Postmodernism in Sociology

By Ayesh Perera & Charlotte Nickerson, published March 29, 2022, updated June 16, 2022 | Fact Checked by Saul Mcleod, PhD


Postmodernism describes a number of related philosophical tendencies that developed in reaction to classical modernism during the late 20th century.

Definition

  • Postmodernism, also spelled post-modernism, is an approach in sociology which stresses the uncertain nature of societies, in which all certainties have been challenged and undermined. The condition of a lived experience occur in a global society in which there are no absolute rules or explanations.
  • Postmodernists believe that there can be no definite truth in science, only a large number of “narratives” and “perspectives.” Postmodernism emphasizes that people construct knowledge and truth through discourse and lived experience. Similarly, the school emphasizes how people construct themselves and relativism in all questions of value.
  • Examples of postmodernist thinkers include Jean Baudrillard, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and Jean-François Lyotard.
  • Postmodernism stands in contrast to most other sociological theories in that it rejects the Enlightenment project of seeking to understand and control society through the application of rational thought. To a postmodernist thinker, society cannot be understood in a rational way, because they are subject to constant change.
  • Postmodernism began as a Western philosophical movement in the late 20th century that sought to challenge the fundamental premises of Western philosophy during the modern period which had roughly spanned from the 17th century to the 19th century.
  • Postmodernism is generally characterized by extreme subjectivism, broad cynicism, hostility toward reason, and a propensity to attribute cultural norms to the ideologies of elites.
  • Some of its basic features could be found in the works of artists like Jorge Luis Borges around the 1940s (Barth, 1967). According to most scholars, postmodernism started competing with modernism in the 1950s, and managed to prevail in the 1960s (Huyssen, 1986).

Postmodernism v. Modernism

Postmodernism arose largely as a reaction against the intellectual premises of modernism which were widely acclaimed during the Enlightenment era. In fact, many of postmodernism's foundational doctrines could be characterized as outright denials of modernism’s basic assumptions heretofore taken for granted. Following are some examples (Duignan, n.d.):

  1. Enlightenment-era philosophy generally affirmed the existence of an objective reality as well as the logical independence of its natural properties from human concepts, customs and communities. Postmodernism rejects this notion as an ill-formed realism, and holds that such reality is merely a conceptual construct.

  2. The main difference between modernism and postmodernism is that postmodernism is a reaction against the belief of objective truth that was characteristic of modernism.

    Postmodernists believe that there is no such thing as objective reality, and that all knowledge is socially constructed. Indeed, a subscription to the idea of objective truth is tantamount to ideology. Modernists, on the other hand, believed in objective reality and the power of reason to discover truths about the world (Brooker, 2014).

    Postmodernists assert that all facets of human psychology are socially determined, and that, contrary to modernist philosophy, there is no such thing as human nature comprising aptitudes, faculties, and dispositions which are neither learned nor instilled by society.

  3. Modernism had held that descriptions and explanations offered by historians and scientists could be either false or true in principle. Postmodernists dismiss such a notion based on their refusal to accept an objective reality.

  4. Postmodernism denies modernism’s trust in technology and science as vital instruments of human advancement. Some postmodernists even hold that logic and reason are inherently oppressive and destructive because evil individuals have such faculties to oppress and destroy others.

  5. Modernism had held that logic and reason were universally valid, and that they could be applied to any domain of knowledge. Postmodernists however, view even logic and reason as merely conceptual constructs applicable only within their respective intellectual traditions.

  6. Modernism argues that language reflects an external reality, representing nature. Postmodernists reject this view and maintain that it is semantically self-referential or self-contained.

  7. Modernism had held that humans could procure knowledge concerning nature and reality, and that principles or evidence which could be known with certainty, intuitively, or immediately could justify such knowledge.

    Postmodernists repudiate this attempt to identify a supposed basis of certainty to construct empirical/scientific knowledge.

  8. The Enlightenment outlook had held that it is possible to build theories to explain many facets of the social or natural world in various fields of knowledge, and that an objective of historical and scientific research is to build such theories.

    Postmodernism, however, renounces such theories as both false and pernicious. Postmodernists contend that such theories could oppress, silence and marginalize other perspectives in a totalitarian fashion.

  9. Another difference between modernism and postmodernism is that modernism is focused on the individual, while postmodernism is focused on the collective. Modernists believed that the individual was the best source of knowledge, while postmodernists believe that knowledge is produced collectively through discourse. In the eyes of postmodernism, The “self” is a myth and largely a composite of one’s social experiences and cultural contexts — it is even an Ideology (Faigley, 1993).

