The five contemporary theorists of modernity are as follows:
For classical theorists, the term ‘modernity’ largely meant industrialization. But, in contemporary world, it has gone beyond that. There are a good number of sociologists who are working on this theme to develop a viable theory, which could lead us to the road to progress.
The term ‘modernization’ came into widespread use in the early 1960s, as a consequence of the efforts by a group of development specialists in the United States of America to develop an alternative to the Marxist account of social development in its most sophisticated variants. The modernization theory explains modernization by reference to the onset of the process that Talcott Parsons refers to as structural differentiation.
This is a process which may be triggered in many different ways, but which is most likely to be initiated by changes in either technology or values. As a result of this process, institutions multiply the simple structures of traditional societies into the complex ones of modern societies, and values come to bear a striking resemblance to those current in the U.S. of the 1960s.
There is little agreement on the definition of modernity given by contemporary theorists. In fact, there is more disagreement than agreement in defining modernity. For instance, Anthony Giddens considers modernity as an inexorable force – a juggernaut which offers a number of advantages but also poses a series of dangers.
The dangers are so powerful that they can crush the society and tear it asunder. Ulrich Beck follows the track of Giddens. He rather looks at the dark side of modernity only saying that the modern society is a risk society.
It, therefore, makes it obligatory for the people to prevent risk and to protect themselves from it. George Ritzer, on the other side, looks at the brighter side of modernity. He is optimistic. For him, rationality is the key characteristic of a modern society. He stresses the importance of hyper-rationality. And it is exemplified through McDonaldization, credit card and fast food.
Zygmunt Bauman argues that modernity is nothing but a bundle of irregularities, and more generally the dangers. Finally, there is yet another theorist Jurgen Habermas, who looks at modernity as an unfinished project. He too focuses on rationality of the life-world. The process of modernization would be completed when the social system along with the social world is enriched rationally.
It is difficult indeed to define modernity in the context of contemporary theorists. There are definitions, there are meanings, but all these are controversial, debatable. The theorists agree that the present society is passing through modernity. They also accept the beneficial notion of modernity.
But that is not all. The theorists are also scared of the risks involved in the modern society. Perhaps, Ritzer is closer to the meaning of modernity when he says that it is a juggernaut. Juggernaut is like a huge giant-like machine, which can carry any load and cross any land. But it has also a capacity to crush anybody which dares to resist it. Control over this juggernaut requires a sustained exercise. Despite the difficulties involved in defining modernity, we attempt to provide a few.
1. Anthony Giddens: Modernity is multi-dimensional:
Giddens, in his book, The Constitution of Society (1985), has argued that modernity cannot be explained by a single term only. It is in all respects multi-dimensional. Giddens is among those who have resisted the equation of modernity with liberalism or capitalism. It would be mistaken to say that modernity is liberalism, capitalism, industrialization or rationality.
No single variable can provide a satisfactory definition of modernity. Giddens draws heavily on the thoughts of Marx; among others he does so in a critical way emphasizing the multi-dimensional nature of modernity, its complex casual patterns and institutional logics, and the inherently contingent qualities of political and social change.
In Giddens’ view, there are four main institutional aspects of modernity:
The system of production of commodities for markets in which wage labour is also a commodity.
The application of inanimate sources of power through productive techniques for transformation of nature.
3. Coordinated administrative power focused through surveillance:
The control of information and the monitoring of the activities of subject populations by states and other organizations.
4. Military power:
The concentration of the means of violence in the hands of the state. Giddens says that these four institutional dimensions of modernity are irreducible to one another, for the form and logic of each one are quite different from those of the others. The development and dynamics of military power and warfare, for example, affected the shape and structure of capitalist development as well as particular patterns of class and class conflict and helped generate an alternative power system to capital: the modern system of nation-states.
Giddens argues that the formation of nation-states and the subsequent emergence of international relations cannot be analyzed only from the variable of capitalism. In Giddens’ judgement, each of the four institutional dimensions consists of a distinctive set of causal processes and structures. Taken together, however, they provide a framework for understanding some of the central features, developments and tensions in modern societies.
Thus, according to Giddens, the first and foremost thing about modernity is that:
(1) It is multi-dimensional, not monolithic, and
(2) It has four dimensions, viz.,
(c) Administrative power, and
(d) Military power.
2. Ulrich Beck: Modernity leads towards risk society:
It was in 1992 that Ulrich Beck came with his book. Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity. Beck, the German sociologist, has written extensively about risk and globalization. He says that modern society has created a large number of risks for the people.
