The idea of the modern began as a way of describing the ideas and behaviour that emerged during, and contributed to, the decline of medieval society in Europe.

There were three main elements in modernity:


  1. Economic: This involved the growth of the capitalist market economy, the production of goods for profit and the emergence of wage labour.
  2. Political: The emergence of the centralised nation state and the extension of bureaucratic forms of organisation.
  3. Culture: A challenge to traditional forms of thought by rationality, and an emphasis on scientific and technical knowledge.

Sociology, as a discipline, is a product of the cultural aspect of modernism. Modernism is a distinct way of thinking about, categorizing, and describing and explaining the world.

The origin of modern thinking, and of sociology, was the enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries.

There are several key ideas produced by modernisist thinkers that underpin the foundation of sociology as a discipline:

  1. That it is possible and desirable for humans to discover objective knowledge.
  2. The discovery of objective knowledge depends upon the production of evidence. This evidence is secured via a scientific method by impartial (value-free) researchers.
  3. This knowledge, if valid, can describe and explain, the nature of whole societies, by explaining the underlying structures and processes.
  4. Modernist thinking involves the idea that the purpose of acquiring knowldge is: To influence for the better the human condition (Giddens, 1987). Modernity implies the idea of progress.

It was this cultural change in belief about what constitutes knowledge and what knowledge is for, that directly promoted the rise of sociology.

Sociology is a product of modernity: a belief in the power of human reason to create knowledge, which can be used to achieve progress.

Giddens (1987) argues that the very existence of sociology is bound up with the 'project of modernity'.

The construction of social theories thus reflects a concern not only with how we live, but how we should live. That is, social theory does not only try to explain the social world, but to offer suggestions for its betterment.

Postmodernism opposes each of the assumptions of modernist thinking:

  1. Relativism; there is no such thing as valid or invalid knowledge.
  2. Death of the subject; knowledge as control rather than liberation.
  3. Grand theories are inadmissible.

A characteristic of modernist thought is that the truth or validity of knowledge should be capable of proof, and that proof should be based upon evidence. The obvious sociological example of such thought is positivism.

Clearly, there are problems with positivism. For example, in order to operationalize a hypothesis, it has to be written in a form that permits empirical indicators. The choice of indicators is, however, not obvious or given - they are chosen. Different indicators would give different results. The result is that findings are determined by the choice of indicators. Assumptions thus shape the nature of the evidence. As regards sampling, positivist research typically involves the generalization of results; small samples are held to be representative of much larger populations. Yet generalisation is without empirical foundation since the evidence obviously does not extend to the larger population. The very notion of representative sampling is based on an assumption regarding the relationship between society and the individual, which implies a significant degree of social conditioning.

An aspect of the relativist position is the form of social analysis, known as deconstruction. Deconstruction is a type of analysis that is designed to reveal the contradictions and assumptions inherent in positivist research strategies. Deconstruction is a specifically post-modern term. It is not an attempt to take a counter position, but rather to reveal the internal characteristics of any particular approach.

The purpose of deconstruction is to affirm the impossibility of producing any demonstrably valid knowledge at all. This is in stark contrast to modernist approaches that affirm the possibility and desirability of discovering objective truth.

Modernist thinking attaches a particular status to the researcher. In the modernist view, the researcher is the originator of the knowledge s/he produces. Linked to this, is the belief that, once discovered, objective truth can be used to intervene in the world to improve situations. Thus the modern view places human beings at the centre of the production and application of knowledge and this is termed subject-centeredness.

For post-modernists, there is no objective truth to be pursued. Relativism suggests multiple versions of reality, none of which is especially privileged. All a sociologist does is produce one possible version of events. Furthermore, because there is no objective knowledge, there is a rational basis for intervention in the world. Knowledge cannot liberate, subject-centeredness is undermined, and the result is the death of the subject.

As against people producing knowledge, post-modernism argues that knowledge produces people, in the sense that it controls who we are, what we think and what we do. The multiple realities argued for by post-modernists are referred to as narratives (stories).

But we are not the authors of our own stories. Our social world and our identity are determined by the stories we are a part of, and implicated within by virtue of our existence in a particular time and place. Functionalists call this socialisation, but post-modernists argue there are many forms of socialisation, not one single over-arching reality. So there are many cultures, many stories.

The term grand theory is used to describe theories that attempt to explain on a large scale. Included here are Marxism, functionalism and feminism. Post-modernists use the term meta-narratives (big stories) to describe such theories. Such stories both claim access to the truth and that the knowledge they provide can be used in social planning. Lyotard provides one of the classic definitions of post-modernism when he described it as incredulity toward metanarrative (Lyotard, 1986). He is arguing that we show only incredulity when someone comes out with a big story, which purports to tell us the truth behind appearances.

Lyotard provides two main reasons for the decline of meta-narratives:


  1. A change in technology and organisations, away from a concern with ends towards which we are meant to be aiming, and instead an emphasis on efficiency of systems. For example, in education there has been a switch from the question 'what is the aim of educating children?',to the question 'how can we improve the quality of the product we deliver to our clients?' Philosophy takes a back seat to efficiency.
  2. The victory of capitalism over the predictions of Marxism. The project of the perfect society has been abandoned. Individual pursuit of goods and services has replaced idealism.

Unlike modern theorists such as Marx, or more recently Parsons, postmodern theorists such as Baudrillard don't even try to be scientific. He does not even pretend that his work is right or true.

'The secret of theory is that truth doesn't exist. You can't confront it in any way.'


  1. How can you have a general theory arguing that general theory is obsolete? This is the old problem of relativism. There is a logical contradiction.
  2. How is it possible for postmodernism to be described as the historical epoch that comes after modernism when to do so is to lapse into a metanarrative - the coherence of history?

Having said that, postmodernism has had a considerable impact on social theory because it has asked fundamental questions about everything that social theory used to take for granted.


Developments in Sociology, Vol 11,1995

Modernism, postmodernism and sociological theory, P.Brown, Sociology Review, Feb 1996.

Studying Society, Philip Jones, 1993.