Module 3: The Individual in Postmodern Society
Discussion Question : Name two negative outcomes of low fertility rates? Would Malthus agree with these arguments
What Is Postmodernism?
In module 2 we discussed how modern society grew out of rational design and organization. Modernist systems reject disorganization and chaos. They strongly support the power of the institution and institutionalized systems such as corporations, school systems, and the government overall. Because of a strong belief in the rationality and usefulness of the system, challenges to the modern system seem unreasonable and unacceptable. This is roughly where U.S. culture was in the middle of the twentieth century, until many challenges seemed quite reasonable and became more common in occurrence. Postmodernism not only approves of the disorganized or chaotic side of society, but embraces it (Klages, 2003).
Postmodernism recognizes that individual differences and personal self-expression are left out of the equation of the modern, rationalized system. Closed and narrow systems and rigidly defined roles were questioned in the mid-twentieth century, thus ushering in an era of postmodernism. The civil rights movement, the women’s movement, the gay rights movement, and the environmental movement are examples of how postmodernism has become tied to social movements in the last half century. This module will explore postmodernism and social movement theory and how these factors have had an impact on the individual in the postmodern world.
Postmodernism, Subjective Reality, and Social Constructivism
One of the primary differences between modernism and postmodernism is how each movement defines truth. Modernity is based on the belief in universal truths, which are generally tested and proven scientifically or analytically. Postmodernism recognizes that truth is more likely based on individual perception and interpretation (“Postmodernism,” 2005). Postmodernists see that there is no absolute truth; rather, truth depends on life experience and point of view. During the second half of the twentieth century, many new theories arose in sociology to challenge the classic perspectives of functionalism and conflict theory. One of these alternative perspectives defines reality more subjectively.
Subjective Reality and Social Constructivism
One of the main historical subtopics in sociological theory is the study of ideology, or the study of the conditions under which some, but not other, ideas come to be held as the authoritative basis for a given set of social relations. For example, as feminist theorists have studied the gender patterns of various societies, they have found that much of gender interaction is governed by the ideology of patriarchy (Lerner, 1986), or a cultural construct that has historically emphasized male dominance over and/or the ownership of property, women, children, and animals. Further, feminists have noted many of the sources or key ideas grounding this ideological framework (e.g., ideas of male prowess, divinity, or superiority) and they have tied these and related ideas to the historical patterns within which they exist (cf. Disch, 2003). Similarly, political analysts identify patterns and supportive ideas attached to such ideologies as liberalism, conservatism, democracy, monarchy, and so forth, and in each case the patterns of social relations are described as are those ideas that support them and make them seem natural and true (cf. e.g., Lakoff, 2002).
Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann are two sociologists who in the 1960s and 1970s elevated the study of ideology (or what was properly known as the “sociology of knowledge”) from its status as a sub-topic within sociology to that of a full-blown theoretical framework by which all social action and interaction could be explained (“Social construction,” 2005). Figure 3.1, below, charts out some of the key points of the Berger-Luckmann framework along with several contrasts one can note between it and more traditional perspectives.
Figure 3.1 Contrasts between the Social Constructionist and Traditional Perspectives
The Social Construction of Reality Traditional Functionalism Traditional Conflict Theory
Society Society is a subjective reality, the reality of knowledge and all that passes for knowledge. A social structure rooted in large scale institutions borne of established behavioral patterns. A social structure rooted in imbalanced power relations.
The Individual One who creates reality through negotiating what has been previously internalized; one who constructs world and culture from interactions. A role-defined recipient of society’s values, norms and structures. A person socialized into the norms of the dominant culture, which in the Western world presumes modernization and social differentiation. A role-defined recipient of society’s values, norms and structures; societal structures are understood as imbalanced power relations that seek to maintain social control of the individual.
Social Interaction Symbolic mediation of all human experience, occurring typically through the three-way dialectic of internalization, objectivation, and externalization. Role-defined enactments or exchanges with and within the subsystem units of society, e.g., roles within gender and family systems, occupational, political affiliations. Varies: At times interaction involves compliance with “the system.” Other times it involves the effort to change or redefine the system.
