Characteristics of Modernity Research Paper Starter

Characteristics of Modernity

(Research Starters)

In a sense, modernity gave birth to sociology. The rapid changes and dislocations of early modernity spurred the founders of the field to try to understand how and why society was changing, how social order could be maintained in the absence of traditional forms of solidarity, and how major institutions — the family, religion, education, the economy, and government — would evolve. Modernity has its roots in the intellectual revolutions that ended the Middle Ages and brought about such changes as the growth of science and rationality, the birth of the nation-state and the global shift toward capitalism, and shifts in work and family life. The term refers to both the modern era and also the ideology associated with the changes: a belief in progress, reliance on science, and faith in the value of objectivity.

Keywords Enlightenment; Individualism; Mechanical Solidarity; Modernity; Organic Solidarity; Postmodernism; Private Sphere; Public Sphere; Rationalization; Scientific Method

Social Change: Characteristics of Modernity


In a sense, modernity gave birth to sociology. The rapid changes and dislocations of early modernity spurred the founders of the field to try to understand how and why society was changing, how social order could be maintained in the absence of traditional forms of solidarity, and how major institutions — the family, religion, education, the economy, and government — would evolve.

Major theorists in the field have continued to explore the dynamics of modern life. Karl Marx and Max Weber questioned modern political forms while Emile Durkheim investigated transformation of solidarity and religious life (Collins & Makowsky, 1993; Eyerman, 1992). Because so much of sociology has modernity as a central concern (although often an unstated one) it is important to understand what is implied in the concept.

Modernity, Modernism

Modernity generally refers to the changes associated with the post-Medieval era, beginning gradually sometime in the sixteenth century and taking root during the Enlightenment. It should be distinguished from modernism, which is the term used to refer broadly to aesthetic and social movements of the late nineteenth and early-to-mid twentieth centuries (e.g. "modern art" or "modern dance"), and modernization theory, which claims that progress, urbanization and industrialization inevitably lead to US-style capitalism.

Some theorists believe that modernity's "project" began with the eighteenth century's Enlightenment, a period of intellectual change that spread across Western Europe and America. The Enlightenment was characterized by,

…[first] the replacement of the supernatural by the natural, of religion by science, of divine decree by natural law, and of priests by philosophers. Second was the exaltation of reason, guided by experience, as the instrument that would solve all problems, whether social, political, or even religious. Third was the belief in the perfectibility of man and society and, accordingly, the belief in the progress of the human race. And finally, there was a humane and humanitarian regard for the rights of man, and especially the right to be free from the oppression and corruption of governments (Bierstedt, 1978, p. 5).

Modernity developed from the Enlightenment, although the term modernity encompasses more than intellectual changes of the eighteenth century, usually including:

  • A new concept of self based on individualism
  • Rational and scientific thinking and the expansion of technology
  • The breakdown of traditional authority and growth of rational/legal authority
  • The birth of modern nation-state
  • The spread of education, literacy, and print culture
  • The birth and spread of mass media
  • The creation of the middle class
  • Enlightenment ideals and the expansion of civil/political/social rights and democracy
  • A smaller, more autonomous family unit
  • Increasing separation of the public and private spheres
  • The growth of the idea of privacy
  • Architectural changes to meet new ideas of civility, privacy, and family life
  • The birth and growth of capitalism, modern manufacture, and industrialization
  • The ideology of progress and development
  • Urbanization

While these changes are all interrelated, some sociologists, following Marx, have prioritized the role of the shift to capitalism as the causal force behind the other shifts in society. Others, following Weber, think that cultural changes have more weight in explaining the onset of modernity.

Marx, Weber

Marx was a materialist. That is, he believed that social analysis should begin with the material conditions of a society — the economy's form, the work people did to supply their needs and so on. He believed that the economy was primary and other social institutions — the family, religion, the government — were best understood as an outgrowth of the economic system. He also believed that each society contained structural contradictions that eventually caused it to fail and to be replaced by a new form of social organization. Using this logic, he thus thought that modernity (or more specifically in his theories, the modern capitalist system) came about because contradictions in the medieval system of feudalism had caused it to crumble. One such contradiction was the growth of the new merchant/middle class.

Marx believed that capitalism grew out of changes in labor. In the Middle Ages, households brought products to market. Some people gathered enough capital to set up cooperative ventures, where many workers engaged in production jointly. Cooperative labor is more productive than individual labor, so such ventures created more profits. This led to further experiments with the division of labor, which again increased the output of workers while it degraded the value of each worker's labor. The means of production gradually changed in this era, so that as workers shifted from individual to capitalist labor, they also shifted from tools to machinery. Both machines and workers began to specialize (Marx, 1906).

In contrast, Weber believed that capitalism sprang from cultural changes, specifically the increasing popularity of some sects of Protestantism. Calvinists (such as the Puritans) believed in predestination — people were either among the elect, or they were among the damned, and this was determined before their births. They therefore spent their lives searching for signs that they were among the elect; success in business was seen as a sign of God's approval. The development of Calvinism thus created a group of thrifty, sober people who were predisposed to work hard, save, and reinvest: perfect early capitalists (Weber, 1930).

Weber and Emile Durkheim were among the first sociologists to argue that one of the defining characteristics of the modern era was the tendency toward specialization and differentiation. These processes occur on both the institutional and individual level — both people and institutions become more specialized (Alexander, 1992). Durkheim believed that this specialization and the ensuing division of labor would help keep society unified, as people would be dependent on each other for goods and services. He referred to this new form of solidarity as organic solidarity. This would replace the traditional forms of solidarity (mechanical solidarity) based on similarity of life experience (Collins & Makowsky, 1993).



Baumeister (1986) argues that in the Medieval West, identity was fixed and linked to social institutions — "lineage, gender, home, and social class" (p. 29). Changes in religion and the structure of social classes gradually created a new sense of identity. Baumeister identifies six themes that capture the new early modern idea of self:

  • The idea of an inner self;
  • The growth of the idea of individualism, of each person as unique;
  • A new concern with privacy;
  • A new concern with death;
  • More autonomy in choosing one's spouse, and
  • A new vision of childhood as a distinct stage of life.
  • This early modern idea of self continued to evolve from the Puritan emphasis on privacy,...

(The entire section is 3775 words.)