Postmodernity and Sociological Theory

This is the second of a two-part series looking at the relationship between modernityClick to download as pdf, postmodernity and the development of sociological theory. If you want to “Start at the Start”, so to speak, with Modernity, feel free to access these Teaching Notes.

Otherwise, if you’re just here for the Postmodernity stuff, in this set of Teaching Notes the focus is on two main areas:

1 Identifying the basic economic, political and cultural characteristics of postmodernity.

2, Outlining a range of sociological theories we can loosely associate with postmodernity.

I’ve used the word “loosely” here because as you’re probably aware there’s always a lot of debate around concepts like modernity, late-modernity and postmodernity and whole most Specifications tend to create an easy dichotomy between the “modern” and the “postmodern” world it’s not necessarily that simple.

To reflect this, therefore, I’ve included a selection of theories (Interactionism, Network Systems and Structuration) that don’t sit neatly in either camp but which lean towards a late-modernity take on sociological theory.

When answering an A2 Theory and Methods question on modernity / postmodernity and sociological theory these are the kinds of theories it can be useful to introduce and discuss for evaluative purposes.

Postmodern Society…

We can begin by noting the idea of postmodern society is a contested concept within sociology in that, although economic and cultural changes are clearly occurring, there are arguments about whether these changes relate to a new type of (postmodern) society or are simply a different form of modern society – what Giddens (1998) calls late modernity or ‘modernisation happening under different conditions from the past’.

Whatever your position on this argument, we’ve split this section into a discussion of:

1. Late modernity – considered, for theoretical convenience, to include sociological theories (such as Interactionist sociology) from the mid-to-late-20th century and

2. Postmodernity – considered in terms of the late-20th / early 21st centuries, where we look at some possible characteristics of postmodern society.

While it’s not a hugely-important distinction for our particular purpose – and you can conflate the two as “postmodernity” if it’s more convenient. However, later discussion of network theories looks at them in the context of late-modern / postmodern variants, so it’s a distinction you might find useful / want to keep in mind.

Be that as it may, we can identify some of the main features of late / postmodernity in the following terms.

Economic characteristics

Writers such as Bell (1973) suggest a major economic change in the late twentieth century was the development of:

Post-industrial society, with an emphasis on the provision of services (banking, insurance, etc.) rather than the production of goods (a feature of modern society). This involves an increasing emphasis on knowledge (ideas about how to do things) as a saleable commodity and, for Bell, post-industrial society was based on three main characteristics:

  • Service: Most people would be employed in service industries, from the low-level, poorly paid and insecure (shop-working, call centres and the like) to the high level, handsomely rewarded and relatively secure (information technology, computing, finance, and so forth).
  • Science: The development of computer technology, applied to the production of goods and services, that would revolutionise how things were made and distributed.
  • Consumption: In modernity, producers of goods and services, rather than consumers, were the dominant economic force; in postmodernity, the reverse is true. Through information technology (particularly the Internet) the consumer exercises choice that exposes producers to such fierce competition that the consumer becomes the main focus of economic activity.
  • Postmodernity and Sociological Theory

    Post-industrial society, Bell argued, developed in the heavily industrialised societies of the USA and Western Europe and would, eventually, spread across the world. The UK, for example, saw a steady decline throughout the 20th century in the economic significance of:

    ● agriculture (which now accounts for about 3% of all employment) and

    ● manufacturing (now roughly 20% of all employment).

    The past 50 years have seen a sharp decline in heavy industry (such as coal-mining and steel production) and a rapid rise in computer-based, service technologies – something that’s partly accounted for by the increasing rationality of economic production.

    Economic decisions, in this respect, are made in global, rather than national, contexts, partly because of the behaviour and influence of:

    Transnational corporations: Where corporations are able to operate freely across national borders (moving capital, production and even people from one country to the next) it becomes difficult for national governments to control their behaviour. To take one example, the development of cheap international communications has meant call-centre jobs once based in the UK can now just as easily be based in countries such as India, where labour costs are lower.