The western modern world is now faced with fast food, global warming and several other risks, including the degradation of environment. There is no ‘road map’ to these dangers. Because there are no definitive answers about the causes and outcomes of such risks, the people are obliged to face these and suffer the consequences.
Beck argues that the modernity of the consequence of enlightenment – social justice, reasoning and mass production – has become a thing of the past. The world is fast changing and we are now living in a world, which is beyond the modern. Now we have second modernity.
The second modernity refers to the fact that modern institutions are becoming global, while everyday life is breaking free from the hold of tradition and customs. He argues for the emergence of second modernity, which is to him a risk society as under:
The old industrial society is disappearing and is being replaced by a ‘risk society’ … The management of risk is the prime feature of the global order. The earlier modernity largely consisted of industrialization. It was good for the society. It was advantageous for the people but the new avatar of modernity has created risks. With the advances in science and technology, new risk situations are created that are different from those of previous ages.
Science and technology obviously provide many benefits for us. Yet, they create risks that are hard to measure. Thus, no one quite knows, for example, what the risks involved in the production of genetically modified foods might be.
A generation ago, in the developed societies, marriage was a fairly straightforward process of life transition – one moved from being unmarried to the status of marriage, and this was assumed to be a fairly permanent situation.
Today, many people live together without getting married and divorce rates are high. In developing countries, such as India, the sacramental character of marriage is steadily diluted and among the middle class families there is a drive towards divorce. There are a large number of TV serials which profusely deal with the problem of the breaking of marriage.
Beck seems to be talking about the ground realities of the contemporary modern world. It is certain that the world of 1920 when the founding theorists died has changed radically. The earlier modernity had several advantages; the second modernity or the contemporary modernity has several risks.
It must be admitted that Beck is not arguing that the contemporary world is more risky than that of earlier ages. What he argued is that the risks, which we encounter today, derive less from mutual dangers or hazards than from uncertainties created by our own social development and by the development of science and technology. Beck has made comparison between the earlier modernity or the modernity of classical theorists and the second or revised modernity of contemporary theorists.
The central issue in the classical modernity was wealth and how it could be distributed more evenly. In advanced modernity, the central issue is risk and how it can be prevented, minimized, or channeled. In classical modernity the ideal was equality, while in advanced modernity it is safety.
In classical modernity people achieved solidarity in the research for the positive goal of equality, but in advanced modernity the attempt to achieve that solidarity is found in the search for the largely negative and defensive goal of being spared from dangers.
But, after all, how does Beck define his second modernity which is sometimes also called late modernity. The fundamental specificity of the contemporary modernity is that it is reflexive in its character. It is the people who should question the risks involved in modernity.
A valid explanation of the risks can be sought in the sub-politics of the state. According to Beck, the sub-politics consist of large companies, scientific laboratories, and the like. It is in the sub-political system that the “structures of a new society are being implemented with regard to the ultimate goals of progress in knowledge, outside the parliamentary system, not in opposition to it, but simply ignoring it”.
Take the case of India. The Supreme Court ordered the closure of hundreds of factories in and around New Delhi because of the environmental hazards created by them for the community. This is the apt example of the role of sub-politics.
To summarize, it can be said that the old definition of modernity is no longer relevant today. The old modernity has witnessed dramatic changes. The new modernity, which Beck calls the ‘second modernity’, is actually the late modernity. This avatar of modernity creates risks for the society.
But, the present generation cannot survive without the advantages of this form of modernity. In fact, there is no going back. Beck agrees with Habermas that the new society does not spell the end of attempts at social and political reform. The sub-politics and the civil society have much to do in this field.
3. George Ritzer: Modernity is hyper-rationality, McDonaldization and Americanization
Indian and Asian students of sociology are familiar with George Ritzer. Ritzer has brought out popular textbooks on classical sociological theory and modern sociological theory. Ritzer goes well with his students. But, in the field of modernity, he is known for his book.
The McDonaldization of Society:
An Investigation into the Changing Character of Contemporary Social Life (1996). We know the McDonalds. They constitute a series of restaurants all over India. They are a craze. The new generation considers it fashionable for refreshment and social meet. It may appear strange: for Ritzer, McDonald’s is a symbol of modernity.
Modernity, according to Ritzer, is rationality. It is the prime characteristic of contemporary society. McDonaldization is an example of hyper-rationality. Credit card and fast food are also examples of hyper-rationality. But, there is an interesting question: why has Ritzer chosen McDonalds as a case study to illustrate the meaning of modernity?
