Postmodern Approaches to Sociological Theory Research Paper Starter

Postmodern Approaches to Sociological Theory

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Sociology, a relatively new academic discipline, was established by 19th century theorists' intent on developing a new social science that would bring the certainty of science and mathematics to a new set of problems introduced by the rise of industrialization and the modern city. Given the timing of its development, sociology was shaped by the ideals of the modern world view. This perspective included a general belief in universalism, progress, institutions, and the certainty of the scientific method. During the second half of the 20th century a growing number of theorists began to question the validity of the fundamental assumptions of modern era. These anti-modern, or postmodern, theorists have had a significant influence on the study of society. This article gives an overview of the three general themes in the postmodern critique of the modernity and presents how ideas from these critiques have influenced various postmodern approaches to sociological theory.

Keywords Critical Theory; Cultural Industry; Différance; Meta-Narrative; Modernity; Paradigms; Positivism; Postmodernity; Social Facts

Postmodern Approaches to Sociological Theory


Sociology was founded and formed within the ideals of modernity. Theory in sociology is an account of the world that goes beyond what we can see and measure. It embraces a set of interrelated definitions and relationships that organizes our concepts and understanding of the world (Marshall, 1998). Early social thinkers adopted the dominant themes of modernity, universalism, progress, institutions, and the certainty of the scientific method, and applied them to emerging new social order. Saint-Simon (1760-1825) seized on the ideas of social progress based on the writings of Rousseau and Franklin and the certainty of Newtonian physics to propose a new social order based on science (Booth, 1871). Auguste Comte (1798-1857), who coined the term sociology, adapted a philosophy of mathematics to a new science of politics that he believed could positively identify the scientific laws underpinning society and apply these laws to the progress of humanity (Pickering, 1993). Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) adapted ideas from Darwin and recommended a social order based on the survival of the fittest (Francis, 2007). These early social theorists grounded the new discipline of sociology in the dominant principles of modernity. Since that time sociology has expanded as a discipline and developed its own methodologies to substantiate its claim of being a social science. Through its development the underlying assumptions of mainstream sociological theory remained anchored in the universalism, progress, institutions, and the certainty of the scientific method.

What is Postmodernism?

Postmodernism is a wide sweeping reaction to the modern. It is not an organized movement and many of the theorists and writers identified as postmodernist refute the label. Initially a movement reacting to modern architecture and modernism in art, postmodernism as a critique of the modern has spread to every department in academia. Postmodernists in sociology have focused their critique on modernity, its assumptions, institutions, economic order, and culture. They believe modernity has ended and that we are in the era of postmodernity (Giddens, 1990). Because of the fragmented nature of the postmodernism it's not possible to address all the elements of the postmodern critique. However, three broad postmodern themes that have had a significant influence on sociological theory can be identified:

• A critique of positivism.

• The theme of institutions and domination

• The critique of meta-narratives and language

Positivism is an approach to the social that maintains knowledge can only be acquired through value-free observations and the use of proper scientific or mathematical methodologies. The Postmodern critique claims that there is no such thing as a value-free observation, that science cannot be applied to the social in the same manner it is applied to nature, and that knowledge does indeed arise from other sources than observation and analysis.

Postmodern writers address the power of institutions, their ability to discipline, how they advantage few while silencing many, and how they separate people from their needs.

Postmodern theorist have also attacked meta-narratives, grand theories that claim to capture universal principles and explain experience and the order of things, for being no longer believable in a time when people are aware of their differences, diversities, and irreconcilable needs (Lyotard, 2002). Language is oppressive, language is power, language carries with it a history and yet is contextually anchored in the moment, and perhaps the most famous Postmodern critique is that meaning in language cannot be known, but must be deferred.

These postmodern critiques attack many of the fundamental paradigms that nurtured sociology in its infancy and still form the bedrock of dominant sociological theory today. They also have provided new approaches to sociological theory and the basis for greater diversification research.



Positivism is a system for understanding society developed by Auguste Comte. Comte believed that society evolved through three stages: theological, metaphysical, and the positive. In the positive stage society would no longer depend on abstract rationalizations; rather, individuals would be able to gather knowledge through observation and affirm this observation through the positive (scientific) method. This process would allow individuals to gain the knowledge needed to govern themselves (Comte, 1988). Over time, two other ideas became associated with positivism. The first was the idea of social facts and the second was the idea of value-free observation. Social facts is a term coined by Emile Durkheim (1858 - 1917). A social fact is a social practice, rule, duty, or sanction that exists outside the individual. Durkheim believed a positivist social science could study social facts and uncover universal social laws. These laws could then be used to judge a society's well-being (Morrison, 2006). Though Comte certainly never specifically called for value-free observation, it is implied in his approach. It was Max Weber (1864 - 1920) who would call for a "value neutral" science in sociology. His idea became an identifying characteristic of positivism.

Critical Theory

The postmodern criticism of positivism has been anchored in a school of social thought called critical theory. Critical theory proposes that sociology should not only analyze society, but work to change it. Max Horkheimer (1895 - 1973), who first defined critical theory, was one of the early critics of positivism. Horkheimer had no quarrel with the role of observation in the social sciences. He was as much of an empiricist as Comte. However, positivism elevated observation and scientific method as the lone viable source for knowledge of the world. For Horkheimer this reduced the world to a world of "facts." These "facts" were mere creations of the devices of scientists. These "facts" could not be questioned. Though the "facts" were verifiable they could not be shown to be good, bad, true, or untrue. Furthermore, positivism only reproduced what already existed. It could not imagine a new future or new possibilities (Stirk, 1997). Positivism could not speak to the truth of art, literature, and music.

A decade later Horkheimer would identify positivism and its controlled mechanism as the instrument that fostered the rise of technical processes that objectified nature and humans, allowing both to enter seamlessly into the all-inclusive economic apparatus. Horkheimer believed that it was treating people like objects in the mechanics of society that allowed the Holocaust to happen (Adorno & Horkheimer, 1972). On the issue of value-free observation, Horkheimer argued that it only leads to objectify humans and the results are undesirable. Herbert Marcuse (1898 - 1979), a younger associate of Horkheimer, argued that value judgments simply could not be separated from reason. Who we are, our lived experience, cultures, race, and ethnicity informs all of our judgments and how we reason. Value-free judgments are therefore, at their very core, unreasonable (Marcuse, 1991).

Over the years the term positivist has fallen out of favor in sociological circles, yet traces of positivism remain. Critical theory as a postmodern critique has influenced a new generation of sociologists that work to combine the methods and theory of sociology with an understanding of the biases the observer brings to a project and the context of people being studied. Though critical theory itself remains a small contingent among sociologist the rise of feminist theory and the use of personal narratives and life stories in sociology can be traced back to critical theorists' critique of positivism.

Sociology, Institutions

Michel Foucault

Michel Foucault (1926 - 1984) is one of the few postmodern theorists that have enjoyed a considerable following among sociologists. Although Foucault rejected the postmodernist label, his contributions to the postmodern critiques are considerable. Perhaps his most provocative and influential work centered on the dire dynamic between institutions and other forms of power and knowledge that create new forms of domination (Best & Kellner, 1991). Foucault dismisses the idea of progress and replaces it with a history of one type of violence, such an uncivilized humanity, being replaced by groups of rules that create new institutions of violence and domination (Foucault, 1979). These rules are not universal or absolute. Rather they are unique to their history, context, and domain. Though they are specific they are also always changing. These rules determine social order and practices (Foucault, 1972). What Foucault does in his work is try to show how the laws that govern order and give rise to powerful institutions have their origin not in universal truths or...

(The entire section is 4441 words.)