    Interesting – and prescient – as these ideas are, not everyone necessarily subscribes to the idea of a post-industrial society. Harvey (1990) argues that there has simply been a gradual change in the nature of economic production, away from:

    Fordist models of accumulation based around what Postero (2005) characterises as mass production, rigid labour relationships and centralised production processes, towards flexible accumulation involving the combination of a range of ideas Harvey characterises as:

    Flexibility across all areas – from the way goods and services are produced (products created in different countries and assembled in their ‘home markets’, for example), through labour markets (people employed on short-term contracts and being prepared to seek work across national frontiers), to consumption patterns (where people are encouraged to seek out new products and experiences).

    New production sectors: The constant development and refinement of services, the seeking out of new markets and ‘above all, greatly intensified rates of commercial, technological, and organisational innovation’.

    Time and space compression: With computer technology making global communication quicker (or increasing instantaneous), the world appears ‘smaller’, enabling transnational corporations to coordinate the manufacture of goods and the provision of services in a wide range of countries. Examples here might be the development of Internet-based companies such as Amazon and the massive growth of Apple.

    Flexible accumulation, therefore, involves a complex interplay of ideas and activities – from the Global Fordism of car manufacturers where Harvey notes ‘production is spread out, complexly intertwining across the globe like a spider web – Japanese cars are made with Korean parts in the United States’ – to the behaviour of cyberspace companies such as eBay, a company that hardly exists in the physical sense of buildings and factories.

    These ideas reflect what Goldman et al. (1995) argue is a significant development, unique to postmodern society, namely the development of agile corporations – a ‘new type of transnational corporation’ that developed at the end of the 20th century.

    Agile corporations operate globally (coordinating production, distribution and exchange across a number of markets, countries and continents) and are designed to be uniquely alert to economic, political and cultural developments and changes.

    Political Characteristics

    The political characteristics of late / postmodernity are many and varied, but some significant ideas we can note are:

    Nation states that came into being in the modern period steadily decline in significance, gradually being replaced by one – or both – of the following:

    International states that take two potential forms:

  • real, as in something like the European Union where nation states (Germany, France, and so forth) form a much larger, international, political bloc. The EU, for example, has its own elected parliament, and individual member states abide by a range of common political and legal agreements.
  • virtual: In this situation people transcend national boundaries through communication systems like the Internet. Virtual communities of like-minded individuals and groups can ‘meet’ and interact in cyberspace.
  • Local states: As nation states dissolve, local or regional communities (and identities) become more important to people. Chiu et al. (1997) argue that places like Hong Kong resemble the ‘walled city states’ of pre-modern societies.


    These ideas have implications for concepts of identity; the global movement of people, commodities and knowledge, for example, makes the idea of ‘a nation’ increasingly difficult to sustain in postmodern society and also impacts on ideas about community.

    This is an important concept for both sociology in general and modernist sociology (especially conflict and consensus perspectives) in particular, since it represents a significant source of personal and social identity. Bellah (1985) suggests that a community consists of people who:

    • are socially interdependent

    participate in discussion and decision making

    share practices that define and nurture a sense of community.

    The concept of community, in modernist social theory, is frequently used to underscore the idea of categories such as class, age, gender, ethnicity and region (both local and national) as sources of identity. In other words, a clearly defined sense of community provides support for identities based around these categories, since they are solid referents:

    Within modernist theory, gender, for example, has a relatively clear meaning in that it refers to both biological categories (male and female) and social categories (masculine and feminine) that reflect this basic biological division.

    Postmodern social theory, however, questions this notion of community and, by extension, the kinds of theory on which it’s based. Within postmodernity, for example, the usefulness of concepts like class and gender as the basis for analysing behaviour is questioned. Think, for example, about the increasing diversity of gender identities in our society – up to and including notions of transgendering.

    We can understand this by thinking in terms of what Hudgins and Richards (2000) call ‘traditional approaches to understanding community’ that stress, as in the Bellah example, things like:

    physical proximity

    face-to-face interaction

    primary social relationships

    commitment to shared meanings and beliefs

    centred identities.

    Hudgins and Richards suggest that, in postmodern society, concepts of community based on ‘shared social spaces’ (physically interacting with people) and ‘community as a source of meaning and identity’ may change. As they put it:

    ‘What happens to the spatial sense of community, for example, in an era of hyperspace in which our modern concepts of space are meaningless; in which space has been annihilated and spatial barriers have disappeared?’

