Globalisation, Modernity and Postmodernity

Modernity and Globalisation

  • Modernist theories part of the Enlightenment Project – the idea society can progress through use of human reason
  • Rationality + science enable us to discover true knowledge about the world, we can progress to future of freedom + prosperity through this
  • Modernists look to explain workings of modern society + identify direction it should take to progress

Modern Society

  • Has number of characteristics that distinguish it from previous societies
  • The Nation-state = key political unit in MS – bounded territory ruled by powerful centralised state whose populations tend to share language + culture. MS series of separate societies with individual states. State = focal point of MS, organising social life on national basis. States created large administrative bureaucracies + educational, welfare + legal institutions to regulate citizen’s lives. N-S also important source of identity for citizens who identify with symbols e.g. flags
  • Capitalism – economy of MS is capitalist (based on private ownership of means of production + use of wage labourers). Brought about industrialisation + increases in wealth. But, distribution of wealth unequal = class conflict. N-S becomes more important in regulating capitalism + maintaining operating conditions; Lash + Urry = “organised capitalism”. Production organised on Fordist principles: mass production of standardised products in large factories, using low skilled labour
  • Rationality, Science + Technology – rational, secular, scientific ways of thinking dominate + influence of magico-religious explanations decline. Efficient forms of organisation e.g. factories, dominate social + economic life
  • Individualism – tradition, custom + ascribed status lower in importance as basis for actions. Experience greater personal freedom + choose own course in life; define ourselves. But, structural inequalities e.g. class, remain important in shaping identities and limiting choice


  • Many sociologists argue we’re increasingly affected by globalisation (increasing interconnectedness of people across national boundaries) – live in one interdependent ‘global village’, lives shaped by global framework
  • TECHNOLOGICAL CHANGES – can cross entire continents in a matter of hours or exchange info in seconds by click of mouse. Satellite communications, internet, global TV help to create time-space compression, closing distances between people. Brings risk on global scale too! E.g. greenhouse gases contribute to global climate. Beck (1992) now living in ‘risk society’ where we’re more and more at risk because of man-made technology
  • ECONOMIC CHANGES – these play large role in globalisation! This activity takes place within global networks that create ever-greater interconnectedness. Global economy becoming ‘weightless’/ electronic economy. Instead of physical goods, activity now involves production of info e.g. music, TV and so on. These commodities produced, distributed, consumed through global electronic networks. In this economy, money never sleeps; pursuit of profit. Adds to ‘risk society’. Another economic force pushing globalisation forward = trans-national companies (TNCs) which operate across frontiers. Mostly west-based, colossal enterprises. So powerful are small elite who control companies that Sklair (2003) refers to them as separate global capitalist class
  • POLITICAL CHANGES – globalisation undermined power of nation-state. Ohmae (1994) argues we live in ‘borderless world’ where TNCs + consumers have more economic power than national govs. State less able to regulate activities of capitalist enterprises; Lash + Urry: “disorganised capitalism”
  • CHANGES IN CULTURE AND IDENTITY – globalisation makes it harder for cultures to exist in isolation. Reason for this = ICT e.g. mass media. Today, live in global culture which western-owned media companies spread western culture. Economic integration encourages global culture too e.g. NIKE, sells same consumer goods worldwide, promotes similar tastes. Also, increased movement e.g. refugees, tourists, economic migrants, helps to form globalised culture. Globalisation also undermines traditional sources of identity e.g. class – shift of manufacturing from West to developing countries led to fragmentation + decline of W-C communities

Explaining the Change

  • Do they mean we aren’t living in modernity – are we in new, postmodern society?
  • Do we need new theories to understand society as we now find it, or can we use existing modernist theories?
  • Is Enlightenment project still viable – can we still hope to achieve objective knowledge + use it to improve society? Or have rapid changes made society too chaotic for us to understand + control?
  • Can identify three theories that offer answers to these questions:


  • Emerged since 1970’s
  • Living in new era of postmodernity which is unstable, fragmented, media-saturated where image + reality indistinguishable
  • Define ourselves by what we consume
  • Modernist theories no longer apply


  • No sure foundations to knowledge, no criteria usable to prove theory’s true or false (known as anti-foundationalism) has 2 consequences:
  • Enlightenment project of achieving progress through scientific knowledge is dead. Can’t guarantee knowledge correct, can’t be used to improve society
  • All-embracing theories that claim truth = meta-narrative or “big story”; a version of reality, not truth. No reason to accept theories claims
  • PM’s also reject meta-narratives as they create oppressive totalitarian states that impose their vision of truth
  • PM’s take relativist position; argue all views are true for those who hold them. All accounts of reality equally valid. Celebrate diversity of views rather than find superior one
  • Jean-Francis Lyotard (1992) in postmodern society, knowledge different “language games”/ways of viewing world. But, in his view, lots of competing views, allows marginalised groups e.g. women or blacks to be heard. Claim monopoly of truth which can be imposed by force

