Modernity & Progress Research Paper Starter

Modernity & Progress

This article examines the use of the term "modern" as an indicator of "modernity," the human condition of being modern. The modern era is a term widely used in the Western world to indicate a historical period in Western civilization that followed upon the medieval era, also referred to as the Middle Ages. Scholars, and others, make reference to modern art, literature, architecture, science, and technology. The term itself, taken at face value, masks the numerous, compound concepts used to describe, examine, and explain human interactions and interrelations. The very ideal of progress is positioned as underlying the definition of modernity. Ideas in four fundamental spheres of modern social organization are briefly unpacked and related to the idea of modern progress: rationality, capitalism, industrialization, and political governance. The quantity and quality of modern progress are valid topics of inquiry in sociology and other social sciences. This questioning of modern progress is reflected in the theories of postmodernity, which are briefly explained. If the promise of modernity, the improvement of the lot of humankind, is a myth, sociology seeks to expose it as such or, at the very least, to measure how far we are from realizing an "ideal type" of modern progress.

Keywords Bureaucracy; Capitalism; Consumption; Consumerism; Dialectic; Economic Goods; Economic Labor; Economic Services; Ideal Type; Ideology; Industrialization; Modernity; Modernization Project; Postmodernity; Production; Rights; Socialism; Technology



The modern era is a term widely used in the Western world to indicate a historical period in Western civilization that followed upon the medieval era, also referred to as the Middle Ages. Scholars, and others, make reference to modern art, literature, architecture, science, and technology. There is no single date upon which scholars agree as marking the beginning of modernity, the state of being modern. There is even wider disagreement as to whether or not the modern era has ended or is ending. However, many place the beginning of the modern era sometime in the sixteenth century, often around mid-century (Wallerstein, 1995).

What does it mean to be modern? This is a central question to which there is no single answer. Rather, to use a medical metaphor, modernity is a syndrome that can be described through differing combinations of any number of social and cultural symptoms. Switching metaphors, whenever we attempt to "wrap-up" large swaths of human history into tight bundles of thought, there are always loose ends.

Thus, there is no one statement that sums up the idea of being modern. Sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein, however, offers a historical comparative perspective on the meaning of the term modern:

Some 50 years ago, "modern" had two clear connotations. One was positive and forward-looking…. The term was situated in a conceptual framework of the presumed endlessness of technological progress, and therefore of constant innovation…. [There was] …a second major connotation to the concept of modern, one that was more oppositional than affirmative. To be modern signified to be anti-medieval, in an antinomy in which the concept "medieval" incarnated narrow-mindedness, dogmatism, and above all constraints on authority…. But it was not a triumph of humanity over nature; it was rather a triumph of humanity over itself (1995, p. 472).

This duality of meaning is a recurring theme in descriptions of the modern era and a mark of modern dialectical thought. There is, as Wallerstein suggests, an ideological underpinning to the depiction of modernity as a "triumph" of humanity, an amelioration of the human condition. Is it, he asks, a triumph in humankind's struggle against the elements or against each other for survival? The ideal of progress toward this goal of human "triumph" lies at the very heart of the modern. Some have called progress a "central legitimating myth of western societies" (Morgan, 2006, p. 228).

Sociology, the systematic study of the social, was born in and of the modern era. Sociology is none other than the quest of humankind to apply modern thinking to better understand how humans interact, interrelate, and construct the social world. If the promise of modernity, the improvement of the lot of humankind, is a myth, sociologists seek to expose it as such or, at the very least, to measure how far we are from realizing the an ideal type of modern progress.

The Ideology of Progress

Wallerstein is not alone in proposing that the ideal of progress forms the very root of the definition of what is modern (Becker, 1968; Wagner, 1992; Ashley, 1990; Latour, 1993; Kellner, 1999; Rappa, 2002; Sang-Woo, 2008). By definition, society has progressed, or endured, through historical time. Yet, it is the ideological sense of the word progress, which implies change toward some end or purpose—in this case, other than subsistence-level survival—that prompts the most interesting questions and demands a deep probing of the sociocultural past and present—not to mention ideas for the future—of humankind. Sociological inquiry tends to ask, "Progress toward what, for whom?"