  10. Finally, modernism is concerned with progress, while postmodernism is concerned with deconstruction. Modernists believe that progress is possible and that society can be improved through the application of reason. Postmodernists, on the other hand, argue that progress is not possible and that all social institutions are flawed (Brooker, 2014).

The Family

Postmodernists are critical of the idea of the nuclear family as a “natural” and “normal” institution.

They argue that the nuclear family is a social construct that has been created and maintained by powerful institutions such as the government and the media.

Instead of contending that the family is a concrete, fixed concept, postmodernists such as Stacey (1998) argue that family life is pluralistic – this means that it is characterized by diversity, variation, and instability.

Because the family is always changing, there is no such thing as a perfect or ideal family. (Postmodernism and the Family).

In the eyes of postmodernists, postmodern families have six characteristics that differentiate themselves from modern families:

  1. Liberated sexual attitudes

  2. Voluntary childlessness

  3. Reproductive technologies: developments in embryo transplants, in-vitro fertilization, and surrogacy has made it possible for non-nuclear families to conceive.

  4. Diverse parenting arrangements: parents are increasingly both working, divorced, or in reconstituted families leading to co parenting arrangements

  5. The crisis of masculinity: a reaction to the diminishment of skilled highly-paid work for men and the imagining of alternative masculinities such as carers (Ghaill, 1996)

  6. Consumption: where family members are concerned with what their fellow consumers think of their consumption habits.

    This results in conspicuous consumption of status items and experiences, such as vacations.

    Some argue that even children are being viewed by parents as fashion accessories, as parents spend considerable sums of money on their children to show off to their neighbors, friends, relatives, and others.

Postmodernists are also critical of the way that the nuclear family is portrayed in the media.

They argue that the media presents a false image of the nuclear family as a happy, harmonious unit. In reality, postmodernists argue, families are often conflicted and dysfunctional.

Religion

Postmodernism has also had an impact on the way sociologists think about religion. In the past, religion was often seen as a source of objective truth.

However, postmodernists have argued that religion is a social construct and that there is no such thing as objective truth.

Instead, they contend that religious beliefs are created and maintained by powerful institutions such as the government and the media.

Postmodernists have also argued that religion is a source of conflict rather than harmony. They contend that religious beliefs often lead to division and conflict rather than understanding and tolerance.

Finally, postmodernists have argued that religion is a private matter and that it should not be imposed on others. They contend that everyone has the right to practice their  own religion, or to not practice any religion at all.

One postmodernist thinker in religion is Hervieu-Leger (2000). Hervieu-Leger (2000) claims that secularization is the result of ‘cultural amnesia.’

This means that postmodern societies have experienced a collective loss of religious memory as children, with faltering connections to extended family and diminishing Sunday school attendance, are no longer being handed down religion from generation to generation. Instead, postmodern parents often let children decide their religious beliefs for themselves.

Nonetheless, Hervieu-Leger believes that religion has not disappeared entirely from society.

Instead, she argues that individual consumerism has replaced collective tradition with regard to religious belief — people now shop for the beliefs that suit them, with great diversity and choice.

This has led to a more individualized religion, and that two major groups of religious people have emerged in postmodern society: Pilgrims and Converts.

Pilgrims are people who choose to follow an individual path in a search for self-discovery or development.Converts, meanwhile, join religious groups that offer a strong sense of belonging, usually based on a shared ethnic background or religious doctrine.

Education

In the view of postmodernism, Schools are more ‘consumerist’ and provide more individual choice than ever.

In previous eras, people generally attended the local school, which was usually determined by social class. In the postmodern era, however, there are a multitude of schools to choose from, and parents often shop around for the school that they think will best suit their child’s needs.

This increased choice has led to a more ‘consumerist’ approach to education. Parents are now seen as customers who are purchasing a service for their children.

As a result, education has become more individualized and diverse. Teachers are expected to use a variety of teaching approaches in their delivery of lessons, to account for the differing ‘learning styles’ of students.

Specialist schools focusing on one subject above all others have also emerged, and apprenticeship and training programs have appeared privately through thousands of employers.

Education has become more hyperreal, as schools are making much more use of technology in education, and students are increasingly being directed to online sources for learning support, or even as the primary source of instruction (Thompson, 2019).

Postmodernism has also critiqued the way that knowledge is presented in schools. They argue that knowledge is not neutral or objective, but is instead a product of power relations.

They contend that the ideas and values of the ruling class are promoted in schools, while alternative perspectives are marginalized.