    Rosenau (1992) further argues that, in postmodern society, the concept of community changes (she refers to the notion of ‘community without unity’ – the idea we still look to ‘the community’ for a sense of meaning and identity, but this ‘community’ may exist only in a virtual world of people with whom we interact but never meet). In terms of social theory, therefore, postmodern explanations of behaviour are radically different to modernist explanations, if for no other reason than the fact that they view the concept of ‘society’ (and, by extension, concepts of community and identity) in radically different ways – an idea that leads us to consider the cultural characteristics of postmodern society.

    Cultural characteristics

    Postmodern societies are characterised by multiple belief systems – in terms of differences between economic, political and cultural systems and within such systems. Lyotard (1984) argues that one consequence of this diversity is an:

    incredulity towards grand narratives’.

    People are increasingly unlikely to believe ‘all encompassing explanations’ that claim to explain ‘everything about something’. This includes explanations produced by:

    religions (Christianity, Islam)

    politicians (conservativism, socialism),

    philosophers (Marxism, fascism)

    natural and social scientists.

    This sense of ‘incredulity’ represents a form of anti-essentialism – the idea that it is impossible to reduce complex systems (such as societies or, indeed, individuals) to their ‘essential features’ – for example, that ‘gendered behaviour’ can be explained in terms of the ‘essential qualities’ of males and females (their genetic, biological, psychological or sociological differences, for example). The ‘search for essence’ is, for postmodernists, a peculiarly modernist quest, one related to the concept of:

    Truth: In modernist theory ‘truth’ is an essence; it represents the idea that it is possible to distinguish objectively between truth and falsity. Postmodern anti-essentialism, however, sees ‘truth’ as not just a socially constructed category (even though it is, of course ) but one where nothing in the social world ‘exists’ outside of ideology and social construction. In other words, ‘truth’ is both ideological (defined from a particular viewpoint) and relative; my truth may not necessarily be your truth – and even if it is, this truth may not survive into the future.

    Social Constructionist Perspectives

    Interactionism is a generic name we give to a range of positions (symbolic interaction, phenomenology and ethnomethodology, for example) that ‘reversed the theoretical gaze’ – away from a preoccupation with structures and onto a consideration of human agency. In this respect, we can begin by noting that, for Interactionists, the theoretical focus is on:

    Action over structure: The focus is on the individual – rather than ‘society’ or ‘social structure’ – as the primary unit of analysis. Understanding how and why people construct and reconstruct the world on a daily basis is, therefore, the main object of interest for this type of sociology. As Heise (1996) puts it:

    ‘Interactionism emphasizes the force of shared culture and individual agency in human interaction [and offers] a view of society as constantly reinvented by individual people applying their shared culture to solve immediate problems’.

    This, he argues, leads to society representing the ‘net outcome of active individuals dealing with daily challenges’.

    In other words, when we talk about society we can do so only as if’ it were a real force; from this perspective society is something we create, in our minds and through our behaviours, to express a sense of social solidarity and belonging.

    Micro sociology

    To explain human behaviour, therefore, we need to study interaction at the micro level – that of people going about their daily lives. From this perspective neither society nor reality are things that can be studied separately from people because they are negotiated abstractions. Schutz (1962) argued that:

    subjective meanings give rise to an apparently objective social world’.

    In other words, our individual (subjective) behaviours give rise to apparently objective social structures (abstractions) that ‘reflect back’ on the behaviour we originally created.

    The concept of negotiated reality brings into question the idea of objectivity; if a world we experience objectively (such as going to school) is actually the result of the subjective behaviour and intentions of many individuals, we can similarly only understand ‘education’ subjectively, in terms of how people experience this elaborate ‘structural fiction’.

    Wilson (2002) expresses this in terms of intersubjectivity, where ‘we experience the world with and through others. Whatever meaning we create has its roots in human actions’. In other words, the social world – its ‘social artefacts and cultural objects’ – consists of phenomena whose meaning is both negotiated and interpreted through social interaction. For example, we may learn something through personal experience (‘fire burns’) that we pass on to others who may then incorporate it into their own belief system.

