay, and generally reorganize the original sounds.  This developed to the point where the recorded sound sometimes became the reality, with the record or compact disk being the song or piece of music.  These recordings were widely available, so what began as the representation became the original or the reality.  This led to bizarre developments such as lip-synching in live performances or audiences judging live performances by how well they repeated the recorded songs and order of selections.  In some cases, there was no reality apart from the recording – it would be impossible for live performances to reproduce the recording.  Finally, with digital technology, it is now possible that what is real may be pure image – that is, a composer of a piece of music could write out a string of 0s and 1s of computer code (the real as image), and the representation (formerly the real) is the sound waves that are produced and heard by the human ear when these computer codes are processed through the proper equipment. 


As a result of the above considerations, the distinction between knowledge, representation, and social reality becomes blurred.  Reflection itself  becomes uncertain in these circumstances and this leads “to the problematic character of Western metaphysics” or philosophy, so that some argue that “we are encountering its closure or end; an understanding which is experienced, or lived, as contingency” (Smart, p. 473). 


h. Postmodernity and Postmodernism.  Postmodernism sometimes refers to the characteristics of contemporary society, and at other times to a theoretical approach that is a critique of the classical or modernist approaches.  In order to distinguish these two, the characteristics of the current era are often referred to as postmodernity or the postmodern condition.  Theoretical approaches examining this era and critiquing earlier theoretical perspectives may be referred to as postmodernism or postmodernist approaches. 


3. Postmodernity


a. Postmodern Era


In Europe, the premodern period generally refers to the period through the end of the middle ages, with the modern period beginning with the development of capitalist industrialism and the Enlightenment.  In the contemporary world, some developing nations are only now emerging from the premodern period and attempting to modernize, at the same time that the richer countries are entering a postmodern phase.  As a result, a strict time dimension with a progression from one stage to the next may not be a proper way of imaging history, and postmodern approaches themselves would argue against such an interpretation.  That is, premodernity and postmodernity could coexist – for example, with television and contemporary musical forms introduced into poor, indigenous groups in parts of the third world.  Further, within modernity there are many examples of postmodern ideas – Nietzsche, Weber, Simmel, Adorno (Smart, p. 448) – and if we are in a postmodern era, there are many traces of the modern.  Some, like Lyotard argue that the postmodern is part of the modern (Smart, p. 448) and the postmodern is not necessarily sequential after the modern. 


The modern period is characterized by the development of science, human progress, the development and expansion of industry, improvements in conditions of life and health, urbanization, continued improvements (?) in technology, the establishment of the nation state, liberal forms of democracy, bureaucracy, and social reforms – all of these stand out as accomplishments of modern forms of social, economic and political organization.  In terms of modernist theories, liberalism, rationality, individualism, science, classic and more recent sociological theories, egalitarianism and tolerance, humanism, socialism, and communism all stand out as major perspectives that lead to a method of understanding, interpreting and improving society.  


Postmodern theorists question how much the above have occurred, or they argue that the nature of the social world and the manner in which development is taking place has changed.  Some writers have argued that we are in a postindustrial world.  Industrialization has been so successful that the problems of production have all been solved and agriculture and industry are now capable of producing as much or more than humans will ever need   Such a society shifts its emphasis away from the production of goods to the production of services, and away from dull, repetitive, manual labour to mental labour.  For writers such as Daniel Bell (mid-twentieth century U.S. sociologist who wrote about “the end of ideology” and the advent of a “post-industrial era”), associated with this is a shift in the nature of work, with more meaningful and creative jobs, and perhaps the end of the division of labour into mental and manual tasks.  Accompanying this have been new forms of technology:  automated production, robots, and computerization.   In addition, there may be new forms of organization of the economy, with scientific management, cooperation between labour and management and “people’s capitalism” through widespread ownership of corporate stock by individuals and pension plans.  Some proponents of such developments may argue that class structures are irrelevant, that there is no conflict between capital and labour and that by adapting to these new global developments, we will be better off.  In terms of rejection of Marxian class analysis as the central driving force of modern, capitalist society, postmodernism has some parallels with critical theory.


The last few years have seen an emphasis on computerization, information technologies, virtual reality and new forms of extremely rapid and extensive communication.  The latter create more flexible forms of production, instant communication around the world, a greater degree of globalization of the economy, and more rapid change.  Other features to be noted are the effects of these features in parts of the world that were regarded as third world – skipping over the modern period, uneven development in different areas of the world (stagnation or backward movement in Africa and parts of Eastern Europe and rapid industrialization in some Asian countries), population movements, and new forms of identity politics.  In North America and Europe, the structures of populations have changed, with more immigrants who are visible minorities, leading to changes in structures of culture, politics, and population.  


The end of the communist regimes in Eastern Europe also means that there is no counter to capitalism, as there was for most of the century.  Some characterize the current era as one with a global economic system that adopts much the same approach everywhere.  This is taken by postmodernists as an indication that the nature of the world has changed dramatically. 