Social Change Occurs through new mediations of culture resulting from the three-way dialectic mentioned above. With a new vision, consciousness-raising can occur, current structures can be re-imagined, and the possibilities for change can be made clear. Adaptation of structures to maintain social balance, accomplished through gradual adjustments of system components. Change occurs typically through efforts to overthrow the established power networks and establish a more equitable social arrangement.
For Berger and Luckmann, all interaction is social in nature and not merely because such interaction involves more than one person, but rather because all interaction is subjective in nature, or based upon what people know or presume to know as true. Berger and Luckmann (1966) state this quite clearly in the opening pages of their main theoretical work, The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge. It is their “contention” they write, that
[the] sociology of knowledge must concern itself with whatever passes for knowledge in society regardless of the ultimate validity or invalidity (by whatever criteria) of such “knowledge.” And, insofar as all human “knowledge” is developed, transmitted and maintained in social situations, the sociology of knowledge must seek to understand the processes by which this is done in such a way that a taken-for-granted “reality” congeals for the man in the street (p. 3).
More summarily, Berger and Luckmann are saying that (1) all interaction is knowledge-based and within this, it is socially grounded and socially constructed, and (2) it is socially maintained over time, and over the same time, it is socially delivered to the members of society. Further, Berger and Luckmann are also saying that (3) not only is all knowledge socially created, maintained, and delivered, but it is, in fact, created, maintained, and delivered in such a way that society’s members don’t even know these processes are happening.
There are enormous implications within the Berger-Luckmann framework for understanding the relationship between the individual and society. One particular implication is especially important: namely, that if what individuals experience as society is, in fact, socially grounded, socially constructed, and socially maintained, then it is also the case that what individuals experience as society may be socially re-grounded, re-constructed, and re-delivered to the members of the society in question. Put differently, the Berger-Luckmann thesis casts an alternative light on how individuals experience and shape their biographies within society, and in this alternative perspective, the interaction between the self and society is less that of the “cog” moving within the system—less that of the contained and compliant automaton—and more that of the individual who is a co-creator with others, of and within a shared world.
In short, if society is a socially constructed reality within which individuals actually participate given the measure of their own knowledge, then the capacity of individuals for creativity may not be as dehumanized as the McDonaldization or rationalization theses suggest. Rather, it may be opened out to a future that seeks a more meaningful interaction between the individual and society. In fact, one of the key differences between the McDonaldization thesis and the social constructionist perspective is that according to McDonaldization, the individual is an automaton within a closed system—with an authority structure that is both corporate and bureaucratic in nature; whereas to the social constructionist, individuals are defined as participants with the ability re-create the system—not as individuals, but as co-creators with others as society’s “reality” is examined, de-constructed, and reconstructed within the possibilities of its institutionalized knowledge base.
Postmodernism and Social Movement Theory
This leads us to the relationship between the postmodern view of society and social change. The social movements of the postmodern era are more complex than the traditional struggle between the classes as defined by conflict theory, or the gradual adjustment of systems as defined by functionalism. In the latter half of the twentieth century we began to see social movement that was based as much upon cultural affiliation and identity as it was on economic disparity. The inclusion of sociocultural issues was new to the definition of social movement, yet played a significant role in, for example, the civil rights movement and the women’s movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Both of these movements demonstrate how views of the truth that differ from the dominant perspective played a part in re-shaping society.
So how do sociologists theorize that society’s differences in opinion transformed into powerful social movements? They actually have devised many theories to address this. Much of social movement theory is based on the roles that spontaneity, group structure, and perspective play in galvanizing a movement. Brief summaries of some of these theories are presented below.
Collective Behavior Theory
Any review of social movement theory must also briefly discuss collective behavior theory. Collective behavior theory describes a variety of group behaviors ranging from riots and lynch mobs to sit-ins and revolutions (“Collective behavior,” 2002). It can include many types of mass behavior, including those influenced by serious political issues (for example, a war protest) or merely by fads (such as body piercing). Collective behavior contributes to social movements when a group of people spontaneously and/or emotionally engages in a common response to a social issue or event—such as unfair wages at a worksite or a crime spree in a neighborhood (Marx & Wood, 1975). This spontaneous group response functions as a catalyst to the beginning of an organization, foundation, protest, or other type of demand for change. Collective behavior theory helps to explain how spontaneity and human impulse contribute to social movements.