    In school, for example, you build on the work done by previous human beings – as Wilson argues, in geography you don’t have to sail around the globe to ‘map countries of the world (although someone once did have to do just that)’, just as in PE you don’t have to invent football before you can play it.

    In terms of sociological theory, these ideas run counter to early modernist notions that social behaviour can be theoretically isolated and empirically studied (essentialism); such ideas and research techniques are simply not going to work in the kind of world described by Interactionists, governed by subjective beliefs and processes like:

    Categorisation: To help us keep track of our lives and interact successfully in wider society, we ‘group related phenomena’ by developing stereotypical categories that help maintain a sense of order and stability in a potentially chaotic world. This gives rise to the concept of:

    Labelling, where the labels we devise (‘mother’, ‘criminal’ and the like) define the nature of the social categories we create. In late / postmodern societies people increasingly behave towards each other on the basis of labels , mainly because face-to-face interaction may be limited (or, as in the virtual world, non-existent). Some labels can be considered master labels because they are so powerful they condition every aspect of our behaviour towards the person so labelled (think about the consequences of being labelled a ‘terrorist’, for example). The labels we attract, either through choice (achievement) or through imposition (ascription), are important because knowledge of a label serves to unlock the assumptions we hold about particular social categories and, of course, conditions the way we feel it appropriate to behave towards someone.


    Like the structuralist (consensus and conflict) theories we’ve discussed, Interactionist sociology is rooted in modernist ideas about the possibility of explaining the social world in ways that are both reliable and valid – although its theoretical focus is very different. The main question we need to address, however, is, to paraphrase Heise (1996), how do the ‘minute-by-minute behaviour inventions of millions of individuals culminate in the machine-like daily order’ that, to take one example, educates us in schools and colleges across the country? How, in other words, is social order possible if ‘society’ consists of people ‘going about their individual lives’? The answer, Heise suggests, is that:

    ‘society emerges from the creative activities of enculturated individuals’.

    In other words, patterns of behaviour – how they originate and develop in terms of social groups – can be understood in terms of social networks based, according to Cook (2001), on two features:

    1. Nodes – defined as people (individuals or groups) in a particular network. As Cook argues:

    ‘The only requirement for a node, is that it must be able to relate in some manner to other nodes’

    This leads to the concept of:

    2. Ties or the relationships between two nodes that can be many and varied – think about the range of relationships within your sociology class, for example. Ties (a relationship people recognise) are generated through shared meanings based around role-play, such as the tie between a teacher and a student in an educational network.

    Group networks are not self-contained; they involve links to other social networks, which leads to the development of larger networks and, ultimately, a sense of social structure. Cook refers to the connections between networks as:

    Bridging ties – a relationship that ‘connects two otherwise distant portions of a network’. Continuing the educational theme, a class teacher plays a bridging role here because they link a specific class into the wider structure of a school or college. Individual students may also represent bridging ties by, for example, linking a school into a parental network.

    In this way we can see how, according to Heise and Durig (1997) micro-actions (the actions of individuals) lead to  macro-actions (routines that shape the behaviour and structure of large organisational networks).

    Before we move on to consider a different approach to understanding the construction of social systems, we can note that, in Heise’s (1996) formulation, network theory – what he terms affect control theory – can be used to explain how:

    ‘the majestic order of society emerges from repetitive application of evolved cultural resources to frame and solve recurrent problems’.

    Social structures, in other words, are the result of people’s repeated, meaningful actions within social networks.

    Although this is one way contemporary (late) modernist theory examines and explains the development of social structures, we can explore an alternative explanation that reflects a more structuralist preoccupation with social order.

    Systems theory

    Where something like affect control theory argues complex systems are created through the purposeful actions of individuals, Luhmann’s (1995) systems theory argues the reverse; he begins from the idea of a ‘world system’ (all societies in the late-modern world are in some way connected) and, effectively, works backwards to an explanation of individual social action. To understand how this works we need to think about societies as:

    Complex systems: Luhmann assumes human behaviour is generally characterized by complexity, considered in terms of, for example, the number and range of possible relational combinations across the social world. In addition, this level of complexity introduces the idea of:

    Chaos: If social life is (essentially) based on conscious individuals making behavioural choices across a range of groups and social networks, it’s difficult to see how social order can be created and maintained; in other words, if we focus on the idea that networks are built upwards – from individuals at the bottom to systems at the top – it’s difficult to explain how individual behaviours (in terms of the possible behavioural choices people can make in any given situation) can produce a relatively orderly and predictable social system.

