SCLY4 ESSAY EXEMPLAR THEORY AND METHOD POSTMODERNISM
One of the most exciting developments in sociology in the past 30 years or so has been the
emergence of postmodernism. Some sociologists have enthusiastically taken on board some of its
messages and have incorporated them into what they see as a consequently revitalised and
radical sociology. Postmodernism has had an impact on research methodology which, in turn, has
led sociology into studying new areas previously considered outside its domain. !
However, postmodernism has its sceptics who argue it is a weak theory. Others claim that the
changes in society mean that we are in a stage of late modernity, rather than postmodernity. It
must be emphasised, though, for the sake of balance, that postmodernism is not a school of
thought or a uniﬁed intellectual movement with a deﬁnite goal or purpose.!
Postmodernists, such as Lyotard and Baudrillard argue that the coherent ‘picture’ of the physical
and social worlds drawn by modernists - such as Marxists, positivists and functionalists - is no
more ‘true’ or ‘real’ than the picture previously painted by the religions that dominated thought
processes before modernity - a period in history with speciﬁc ways of thinking largely based on
rational, scientiﬁc thought applied to both the physical and social worlds.!
In contrast, postmodernists see a fragmented, discontinuous world in which the desire for order
has led people to impose a framework which ignores those things that do not ﬁt neatly into the
classiﬁcations and theories that have been constructed.!
This idea of artiﬁcial structures imposed on a fragmented world has also been applied to sociology
itself. Postmodernists argue that the nature of sociological theorising is rooted in this false idea of
structure and order. A corollary of this is that the methods used by sociologists are also a reﬂection
of the mistaken belief in an organised, structured world out there. This point is made later in
relation to institutional relationships and educational research. The postmodern critique of
sociological methods has three strands: relativity, knowledge as control, and narrative and
Postmodernists dispute the underlying positivist view that there is an objective world ‘out there’
waiting to be uncovered by research. They see, instead, many different, competing ‘worlds’ that
only exist in particular contexts and at particular times. From their point of view, objective, scientiﬁc
analysis based upon scrupulous following of the rules - such as the hypothetico-deductive method
- does not produce knowledge about the world. Rather, it simply produces another relative version
Following on from this, scientists and other professionals are not objective intellectuals engaged in
a struggle to ﬁnd the truth. According to Foucault, they, like any other group in society, are engaged
in a struggle to have their concept of knowledge (as opposed to other, competing ones) accepted
as reality. The reason for engaging in this struggle is that whoever has control over what is
regarded as knowledge or discourse, and how to obtain it, gains considerable power in society.!
Therefore, sociologists are yet another group seeking to impose their form of knowledge on
society, which they do by claiming expert knowledge based on sociology as a form of science. The
outcome of sociological research is the production of explanations or theories that explain social
phenomena. Postmodernists refer to these explanations as ‘narratives’. The implication is that they
are no more than stories, giving a partial account.!
Where sociologists have provided large-scale ‘grand theories’, which claim to provide a full and
complete explanation for human behaviour (e.g. functionalism), the term used by postmodernists is
‘meta-narrative’. The reason for the dismissal of these theories is simply that there is no world out
there waiting to be explained. All explanation is partial and grounded in the context of people’s lives
and experiences. From this point of view, all accounts of reality are equally valid. We should
therefore recognise and celebrate the diversity of views rather than seek to impose one version of
the truth on everyone.!
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SCLY4 ESSAY EXEMPLAR THEORY AND METHOD POSTMODERNISM
Lyotard argues that knowledge in a postmodern society is not about the truth, but is just a series of
‘language games’ or ways of seeing the world. In his view, postmodern society, with its many
competing views of the truth, is preferable to modern society, where meta-narratives claimed a
monopoly of the truth and sought to impose it by force, as in the Soviet Union. Postmodernity
allows groups who have been marginalised by modern society, such as women and ethnic
minorities, to be heard. From a logical point of view, however, Lyotard’s theory is self-defeating:
why should we believe a theory that claims that no theory has the truth?!
Baudrillard argues that media images now dominate and distort the way in which the world is seen.
For example, media images replace reality to such an extent that laser technology and video
reportage have eliminated the blood, the suffering and corpses from war, and the TV news
presents a sanitised version of events, with battles shown as media-constructed spectacles, which
have such an air of unreality about them that we are unable to distinguish them from Hollywood
movies or video games. !
Baudrillard calls this distorted view of the world ‘hyperreality’, with the media presenting what he
calls ‘simulacra’ – artiﬁcial images or reproductions/copies of real events viewed simultaneously
across the globe. The 21st century is likely to see an enormous increase in the power and
inﬂuence of already powerful media companies. With global satellite, cable and digital television,
and the huge growth of the internet and other new media, postmodernists argue that the new
media no longer reﬂect reality but actively creates it.!