Resource Mobilization Theory
This theory analyzes social movements based on the structure of the movement, not the spontaneity. It proposes that a social movement’s likelihood to emerge and succeed is based is based on the group’s available resources, such as money, time, status, technology, knowledge/skills, and so forth (Sommerville, 1997). Groups can have a great desire and need for change, but if they are not able to effectively construct an organization that can challenge the power structure, social movement will not occur. In some cases, the use of existing structure allows for the formation of a successful movement, such as the involvement of Black churches in moving forward the early civil rights movement.
Relative Deprivation Theory
This theory states that a group is motivated to change when it perceives it is unfairly experiencing lower status, income, opportunities, or other social conditions, in comparison to similar groups. The perception of unfairness—the sense of unfair distribution or unjust treatment between the groups—is what motivates the change (Young & Lea, 1996). Relative deprivation differs from classic conflict theory because it does not describe movements that occur due to large discrepancies between the very rich and poor. It is more likely applied to movements that occur when differences between the groups are quite small, but perceptions of deprivation are quite large. For example, conflict between the American heartland and East/West coast culture (“red” states vs. “blue” states) where actual differences between these groups might be smaller than the perceived differences.
This view is somewhat similar to relative deprivation theory. It describes movements that arise when established social groups attempt to distance themselves from emerging social groups on the basis of moral superiority (Sommerville, 1997). The established group often purports that its established perspective or cultural experience is the standard for society and those of the opposing view are morally inferior in their view. An early example of this would be that of the rise of the “moral majority” in the 1980s in response to the counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s.
Although these theories differ, they all have certain postmodern elements running through them. Collective behavior theory describes how groups come together to challenge an event or system with which they collectively disagree. Similarly, resource mobilization theory turns modernity upside-down by showing how individuals have used pre-existing structure or systems to challenge other systems. Relative deprivation theory and status discontent are built around differing perceptions of the truth and expressions of these truths—something that gained great momentum in postmodernist society. All of these theories describe challenges to established systems through challenging the established perception of the truth, and the behaviors (whether spontaneous or structured) that followed. These theories can be applied to several social movements of the twentieth century. The two movements with the greatest impact in the last fifty years have been the civil rights movement and the women’s movement.
Social Movement Theory Applied
Lewis Killian (1984) conducted an analysis of the civil rights movement to investigate the role of spontaneity, emergent (new) behavior, pre-existing structures, and the transformation of organizations in the movement. He specifically examines how the movement flourished in Tallahassee, Florida between 1955 and 1965. He describes how the bus boycott and sit-in movements were formed and successfully executed. His application of social movement theory provides insight into the relationship between spontaneity and structure in social movements, and determined that.
Killian expands upon the discussion of social movement theory by saying that spontaneity and structure are not polar tendencies. In fact, the civil rights movement benefited from both. Spontaneous or emergent behaviors are not necessarily impulsive behaviors. They are likely based upon existing traditions or patterns of behaviors already present in a group. Spontaneity might simply be a decision that now is the right time to act. This decision, combined with organizational structure, is the likely beginning of social movement.
Jo Freeman (1973) conducted her analysis of the women’s movement in the early 1970s when the movement was still quite new. She also focuses on the origins of the movement: how groups merged, developed, and moved forward. Her analysis focuses on how the differing perspectives and experiences of older, professional women (and their more structured system) combined with the movement of younger, college-age women (with a more spontaneous, interpersonal system).
More important, though, Freeman also challenges how traditional sociological theory explains the emergence of the women’s movement. For example, she states that there was no compelling cause for the movement to begin in the early 1970s, as that was a time when the socio-economic status of women had been relatively unchanged for twenty years. The emergence of this movement was more postmodern in formation in that it was based upon changing identities of women during that era and not upon socioeconomic oppression. Freeman states that women found themselves in a collective state of discontent with a perceived need for change. This, combined with newly formed organizations, empowered them to act upon their discontent. Killian’s and Freeman’s discussions exemplify the complexities of the postmodern social movement.