There is rationality. The McDonald’s is not simply a place for refreshment – a place for eating and getting out. It has started with logic, a solid rationality. The restaurant, which is associated with the modern American values of convenience and disposability, is now cultivating a ‘green’ image.
The firm is careful to boast that its cattle farming do no damage to the world’s rainforests and that the company has withdrawn ozone-threatening material from its burger packaging. Obviously, the restaurant shows its concern for environment, nutrition, purity and other aspects of health and hygiene. Ritzer calls it hyper-rationality.
In sociological literature, Weber was the first theorist who talked about rationality as a characteristic feature of modern society. But, Weber talked of formal rationality, which has importance in structures such as bureaucracy.
But, there are other two types of rationality:
(1) Substantive rationality, and
(2) Theoretical rationality.
Substantive rationality entails the dominance of norms and values in the rational choice of means and ends, whereas theoretical rationality is concerned with rational cognitive processes. What Ritzer finds is that in a modern society people pay all attention to formal rationality and the other two types – substantive and theoretical – are callously marginalized. And, hence, the need for hyperrationality.
Defining hyper-rationality, Ritzer observes:
What is hyper-rationality?
Put simply, hyper-rational system is one that combines and interrelates all the three of Weber’s forms of rationality – formal, substantive and theoretical or intellectual. This system is seen as more rational than a formally rational system because it makes use of formal rationality and the other two types of rationality.
What we find in Ritzer’s hyper-rationality can be presented in the following formula:
Hyper-rationality (of Ritzer) = Formal + Substantive + Theoretical Rationality (of Ritzer)
In other words, Ritzer’s concept of hyper-rationality is the combination of Weber’s three forms of rationality. It is this improved form of hyper-rationality that Ritzer analyzes the American modern society. As an illustration of formal rationality, he refers to McDonaldization.
The restaurant represents a contemporary paradigm of formal rationality. For Weber, bureaucracy was the model of formal rationality but in contemporary times fast food represents an even better paradigm of this type of rationality. The bureaucracy is still with us, but the fast food restaurant better exemplifies this type of rationality.
This implies that not only is formal rationality still with us, but so is the modern world, of which this type of rationality is a key component. Because of McDonaldization, most recently, Ritzer has examined credit cards from various points of view including that of the rationalization thesis. It could be argued that what credit cards have done is to McDonaldize the receipt and expenditure of credit. Instead of fast food, what the modern bank is doing is dispensing fast money.
Ritzer also takes up the case of Americanization, besides McDonaldization, fast food and credit card. America is generally seen as the centre of modernity to the rest of the world. Ritzer believes that the idea of the continued Americanization of the world would tend to buttress the modernity rather than the postmodernity perspective. Thus, Ritzer in his discussion of modernity has defined it in terms of hyper-rationality. It is an improvement over Max Weber.
4. Zygmunt Bauman: Modernity as holocaust:
Bauman has come out with a title, Intimations of Postmodernity (1992). He is a theorist who establishes that modernity and postmodernity have cast a gloom on world society. These processes have rendered holocaust. As the Jews were destructed by the Nazis, so is the process of modernization which has meant loss of life to the contemporary world.
Bauman puts it, “considered as a complex purposeful operation, the holocaust may serve as a paradigm of modern bureaucratic rationality”. To many it will seem obscure to discuss fast food restaurants and the holocaust in the same context. Yet, there is a clear line in sociological thinking about modem rationality from the bureaucracy to the holocaust and then to the fast food restaurant.
The perpetrators of the holocaust employed bureaucracy as one of their major tools. The conditions that made the holocaust possible, especially the formal rational system, continue to exist today.
Indeed, what the process of McDonaldization indicates is not only that formally rational systems persist, but they are expanding dramatically. Thus, in Bauman’s view, under the right set of circumstances the modern world would be ripe for an event of greater abomination than the holocaust.
Generally, the situation of holocaust or destruction is considered by people as abnormal, but Bauman thinks otherwise. In course of time, the condemned holocaust would be seen as a normal event. In other words, holocaust would be taken as the handwork of rationality. In Bauman’s words:
The truth is that every ‘ingredient’ of the holocaust – all of those many things that rendered it possible – was normal; ‘normal’ not in the sense of familiar … but in the sense of being fully in keeping with everything we know about our civilization, its guiding spirit, its priorities, its immanent vision of the world.
Ritzer, while successfully bringing to home the meaning of modernity as given by Bauman, observes:
Thus, the holocaust, to Bauman, was a product of modernity and not as most people view it, a result of the breakdown of modernity. In Weberian terms, there was an “elective affinity” between the holocaust and modernity.
