What is postmodernism?

Modernity and postmodernism are terms used to describe different eras in the development of human societies. It is different from most sociological perspectives in that it has no over arching theory. Some think that western societies have moved from an era of modernity to post modernity, but others do not agree. The debate between modernity and postmodernism tends to be about to what extent society has changed, and so which theoretical approach is the most appropriate. Modernism began as a way of describing the ideas that emerged during the decline of medieval society.
There were three main elements modernism, economic, political and cultural. Modernist thinking supports the idea that the purpose of learning is to better the human condition. Postmodernism opposes each of the assumptions of modernism. They say there is no such thing as valid or invalid knowledge, they see knowledge as a form of control rather then liberation and that grand theories are inadmissible. Postmodernism began to have a significant effect on sociology in the 1980’s.
Most postmodernists believe that conventional approaches are no longer relevant to sociology, and must be discarded, approaches such as Marxism, functionalism and feminism they claim, were useful in explaining how society operated in previous eras but are no longer relevant to today’s society. Modern theorists such as Durkhiem and Weber claim to be able to provide a comprehensive and definitive theory of society. Post modernists claim that this is not possible. Postmodernists claim that enlightenment has been abandoned in contemporary society.

They claim people no longer believe in the inevitability of progress and the capacity of science to explain all. People are more pessimistic and no longer believe that grand theories such as Marxism and functionalism are able to explain society. There is now a much wider set of beliefs. French postmodernist writer Jean-Francois Lyotard argues that post-industrial society and so post-modern culture began to develop at the end to of the 1950’s, although the rate of development varies between countries.
Lyotard agrees that the advance of postmodernism undermines metanarratives of social progress, and people no longer believe that reason can conquer superstition. Lyotard’s explanation of how postmodernism has come about is somewhat vague, although he seems to attribute most importance to technology. He believes postmodernism rest upon the “miniaturisation and commercialisation” of machines. Computer technology has become the principal force of production.
He claims that post-modern society is founded on the production and exchange of knowledge and predicts that future wars will be about the control of knowledge as opposed to territorial disputes. It has been suggested that Lyotard’s theory sounds very similar to a Marxist criticism of capitalism, but postmodernism offers the possibility of tolerance, in which humans are not all corrupted by metanarratives. However critics have pointed out that wile Lyotard repeatedly critic’s metanarratives in his theory he himself has huge generalisations about the direction of human development.
He also provides little evidence to support his theory. Marxist critic Terry Eagelton has pointed out that Lyotard’s key concept in the development in human society is technical language, and he says this is nothing more than a justification for capitalism and the pursuit of profit regardless of human consequence. Jean Baudrillard is also regarded as a post-modern theorist. Like Lyotard he sees societies as having entered a new and distinctive phase. Unlike Lyotard, and indeed most postmodernists he is rather pessimistic about the outcome of these changes.
Baudrillard argues that society is no longer based production and economic forces involving material goods (in direct contradiction of Marxism). He says they have been replaced by the buying and selling of signs and images, which have no relation to material reality. To him society is based upon production and exchange of free-floating images that have little or no connection to what they actually represent. Baudrillard differs from Lyotard in that he sees humans as trapped in a type of powerless uniformity and not being liberated by diversity.
He too is vague in explaining how exactly postmodernism has come about. Unlike Lyotard he attaches significance to the television and mass media as an important factor. Critics have argued however that Baudrillards writing is very abstract. It offers examples to illustrate arguments and no systematic evidence. It has been suggested that Baudrillard was so immersed in his theory that to some extent he lost his grip on reality, as in later work he went on to suggest that the gulf war did not exist, but was just a series of images produced by the media, with no evidence that they were real.
One of the most inflection sociologists to reject the claims of postmodernism is Anthony Giddens. He does not accept that enlightenment thinking must be abandoned and that metanarratives no longer have a place. He believes postmodernity may develop in the future but unlike sociologist such as David Harvey he does not accept that we have entered an era of post modernity. He does however think that significant changes have taken place within modernity and claims that we are in a period of late modernity.
He says that when we move into an era of post modernity there will be four main institutional structures present in society. These are, multi-layered democratic participation, demilitarisation, and humanisation of technology, post scarcity system. He does admit that his idea of a post modern society is a rather idyllic one, as it is hard to imagine richer countries sharing their wealth with poorer countries for example, but is willing to except it may happen in the future.
His theory is backed up only by occasional example rather than systematic evidence, however it remains the main opposition to post modernism theories. The main criticism of postmodernism is that it is paradoxical. How can you have a general theory that argues that general theories are no longer relevant? However many consider postmodernism to be an important area of sociology even if they do not believe society has yet reached that stage in development.

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