Some Final Thoughts
Our society saw many social movements take form as the twentieth century became the twenty-first century, including the anti-nukes movement, the animal rights movement, the environmental movement, and others. Some might say that many of today’s social movements provide pros and cons for the postmodern experience. In many ways, postmodern society has liberated the individual. Society is more easily adaptive, more open, and more tolerant of individual expression. But, are there downsides to this? For example, the counterculture movement of the 1960s is an example of postmodernist theory in action. The counterculture or hippie movement challenged the social order of the time. Many of the individuals in this movement were educated, middle class, and of the dominant culture. The movement did not require a change in social status or economics, so much as a change in the social order or social norms of the day. This was a generation who rejected the modernist, bureaucratic structure of the forty-hour work week and “button-down” lifestyle. Many young people withdrew from traditional churches to study Eastern philosophies and left the suburbs for communes. This movement challenged the truths of traditional society and offered alternatives for others.
However, this opening of society and emphasis on the individual has changed our society in ways that many may not have expected. Society is now considerably more informal than it was fifty years ago, and some believe that with decreasing formality we have accepted a decreasing civility in our culture. Increased tolerance for differing points of view has put religious groups at odds with the movement of “adult” culture (including pornography and violence in films and video games) into mainstream culture and “family” culture. It has put parents at odds with children as, through advertising, product development, television programming, and fashion designed for younger and younger markets, culture has increasingly encouraged children to become individualists.
In fact, the most significant conflicts of the current era may be the clash between religious fundamentalism and individualism. This has occurred both internationally (the individualism of Americans and how this is viewed by, for example, Islamic fundamentalists) and internally within America (the conflict between Christian fundamentalists and individualists pushing for more social movement for gay rights, sexual freedom, and other issues). What can we learn from postmodernism, social constructivism, or social movement theory when approaching these conflicts? We will continue our exploration of these questions as we move on to our study of globalization in module 4.
Berger, P., & Luckmann, T. (1966). The social construction of reality: A treatise in the sociology of knowledge. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.
Collective behavior. (2002). Sociology index. Retrieved August 2005, from http://www.sociologyindex.com/collective_behavior.htm.
Disch, E. (2003). Reconstructing gender: A multi-cultural anthology. (3rd ed.). Boston: McGraw-Hill.
Freeman, J. (1973, Jan.). The origins of the women’s liberation movement. The American Journal of Sociology, 78(4), 792–811.
Killian, L. M. (1984, Dec.). Organization, rationality and spontaneity in the civil rights movement. American Sociological Review, 49(6), 770–783.
Klages, M. (2003). Postmodernism. Retrieved August 2005, from http://www.colorado.edu/English/ENG2012Klages/pomo.html.
Lakoff, G. (2002). Moral politics: How liberals and conservatives think. (2nd ed.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Lerner, G. (1986). The creation of patriarchy. New York: Oxford University Press.
Marx, G. T., & Wood, J. L. (1975). Strands of theory and research in collective behavior. Annual Review of Sociology, 1, 363–428.
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Sommerville, J. (1997, Nov.). Social movement theory, women and the question of interests. Sociology, 31(31), 673–695.
Young, J., & Lea, J. (1996). Relative deprivation. In Muncie, J., McLaughlin, E., & Langan, M. (Eds.), Criminological perspectives: The open university reader (pp 136–144). London: Sage.
This article discusses the declining birth rate of women throughout most the world and the sociological and demographic implications.
A series of articles on the ranking of US students compared to the world, based on the PISA exam. The first two articles have opposing interpretations of US test scores. The third shows where the US compares to the world in education, and the last one shows how educational rankings relate to economic performance of nations.
This article discusses how the US students lag around the average on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) test of science, math, and reading.
A podcast by Diane Rehm on a book by Amanda Ripley, The Smartest Kids In the World, where the author follows three American kids who study abroad.
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