Modernity & the Individual Research Paper Starter

Modernity & the Individual

(Research Starters)

This article discusses the social and psychological consequences of the modern era. It begins by outlining the characteristics that make modernity unique from previous periods of human history. These characteristics include rapid social change, the development of new institutions, new forms of social relations, and new technologies. The article considers the consequences of modernity on the human experience: work, family life, and social life. The article also reviews some of the political changes that have accompanied modernity. Finally, it considers the debate surrounding the transition to the post-modern era.

Keywords Alienation; Artisans; Capitalism; City-State; Critical Theory; Despot; Globalization; Industrialization; Modernity; Moral Relativism; Nation-State; Panopticon; Post-Modern; Service Work; Surveillance; Urbanization

Social Change: Modernity


The term modernity refers to the period of human history ranging roughly from the end of the Middle Ages until the mid to late 20th century. While modernity was a global phenomenon, it is generally considered a European outgrowth. While modernity is often used as a descriptive term to demarcate one period of history from another, it is intriguing to sociologists because of the particular social conditions it gave rise to. Modernity is marked by four primary characteristics that differentiate it from prior periods of social history:

  • Modernity incorporates newly rapid and extensive social change.
  • It brings with it a new set of social institutions.
  • Modernity involves a de-localization of social relations.
  • It involves the development of new technologies that allow for increasing standardization and surveillance.

In modernity, change is rapid. This is true for all aspects of social life, but particularly so for technological developments. The scope of change is vastly expanded and change reaches around the entire globe, deeply affecting people's daily lives. This change is in part driven by the rapid expansion of knowledge, including new technological developments, that occurs during modernity. It is also driven by the development of a new, modern ideology. In modernity, for the first time, people became less concerned with tradition and turned their attention toward a new ideology focused on progress and making things "better."

New Social Institutions

Among these changes was the rise of new social institutions. Three of these institutions are particularly important for understanding the consequences of modernity and the differences between modernity and prior periods of human existence. First is industrialization. In pre-modern times, production was primarily undertaken by individuals at home or by artisans in their workshops. During modernity, though, factories and mass production were developed, leading to large-scale changes in the means of production and in the daily lives of individuals. These changes were in part enabled by the development of inanimate power sources such as the steam engine, freeing producers from the need to use human or animal labor to power their machines.

Industrialization was closely related to the second crucial development of modernity: the rise of capitalism. Capitalism altered the relations between different groups in society, replacing relationships governed by servitude and mutual responsibility with relationships governed by individual choice and alienation. It also led to the commodification of goods and services as part of the new money economy, quite a contrast to the practices of barter and exchange that were common in prior periods.

The third new social institution arising with modernity was the nation-state. The nation-state was a new way of organizing government and political life which ended prior periods that were characterized by both empire-building and city-states. However, the rise of the nation-state also brought new forms of military conflict between nations, forms that were not simply border scuffles but rather disastrous large-scale wars. One primary factor enabling the development of this form military conflict was the fact that nation-states were able to monopolize the use violence within their borders by developing professionalized police and military forces.

Social Relations

Alongside the development of these new social institutions, modernity altered the social relations between individuals. In pre-modern society, social relations were embedded in the local context. Most people did not travel much over the course of their lifetimes; almost everyone they new lived in the same village or group of villages and was part of the same social networks. In modernity, people were no longer tied to their places of origin and began moving far from home to distant parts of the nation-state or to former colonies. Additionally, the process of urbanization meant that more people were living in cities than in small villages. These changes led to the growth of social relations that spanned over long distances, relations that are now easy to sustain through the use of the telephone and the Internet but which were once governed by infrequent or non-existent communication through the mail. The new residents of cities also found that their social relations more often consisted of interactions with random strangers rather than with people in their social networks (Simmel, 1950).

These global population movements were facilitated by the development of new transportation technologies. However, these new technologies allowed population movements and industrial production, but also increased standardization and surveillance in social life. First of all, new technologies allowed for the development of precise, standard, and global measures of time and space. For the first time, synchronized clocks enabled the schedule coordination for schools, factories, and trains. In addition, measurements of distance allowed for the standardization of public roads, clothing sizes, building materials, and other commonly used goods and services. Such standardized measures became part of the emerging field of social science, as well. Scholars began to develop systematic knowledge about social life through population statistics and censuses. Surveillance extended into other aspects of life, as well. For instance, Jeremy Bentham, one of the founding scholars in the field of criminology, developed a new form of imprisonment called the panopticon which would allow for greater surveillance and thus, he argued, an improvement in the behavior of prisoners (Foucault, 1995).


The many changes brought by modernity have affected all areas of social life and led to profound changes in the way that individuals live and experience the world. The basic conditions of human life were changed as modernity brought with it a much greater degree of security for individuals, particularly in terms of freedom from hunger and disease, and increased individual autonomy by providing people with opportunities to travel, relocate, and seek new and different economic opportunities. Not all the changes that came from modernity were beneficial to individuals' lives, however. While modernity increased basic security for individuals, it also increased the risks faced by society. Modernity gave humans a greater capacity to destroy the environment and to engage in technologically-based worldwide warfare, both risks that could affect the life, health, and safety of individuals. Modernity also increased the possibilities for totalitarian rule. While previous eras certainly had their share of despotic rulers, totalitarian governments under modernity were able to use new surveillance technologies to extend their reach and power into new areas of human life. Beyond these changed in the basic conditions of human life, modernity also brought changes in terms of the conditions under which individuals work, build families, and engage in social life.


As noted above, the development of modernity led to significant changes in economic and employment relations. In pre-modern times, production occurred within the realm of the family. Even where small shops or businesses existed, they were largely extensions of family and village life. Industrialization brought an end to home and family based employment. After industrialization, people went to work outside of their homes and earned a wage to compensate them for their labor. This new form of economic and employment relations led people to move away from their homes in search of better economic opportunities. However, industrial production methods ultimately led to the de-skilling of much factory labor since, when work was broken down into routine tasks that can be done by anyone, individual employees became interchangeable. This de-skilling has left industrial workers to work under the constant fear that they will be fired and replaced with a different worker. In addition, the global communications and transportation networks that developed in modernity have made it easy for production to be moved to other cities and state and even outsourced to other countries where labor is cheaper. Workers thus work harder and faster to ensure that they will keep their jobs and, according to author Joanne Ciulla, earn the opportunity to work more (2002).

Work in modernity has also been affected by the development of surveillance technologies. Whereas work done at home with the family group, or even piecework done for an outside employer, was largely free from employer surveillance, modern work is carried out under employers' watchful eyes. Workers have to punch time clocks to record when they arrived at work, when they took breaks, and when they leave for the day. Video cameras monitor workplace activities, and in some cases employers go so far as to forbid employees from talking to one another, monitor their telephone conversations, and install software...

(The entire section is 4376 words.)