1. ‘Society has now entered a new, postmodern age and we need new
theories to understand it’. Assess this view.
Modernist theories (e.g. Marxism) are part of the Enlightenment project – the
idea that through reason and science, we can discover true knowledge and
progress to a better society. Modern society emerged from the late 18th century.
Its characteristics include the nation state; capitalism; mass production; scientific
thinking; technology; individualism and the decline of tradition. These all link
together, for example science and technology are vital to the development of
Many sociologists argue we now live in a global village due to globalisation.
Globalisation is the growing interconnectedness of societies and is occurring for
several reasons. Firstly, technological changes, such as the internet, have
created time-space compression. Beck argues that we are now living in a ‘global
risk society’ where the threats to our well-being are increasingly coming from
human-made technology rather than natural disasters. Secondly, economic
activities are dominated by global networks and transnational companies (TNCs)
have grown and drive globalisation forward. Thirdly, the fall in communism and
the growth of transnational bodies have created opportunities for global
capitalism. Lastly, changes in culture and identity makes it harder for cultures to
exist in isolation as most have become westernised. Globalisation therefore
undermines traditional sources of identity. Economic integration also encourages
a global culture as TNCs selling the same consumer goods in may countries
promotes similar taste across national borders. These rapid changes linked to
globalisation have led to questions such as what kind of society do we live in and
what theory can explain today’s society?
For postmodernists, we now live in a new era: postmodernity. Postmodern
society is a fundamental break with modernity and requires a new kind of theory
to explain it. Postmodernists argue there are no objective criteria to prove
whether a theory is true and any theory, like Marxism, who claim to have the truth
are just meta-narratives. Instead, postmodernists take the relativist view that all
views are true for those who hold them. Therefore, we should celebrate the
diversity of views rather than to seek to impost one version of the truth. Lyotard
has come to the conclusion that knowledge is just a series of ‘language games’
and postmodernity allows marginalized groups, such as women and ethnic
minorities, to be heard.
In postmodern society, Baudrillard argues the media’s signs appear more real
than reality itself, leaving us unable to distinguish image from reality. Similarly,
Lyon explains how religious signs and symbols have become detached from their
place in religious institutions and into technology. Baudrillard describes this as
simulacra, and calls this situation hyper-reality because if we cannot even grasp
reality, we have lost the power to change it making the Enlightenment project
unachievable. The media produces an endless stream of images, making culture
2. unstable and fragmented there is no longer a coherent set of shared values.
People now cease to believe any one version of the truth. Identity therefore
becomes destabilized: we can change it simply by chaning out consumption
patterns, picking and mixing media-produced images to define ourselves.
Postmodernism have been criticised by Marxists for ignoring the ruling class’ use
of the media as a tool of ideological domination. Also, it is wrong to claim people
cannot distinguish between reality and media image and by assuming all views
are equally true, it becomes just as valid to deny the Nazis murdered millions as
to affirm it. Moreover, there is a logical flaw in the theory – it claims that no theory
is truer than any other, so why should we believe its claims are true?
Unlike postmodernism, theories of late modernity (TLM) subscribe to the
Enlightenment project and argue that today’s rapid changes are not the dawn of
a new, postmodern era, but a continuation of modern society. We are now in a
late or high modernity and key features of modernity have now become
intensified; e.g. change has always been typical of modern society, but now it
has gone into overdrive.
Giddens notes high modernity has two key features, which encourage
globalisation and rapid change. Firstly, Giddens defines disembedding as ‘the
lifting out of social relations from local contexts of interaction’. Factors such as
credit break down geographical barriers and make interaction more impersonal.
Because tradition therefore no longer tells us how to act, we are forced to
become reflexive – to reflect on and modify our actions in the light of information
about risks. This means we are continually re-evaluating our ideas. Under these
conditions, culture becomes increasingly stable. According to Giddens, we now
face new high consequence risks such as environmental harm. Beck calls these
‘manufactured risks’ as they result from technology – Beck explains how such
risks also increase the amount of green crime as the increasing in technology
have harmed the environment.
However, unlike postmodernists, Giddens and Beck believe we can make
rational plans based on objective knowledge to reduce these risks and achieve
progress. But, not everyone can re-shape their lives after reflecting on the risks
they face; e.g. poor people who live in polluted areas cannot afford to move to a
healthier area. Marxists, such as Rustin, also criticise TLM for ignoring the fact it
is capitalism is the source of risk, not technology whilst Hirst argues movements
like environmentalism will not bring about change because they are too
fragmented to challenge capitalism.
Like Beck and Giddens, but unlike postmodernists, Marxists Jameson and
Harvey believe in the Enlightenment project of achieving objective knowledge to
improve society. However, they agree with postmodernists that we have moved
from modernity to postmodernity but rather than seeing this as a new type of
society, Marxists see it as merely the most recent stage of capitalism.
3. Postmodernity arose out of the capitalist crisis of the 1970s, which gave rise to a
new way of achieving profitability, which Harvey calls flexible accumulation (FA).
FA involves the use of ICT, an expanded service and finance sector, job
insecurity and working ‘flexibly’ to fit employers’ needs. This ties in with the idea
that Western TNCs switch manufacturing to Third World countries where
impoverished peasants are flexible, increasing profit for the capitalist class. It
involved production of customized products for ‘niche’ markets and brings many
of the features and postmodernity. These changes brought many of the cultural
characteristics of postmodernity, such as diversity, choice and instability. For
example, customized products promote cultural diversity; leisure and identity
become commodities produced for profit; ICT creates time-space compression.
FA also brings political changes, especially the weakening of the working-class
movement. In its place, a variety of oppositional movements emerge, such as
feminism and environmentalism. Marx believed that progress would be achieved
by working-class revolution. By accepting that opposition to capitalism has
fragmented into many movements, Marxist theories of postmodernity abandon
In conclusion, the nation-state is the focal point of modern society, but with
globalisation, this is undermined. Technological, economic, political and cultural
changes are creating a ‘global village’. Postmodernists argue that these changes
indicate the arrival of postmodern society, which is unstable, fragmented and
media-saturated. Postmodernists reject the possibility of progress and meta-
narratives but by contrast, Beck and Giddens argue rapid change is merely a
characteristic of late modern society. Although, this is increasingly a risk society,
they believe progress to a better society is still possible. Marxist theories of
modernity argue that postmodernity is simply the latest phase of capitalism and a
new means of achieving profit.