Postmodernity, Personal Freedom, and Social Responsibility
Postmodern society is shaped by a number of factors including a continuation of the modern trends toward greater geographical and socioeconomic mobility, a shift from extended to nuclear families as the basic building blocks of society, and a resultant shifting of responsibilities that were formerly performed within the parameters of the family to the government. Postmodern society is also marked by a number of characteristics, including relativism and consumption. Arguably, these are the results of the quickly shifting nature of technology in postmodern societies and how these technologies change the lifestyles of individuals and organizations. Postmodern society offers its members great personal freedom. However, this does not obviate the social responsibilities of society's members, particularly as the effects of consumption are seen on the environment. More research is needed to better understand the character of the postmodern relationship between individual freedom and social responsibility, how these two variables interact, and how to determine an appropriate balance between the two in a relativistic society.
Keywords Capitalism; Ethics; Globalization; Green Movement; Industrialization; Information Technology; Postindustrial; Postmodernism; Relativism; Social Construct; Social Responsibility; Society; Sociocultural Evolution; Socioeconomic Status (SES); Technology
Social Change: Postmodernity, Personal Freedom,
As I write this article, we are in the middle of the financial crisis of 2008. It is difficult to tell at this point where the crisis will lead or how it will be resolved. However, pundits have offered a number of reasons for how and why we got here. One of the factors is the mortgage crisis and eventual proliferation of foreclosures. The local newspaper has increasingly had articles about individuals who have been caught in this trap, and even of entire neighborhoods or communities that are little more than a long line of for-sale signs signifying the turmoil of multiple foreclosures as people who obtained jumbo adjustable rate loans or subprime mortgages to pay for larger homes than they could afford lose both their homes and their investments. I remember in particular one article in the paper about a woman whose home was going into foreclosure because she had obtained a subprime loan with no money down and could no longer afford to pay for it. Her reaction surprised me. Rather than feeling sad or accepting responsibility, she was incensed, as she explained, because America is the land of opportunity and part of the American dream is to own one's own home. The fact that she could not afford to do so did not seem to make an impact on her thinking. She saw her circumstance as being the fault of the mortgage company and the government. Yet, her exercise of personal freedom to buy a house that she could not afford and the subsequent foreclosure not only caused serious financial consequences to herself and her family, but also put a burden on the bank — and eventually its investors — and (along with the actions of others) had a rippling effect that contributed to the current crisis.
This is an example of personal freedom (to buy a house one cannot afford) and social responsibility (in considering the needs of her now homeless family) in the postmodern era.
The Industrial Revolution
Although earlier stages of sociocultural evolution tended to be relatively slow, the industrialization of society following the Industrial Revolution in the latter part of the 18th and early part of the 19th centuries brought with it technologies that rapidly changed society. New sources of power to perform tasks, a dependence on mechanization to produce goods and services, and new inventions to facilitate agricultural and industrial production led significant numbers of people to move to the cities where the jobs were, so populations became more centralized into urban centers. Industrialization brought with it factory production, division of labor, and the concentration of industries and populations within certain geographical areas and concomitant urbanization. In addition, with the advent of industrialization, societies increasingly no longer revolve around the family, and many workers leave home in order to work in factories or other centralized places of employment. Villages and other small communities became increasingly less independent and relied on each other for the exchange of goods and services. Further, the family began to lose its unique position as a source of power and authority within society.
However, industrialization is not the zenith of sociocultural evolution. Societies have moved from being industrial in nature to being postindustrial in nature as their economies are no longer dependent on the manufacture of goods (i.e., industrial), but is primarily based upon the processing and control of information and the provision of services. This situation is often referred to as postmodernity, which from a philosophical and sociological perspective, questions or rejects claims of absolute certainty and objective truth. As postmodern societies continue to enter the era of postindustrialization and late capitalism (with its emphasis on the processing and control of information and the provision of services rather than a dependency on the manufacture of goods), an increasing number of urban jobs continue to be created, causing individuals and families to continue to migrate to the cities. The continuing migration to urban areas coupled with the contemporary tendency for married people to move out from their parents' home and start a nuclear family of their own results in increasing residential segregation where one generation is less able to help another generation. Younger people tend to also have more social mobility than did previous generations, a situation that often results in increased social distance between the generations and a concomitant inversion of status between them. With the increased emphasis on the needs of the smaller, nuclear family rather than on the larger extended family, individuals in postmodern societies can become more focused on their own needs rather than those outside their immediate circle. This tendency is compounded by the fact that the increased social mobility of the younger generations in postmodern societies as well as the tendency for nuclear rather than extended families results in a situation where the government increasingly takes over responsibilities (e.g., education, caring for the elderly) that were previously accomplished inside the family structure. This gives postmoderns even more freedom.
Recently, many theorists have started talking about society as being postmodern rather than postindustrial. Like postindustrial societies, postmodern societies have a high degree of technological sophistication. From a sociological perspective, members of postmodern societies tend to be preoccupied with consumer goods and media images. As a result, postmodern societies consume both goods and information in great quantities. This is amply illustrated by the different attitudes toward acquiring things in the mid-20th century and today. For example, it was rare for adolescents in the mid-20th century to have their own phones let alone their own telephone numbers. Today, however, high school students (and even those much younger) feel deprived if they do not have not only a cell phone, but one with text-messaging capabilities, a built-in camera, and wireless Internet access. Similarly, many teenagers today are given their own car when they get their drivers license, a rarity less than 50 years ago. Young people today also frequently seek to emulate their television and movie idols, who — for good or ill — are perceived to be role models. However, this type of postmodern attitude is not only confined to adolescents. Adults, too, not only seem to be more focused on acquiring "things," but also on media images. One has only to watch political advertisements on television in an election year to realize how image conscious adults can be. Rather than talking about the issues or truly debating positions, too often campaigns devolve into exercises in slinging proverbial mud on one's opponent while dodging what is slung from the other direction.
Postmodernism is based on the premise that society is not a static thing that can easily be defined. In fact, postmodern theorists often challenge the assumption that society is real. Rather, postmodern theorists treat society as a social construct and look at the words and images (i.e., the discourses) that the members of society use to express themselves and represent their ideas. This means that articulating concepts such as personal freedom and social responsibility becomes difficult because they, too, are social constructs. As with other aspects of postmodern society, these concepts, too, are considered to be constructs, changeable to meet the needs of the situation. In fact, postmodernism in general is characterized by relativism, or the philosophy that truth and moral...
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