Social theory has been going through severe transformations for years with shifts in its focus as societies progressed. The classical theorists concentrated mainly on the traditions, culture and the economic structuring of the society. Social theory has experienced a transition from the classical theories to the modern theories and now to the post modern theories that conceptualised the social reality in different ways. The classical theorists like Marx, Weber, Durkheim, and Adam Smith mainly focused on the structure of the society and the social, economic and political factors attributed to it. Modern thinkers like Parsons, Merton, etc focused on the systematic and the organisational approach to the society through the study of social relationships and institutions. Post modernism emerged as a radical approach against the modernist tradition and pervaded every sphere of social reality with its variety of explanations and approaches.
Post modernists aggressively criticised the traditional culture and theory in various ways and erected their foundation on the crux of the modernism. Modernists confronted this criticism either by just ignoring it or by coming to terms with it through appropriate discourses and theoretical approaches. Post modernism was criticised either as a passing fad and the idiosyncrasy of the intellectuals in search of a new discourse and a source of cultural capital (Britton, 1988) or as another ideology aiming to devalue the modernist values (Habermas 1981). Despite all the criticism, post modernism continued to grow in the last two decades with wide variety of explanations and paradigms and seeped in to many academic disciplines.
The Modernity discourse
Best & Kellner (1991) differentiate modernity from post modernity right from their very definition. Modernity according to them was conceptualised as the modern age where as post modernity was used as an epochal term for describing the period that followed modernity. Modernity for Marx, Weber and others was a historical period that followed the middle ages or feudalism. For some thinkers, modernity was characterised by innovation, novelty and dynamism as opposed to the traditional society (Berman, 1982). During the Enlightenment period modern theorists like Descartes identified reason as the source of progress in knowledge and society. They rooted the locus of truth and systematic knowledge in logical reasoning. Society could be structured based on the systems of thought that were erected on the theoretical edifice built on reason. Accordingly systematic actions were defined. The Enlightenment era through its logical reasoning could topple the feudal world and result in revolutions like that of French, American that aimed at achieving an egalitarian social order which would embody reason and social progress.
Modernity also entered in the aesthetic world through avant-garde modernist movement and the bohemian sub cultures that rebelled against the alienating aspects of industrialisation and rationalisation while extracting self realisation through art. Best & Kellner (1991) identify that modernity entered the every day life through modern art, consumer products, technologies and new modes of transportation and communication. Modernity was achieved through a process of modernisation that denoted ‘those processes of individualisation, secularisation, industrialisation, cultural differentiation, commodification, urbanisation, bureaucratisation and rationalisation (Best & Kellner, 1991, p3).
But modernity also resulted in causing misery and untold suffering to certain sections of the society thus deviating from its promise of achieving the egalitarian society. The victims of modernisation ranged from the peasantry, proletariat, and artisans who were oppressed by the capitalist industrialisation. The victims were also women who were excluded from the public sphere. Modernity under its garb had legitimated a set of disciplinary institutions that maintained domination and control. Thus the dialectic of Enlightenment emerged as a process where by ‘reason turned in to its opposite and modernity’s promises of liberation masked forms of oppression and domination’ (Horkheimer and Adorno, 1972). But the supporters of modernity also claim that it has great potential and resources to over come its destructive effects.
The Post modernity discourse
Post modern approach emerged at the back drop of this as a reaction to the causes and effects of modernity. Soja (1996, p451) says that, post modernity is the relative weight given to change versus continuity, to new versus old strategies and structures. It has always been the endeavour of the western world to question the existing reality and bring in new changes and discoveries and in that sense old hegemony is challenged at all scales, global and local and in all walks of life like economy, polity, popular culture and every day life aspects. Thus the world implicitly or explicitly is becoming post modern.
Post modern theorists like Baudrillard, Lyotard, Harvey etc see that technologies like computers and media, new forms of knowledge and new changes in the socio-economic system are heading towards a post modern social formation. This development is given different interpretations by different theorists. For instance, neo – Marxists like Harvey, Jameson etc explain post modern in terms of development of high stage of capitalism through a greater degree of capital penetration and homogenization across the world. Cultural theorists like Baudrillard, Lyotard etc react to the post modern developments in terms of novel types of information, knowledge and technologies.