    Luhmann suggests this is possible only if we think in terms of systems imposing an order and stability on individual behaviour that is, in turn, sufficiently flexible to accommodate individual choice and deviation. The question here, according to Vandenberghe (1998), is how ‘the social ordering of chaos’ comes about, and the answer involves autopoiesis (‘auto-poe-ee-sis’).

    According to Maturana and Varela (1980), autopoiesis involves an organisation (such as a social system) being self-reproductive; in other words, Luhmann sees social systems as both:

    1. Autonomous – systems effectively operate ‘independently’ of people. They are able to do this, for Luhmann, because societies are not ‘things’ or ‘structures’, as such, but communication networks.

    2. Self-maintaining – through their involvement ‘in’ and use of ‘the system’, people effectively contribute to its reproduction. According to Krippendorff (1986), an autopoietic system:

    ‘produces its own organisation and maintains and constitutes itself…for example, a living organism…a corporation or a society as a whole’.

    To put this in less abstract terms, think about societies as, in Maturana and Varela’s evocative description, ‘living machines’ (or, if it makes it easier, something like the Internet). We can make clarify these ideas through the following example:

    Every Sociology A2 class in England is structured by a range of exterior factors – some formal and direct (the Specification, for example), others informal and indirect – your personal reasons for being in class perhaps.

    On a systems level the behaviour is much the same. Each class is a network contributing to the continued functioning of the educational system without the conscious efforts of the people involved. In other words, when you arrive for your sociology class you don’t think, ‘How does this behaviour help to reproduce social relationships at the structural level of society?’ And even if you did you’d have no way of knowing exactly what behaviour is required to ‘reproduce the education system’.

    Structure, therefore, is imposed (from outside) and reproduced within (the class). This means structure is logically the most significant variable involved in understanding human behaviour since, without the initial sense of structure, a social network could not form.


    Giddens (1984), however, has a different take on sociological theory in late modernity when he argues structure and action are equally significant in terms of our ability to understand the relationship between the individual and society.

    The key to understanding Structuration is through the idea that as people develop relationships the rules they use to govern their respective behaviours are formalised into routine ways of behaving towards each other (practices).

    Once we start to think of the huge range of practices surrounding our lives we develop a sense of structure to the social world, which necessarily involves rules. This idea is important because it suggests both the way our actions create behavioural rules and the idea such rules become externalised (they seem to take on a life of their own, separate from our individual behaviours). In effect, therefore, although we may be involved in rule-making behaviour, such rules “reflect back” (reflexivity) on our behaviour in ways that suggest or demand conformity.

    In explaining why some rules, but not others, are created and accepted Giddens uses the concepts of social resources and power relationships:

    ● Some rules, for example, are negotiated (the relationship with friends, for example, is based on a series of unwritten and unspoken rules developed over time).

    ● Other rules, however, such as laws governing things like murder, are in some ways non-negotiable; some rules are created by powerful groups and are simply imposed.

    This type of analysis provides something of a bridge, at least for our current purpose, between modernist and postmodernist social theory:

    ● the former in terms of, to paraphrase Vandenberghe (1998), systems theory being an attempt to ‘explain everything’ about the construction of the social world (a metanarrative, in other words).

    ● the latter in terms of the conclusion that the social world ‘is like a ship adrift from its moorings and without the possibility of a captain on board’.

    In other words, for postmodernists social life can be understood only through descriptions of social encounters; the world is too large, diverse and fragmented to be understood as some sort of coherent, unified system in the way it’s generally understood by modernist sociology.

    Postmodern Perspectives

    The initial focus here is on the idea of narrative as a way of conceptualising the different ways people have of describing their situation. These ‘stories’ relate to both sociologists and non-sociologists alike – while sociological stories are of a different order they are, from this position, no-more and no-less ‘true’. Narratives alone, however, don’t adequately explain how social life hangs together. For this we need the concept of:

    Discourse, something that refers, according to writers like Foucault (1972), to a system of ideas, organised in terms of a specific vocabulary. Both sociology and psychology, for example, are social science discourses (which is itself a further discourse). A discourse, therefore, involves a set of related narratives that both define something and, consequently, shape the way we interpret and understand its meaning.