At the same time there are those who consider these recent developments are not really new, but just different forms that have become apparent in late capitalism.  For these analysts, the same forms of social and class structure and class struggle that characterized early and modern capitalism still exist or are even exacerbated by these new developments.  In this view, work has become more contingent and less meaningful, uncertainty about the future has become greater and the division between the haves and the have-nots has widened on a national and international scale.  Others note the increasingly serious environmental problems created by modernism, with global sustainability and even the existence of human life being threatened. 


Regardless of which approach is taken, it is clear that new forms of technology and communication have increasingly affected the contemporary social world, that the forces of   globalization have changed, that the quality and certainties of life have are being threatened and that the pace of change has quickened.  Whether these changes call for a new set of theories is also debated.  Those who are adherents of the theories that can be traced back to the Enlightenment may argue that these theories need revision, but that the models developed earlier are still applicable. 


Postmodern theorists argue that to understand the nature of these developments, it is necessary to critique and abandon some of the grand theoretical schemes that were developed over the last two hundred years, and develop new modes of thought and understanding.  Rosenau notes that:

Modernity entered history as a progressive force promising to liberate humankind from ignorance and irrationality, but one can readily wonder whether that promise has been sustained.  As we in the West approach the end of the twentieth century, the “modern” record – world wars, the rise of Nazism, concentration camps (in both East and West), genocide, worldwide depression, Hiroshima, Vietnam, Cambodia, the Persian Gulf, and a widening gap between rich and poor ... makes any belief in the idea of progress or faith in the future seem questionable.  ...  The post-modernists conclude that there is reason to distrust modernity's moral claims, traditional institutions and “deep interpretations.”  They argue that modernity is no longer a force for liberation; it is rather a source of subjugation, oppression, and repression.  (Rosenau, pp. 5-6).

There seems to be little doubt that there are aspects of society that have changed, and some of the new forces of capitalism, technology, and communication are having an effect on politics and society, and affect the lives of people.  Whether these constitute a break in the sense that earlier theoretical perspectives are no longer useful in questionable.  There seems to be no doubt thought that earlier perspectives need revision, and some of the ideas of postmodern writers should certainly be considered and integrated into sociological analysis.


b. Postmodernism


As societies have entered a postmodern or postindustrial era, many argue that there is no single or knowable truth and there is an “absence of secure foundations for knowledge” (Smart, p. 450).  One aspect of this is the decline of the all-encompassing, universal, enlightenment approaches of liberalism and socialism.  These were alternative theories that emerged in the nineteenth century, using rationality and reason and promising human emancipation.  While some may argue that neither were given a chance to succeed, in practice neither lived up to its promise.  The twentieth century was associated with war, inequality, extremism, division, and environmental degradation.  The century ended with confusion, disarray, war and conflict, continuing poverty, the collapse of socialism, and continued crisis in capitalism.  The grand narratives of emancipation, progress, and human freedom on which modernity was based turned out to be inadequate, misleading, incapable of explaining society, unable to predict the direction of the social world, and did not provide a sense of security and freedom.   At least that is what some postmodernists argue.


One of the writers who describes this change is Jean-François Lyotard (1924-1998, French), born in Versailles.  He became professor at Vincennes University, and was active in the movement to stop the French war in Algeria, the May, 1968 events, and other left French political groups.  Lyotard’s book The Postmodern Condition (1979) provides a critique of modern knowledge, more than modernity as an historical process (Best and Kellner, 1991, p. 165).   For Lyotard, the grand narrative of modern knowledge has lost its credibility, “regardless of whether it is a speculative narrative or a narrative of emancipation” (Lyotard in Smart, p. 456).  He argues that the decline in this narrative has been accelerating since World War II, partly as a result of the shift of “emphasis from the ends of action to its means” (Lyotard in Smart, p. 456), and to problems associated with and inherent in science and modern reason itself.  Some of these ideas are reminiscent of critical theory, Weber, and philosophers such as Nietzsche.


For Lyotard, postmodern knowledge is opposed to metanarratives, “grand schemes of legitimation” and “metaphysical philosopy, philosophies of history, and any form of totalizing thought” (Best and Kellner, 1991, p. 165).  As a result, Lyotard would consider liberalism, Marxism, the rational forces of Weber, and structural functional approaches to be inadequate or misleading explanations of the social world, and unable to develop true knowledge of this world.  These large scale theories or metanarratives tend to argue that they are universally applicable, with prescriptions for progress regardless of context.  Further, these theories tend to exclude, rather than include, favour consensus over dissent, and similarity over diversity and difference.  For example, liberalism appears inclusive, but traditionally excluded many parts of society, excluded those not part of the nation state, and adopts a specific view of citizenship that not all may accept.  Theories such as those of Durkheim exclude and treat as deviant those who do not adopt the conventional norms.  Marxism excludes by focussing on commodities, exchange, and political activity.  Science excludes magic, superstition, revelation, and the spiritual in the name of certain knowledge and understanding. 


