Sociology 319

April 11, 2000

Conclusion and Review

1. Postmodernism and Sociology

a. Postmodern perspectives in many disciplines humanities, social science, fine arts.

In the arts, for example, postmodernism may be associated with popular media and images, forms such as pastiche and collage, moods such as irony and parody, and new uses of language and text. Value may not be associated with these, as with the great works of art of earlier periods. Rather, popular culture, the everyday and ordinary, and a wide variety of types and forms may all be worthy of consideration. Variety of postmodern approaches, so there is no single, overall perspective that can be termed postmodernism. Across disciplines constraints of traditional disciplines are limiting and should be crossed.

b. Most postmodern writers are not sociologists, but ideas may be sociologically relevant and useful. The distinctions between the modern and the postmodern outline some of the relevant differences between earlier social theory and postmodern social theory.



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

Critique of tradition-bound analysis

Transparency or understandability


Order of nature and structures

Ambivalence of human design

c. Modernism and modernity. Postmodernism (social theory and systems of analysis), postmodernity (historical period or characteristics of society) and postmodern condition (new forms of knowledge). Lyotard and language games, difference, dissensus, heterogeneity, plurality, difference, innovation, local rules and politics. Radical (Baudrillard, Kroker break in society and history) and moderate (new era with different social reality so that modifications in social theory necessary) postmodernists.

d. Metanarratives or multiplicity of perspectives. No grand, universal (across history and around the globe), all-encompassing, all-explanatory theory. Critique of marxism, liberalism, christianity, islam, fascism, humanism. Local narratives, experiences, changes in conditions, everyday life and situations, relativism (rather than absolute), uncertainty rather than truth. Implication for sociology is that there may not be a single sociological approach which can provide all the analysis, answers, or even questions that are relevant. Variety of perspectives that may differ from other perspectives in their approach and conclusions. Different approaches may be seemingly contradictory. Bits and pieces of knowledge and theory.

e. Subject and object. The well-defined, rational, self-conscious, decision-making individual with a well formed individual and social identity who can act on objects natural objects and other individuals is part of modernist though. Postmodernists are more likely to argue that the subject does not exist (although strong structuralist views may also tend in this direction) and has disappeared in postmodernity. Baudrillard takes this to the point where he argues that we should surrender to the object, and adopt the strategies of objects. Rather, individuals have changing and shifting identities, identities which alter as people enter different situations and have different experiences. Identities may be localized and are less well founded than in the modernist view. The postmodern argument on this appear to be most damaging to rational choice theory and models such as those developed by Parsons. Some aspects of Weber especially those that emphasize consciousness and meaning. Since meaning must be associated with consciousness, knowledge, and objects as some reference point, this may not exist for the postmodernist. Social theories such as symbolic interaction and ethnomethodology may not be so damaged by postmodernism.

f. Structures. For much modern sociology, even the microsociological approach, structure exists or emerges. This sociology emphasized regularities of social action, patterns of social interaction, purpose and dynamics of structures, and ways in which individuals are influenced by, fill, or function in these social structures. In contrast, postmodernists question regularities and patterns, arguing for uncertainty, provisionality, contingency, and chance. In this view, there may not be structures or what other sociologists term structures may not have the strong determining influence on social action and interaction. Individuals shift among situations and experiences, changing identities and roles. Difference rather than similarity is emphasized.

g. Social reality or simulation? Truth or local knowledge? This comes primarily from Baudrillard, who argues that symbols and sign value have become the major feature of postmodernity, with a disappearance of production and exchange value. Symbols, signs, and images have always been important aspects of society, and formed a basis for much modern social theory. But these have become developed to such a stage that in current hyperreality, the distinction between social reality and simulation has imploded, so that it is difficult to distinguish one from the other. Rather than social reality producing symbols as representations of this truth and reality, the social becomes a construction of the signs, simulations, spectacles, and simulacra of contemporary society. Society becomes a spectacle, so that the performance of people is the social, and society is remade to be spectacle. Within this perspective, it is difficult to identify an objective truth, applicable across experiences and time different experiences and situations may produce local knowledge.

h. Texts. For postmodernists, the text becomes an extremely important concept. While written works are texts, the idea of a text includes artistic works and spoken statements. For some postmodernists the notion of the text is extended even more to include as texts all phenomena or all events. In examining texts, these postmodernists

seek to "locate" meaning rather than "discover" it. They avoid judgment ... they offer "readings" not "observations," "interpretations" not "findings." ... They never test because testing requires "evidence," a meaningless concept within a post-modern frame of reference. (Rosenau, p. 8).

These postmodernists aim to "offer indeterminacy rather than determinism, diversity rather than unity, difference rather than synthesis, complexity rather than simplification." (Rosenau, p. 8).

In doing this, the postmodernists speak of the disappearance of the subject or the abandonment of the subject. The author of the text and the intentions of the author become irrelevant. The context within which the text was written or created are also irrelevant. Rather, the postmodernist can read the text, and interpret it without considering the context. If the text is the actions of a person or the interactions of a group of people, the subjects may be irrelevant for the postmodernist.

The postmodernist may regard the subject as a creation of "language and systems of meaning and power." (Best and Kellner, p. 24). This seems partly the result of the importance of language in postmodernist thinking, and the subject may just be a matter of linguistic convention. Giddens notes that

Just as the meaning of 'tree' is not the object tree, so the meaning of the terms that refer to human subjectivity, most particularly 'I' of the thinking or acting subject, cannot be states of consciousness of that subject. Like any other term in a language, 'I' is only constituted as a sign by virtue of its difference from 'you', 'we', 'they', etc. (Giddens, p. 206).

Another aspect of this is disagreement with the "spontaneous, rational, autonomous subject developed by Enlightenment thinkers." (Best and Kellner, p. 24). For the postmodernist, these are ideological assumptions about the subject, with the theories and conclusions emerging from these assumptions serving the purpose of particular ruling groups in society and furthering domination through the use of these forms of knowledge. In contrast, the postmodernist may not consider the individual to be a coherent and unified subject, especially in the postmodern period.

i. Conclusion. Postmodern approaches may be a fad and may be unable to contribute positively to the development of sociology. However, the arguments of postmodern writers has been important in challenging earlier perspectives and has led to questioning some of the traditional sociological concepts such as subject and object, social reality, menaing, and function. Out of the sociological ruins, perhaps new sociological views can be constructed which will provide an improved understanding of our social world.


2. Review of Second Half of Course

a. Critical theory

b. Marcuse

c. Habermas

d. Historical Sociology

e. Structuralism

f. Erik Olin Wright

g. Readings

h. Final Examination

Final examination will concentrate on last part of course

Will have a question that asks you to pull together ideas from the whole course

Choices in all questions

Hand in papers at time of final examination

Chapters to cover 2, 15, 10, 14


Last edited on April 11, 2000.

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