As we look back over time at the history of human philosophical thought, we find definite patterns in the course of human ideas. Recorded human history itself gives evidence that humankind has become less preoccupied with the reactive tasks of day-to-day, hand-to-mouth survival and more concerned with planning and reasoning about how to ensure survival and best provide for human necessities and, increasingly, conveniences. The period in time at which this tactic of planning and reasoning becomes a dominant method to meet the challenges of human survival and flourishing marks, for many, the beginning of the modern era. The idea of "active" human progress guided by reason became a kind of new philosophical law driving human affairs (Becker, 1968; Wallerstein, 1995). The characterization of the modern era is rooted in Western society's widespread adoption of this concept of social progress as arising from advances in human knowledge and reason. The very term reason implies a goal or vision toward which we progress. These aspirations for improvement of the lot of humankind and the application of planning and reasoning toward that end became the modernization project (Featherstone, 1988; 1989).

Many, if not all, of the founders of the field of inquiry that came to be known as sociology take the examination of this movement toward rational planning and reasoning as the main focus of their inquiries into the social. Auguste Comte, Max Weber, Karl Marx, Émile Durkheim, Ferdinand T&otildennies, and Georg Simmel, to name a few, can certainly be read in this light (Mitchell, 1968). Each elaborate and compare the stages in human history which they see as critical in this turn of human events toward the modern. Their ultimate concern is the direction in which these events seem to be leading the everyday lives of humans and the organization of human affairs. Though each comes to slightly different conclusions, they share in common the desire to understand human society through systematic, measured examination and critique of the arrangement of human social relationships.

Modern Progress

While other economic schemas have contributed to modernity, most notably socialism, one of the striking features of modernity has been the rapid growth of capitalistic economic markets to intermediate the economic exchange of labor, goods, and services. Historically, the critical mass of growth in capitalistic economies is seen in Western societies and culture in the last two centuries. Since the collapse of the former Soviet Union in the late 1980s, however, capitalism has been adopted and adapted by Eastern nations and states, including Asia and the Middle East (Wallerstein, 1995; Fotopoulos, 2001; Moaddel, 2001; Morgan, 2006; Sang-Woo, 2008).

Social science literature abounds with detailed, sometimes contradictory, descriptions of historical stages of growth of capitalistic markets. Most contemporary social thinkers agree, however, that the forms of capitalism predominating today have been strongly influenced by socialist thought and are, in fact, hybridized economic systems exhibiting features of both socialism and capitalism. The forms of capitalism we see today are sometimes called late-stage capitalism. The history of capitalism is long and quite convoluted, thus, not easily characterized. However, among the economic characteristics typically associated with late-stage capitalism are hyperactive trading in both stock and commodity markets, rampant consumerism, and unprecedented monopolistic capital accumulation. Capitalism is seen as a major feature of modernity (Fotopoulos, 2001).

The market economy and concomitant capital accumulation, stockpiling economic profit and lending money at rates of interest fees to make further profit, are markers of modern economic systems. There is some accuracy to Fotopoulos' claim that, in the ideology of late-stage capitalism, the ideal of growth, particularly the growth of capital, has become synonymous with progress (2001). Capital accumulation has allowed and spurred industrialization. Yet, there are limits to the growth of markets, the numbers of consumers who buy specific types of goods and services, such that this may limit the growth of capital accumulation. In any case, though, there are valid issues to consider if we measure progress only in terms of monetary value (Williams & Sewpaul, 2004).


Humankind is not the only tool-user found on our planet, but the extent and intricacy of the tools used to provide for human necessities and conveniences is unequaled among other species. The use of tools to meet human needs has been essential in shaping the patterns of human interaction and interrelation, which have dominated human culture and society for most of recorded history. Relatively simple tools allowed humankind to develop the techniques of agricultural cultivation of crops around which relatively large, pre-modern social collectives were formed.

Planning for the use of tools led us toward standardization of techniques for...

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