In contrast, postmodern knowledge “is for heterogeneity, plurality, constant innovation, and pragmatic construction of local rules and prescriptives agreed up by participants, and is thus for micropolitics” (Best and Kellner, 1991, p. 165).  This not only argues for a new form of experience and politics, but for a new form of knowledge – this new form corresponding to the new conditions of the postmodern era.  Lyotard argues that “there has also been an associated freeing of ‘thought and life from totalizing obsessions’” (Lyotard in Smart, p. 458). 


Like many other recent theorists, he emphasizes the diversity and heterogeneity associated with language and discourse – noting new words, slogans, forms, rules, and perspectives within language.  These aspects are intimately connected with diversity and what we sometimes call identity (note language of youth, bureaucracy, minority groups).  For Lyotard, there are many language games in fields such as politics, philosophy, and art, with no single privileged or universal system.  Rather, struggles over justice and fairness are associated with these language games and “one must agree that disagreement, as well as putting in questions and challenging, always be allowed or else there is terror and no justice” (Best and Kellner, 1991, p. 163). 


While this emphasis of Lyotard is similar to some aspects of Habermas’s theory of communicative action, Lyotard does not favour obtaining consensus as a means of pursuing progress.  For Lyotard, postmodern knowledge comes by “putting into question existing paradigms, by inventing new ones, rather than assenting to universal truth or in agreeing to a consensus” (Best and Kellner, 1991, p. 166). 

Consensus does violence to the heterogeneity of language games.  And invention is always born of dissension.  Postmodern knowledge is not simply a tool of the authorities; it refines our sensitivity to differences and reinforces our ability to tolerate the incommensurable. (Lyotard in Best and Kellner, 1991, p. 166).

While the focus of Lyotard is on language and knowledge, he argues that these new forms of knowledge emerge in the postindustrial era – the postmodern society associated with information, comuterization, technology, rapid change, and new cultural forms. 


Parts of Lyotard’s analysis are reminiscent of multicultural discussions and debates in Canada, where immigration is associated with greater cultural diversity – resulting in a shift in the social and cultural structure of Canada.  Some have argued that this diversity makes it difficult to know what it means to be a Canadian – Smart discussing and quoting Lyotard states “the growing fragmentation of community … leads, within the modern polity, to an increasing ‘uncertainty about the identity of the we’” (Smart, p. 460).  In Canada, the official response to this diversity, and a response that has become widely accepted and practiced, has been to strengthen principles of equality, participation, and inclusion.  Smart notes that “there is nevertheless a strong implication that the desirability of a universal tolerance of ‘incommensurable vocabularies and forms of life’ is a necessary corollary” (Smart, p. 460). 


While Lyotard’s argument that there is no grand narrative may itself be a grand narrative, he provides an example of how postmodern writers emphasize the decline in such narratives and an emergence of different forms of knowledge.  These new forms of knowledge are often associated with formerly excluded groups (women, aboriginal people, gay people, immigrants), from traditions that were lost, forgotten, or ignored, or from new forms of communication and technology themselves.  These new forms are often localized, associated with particular experiences, and may not have universal applicability.  For example, none of us would want to be without modern science, drugs, and medicine.  Yet these have their limits, and may themselves cause problems of their own in some cases or be unable to deal with other situations.  In this context, alternative forms of medicine based on forgotten traditions or from other cultures have become more widely used and appear to have made a place even within the established health care system. 




Best, Steven and Douglas Kellner.  1991. Postmodern Theory: Critical Interrogations, The Guilford Press, New York.

Best, Steven and Douglas Kellner.  1997 The Postmodern Turn, The Guilford Press, New York.

Giddens, Anthony.  1987.  “Structuralism, Post-structuralism and the Production of Culture,” in Anthony Giddens and Jonathan H. Turner, editors, Social Theory Today, Stanford University Press, Stanford.

Harvey, David.  1989.  The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change, Blackwell, Cambridge.

Hollinger, Robert.  1994.  Postmodernism and the Social Sciences: A Thematic Approach, Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks, California.

Kroker, Arthur.  1984.  Technology and the Canadian Mind: Innis/McLuhan/Grant, New World Perspectives, Montreal.  CB 478 K76 1984.

Kroker, Arthur, Marilouise Kroker and David Cook.  1989.  Panic Encyclopedia: the Definitive Guide to the Postmodern Scene, New World Perspectives, Montreal. E 169.12 K72 1989b

Kroker, Arthur and Michael A. Weinstein.  1994.  Data Trash: the Theory of the Virtual Class, New World Perspectives, Montreal.  HM 21 K735

Lemert, Charles. 1997. Postmodernism is Not What You Think.  Oxford: Blackwell.

Rosenau, Pauline Marie.  1992.  Post-Modernism and the Social Sciences:  Insights, Inroads and Intrusions, Princeton University Press, Princeton.

Smart, Barry, “Postmodern Social Theory,” in Bryan S. Turner.  2000.  The Blackwell Companion to Social Theory, Blackwell Publishers, Malden, Massachusetts.

Last edited on April 1, 2006