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Modernity, in its sociological usage, generally refers to the social and cultural characteristics describing the period of history in the West since the 17th and 18th centuries. Typically, modernity is described in terms of contrast between the modern period and the feudal era that preceded it, especially in terms of changing capacity for understanding, harnessing, and transforming the nonhuman world.
Although there have been dramatic improvements since the feudal era, most sociological discussion and analysis has focused on the negative aspects of modernity. Scholars have raised many issues in their attempts to characterize modernity. Some of the more common characteristics of modernity include: the replacement of religion by science as the major social institution establishing truth; rapid social, economic, and political change; the nation state; global commerce, capitalism, and industrialization; totalizing political ideologies; a highly specialized and mobile workforce; the breakdown of community and increasing individualization; uncertainty and reflexivity; normlessness; the ascendancy of instrumental reason in all social arenas; centralized administration and bureaucracy; the idea of progress; and the domination of nature.
These various, but interlinked, characteristics of modernity could be roughly grouped into those seen by some to be progressive, such as the replacement of superstition with rationality and science; while others seem more problematic, such as the loss of community and increasing normlessness. Social progress is a concept that forms a central aspect of modernity. But grave doubts began to arise in the 19th century among existentialist philosophers such as Friedrich Nietzsche, which intensified in the 20th century. After two world wars, the Holocaust, increasing social estrangement, and the increasing awareness of what the application of science and engineering was doing to the environment, radical doubt increasingly developed regarding the progressive ideal of modernity.
This later period, especially since World War II and extending to the present, is sometimes categorized as “high,” “late,” or “reflexive” modernity. The spirit of open inquiry and questioning of traditional institutions that form a major aspect of modern social change have increasingly been directed at the institutions of modernity itself. This period is characterized by chronic and pervasive doubt and uncertainty, which has replaced the sometimes brash confidence in social progress that was the zeitgeist of earlier “classical” modernity. Sociologist Anthony Giddens states “modernity effectively involves the institutionalization of doubt.”
However, critique of the institutions of modernity has been around from the beginning. The Romantic movement of the 18th and 19th centuries rebelled against many of the changes, and 19th and early 20th century sociologists made in-depth analysis of the negative aspects of social change that had occurred since the feudal period. Much of the focus of this analysis was on the disruption of traditional communities and the commodification of labor. German sociologists such as Ferdinand Tonnies, Max Weber, and Karl Marx are particularly noted for analyzing and describing these changes.
Postmodernists (those arguing that modernity has ended and a new historical period has begun) and neomodernists (who see the current social problematic as only an acceleration of social schemas characteristic of modernity) both maintain that it is an age of radical uncertainty and doubt, including the questioning of the very institutions associated with modernity, such as science, reason, and the possibility of human progress through the application of efficiency and scientific knowledge. The neomodernist perspective expressed by sociologist Ulrich Beck argues that the rise of new social movements and the critique of modernist institutions such as science and technology, “does not stand in contradiction to modernity, but is rather an expression of reflexive modernization.”
This radical doubt coupled with the lack of any ultimate source of truth and the hyper-individualization of modern society, where individuals are cut loose from the moorings of community and traditional norms, raises the anxiety-producing responsibility of each individual to figure out how they should live. This heavy responsibility on the individual to construct his or her identity occurs within a social context of unlimited choice, which creates a problem. On the one hand, one of the manifestations of Ulrich Becks’s “risk society” was the spawning of the contemporary environmental movement where pollution and other perceived assaults on nature by modern industry and the application of science were questioned. It is characteristic of the risk society attitude that change is no longer viewed as inevitable, but the product of human agency (intentional human action), thereby creating the perception that individuals and institutions are responsible for perceived risks.
On the other hand, environmentalists have evoked a modernist view of science as representing a true and inerrant picture of reality, and use science to argue against perceived environmental insults against some scientifically determined standard for what nature should be. This perspective is in contradiction to the doubt about the modern project among some scholars. For example, even putting aside the epistemological issues of claims to scientific certainties about the environment, the science of ecology now posits nature as highly context specific, driven by chance, and subject to continual and dramatic change, not a perpetual “balance” that can be determined by scientific research and then maintained.
Late modernity’s realization of the dramatic limitations to human knowledge and ability problematizes the project of controlling or restoring human caused change in nature, much less resolving the perennial conflict among human groups over which “nature” is the right one. In a brilliant essay addressing this issue, sociologist Bronislaw Szerszynski states that “the world-picture at the heart of the modern problematic [is] that of a lonely humanity faced with the task of pure self-assertion in a meaningless world which no longer tells them/us what to do.” As such, according to Szerszynski, there is no absolute referent regarding the goals of environmental stewardship or nature preservation, and “ecology, while seeming to promise a re-embedding of human choices and judgments within a framework which transcends mere human wishes, fails to do so, and always leads us back into the nihilistic condition of groundless self-assertion in a world without purpose and meaning.” This condition of late modernity exposes the pretense of using science to justify some absolute standard for the environment that should be imposed on others who disagree, and leaves the debate on environmental protection and restoration where it belongs-in the political arena. With no absolute standard for nature, and given the wide discrepancies among individuals in the power to influence political decision making, the most socially just process for decision making is paramount.
Given the ever-changing nature of revealed reality due to technological, social, and scientific change, it renders impossible any absolute standard of how nature should be. Much as Nietzsche dramatically pointed out the existential (and terrifying) freedom of modern man in the social and moral realm by the metaphor “God is dead,” the same problem of radical freedom is faced in attempts to manage or maintain natural systems in a particular way. There is no absolute standard to be found in nature for any objective, absolute criteria to direct our natural resource or environmental policy. As modernity relativized personal moral and religious beliefs, so it has with the use and character of the natural world.
- Ulrich Beck, Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity (SAGE Publications, 1992);
- Anthony Giddens, The Consequences of Modernity (Stanford University Press, 1990);
- Anthony Giddens, Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age (Stanford University Press, 1991);
- David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change (Basil Blackwell, 1989);
- Scott Lash, Bronislaw Szerszynski, and Brian Wynne, , Risk, Environment and Modernity: Towards a New Ecology (SAGE Publications, 1996).