Finally, postmodernists have critiqued the way that education is used as a tool of social control.

They argue that education is often used to instill conformity and submissiveness in students, rather than to promote critical thinking and creativity (Thompson, 2019).

Youth and Subcultures

The concept of subculture was first developed by sociologist John Clarke in the late 1970s. Clarke argues that subcultures are groups of people who share a set of values and beliefs that differ from those of the wider culture.

Postmodernists have critiqued the way that subcultures have been studied in the past. They argue that previous studies have tended to focus on deviant subcultures, such as gangs, and have ignored the fact that there are many different types of sub-cultural groups.

Postmodernists have also argued that subcultures are not static or fixed entities. They contend that subcultures are constantly changing and evolving, and that they can be very fluid.

The driving forces behind this evolution, according to postmodernism, have been globalization and the rapid expansion of digital media.

Social media in particular has  promoted greater choices in lifestyle, more fluidity and hybridity in identity, and so-said the diminishing role of the traditional shapers of culture – social class, gender and ethnicity.

Finally, postmodernists have argued that subcultures are not necessarily opposed to mainstream culture. They contend that subcultures often borrow from and interact with the wider culture (Clark, 2003).

One postmodernist thinker who has studied youth subcultures is Dick Hebdige (1979). Hebdige (1979) argues that subcultures are a response to the alienation and disenchantment that young people feel in modern society.

Hebdige claims that young people use style — music, fashion, and language — to create their own distinct identity and to resist the values of the dominant culture.

Hebdige also argues that subcultures are often short-lived and fleeting. He contends that they quickly  become commercialized and co-opted by mainstream culture.

Health and Social Care

Postmodern cultural values have greatly impacted the physician-patient relationship.  In the postmodern view, the doctor-patient relationship is no longer seen as a ‘sacred’ or ‘special’ one.

Instead, it is seen as a more ‘normal’ human interaction, like any other. This has led to a shift in power from the doctor to the patient. Patients are now seen as more active participants in their own healthcare.

They are given more information and choice, and they are expected to be more involved in decision-making.

Patients are now able to "shop" around for doctors, choosing the provider that best aligns with their individualistic health philosophy (Rolfe, 2001).

This shift has been driven by a number of factors, including changes in cultural values, the arrival of new technologies, and the increasing cost of healthcare.

Postmodernism has also had an impact on the way health and social care services are delivered. In the postmodern view, services are no longer seen as ‘one size fits all’.

Instead, they are seen as more ‘personalized’ and ‘individualized’. This has led to the development of new service models, such as ‘day care’ and ‘home care’.

It has also resulted in a shift away from traditional institutional care, such as hospitals and nursing homes, towards more community-based care (Rolfe, 2001).

Michel Foucault

Michel Foucault was a French philosopher who is best known for giving rise to philosophical postmodernism in the 1970s and 1980s. Foucault's work has had a significant impact on the fields of sociology, anthropology, and education.

Foucault (1977) argued that knowledge is not neutral or objective, but is instead a product of power relations.

This means that He contended that the ideas and values of the ruling class are promoted in major institutions such as schools, in government, and in healthcare, while alternative perspectives are marginalized.

Foucault also argued that major social institutions are increasingly using methods of ‘control and surveillance’. Foucault is also known for creating a genealogy of history, what he calls a "counter memory" (Drolet, 2004).

Jean-François Lyotard

Jean-François Lyotard was a French philosopher who is best known for his work on postmodernism. In 1979, Lyotard published The Postmodern Condition, in which he argued that postmodernity is characterized by a rejection of grand narratives.

He was largely responsible for transferring the term from the realm of art criticism to philosophy and the social sciences.

Lyotard rejects notions — what sociologists would call metanarratives — of human history such as the Enlightenment and Marxism.

He argues that these metanarratives have become unrealistic because of technological progress. He also believed that the goal of truth of science is one that is performative and promises efficacy in the service of the state.

Jean Baudrillard

Jean Baudrillard was a French sociologist and philosopher who is best known for his work on postmodernism and consumerism. Baudrillard's (1976) work has had a significant impact on the field of cultural studies.

He argued that the concept of reality has been replaced by simulations and simulacra. He believed that postmodern society now lives in a ‘simulacral’ world, where images and signs have replaced reality.

This has led to a loss of meaning and a sense of confusion and anxiety. Baudrillard is also known for his ideas of hyperreality and the death of the real.

The world in his view is in a state of hyperreality, where the distinction between reality and fantasy has become blurred. As the real world has been replaced by simulations and there is no longer any connection to reality, people have been left with emptiness and nihilism.

