Modernity Essay

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The idea of modernity concerns the interpretation of the present time in light of historical reinterpretation. It refers too to the confluence of the cultural, social, and political currents in modern society. The term signals a tension within modern society between its various dynamics and suggests a process by which society constantly renews itself.

The term modernity as opposed to modern did not arise until the nineteenth century. One of the most famous uses of the term was in 1864, when the French poet Baudelaire (1964: 13) gave it the most well-known definition: By modernity I mean the transitory, the fugitive, the contingent.” Baudelaire’s definition of modernity was reflected in part in modernism to indicate a particular cultural current in modern society that captured the sense of renewal and cosmopolitanism of modern life. It signaled a spirit of creativity and renewal that was most radically expressed in the avant-garde movement. But the term had a wider social and political resonance in the spirit of revolution and social reconstruction that was a feature of the nineteenth century. Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto invoked the spirit of modernity with their description of modern society and capitalism as the condition  all that is solid melts into air.”

Within classical sociology, Georg Simmel is generally regarded as the figure who first gave a more rigorous sociological interpretation of modernity, with his account of social life in the modern city. For Simmel, as for Benjamin, modernity is expressed in diverse momentary images” or snapshots.” The fragmentation of modern society, on the one side, and on the other new technologies such as the camera and the cinema led to more and more such moments and the feeling that there is nothing durable and solid.

Modernity may thus be described simply as the loss of certainty and the realization that certainty can never be established once and for all. It is a term that also can simply refer to reflection on the age and in particular to movements within modern society that lead to the emergence of new modes of thought and consciousness.

Developments within postmodern thought gave additional weight to modernity as containing autonomous logics of development and unfulfilled potential. Several theorists argued that the postmodern moment should be seen to be merely modernity in a new key. What has emerged out of these developments is a new interest in cultural modernity” as a countermovement in modern society. Rather than dispensing with modernity, postmodernism and postcolonialism have given a new significance to the idea of modernity which now lies at the center of many debates in sociology and other related disciplines in the social and human sciences.

Anthony Giddens and Ulrich Beck, in different but related ways, have highlighted the reflexivity of modernity. The notion of reflexive modernization, or reflexive modernity, is aimed to capture the ways in which much of the movement of modernity acts upon itself. Beck has introduced the notion of late modernity as a second modernity,” while Giddens characterized modernity in terms of disembedding” processes such as the separation of time and space. Such approaches to the question of modernity have been principally responding to the challenge of globalization. Globalization can be seen as a process that intensifies connections between many parts of the world, and as such it is one of the primary mechanisms of modernity today. This has led some theorists to refer to global modernity, for modernity today is global.

On the one side, modernity is indeed global, but on the other there is a diversity of routes to modernity. The problem thus becomes one of how to reconcile the diversity of societal forms with a conception of modernity that acknowledges the consequences of globalization. It is in this context that the term multiple modernities can be introduced. Originally advocated by S. N. Eisenstadt (2003), this has grown out of the debate on globalization, comparative civilizational analysis, and the “postcolonial concern with alternative modernities” (Gaonkar 2001). Central to this approach is a conceptualization of modernity as plural condition. Associated with this turn in the theory of modernity is a gradual movement away from the exclusive concern with western modernity to a more cosmopolitan perspective.


  1. Baudelaire, C. (1964) The painter of modern life. In: The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays. Phaidon Press, London.
  2. Bauman, Z. (1987) Legislators and Interpreters: On Modernity, Postmodernity, and Intellectuals.PolityPress, Cambridge.
  3. Beck, U., Giddens, A., & Lash, S. (1994) Reflexive Modernization. Polity Press, Cambridge.
  4. Eisenstadt, S. N. (2003) Comparative Civilizations and Multiple Modernities, vols. 1 and 2. Brill, Leiden.
  5. Gaonkar, D. P. (ed.) (2001) Alternative Modernities. Duke University Press, Durham, NC.

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