Strinati also emphasises the importance and power of the mass media in shaping consumer
choices. Popular culture – like the culture of celebrity – and media images and messages bombard
us daily, through books, magazines, newspapers, TV, radio, advertising and computers, and form
our sense of reality and increasingly dominate the way we deﬁne ourselves. In this media-
saturated society, the mass media create desires and pressures to consume, and many of us
actually deﬁne our identities – how we see and deﬁne ourselves and how we want others to see us
– in terms of media imagery. Marxists, which are discussed later, view this development in a very
In a similarly negative manner to Strinati, Baudrillard argues that this kind of consumption moves
people ever further away from social relationships and ever closer to relationships with their
consumer lifestyles. He sees people as isolated and dehumanised. The importance of objects in
our lives has little to do with their use to us, but much more to do with what meaning they have for
us. We purchase items not just because they are functionally useful, but because they signify that
we are successful or fashionable. Consumer goods and leisure activities are, in Baudrillard’s
words, ‘sign objects’ – items we buy to express ourselves, not for their function. His views, here,
are seen as a value-judgement, and more a political, rather than, a sociological statement.!
Furthermore, critics argue that postmodern views ignore the persistence of traditional identities and
the role of the media in maintaining these identities. Research into media representations of
gender, ethnicity, social class and age, indicate that diversity and choice can be restricted by
hegemonic representations of social groups. Media inﬂuence is undoubtedly important, but it is not
the determining factor in most people’s lifestyle choices. Best and Kellner go further and maintain
that postmodernism is a particularly weak theory: while it identiﬁes some important features of
today’s society (such as the importance of the media and consumption), it fails to explain how they
There is also a rather naive element to postmodern analyses, in that they tend to ignore the fact
that a substantial number of people are unable to make consumption choices because of
inequalities brought about by traditional inﬂuences such as unemployment, poverty, racial
discrimination and patriarchy. Traditional forms of inequality remain a crucial inﬂuence, as access
to the internet, digital television and so on is denied to many people in the UK. Not everything is
hyperreal. People do live in reality, and some people have much greater access to goods and
services than others.!
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SCLY4 ESSAY EXEMPLAR THEORY AND METHOD POSTMODERNISM
In defence, postmodernists make some important points about today’s society, such as the
signiﬁcance of the media for culture and identity. Some also argue that its rejection of all-
embracing meta-narratives is valuable. However, postmodernism is widely criticised.!
As well as arguing that postmodernism ignores power and inequality, Marxists such as Philo and
Miller state that it is simply wrong to assume that people cannot distinguish between reality and
media image. Furthermore, by assuming all views are equally true, it becomes just as valid to deny
that the Nazis murdered millions as it does to afﬁrm it, which is morally indefensible.!
While postmodernism has identiﬁed some important features of today’s society, it is poorly
equipped to explain them. By contrast, recent sociological theories have offered more satisfactory
explanations of the changes society is undergoing, which will be explored below.!
Theories of late modernity, unlike postmodernism, argue that the rapid changes we are witnessing
are not the dawn of a new, postmodern era. On the contrary, these changes are a continuation of
modernity itself. However, theories of late modernity do recognise that something important is
happening, but this is an intensiﬁcation of already present key features of modernity.!
According to Giddens, we are now at the stage of late or high modernity. A deﬁning characteristic
of modern society is that it experiences rapid change - often on a global scale - due to two key
features of modernity - disembedding and reﬂexivity. Disembedding means that we no longer need
face-to-face contact in order to interact, so geographical barriers are broken down and interaction
becomes more impersonal. Reﬂexivity means that we no longer rely on tradition to inform us how
to act and so we become reﬂexive - we have to constantly monitor, reﬂect on and modify our
actions in light of information about the possible risks involved. Therefore, nothing is ﬁxed or
permanent; life involves many choices, but can be unstable and uncertain.!
Although Giddens’ work is very inﬂuential and has attracted much attention, there are questions
about how original his ideas actually are. Much of Giddens’ work goes little further than the work of
some of the founders of sociology. Many would argue that Giddens is merely updating Weber.!
Like Giddens, Beck sees late modernity as a period of growing individualisation, in which we
become increasingly reﬂexive. This means we must take account of the risks attached to the
different courses of action open to us. As a result, ‘risk consciousness’ becomes central to our
culture - we become more aware of perceived risks and seek to avoid or minimise them.!
