Progress & the Postmodern Society Research Paper Starter

Progress & the Postmodern Society

(Research Starters)

The progress of technology and social forms have led to deliberations of what it means to live in a modern society. This self-reflection of modernity on its own meaning has resulted in a new epoch. The dissemination of these debates through digital media has permeated society and has had an effect on the application of technology and progress toward furthering the effects of this change of epoch. Thereby, the new age has continually and in full awareness and foresight been transcending its current state.

Keywords Actor-Network Theory; Assemblages; Autopoiesis; Biopower; Biological Citizenship; Consumerism; Cultural Capital; Digital Divide; Digital Inequality; Grand Narratives; Reflexive Modernity; The Social Construction of Reality



Any discussion of a concept such as progress in relation to postmodern society must first ask what postmodernity actually means. Postmodernity as a concept has several divergent and disputed meanings and definitions. The question can even be asked whether there actually is such a thing as postmodernity and whether we do not live in just another mode of modernity; others have even questioned if we have ever been modern at all.

In his landmark study The Postmodern Condition, French scholar Lyotard (1979) analyzes the effect that postmodernity has had on the meaning of human life. The study was originally a report written for a Canadian Council on higher education, yet it became a philosophic bestseller as a monograph. The report was intended to convey an idea of the effects of modern communication technologies in society.

Lyotard argues that society in the postmodern age is showing a trend of losing faith in the grand narratives that had served as modes of orientation for prior generations. This represents a turning point also in the history of the concept of postmodernity, which up to this point was often used in the field of art criticism. In Lyotard's work, it is turned toward a positive identification of the present time in philosophy and sociology. The concept of progress is one of those grand narratives amongst which we can count the claim of science to unveil all knowledge, or religion's promise of ultimate salvation, or the continuous progress of history and civilization, among others. Lyotard discards these in the incredulity that the postmodern society shows as an attitude toward these grand narratives and toward liberalist, Enlightenment, positivist, and Marxist ideologies alike (Lyotard, 1979).

Actual progress, in Lyotard's account, is made in the field of technology but without a "teleological end-in-sight." It is the technologies of communication and information that continue to open up the channels of the discourse of societies and thereby render the grand narratives ineffective and reveal them as a mere "language game," using the terminology of Wittgenstein. Thus, science destroys its own narrative by enabling an ever increasing plurality of such language games.

American literary critics such as Frederic Jameson identify within postmodernity a form of late capitalism, thereby reducing the dynamics of progress to the forces of finance capitalism and the devaluation of labor in that both money and labor are rendered liquid and mobile. The metaphor of liquidity is prominently addressed in the works of sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, who studied the ambiguity of modernity in the social process of bureaucracy, social exclusion, and their relationships to rationality. The ambivalences and ambiguities of these processes are solid and manifest in modernity, but with the transformation to postmodernity and consumerism are rendered liquid, giving rise to fears and the perception of uncontrollable risks.

The latter topic is the central feature of the work of sociologist Ulrich Beck, who argued that the risk society is a type of society in which the risks that emerge through technological progress, such as nuclear power or CO2-emissions, are no longer contained within national borders and therefore cannot be nationally controlled. The clear perception of these developments by the public, as well as the constant awareness of the interdependencies and the risks and dangers that lie outside of the sphere of their own society's political control, have resulted in a different type of society due to the aggregation into new forms of living, social movements, and political activism. The original publication of Beck's 1986 seminal work, Risk Society, was framed by the Chernobyl catastrophe and the political rise of Europe's environmentalist movement and green parties.


In the social sciences, progress is often loosely defined by three historic phases:

  • Premodernity
  • Modernity
  • Postmodernity or Reflexive/Second Modernity
  • However, as is often the case with such concepts, the actual definitions and intervals are highly disputed. This becomes clear when we ask the question whether the time we live in now is just a new phase of modernity, or if it is a postmodern age, or further, if we find ourselves in a second or reflexive modernity. Some have argued that the concept of modernity itself should not be used at all, for we have never been modern. However, a brief presentation follows:


    Premodernity can be described as a phase of agrarian society. Production is limited to a base of human and animal power. There is no mass production. Publication and political, religious, and scientific discourse are still intertwined and subject to oral and written correspondence. Political regimes are based on charismatic and traditional authority.

    The first epochal change arrived with the establishment of the printing press and large-scale distribution of printed works, enabling a wider political, religious, and scientific discourse, while also making possible a separation of these three spheres, as Elisabeth Eisenstein (1980) has shown.


    Even though the term modern is generally used to describe the "current and contemporary state of affairs," the intellectual concept of modernity can be described as the emergence of industrialization and the emergence of the public sphere, in accordance with Jurgen Habermas. The economic situation began to change with factories, mass production, and the invention and industrial application of the steam engine as a power source.

    The rise of the nation and republicanism as political forms were a result of the discourse in the newly emerging public sphere, and of the decline of the role of religion as a corollary of Enlightenment philosophy and modern science. The theories of evolution and new cosmic models mark the era of modernity, which was solidified with the rise of mass media, such as newspapers, radio, and the emergence of television.

    Postmodernity or Reflexive/Second Modernity

    At the advent of the digital age, the televised life was perhaps one of the first steps toward a postmodern age. Postmodernity is the least clear-cut of the concepts and continues to be highly disputed. Originally used in art criticism, the term has been used by social scientists to describe a variety of processes, each of which are directly linked to the developments leading to the high phase of modernity.

    Postmodern economy is also being increasingly transformed into a knowledge-based economy, wherein knowledge (instead of craftsmanship or human labor) is used as the primary factor for the production of commodities, while knowledge is also becoming a commodity itself. Thereby the importance of other forms of capital, such as cultural or symbolic capital, rise in importance.

    Political Authority

    Political authority and national sovereignty are broken up and fragmented in the wake of ongoing digitalization and globalization. New political forms are being discussed, such as in Colin Crouch's (2004) diagnosis that we are living in a post-democratic society. Consumerism has become a form of life; even knowledge and information have turned into commodities. The public discourse in modernity, in the hope of realizing the goals of Enlightenment, has prided itself on the public accessibility of knowledge and information to the point where, in the early twenty-first century, the Internet has been hallowed as a tool toward this goal. David Kellog (2006) illustrates that the commodification of scientific knowledge, such as in the decoding and patenting of human DNA, has created a new post-academic culture of science.

    Risk, Fear,

    Other scholars, such as Scott Lash, Anthony Giddens, and Ulrich Beck discuss the "decline" or "transformation" of modernity in a different way. Beck (2006) in particular argues that modernity has not turned into a...

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