Post modernism, in this sense, is also seen in the urban imaginary and restructuring. This can be understood at the back drop of the concept of ‘the precession of simulacra’ propounded by the French theorist of post modernity, Jean Baudrillard (1994). Simulacra are the ‘exact copies of originals that no longer exist or perhaps never existed in the first place’ (as cited in Soja, 1996, p452). As Soja (ibid) observes, these hyper simulations or simulacra have always existed in religions and cultures historically. In the modern world these hyper simulations have come to occupy every day life through specialised entertainment and fantasy worlds like Disneyland and Hollywood. These real fakes have infiltrated in to the day to day life of post modern society and impact in the way we choose to live and work, the way we eat and hear, the way we relate to others, the way we shape our built environment and spend our leisure time. Thus hyper realities have become a part of social construction of urban life in the post modern world.
The processes associated with post modernity also result in increased cultural fragmentation, changes in the experiences of space and time, and new modes of experience, subjectivity and culture.
Post modern theory is also built on a critique of the modernist perspectives that believe that theory mirrors reality. Instead post modernists believe that theories can at best provide partial perspectives on the objects and all the cognitive representations of the world are historically and linguistically mediated. Post modernists like Lyotard reject the modernist way of macro perspectives on society and history preferring micro theory and micro politics (Best & Kellner, 1991, p4). According to Best & Kellner (1991), post modern theory prefers multiplicity, plurality, fragmentation and indeterminacy against social coherence and notions of causality. It thus abandons the rational and unified subject and prefers socially and linguistically decentred and fragmented subject.
Another post modern break visualised in today’s human world is that of globalisation. All the contemporary theorists including Marxists, Weberians, development theorists and functionalists agree that globalisation is an important trend of the present time. Post modernists observe that increase in trans-national capitalism is producing a new global configuration of post- Fordism or post-modernism as a new cultural logic of capitalism (Harvey, 1989,Soja, 1989). Thus globalisation has been agreed to be an interesting phenomenon for social and theoretical conception by both modernists and post modernists. But the interpretation of the concept varies and the explanations to the processes differ in both these schools. For instance Latouche observes globalisation as a means of Westernisation of the world, while, for Ferguson (as cited in Kellner, http://www.gseis.ucla.edu/faculty/kellner/) it is a garb for the ascendancy of capitalism. It is seen by some as generating more homogeneity while others see it as producing more diversity and heterogeneity through increased hybridization. Some equate globalisation with modernisation (Giddens, Beck etc) but some others identify it distinctly different from the modern age (Albrow) (as cited in Kellner, http://www.gseis.ucla.edu/faculty/kellner/).
Globalisation involves dissemination of technologies that have impact on the economy, polity, society, culture and every day life. The new information and communication technologies resulted in compression of space and time thus creating global villages with unified culture and thus global forces have pervaded every day life of every region of the world. This process, as Harvey (1989) observes, has resulted in displacement of living labour, giving way to flexible production and creating new labour markets. As a result some areas have under gone deindustrialisation and production has become totally transnational.
Thus globalisation, with wide gamut of operations, has become an important element of scrutiny for the contemporary social theory to debate about. The technological revolution and global restructuring has been going on since the beginning of the twentieth century. Thus globalisation has become a central code word for all those integral processes that resulted in restructuring like post Fordism, post modernism etc. Kellner & Best (as cited in Kellner, http://www.gseis.ucla.edu/faculty/kellner/) observe that the globalisation discourse can be articulated comfortably to connect both modern and the post modern theories as it provides continuity with the past and novelty with the present and the future.
Globalisation as such is not a single term but a cover concept for diverse processes that need to be deciphered. It could be a substitute term for imperialism and thus can camouflage the continuing domination of under developed nations by the trans-nationals and developed nations and thus dispel the focus on the aspects of domination. It can replace the term modernity and thus embody the positive aspects of modernisation about the progress and modernity. Thus Kellner (ibid) points out that, globalisation stands as a neutral term imbibing both the negative tone of imperialism and the positive tone of modernisation.
In spite of its neutrality, the concept of globalisation is not free from the ideological connotations that indicate a complete positive process of economic and social progress, technological innovations, diversity of products and services, information revolution, growing cultural freedom and the rising standard of living. But for the critics, globalisation connotes devastating destruction of local traditions, continuing subordination of poorer nations to the rich ones, environmental destruction, and homogenisation of culture and every day life. Main protagonists of this criticism are Marxists, environmentalists, liberals, multi-culturalists, and conservatives who see globalisation as a threat to local economies, cultures, traditions and environments.
