Theories Of Social Change: Modernity And Postmodernity

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Society is complex and at times difficult to understand given how vastly its functionality varies over time. It can, therefore, be useful to look at past sociological theories to understand the social change that we witness during different periods. Within this essay, I will be looking at aspects of both modernity and postmodernity to understand what social changes shaped the generation of these theories and how they interact and differ from one another. To give some context, Modernity began following the enlightenment in the mid-1800s which was characterised by religious faith and a lack of scientific knowledge. Modernity offered a move towards logical thought and trust in institutions and science for answers. Postmodernity followed on from modernity and is much more critical in thought which resulted in a more fluid society and a pluralist approach rather than that offered by the meta-narratives of modernity. Both theories will be explored in this essay with an emphasis on modernity’s trust and belief in institutions followed by an analysis of the use of meta-narratives which are characteristic of modernity compared to the scepticism and plurality of postmodernity.

Modernity has several key theorists, one of which who will be discussed in this essay is Durkheim. Durkheim (1984), believed that institutions and the social norms that are formed by them are what holds society together which help us to understand how we develop our values. However, Habermas (1981) saw that the modernisation of society resulted in a lack of cultural development, this is due to the lack of freedom and overenforcement of structure that was brought about during this era of modernisation. This is seen in the deskilling of workers as a result of Taylorism, which was a major aspect of modernity given the move to efficiency and scientific-based practices which Bahnisch (2000) believed resulted in highly regulated work and relatively decreased overall skill levels of workers. By removing any ability to think for ourselves we inevitably become reliant on institutions to tell us how we should think about matters. This was symptomatic of modernity as many institutions sprang up which aimed to govern the validity of three main areas: science, morality and art. However, questions can be asked of the validity of these governing bodies as well, for example, who is to say those in charge are not corrupt? This is what postmodernity comes to question in the future, however, modernity fell into a trap of trusting institutions without question. This shows that Durkheim's belief that institutions would help to shape and hold society together was, in fact, correct however did not act as a positive influence and rather acted as a way of ensuring that society of this time became slaves to modernisation and may have inhibited the level of personal and cultural growth that society could experience.

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Following on from modernity, postmodernity grew and with it one of Postmodernity’s influential theorist Lyotard. In contrast to Durkheim, Lyotard (1985) was sceptical of believing in institutions to give us information as he believed that information could be used as a form of power. This means that those who are viewed as being knowledgeable tend to hold a large amount of power which may become a way to control individuals and aspects of society. This would only occur if those in power are not adequately questioned on why we should believe them. A simple example of this can be seen today still with the common belief that breakfast is the most important meal of the day despite research such as that by Betts et al. (2014) which suggests that there is no evidence for this. An article by Oksman (2016) indicates that the marketing strategies used by breakfast brands resulted in this belief. Breakfast companies funded research in the area which resulted in spread and belief of biased results. This shows the ability that those in power have to generate false narratives which may be used in a way that is beneficial to their cause, in this example it may not seem particularly sinister however when we look to those with more power, such as those in science and politics, we can see why this power and knowledge relationship which is linked to institutional trust was a cause for concern for Lyotard.

We can also begin to understand social change by looking at the way in which both theories handled analysis of society. Laclau (1989) believes that both theories have not done a particularly great job of providing answers to societal problems, however, suggests that modernity comes the closest to trying to provide answers through the use of meta-narratives which aim to bring together aspects of society to create a concise understanding of how everything interacts within it. Durkheim (1984) believed in a functionalist society, this means that he believed that everyone and everything has a role to play whether good or bad, which shapes society as a result. On the other hand, we have the postmodern approach which views society in a plural way, this means that different aspects of society are seen as happening at the same time however this doesn’t necessarily mean that they are interconnected in the way that meta-narratives believe they are. As a result, theorists of this time such as Lyotard are more inclined to critique individual aspects of society rather than try to give concrete explanations of how everything is connected.

Part of the reason for the switch from meta-narratives to a more plural approach may be as a result of a gradually more progressive way of thinking which stems from societal change. This began within society from enlightenment and its trust in religion, moving to modernity which trusts in science and institutions which was finally followed by a move to postmodernity which employs reflexivity in its dealings with institutions, Heiskala (2011). This shows a clear progression towards more logical thought. However, postmodernity has still not quite reached the right balance between trust and scepticism. Postmodernity has had a positive impact for culturally important movements such as the gay rights movement which occurred as a result of a more open society; however, this openness has allowed some extreme views to become widely accepted as a result of the plurality of opinion. Kata (2010) suggests the creation of the anti-vaccination movement was based around aspects of postmodern thought. This is due to unwarranted misuse of scepticism towards science which is used to argue against the vaccination of children. They are a great example of how misinformed use of postmodernity’s scepticism of fact may cause issues within society, this can be seen as rather than looking at the evidence and critically evaluating it they have moved straight to distrust at the detriment of public health. This shows that despite positive social change occurring modernity’s approach to trust may have been more beneficial in certain aspects as fact wasn’t as fiercely questioned however without postmodernity’s fluidity of thought and questioning of fact when appropriate, we may not have experienced as many positive social changes.

To conclude, modernity and postmodernity have helped us to understand social change. Modernity helps us to understand the thinking of sociologists that existed during the time such as Durkheim. Durkheim saw the social change that was occurring during modernity and his thoughts reflect this as he believed that functionality was the best way to describe the society of the time. Further, Modernity's trust towards science and institution came as a result of enlightenment with theorists looking to science in an attempt to understand society which then resulted in the formation of meta-narratives that attempted to take all aspects of society and package them in a way that allows us to understand how everything is interconnected. Theorists such as Lyotard, on the other hand, help us to understand the shift that came as a result of this extreme trust and the meta-narratives which failed to offer a solution to societal problems. Lyotard asked that society be more sceptical of that which they trust and to further develop that level of critical thinking which emerged along with the progression of science. He asked that we use our understanding of the world to be more critical and sceptical to prevent blind following of those who seem knowledgeable. Overall modernity and postmodernity do a good job at helping us to understand social change within the eras that they occurred. This can be seen through the movement from blind acceptance to over scepticism that came as society tried to achieve the right balance between these two areas and the issues that came about as a result.


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  5. Heiskala, R., 2011. From modernity through postmodernity to reflexive modernization. Did we learn anything? International review of sociology, 21(1), pp.3–19.
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  8. Lyotard, J.-F., 1985. The postmodern condition : a report on knowledge, Manchester: Manchester University Press.
  9. Oksman, O., 2016. ‘How lobbyists made breakfast the most important meal of the day’, The Guardian, 28 November. Available at : (Accessed : 27 February 2020)
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