A strength of the concept of reﬂexivity is that is suggests we reﬂect on our actions and then are
free to re-shape our lives accordingly to reduce exposure to risks. However, not everyone has this
option. For example, the poor are generally exposed to more environmental risks because they are
more likely to live in heavily polluted ares, but may be unable to afford to move to a healthier one. !
Beck has been particularly criticised for failing to recognise differences in power. Beck has
suggested that the risk is spread across all groups in society and that differences in power are
relatively unimportant. Elliot disputes this, suggesting instead that rich and powerful groups are
able to limit risk and to have greater inﬂuence on the context in which the risk occurs.!
Unlike Giddens and Beck, some Marxists such as Jameson and Harvey believe that today’s
society has indeed moved from modernity to postmodernity. However, Marxists offer a very
different analysis of postmodernity to Lyotard or Baudrillard. Rather than seeing postmodernity as a
break with the past, Marxists regard it as merely the product of the most recent stage of capitalism,
To understand postmodernity, therefore, we must examine its relationship to capitalism. From this
point of view, postmodernity represents a more developed form of capitalism because it
commodiﬁes virtually all aspects of life, including our identities. However, there is disagreement
within Marxism about how a working class revolution will occur, if ever.!
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SCLY4 ESSAY EXEMPLAR THEORY AND METHOD POSTMODERNISM
In terms of traditional ideas of research, there are not many clear examples of postmodern
research. Rather, postmodern ideas have percolated throughout sociology, enriching the subject by
on the one hand, providing us with a new way of looking at traditional problems, and, on the other,
by giving us new subjects to explore. This is a clear strength of postmodern contributing in a
positive manner to our understanding of society.!
For example, Urry has examined tourist attractions and argues that certain places have been
constructed so that they are seen and experienced as places of leisure and tourism - rather than
for any other characteristics. When people visit, they do so through a ‘tourist gaze’. This tourist
gaze may screen out certain unwanted characteristics and focus solely on the socially constructed
tourist image e.g. Spain becomes a place for clubbing, sunshine and beaches, rather than a
modern, industrialised country with a full range of social problems.!
Postmodernism can be the set of ideas which try to deﬁne or explain the state of affairs in society,
or a word used in many different contexts to cover many different aspects. Postmodern theory sets
about dismantling most of our normal ways of thinking about how meaning, interpretation and
reality works. As an example, this ‘dismantling’ process is evident in education and educational
research. The following example further supports the contribution postmodernism has made in
advancing and re-deﬁning sociological ideas within the framework of knowledge, structure and
power from a Foucauldian point of view.!
Within a postmodern perspective, the educational institution should be discussed both in terms of
the traditional vocabulary ‘student, teacher, researcher’, but also of a rephrased vocabulary
‘inmates, guards, judges’ and ‘patients, nurses, doctors’. Modern critical research wants to have
cooperation and negotiation between students, teachers and researchers. Does it also want
cooperation and negotiation between inmates, guards and judges? And between patients, nurses
and doctors? And if the uneducated must accept a responsibility for their own education, does that
mean that also the criminals must accept a responsibility for their own correction, and that disease
carriers must accept a responsibility for their own cure? Or is it better to accept that modern
institutions are places of authority, and to try to make the authority authentic, real and rational
instead of artiﬁcial, false and inhibiting?!
Education, however, is more problematic than its sister institutions. At the hospital or at the prison
you are turned into a client, only if you have received the individual judgement ‘ill’ or ‘criminal’ by a
doctor or a judge. And the treatment varies with the different forms of abnormality. At the school
everybody is automatically condemned ‘uneducated’ from birth. Hence education does not have to
name the abnormality it is supposed to cure, it is taken for granted, and only gets an identity as a
lack of education, which automatically calls for education as a cure. However, Wehler argues that
Foucault does not properly differentiate between authority, force, power, violence and legitimacy.!
In conclusion, postmodernism has been very inﬂuential in sociology and can probably claim to
have generated huge growth in the academic subject of media studies. However, its success has
been more in pointing to the failure of grand theories rather than putting anything in place.
Baudrillard and Lyotard appear to be more critics of society, rather than sociological theorists. Their
work is shot through with value-judgements about what is real and worthwhile - so their dismissal
of contemporary media-based society is less a sociological statement than a political one. Finally,
Callinicos attacks notable postmodern thinkers such as Baudrillard and Lyotard, arguing
postmodernism is best read as a symptom of political frustration and social mobility rather than as
a signiﬁcant intellectual or cultural phenomenon in its own right. Nevertheless, the impact of such
thinking has been substantial in its inﬂuences.
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