    The same thing can, of course, be the subject of a number of different discourses – homosexuality, for example, may be the subject of different discourses depending on how you view this behaviour.

    Fiske (1987) notes how the meaning of something both depends on the discourse that surrounds it and ‘serves the interests of ’ the social group from which it arises. The term ‘queer’, for example, has a different meaning for gay men than it does for the British National Party.

    If discourses are part of everyday life, surrounding and shaping our perception of both people and the world, it follows that all knowledge must be subjective, which has important ramifications for how sociologists can study the world, since it seems to negate the concept of truth.

    We suggested earlier postmodernists consider all forms of knowledge to be relative; one form can never be objectively proven to be superior to another form. If this characterisation is true, however, this shows questions of truth are not wholly relative; rather, they are partially relative – a nice distinction, perhaps, but one that has considerable relevance for sociology since it suggests something may be ‘true in principle’, but not universally true for all time. In other words, for postmodernists the concept of truth is context-bound.

    That is something may be true (or false) within a given set of specified parameters and under certain conditions. Thus, truth itself is not a relative concept; the contexts within which truths can be established are, however, relative in time and space. If this is a little unclear, an example should clarify it.

    It is true I have the status ‘husband’; however, the validity (or truth) of this statement is context-bound in the sense that it depends on how the concept of ‘husband’ is defined. For example, if we define it as ‘a man who is married to a woman’, then I am a husband. If, however, ‘husband’ is defined as ‘a man tied to a lamp post’, then I am not a husband (because – and you’ll have to trust me on this one – I am not now, nor have I ever been, tied to a lamp-post).

    In this particular context, of course, we would also raise questions about how things like ‘man’, ‘woman’ and ‘lamp post’ were defined (but that only goes to show how complicated things can get). In terms of social theory, the idea of truth being context-bound has implications for sociology, science and, perhaps, the question of whether or not sociology is scientific.

    If questions of truth are necessarily bound up with both narratives and discourses, it follows that we are effectively defining them from a particular, partial and subjective viewpoint – which raises the question of how it is possible to generate reliable and valid knowledge, not just about the social world, but about the natural world as well.

    In this respect we can draw on Rosenau’s (1991) ideas about the general characteristics of postmodernity and their implications for social science:

    Objectivity: All knowledge is inherently subjective in terms of the assumptions made about how it is possible to study and understand the world (both natural and social).This follows, for postmodernists, because knowledge is created and validated within the context of specific discourses: for natural scientists knowledge is validated by a belief in empirical principles (such as the existence offacts, causality, and so forth). If we buy into a natural scientific discourse we must accept its ability to produce reliable and valid knowledge; if we reject that discourse we also, of course, reject its assumptions about reliability and validity.

    Transgression: Postmodernists raise important questions about how we can study the social world. In particular, they question the idea knowledge can be neatly compartmentalised (in terms of categories like ‘science’ and ‘non-science’ or ‘sociology’ and ‘physics’). They question, therefore, the idea of rigid (modernist) boundaries in all areas of social life (from the distinction between ‘men and women’ to that between ‘truth and falsity’).

    Diversity: Knowledge is always tentative, partial and incomplete; what we believe we know is always open to challenge and, in this respect, consists of ‘competing stories’ that are evaluated in terms of prevailing cultural orthodoxies. There is not – and can never be – a single, all-encompassing universal truth about anything (be that “human nature” or the nature of social organisation).

    Finally, Hudgins and Richards (2000) summarise quite neatly the different perspectives we’ve examined in this section when they note:

    ‘Postmodernism…may be seen as a completely new social science paradigm and a complete overthrow of modernism, or as the most recent stage of modernism itself. It may be seen as a force undermining social order leading to chaos and anarchy, or as the freedom from the repressive systems of thought of the past.

    Some fear the radical relativism of postmodernism, and some see it as the promise of a new and better society…

    One thing is certain, however, we are moving toward a new way of understanding the social world’.

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