Baudrillard: simulacra

  • Argues knowledge central to postmodern society; society not based on material good productions but on buying + selling knowledge in forms of images + signs
  • Signs stand for nothing but themselves, not symbol of real things; these signs called simulacra
  • “sing about signs”
  • Describes situation as hyper-reality where signs seem more real than reality so substitute themselves as such
  • Signs don’t represent anything = meaningless
  • B critical of TV, he sees this as main cause for simulacra + our inability to distinguish image + reality

Culture, Identity and Politics

  • Culture + identity in postmodern society differ fundamentally from modern
  • Media all-pervading + produce endless stream of ever-changing images, values + versions of truth
  • Culture becomes fragmented + unstable, no longer coherent or fixed
  • Different messages undermine people’s faith in meta-narratives; people cease to believe in any one version wholeheartedly
  • Given failure of meta-narratives like Marxism, people lose faith in possibility of rational progress
  • In PM, identity becomes destabilised e.g. instead of fixed identity ascribed by our class, now can construct own identity from wide range of images + lifestyles demonstrated in media
  • B is pessimistic about postmodern condition. Media-created hyper-reality leaves us unable to distinguish image from reality; lose power to improve society as we can’t grasp reality

Evaluation of Postmodernism

  • PM’s make important points about today’s society e.g. significance of media for culture and identity; also, rejection of all-embracing meta-narratives can be valuable
  • Philo + Miller (2001):
  • Postmodernism ignores power + inequality
  • The claim we freely construct identities through consumption overlooks effect of poverty in restricting such opportunities
  • PM’s simply wrong to claim people can’t distinguish between reality + media image
  • By assuming all views equally true, becomes just as valid to deny Nazis murdered millions as it does to affirm it. This is a morally indefensible position
  • Can be criticised on logical grounds e.g. Lyotard’s theory self-defeating: claims no theory has truth, so why does his?? Best + Kellner (1991) argue postmodernism is weak: it identifies important features of today’s society but fails to explain how they came to be
  • PM’s criticised for pessimism about Enlightenment project – view that objective knowledge impossible) nothing can be done to improve society. Harvey (1989) rejects pessimistic view; argues political decisions do make real difference to people’s lives + that knowledge can be used to solve human problems even if theories can’t guarantee absolute truth (but at least an approximation of truth)
  • Poorly equipped to explain features found in today’s society. More recently, sociological theories have offered more satisfactory explanations of changes in society is undergoing

Theories of Late Modernity

  • These theories argue rapid changes we are witnessing aren’t dawn of new, postmodern era; actually, continuation of modernity itself
  • They do recognise something important is happening; key features of modernity intensified e.g. social change gone into overdrive

Giddens: reflexivity

  • Now at stage of late/high modernity
  • Experiences of rapid change = key feature of modern society; this is because of two features: disembedding + reflexivity
  • Disembedding: “lifting out of social relations from local contexts of interaction”; no longer need face-to-face contact to interact. Disembedding breaks down geographical barriers, makes interact impersonal
  • G argues tradition + custom less important + no longer serve as guide to how we should act, more individualistic in high modern society
  • As tradition no longer tells us how to act, we’re forced to become reflexive (have to constantly monitor, reflect on + modify actions in light of info about possible risks + opportunities they could involve)
  • Reflexivity means we’re all constantly re-evaluating ideas + theories; so, culture in high modern society unstable + changeable
  • Both account for rapid and widespread nature of social change in high modernity; by enabling social interaction to spread across globe, drive globalisation

Modernity and Risk

  • According to G, we face high consequence risks – major threats to human society e.g. military risks like nuclear war
  • All of these risks manufactured (man-made) rather than natural
  • G rejects postmodernist view that we can’t intervene to improve things, can make plans to reduce risks + progress to better society

Beck: Risk Society

  • Is in Enlightenment tradition; he believes in power of reason to create a better world
  • But he believes society today (‘risk society’) faces new kinds of dangers:
  • In past, society faced dangers due to inability to control nature (like drought, disease etc); today, dangers we face are manufactured from human activities e.g. global warming
  • Beck sees late modernity as time of growing individualisation, we become increasingly reflexive
  • Have to think for ourselves + reflect on consequences of our actions, must constantly consider risk attached to different courses of action available = reflexive modernisation
  • ‘Risk consciousness’ becomes increasingly central to our culture; we become aware of perceived risk + seek to avoid/minimise them
  • But, large amount of knowledge about risk from mass media, which often give distorted view of dangers we face

