Discuss the importance of modernity. Why is modernity important to sociologists?

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In order to answer this question, it would be helpful to have a working definition of what is meant by the term “modernity.” Modernity was an informal way of thinking that was born out of the seventeenth-century European scientific revolution. Philosophers and other thinkers of the age began to eschew...

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In order to answer this question, it would be helpful to have a working definition of what is meant by the term “modernity.” Modernity was an informal way of thinking that was born out of the seventeenth-century European scientific revolution. Philosophers and other thinkers of the age began to eschew both religious dogmatism and moral pragmatism as the dominant concepts used to order human civilization, in favor of something else. Modernity, rather, placed the prerogative for change and improvement of civilization in the hands of human beings themselves. The belief that it was no longer necessary to await God’s divine grace to attain eternal happiness in the afterlife came to be replaced with the attempt to create this utopia on the earth itself and to enjoy the spoils of human labor during one’s own lifetime. Modernist thinkers put a tremendous amount of faith in the power of empirical science and human reason to accomplish in their own societies that which religious men of past ages believed was not possible. Although modernity led people to abandon their dependency on supernatural powers, it still presumed some of the organizing principles that constituted the core narrative of many Western religions.

Central to this was a belief in a teleological universe. This meant that modern thinkers believed that the world, or “progress” in more abstract terms, moved from a clearly defined starting point inevitably toward a known and anticipated set of end results. The Judeo-Christian worldview also followed this logic—the initial act of God’s creation was moving inextricably toward a final day of redemption for all believers in Christ. The difference with modernist thinkers is that they believed that they possessed the knowledge and capabilities to influence this forward-moving progress themselves. Modernity presumed that all history was moving toward a logical and rationally planned final organization of human society. It was a worldview that assumed linearity and absolute predictability in the universe.

The reason this is important to sociologists is because this way of thinking defined all of the major socioeconomic worldviews that dominated political thought in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, whose legacies we are still coming to terms with today. Marxism is the clearest example of this. If you recall from The Communist Manifesto and other works of Marx and Engels, Marxism posits that the forward progression of society through various historical stages—proto-communist to feudal to bourgeois capitalist to socialist to inevitable communist utopia—was a scientifically guaranteed reality. There was no question as to if this transformation in human society was to take place—only as to when it inevitably would. Other political worldviews that followed the fundamental precepts of modernity included enlightened monarchy, absolutism, Smithian free-market capitalism, and others. In the twentieth century after World War II, some scholars even tried to argue that the rise of Nazism in Germany was an inevitable part of the country’s Sonderweg, or “special path.” National socialism, these historians argued, was the natural end result of a marginalized, semi-colonial history that was unique to the German state and which could have produced nothing other than the violence of the Hitler regime. The absolute, teleological nature of this argument owes its theoretical underpinnings to the modern way of thinking.

To sum up, modernity is important to sociologists because it helps to explain why human beings (especially in the West) think in the very concrete, teleological terms they do. If tens of millions of ordinary citizens of the world’s historical communities could be encouraged to fight and die for political systems that were based on such linear, scientifically absolute ideologies, then modernity itself is one of the most important indicators sociologists have to assess the way ideas inform the actions people take when they are a part of systems much larger than themselves.

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A key concept within sociology is recognizing the interplay between individual agency and social or other macro-level forces. While many see the course of history as shaped by individuals making choices, sociologist are mindful of the fact that the way in which individuals are taught to make choices is due to social processes. And which individuals can rise to positions of power where their choices can affect the course of history is again due to social forces.

Sociologists can then note that the course of history is not driven by "great men" but by technological, ecological, epidemic, and other forces that shape the social landscape within which individuals historical actors make their choices.

Due to this framework, sociologists have great reason to be interested in working to identify key characteristics of a historical era. Many, for example, identify modernity with a breakdown in trust in religion, a strong belief in rationality, a tendency towards bureaucracy, etc. Modernity initially referred to the current time, but over time, modernity itself became a point of contrast with the ways in which social theorists saw the present.

Thus in part, we can understand modernity through its contrasts with post-modernity: whereas modernity was characterized by a level of panic as faith in religion faded, post-modernity had come to terms with this shift. While modernity idealized the objective and unbiased perspective, post-modernity rejected the idea that such a thing existed, favored the idea of relative truth and different perspectives.

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Modernity as a concept is very important because it juxtaposes against history. It is within modernity that we live, so all of sociological understanding is used to help navigate the world as it is today. Sociologists study history and groups of people to find trends in actions, and by doing that, they can hopefully apply it to modernity.

As a period of time, modernity is, in and of itself, a unique piece of time. It stands out as the current era, in which we can get the most immediate results and perform the most lifelike examinations because people are actually living and responding in it. Modernity is the framework for which we understand the world, and it is necessary to understand it so that we can thrive as a species. For sociologists, history helps explore it more by illuminating trends, but the present is always the end goal.

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Theories of modernity play important roles in sociology. What are known as classical sociological theories of the concept, coming from Max Weber and George Simmel, identify it with the meaning and significance of the social changes in nineteenth-century Europe. The salient factors are the effects of industrialization, urbanization, and political democracy on formerly rural, autocratic societies. Then, "modernity" was a new term that identified change and progress through the contrast between the "modern" with the "traditional." By extension, the concept occupies Karl Marx and Emile Durkheim as well as Weber.

The modernity concept also connotes a new way of experiencing the world, one seen as constructed through the actors' conscious intervention. Such actors enjoyed a new sense of self generated by such active intervention and the concomitant responsibilities. Modern society, in this sense, brings an experience of a different human condition, with an energizing sense of freedom and possibility but, at the same time, the newly generated anxiety regarding the uncertainty of the future in a society lacking fixed boundaries. This is how modernity was understood in classical sociology. One theme that stands out in this account of social change and its effect on human experience is the development of a new sense of self, of subjectivity and individuality. This idea distinguishes the modern individual from the traditional one. In sum, the sociological concept of modernity has been highly influential for analyzing the differences between types of persons and societies for more than a century.

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One reason why modernity is important to sociologists is because it, in many ways, gives them a reason for being.

One important aspect of modernity is that it holds that everything about the world (including society and all its aspects) is open to question.  We are supposed to be able to think about why things are the way they are.  We are supposed to be able to ask if the status quo is really ideal.  If we did not believe in modernity, we would be in a society in which everything was supposed to stay as it was because it was ordained.  We would not want to question because things are simply supposed to be as they are.

In this sort of a society, there would be no place for sociologists.  There would be no point in studying society because society would be unchanging and unchangeable. 

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