The other dichotomy globalisation gets in to is in the debate between modernity and post modernity. Some theorists observe that globalisation can unify concepts like modernity and post modernity as a central thematic framework for contemporary social theory (Featherstone as cited by Kellner, ibid). For those who see it parallel to modernisation, it still holds the same problems similar to modernisation. Thus globalisation too can be seen to increase the polarisation in the society, differential distribution of economic wealth, domination of one over the other etc. But for those who equate it with post modernity, globalisation seems to preserve the local, diversity, difference and heterogeneity. They also claim that globalisation it self produces hybridization and multiplicity, with a unique synthesis of global and local in to unified global culture which maintains both diversity and heterogeneity simultaneously. Post modernists also point out that every local context works its own appropriation of global products and signifiers thus producing diversity and heterogeneity.
Globalisation & Post modernity
Globalisation is a challenge for both the theory and the politics due to its complex nature. Thus theorists these days are involved in operating with the binary concepts of global and local, modernity and post modernity and try to promote either of these as a solution to the world problems. For those who believe in the positive aspects of globalisation, the local under development, backwardness and provincialism are the problems for which globalisation is the panacea. For localists, hegemony and imperialism through globalisation and integration of the world economic systems is a problem and localisation is the solution. Similarly for modernists, rigidity and conservativeness of the traditional societies is a problem and modernisation is the solution. For post modernists the rupture that has been caused by modernity in terms of its fake rationalisation is a problem. Because most of the post modern discourses are developed and characterised as anti-modern interventions that explicitly break with modern ideologies, styles and practices which the post modernists see as oppressive and exhausted (Best & Kellner,1991, p29).
Best & Kellner (ibid) delineate the problems of post modernity as a concept in the theoretical discourse. The term ‘post’ can signify in a prescriptive sense an active rupture with what preceded it. This rupture can be positively interpreted as a liberation from old constraining and oppressive conditions (Vattimo as cited in Best & Kellner, 1991,p29) and an acceptance of new developments, new ideas and discourses as Foucault (as cited in Best & Kellner, 1991, p29) pointed out. Alternatively the post modernity can also be interpreted in negative sense as a deplorable regression, as loss of traditional values, certainities and stabilities (Toynbee, Bell etc as cited in Best & Kellner, 1991, p29). It can also be seen as a surrender of the still valuable elements of modernity as Habermas pointed out (as cited Best & Kellner, 1991, p29).
The term ‘post’ can also signify dependence on or continuity with the existing reality thus giving to itself a new face of modernity or rather intensified modernity called as hyper modernity (Merquior, as cited in Best & Kellner, 1991, p30). Thus Best & Kellner (1991, p30) observe that the post modern discourses “presuppose a sense of an ending, the advent of something new and the demand that we must develop new categories, theories and methods to explore and conceptualise this novum, this novel social and cultural situation”. They point out that there is an inherent pathos of the new that characterises the discourses of the post modern and the post modernists position themselves as avant gardes of this new theoretical discourse as modernists did in the previous era.
Thus though the new discourses of post modernity posit their features as a new conception, most of the theorists build their arguments on the pre-existing edifice of the modernity. Most of the post modernists like Jameson built their post modern arguments based on Marxist (modern) traditions. Similarly the critical theorists like Habermas criticised the very ideological nature of the post modern theory. Best & Kellner (1991, p32) identify trajectory of the development of the post modern discourse through five stages viz., (1) the post modernists characterised and criticised modernity and its discourses (2) postulated a break with modernity and modern theory (3) produced alternative post modern theories, positions or perspectives (4) created or failed to create a theory of post modernity and provided or failed to develop a new post modern politics sufficient to the supposed post modern situation. Among these stages, some post modernists gave a thorough explanation to the social processes and reality built as a critique of modernity. But some others failed to produce a radically different theoretical explanation as their observations were built on the pre existing edifice of modernity. With these inherent contradictions in the very theoretical foundations, post modernity remains a contentious discourse for social theory.
Globalisation as a theoretical discourse faces the same predicament with respect to its conception. Economic restructuring and integration of world systems have been continuing since the Enlightenment era. They have attained the connotation of globalisation in the recent decades after the technological boom. Added to that the growth in the information technologies have resulted in compression of the global world in terms of space and time. This compression resulted in unifying global societies resulting in global culture. As this new process of globalisation is built on the pre-existing theoretical edifice of modernity, it follows the same path as its predecessor in its conceptual growth and continues the similar dialectics thus posing a challenge to contemporary social theory.