Judith Butler

Judith Butler is an American philosopher and gender theorist whose work has been extremely influential within the field of postmodern feminism. Butler's most famous work is Gender Trouble, in which she challenges the idea that there is a natural, essential difference between men and women.

Instead, Butler argues that gender is something that is performed. This means that it is not something that people are born with, but something they do (Butler, 2002).

Relativism and Postmodernism

While some postmodernists may repudiate the label of relativism, the affinity of postmodernist doctrines with epistemological, metaphysical and ethical relativism cannot escape notice (Duignan, n.d.).

For instance, postmodernism denies objective reality, and dismisses the idea that any purported descriptions of reality could be objectively false or objectively true. It also rejects even the possibility of knowing such statements.

Finally, it repudiates absolute moral values and the ability of humans to know certain matters with certainty. Postmodernism holds that knowledge, reality and values are the products of discourses, and that they may evolve.

According to postmodernism, the modern scientific methodology has no greater claim to truth than perspectives such as witchcraft and astrology. In fact, postmodernist thinkers would describe the evidential standards associated with science, such as the utilization of logic and reason, as merely ‘Enlightenment rationality.’

As a close concomitant of its emphasis on relativism, postmodernism holds that any society’s discourses which shape its governing values, generally reflect the norms of its dominant groups.

Michel Foucault, for instance, held that even the definition of knowledge during a period is influenced by power relations. Postmodernists hold that the Enlightenment discourses were arbitrary, and represented the interests of elites, and that therefore, they ought to be changed.

Postmodernists also claim that their approach is uniquely inclusive, and that it recognizes the perspectives of the marginalized. 

Postmodernism’s Problems

Postmodernism has been criticized for its rejection of grand narratives and its focus on simulation and simulacra.

Some have argued that postmodernism leads to a loss of meaning and a sense of nihilism. Others have argued that it is a form of escapism that allows people to avoid dealing with the real world. Still other sociologists, such as Steve Bruce (2002) reject the postmodern concept of relativism and the idea that all truths carry equal weight.

He argues that people can see that science is always superior in terms of its outcomes than other methods of inquiry. Sociologists following Bruce’s line of thought believe that postmodernists underestimate the continual role that group identities such as social class, age, and ethnicity play in shaping people’s actions and view of the world.

However, postmodernism has also been praised for its challenge to traditional ways of thinking and its focus on power relations. It has been credited with opening up new ways of understanding the world and fostering creativity.

Postmodernism’s characterization of Enlightenment discourses as unjust, arbitrary and hegemonic naturally raises a multiplicity of questions.

If all moral values are socially constructed and any explanation of the natural or social world is an arbitrary product of unequal power relations, one can claim that postmodernism’s own critiques are nothing more than the arbitrary inventions of some elite philosophers privileged with the means to influence the academia’s ideological discourse.

Moreover, if there is no such thing as objective truth or reality, one can note that postmodernism’s own claims to including the oppressed are mendacious, and championing justice are nonsensical (since such claims would be dependent upon postmodernists’ own subjective and arbitrary definitions of inclusion and justice).

The British philosopher Roger Scruton observed, with regard to postmodernists: "A writer who says that there are no truths, or that all truth is 'merely relative,' is asking you not to believe him. So don't" (Scruton, 1996).

The Canadian scholar Jordan Peterson has noted that postmodernism’s claim that “since no canonical manner of interpretation can be reliably derived, all interpretation variants are best interpreted as the struggle for different forms of power” has permitted the resentful pathology of Marxism to proceed in a new guise” in academic fields such as “gender studies and social work.

About the Author

Ayesh Perera recently graduated from Harvard University, where he studied politics, ethics and religion. He is presently conducting research in neuroscience and peak performance as an intern for the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies, while also working on a book of his own on constitutional law and legal interpretation.

About the Author

Charlotte Nickerson is a member of the Class of 2024 at Harvard University. Coming from a research background in biology and archaeology, Charlotte currently studies how digital and physical space shapes human beliefs, norms, and behaviors and how this can be used to create businesses with greater social impact.

Fact Checking

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This article has been fact checked by Saul Mcleod, a qualified psychology teacher with over 17 years' experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in psychology journals including Clinical Psychology, Social and Personal Relationships, and Social Psychology.

Cite this Article (APA Style)

Perera, A., & Nickerson, N. (2022, March 29). Postmodernism in Sociology. Simply Sociology. https://simplysociology.com/postmodernism.html

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