Modernity has been explained in a very strange way. On one hand, Ritzer argues that the introduction of fast food restaurants such as McDonald’s have employed rationality and have caused efficiency to the system, and on the other hand by employing the same rationality, holocaust has also been cast on the society. Rationality, therefore, is common to both for fast food and holocaust.
Bauman writes quite pointedly:
Modernity as embodied in these rational systems was not a sufficient condition for the holocaust, but it was clearly a necessary condition. Without modernity and rationality, the holocaust would be unthinkable. How does holocaust work with rationality? See the holocaust of Germany.
Defining the Jew problem Hitler said:
“Get rid of the Jews and every problem is solved.” The German bureaucrats picked up the solution given by Hitler and meticulously applied bureaucratic rationality to resolve a series of day-to-day problems, extermination emerged as the best means to the end.
Thus, Bauman argues that the holocaust was not the result of irrationality or pre-modern barbarity, but rather it was the product of the modern, rational bureaucracy. It was not a crazed lunatic who created and managed the holocaust, but highly rational and otherwise quite normal bureaucrat.
5. Jurgen Habermas: Modernity is rationality and an unfinished project:
The German sociologist and philosopher, Jurgen Habermas is linked to the Frankfurt School of social thought. The Frankfurt School was a group of authors inspired by Karl Marx who nevertheless believed that Marx’s views needed radical revision to bring them up-to-date. Habermas belonged to the tradition of Marx but analyzed Marx in a different way.
Habermas revisited enlightenment. Enlightenment was revolutionary and it combined science, morality and art together. These three forms of human thinking made the whole worldview. The forms were such in which religion exercised hegemony over science and art. Habermas stresses the importance of rationality over other three forms of human thinking. Modernity, according to him, is the core of rationality.
He is said to be the leading defender of modernity and rationality. His views on modernity are elaborated in his work, Philosophical Discourse of Modernity (1987). Though postmodernists have made all possible assaults on Habermas, he has very strongly defended his position.
This has been stated by Seidman as under:
In contrast to many contemporary intellectuals who have for an anti-or postmodernist position, Habermas sees in the institutional orders of modernity structure of rationality. Whereas many intellectuals have become cynical about the emancipatory potential of modernity…. Habermas continues to insist on the Utopian potential of modernity. In a social context in which faith in the Enlightenment project of a good society promoted by reason sees a fading hope and spurned idol, Habermas remains one of its strongest defenders.
Habermas has come to the conclusion that rationality has hegemony on the total way of life by analysis the social world of the men. He finds that the present society has become increasingly complex, differentiated, integrated and characterized by rationality. The life world has also witnessed increasing differentiation, secularization and institutionalization of norms of reflexivity and criticism.
A rational society would be one in which both system and life-world were permitted to rationalize in their own way, following their own logics. The rationalization of system and life-world would lead to a society with material abundance and control over its environment as a result of rational systems and one of truth, goodness, and stemming from a rational world.
Habermas has put his thesis in plain and certain words: Modernity is guided by rationality. There is a life-world, which we all live, witness and experience. This life-world has its social system. The social system is rational; the life-world so is rational. Thus, there is rationalization of social system and life-world. The end is the society.
However, Habermas is not closed in his thinking. He says that the hegemony of system is so strong that sometimes life-world is deprived of some of the freedom which it wants to enjoy. And, as a result of this, there is colonialization of the life-world by the rational system.
In other words, the “hallmark of modernity” to Habermas, as well as most of the classical theory, has been, in Habermas’ terms, “the colonization of the life-world by the system”.
Habermas is convinced of the benefits of modernity. There are a few more things that modernity has to do. A large number of people in any society and particularly in South Africa and Asia are marginalized, and live below the poverty line. They have yet to get the benefits of modernity.
And, it is in this context that Habermas sees modernity as an unfinished project implying that there is far more to be done in the modern world before we can begin thinking about the possibility of postmodern world. He hopes that the final product of the modern society would be a fully rational society in which both system and life-world were allowed to express themselves fully without one destroying the other.
- Ritzer’s Theory of Modernity: A Shift towards Debureaucratization and Hyper- Rationality
- 4 Classical Theorists of Modernity (Their Approach to Modernity)
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20 major contemporary theorists are covered in depth, including Erving Goffman, Peter Blau, Pierre Bourdieu, Jurgen Habermas, Anthony Giddens, Randall Collins, Patricia Hill Collins, Dorothy Smith, and Cornel West.
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