Risk, Politics and Progress

  • PM’s like Baudrillard reject Enlightenment project where progress caused by action based on rational knowledge. Beck disagrees with this although he’s sceptical about scientific progress because of risks it’s brought, still believes in our rationality to overcome them as we’re capable of reflexivity + can evaluate risks + take political action to reduce them

Evaluation of Theories of Late Modernity

  • Concept of reflexivity suggest we reflect on actions + then free to re-shape our lives accordingly but not everyone has this option e.g. poor may be exposed to risk but can’t afford to move elsewhere
  • Rustin (1994) criticises Beck, argues its capitalism that is source of risk, not technology
  • Hirst (1993) rejects Beck’s view that movements like environmentalism will bring change as they’re too fragmented to challenge capitalism
  • But late modernists do provide sociological alternative to postmodernism. Rational analysis of society still possible + knowledge can be used to reduce risks we face

Marxist Theories of Postmodernity

  • Like Beck + Giddens, Marxists believe in Enlightenment project of achieving objective knowledge + using it to improve society
  • Unlike Beck + Giddens, Marxists like Jameson (1984) + Harvey (1989) believe today’s society has moved from modernity to postmodernity. Agree with PM’s that there have been major changes in society, describe postmodern culture in similar terms, emphasise importance of media images, diversity + instability
  • Marxists offer different analysis of Postmodernity to Lyotard or Baudrillard. Instead of seeing postmodernity as fundamental break with past, M’s regard it as merely product of most recent stage of capitalism
  • For Harvey, capitalism dynamic system, constantly developing new technologies + ways of organising production to make profits
  • But capitalism prone to periodic crisis of profitability + these produce changes
  • Postmodernity rose from crisis in 1970’s

Flexible accumulation

  • Crisis gave rise to new regime of accumulation – a new way of achieving profitability which H describes as ‘flexible accumulation’/Post-Fordism
  • Involves use of info technology, an expanded service + finance sector, job insecurity + requirement for workers to be ‘flexible’ to fit employers needs
  • Permits production of customised products for small, ‘niche’ markets instead of standardised products for mass markets
  • Brought diversity, choice + instability e.g.
  • Production of customised products for niche markets promotes cultural diversity
  • Easy switching of production form one product to another encourages constant shifts in fashion
  • FA also brought changes in consumption; turned leisure, culture, identity into commodities. Cultural products like fashion + music become important source of profit
  • Harvey argues this more developed capitalism leads to another postmodern feature – compression of time and space. Commodification of culture, creation of worldwide financial markets + new info + communication tech all serve to shrink globe

Politics and Progress

  • Harvey + Jameson argue flexible accumulation also brought political changes characteristic of postmodernity; weakened W-C + socialist movements. In their place, oppositional movements emerge e.g. environmentalism, anti-racism etc. But, H + J hopeful new movements can form ‘rainbow alliance’ to bring change
  • So, they agree with PM’s that we’ve moved from modernity to postmodernity but Best + Keller note they differ from PM’s in two ways:
  • They retain faith in Marxists theory as means of explaining changes
  • Argue that the goal of Enlightenment project can still be achieved


  • Marx’s original view of Enlightenment project was it would be achieved by W-C leading revolution to overthrow capitalism. By contrast, by accepting political opposition to capitalism fragmented into different social movements, Marxist theories of postmodernity appear to abandon this possibility
  • Strength of these theories is by relating recent changes in society to capitalism nature, able to offer sociological explanation of them; PM’s fail to do this

Quick-Check Questions

  1. Three features of modern society include the nation‐state, capitalism and individualism.
  2. Two factors that may be giving risk to a global culture are the global media and geographical mobility.
  3. “Discourse” refers to a group of well-known ideas that influences how we perceive things.
  4. A ‘meta-narrative’ is something that claims to explain the totality of social life.
  5. Postmodernist criticise meta-narratives as they’re unprovable and they’ve been used by oppressive regimes. They also silence minority views.
  6. “Simulacra” are signs that don’t resemble physical reality and stand for nothing other than themselves.
  7. “Reflexivity” means that in late modern society, individuals monitor and reflect on their actions, adapting them based on information of risks and opportunities that they might involve.
  8. A risk society is a society where risks and dangers are mainly human‐made rather than natural.
  9. Two criticisms of postmodernity are it’s self-defeating, if they’re right and no theory is true, then postmodernism also can’t be true. It also ignores power and inequality unlike other theories.
  10. Two ways in which Marxists see flexible accumulation as promoting a postmodern culture is it enables production of customised products and this promotes cultural diversity. It allows production to switch easily from one product to another, encouraging constant shifts in fashion.