A Critical Assessment of the Claim that We Live in a Postmodern Society

Critically Assess the Claim that We Live in a Postmodern Society

There is no doubt that society has become more ‘modern’ in an extremely short space of time. Even within the current generation of young people, within their living memory, technology has advanced at an unfathomed rate since their childhood, from the first family PC, to the iPad. The relationship between technology and modernity in society are unarguably linked. Some sociologists argue that society has developed so much that we are now in an era of post modernism where communities and people are totally disjointed. In this essay I will argue that we do live in a post modern society, but not to the extent that we are totally fragmented atoms. Theorists such as Giddens and Bauman recognise the recent changes to society, but argue that we are still in modernity, just a later phase; ‘high modernity’ (Giddens, 1991) or ‘liquid modernity’ (Bauman, 1989). On the other side of the argument are people such as Baudrillard and Lyotard who believe that the fragmentation of modernity has led to moral uncertainty, ambiguity and post modernity.

Key words associated with modernity are industrialization, production, capitalism, and urbanization. Generally in a modern society, life s lived as fate, people tend to do jobs their parents did, marry one person and spend your life in one area. Berman (1983) stated that there have been three phases of modernity; ‘Early’ modernity was from approximately the 16th century to the 18th century, when people began to live in a ‘modern way’, with the onset of industrial civilization. Classic modernity was 1790s - 20th century and was quite revolutionary across the West, for example in France. This era was a time of constant change, growth and progression. Berman argues that late modernity in the 20th century is what we are currently in where things are fragmented, and there has been a loss of meaning in peoples lives. Bauman (1989) referred to this as ‘late modernity’, and that people are more reflexive and skeptical. Beck (1992) called it ‘second modernity’ and took a more positive approach that there is increased individualization but identified that there is more ‘risk’ and therefore uncertainty. One of his examples is family, an institution that could be relied upon has become more disjointed with social risks such unemployment and divorce. Realizing that this is the case, people can reassess the situation and try to come up with new solutions (increasing their individualization).

Thinkers such as Baudrillard and Lyotard believe the modernity ‘ran its course’ and ended in the mid-late 20th Century. Much of the modern world changed post the 1960s and this led to fragmentation of identity and skepticism. Baudrillard argues that compared to 50 years ago (pre mass communications and internet), we are now living more ‘virtual lives’, online. We are now a consumption culture and have lost meaning of things such as community and family. He called this the ‘death of the social’ and of grand narratives (1984). The concept of a fluid identity is a large aspect of post modernity. People now get their identity from mass media, consumption, fashion fads, and we are controlled by images we see. The internet also enables us to create an alternative identity to our real one, where we can choose a different one everyday if we so wish.

The Mirror of Production by Baudrillard (1975) states that class, labour and work have no longer the same significance in the way they used to, for example the decline of trade unions, labour movement and politics socialism. This has allowed new social movements, based on gay rights, feminism, ecology, racism and environment to evolve. Baudrillard focuses on production of SIGN-value rather than USE- value e.g. Coca-Cola. In a post modern society, the masses watch the global elite and try to be like them. A post modern society is centered on consumption and status rather than production and class. There is the façade of liberty and freedom, but people are actually being controlled by the global elite by buying/wearing/consuming whatever they do. There are fewer connections with family and community, using the example of technology, people might now send a text rather than meet up. This has created a superficial identity based on consumption, and people are ‘meaningless masses’, or atoms floating around unconnected.

In the modern era, identity came directly from experiences, geography, communities and through work class and background. However the ‘world has disappeared’ (Baudrillard, 1975) leading to an identity crisis. The media also impacts on identity, representing lifestyle rather than real needs. Media images transfer a particular image which one wants to become. This means that identity is unstable, people change appearance for example people wearing hoodies and caps originating from the American rap culture.

Baudrillard explains media becoming a central component of pop culture. Society and culture ‘implode’ into mass media. This image mediates our experiences and knowledge of the world. This hyper reality has led to society suffused with simulations (imitations) and simulacra, copies of simulations. We change our identity into a copies of a copy, and not a copy of original, but copy of a copy. For example WAGS create an ‘identity’. Bauman believes that hyper-reality is becoming a condition of whole western world.

Lyotard (1979) argued that post modernism was the end of grand narratives therefore lack of certainty. He believed scientific knowledge is not objective, and is another narrative where there has to be a sender and an addressee that tells us when/how to speak. Knowledge is more a set of rules than objective truth, for example a lecturer talking to students, and the students sit and listen because the sender has legitimacy (e.g. a PhD, giving them “expert identity”). Lyotard argued that fragmentation gives voices to those previously suppressed, and modernism silenced many groups of people, with the assumption that anything out of a grand narrative is perverted, mad, or irrelevant.

Society has rapidly changed in the past 50 years, but we are not at the point where we are floating atoms without community ties, but neither are we at the stage when capitalism began. We have not become completely cut off from family and friends, but rather technology has changed how we communicate with them. The fact that we have not become totally individualistic is demonstrated in recent major catastrophes such as earthquakes where people help strangers in times of need. However, there has certainly been a ‘commodification’ of human experience as Lytoard and Baudrillard argue, where media and culture industries are the new mode of social control, and certainly in the West, we are a consumer society. There is less certainty in many aspects of our lives such as divorce and the loss of a ‘job for life’ ethos. Therefore there has been a fragmentation of modernity, but we are not totally post modern society.


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Baudrillard, J., 1975, The Mirror of Production, New York: Telos Press

Bauman, Zygmunt. 1989. Modernity and the Holocaust. Cambridge: Polity Press

Beck, Ulrich (1992) Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity. London: Sage

Beck, Ulrich. 2006. The Cosmopolitan Vision. Cambridge :Polity Press.

Berman, Marshall. 1983. All That Is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity. London

Giddens, Anthony (1991) Modernity and Self Identity. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Giddens, Anthony. 1998. Conversations with Anthony Giddens: Making Sense of Modernity. Stanford: Stanford University Press

Lyotard, Jean-Francois. 1979, Introduction: The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge