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Anthony Giddens:
Modernity, post-modernity and the post-traditional

Those modernity issues

We are not in a post-modern era, Giddens says. It is a period of late modernity. He does not necessarily disagree with the characterisations of recent social life which other theorists have labelled as postmodern - scepticism towards metanarratives, heightened superficiality, consumerism, and so on. Giddens doesn't dispute these changes, but he says that we haven't really gone beyond modernity. It's just developed.

So it's inappropriate to call it post-modernity. It's just modernity with bells on. Late modernity. Giddens is undoubtedly right that postmodernity isn't a completely new era. But most major theorists of postmodernity, such as Lyotard, did not actually say that postmodernity replaced, and came after, modernity, anyway.

Nevertheless, the focus on modernity is useful because the most important contrast for Giddens is between pre-modern (traditional) culture and modern (post-traditional) culture. The phenomena that some have dubbed 'postmodern' are, in Giddens's terms, usually just the more extreme instances of a fully developed modernity.

Post-traditional

It is important for understanding Giddens to note his interest in the increasingly post-traditional nature of society. When tradition dominates, individual actions do not have to be analysed and thought about so much, because choices are already prescribed by the traditions and customs. (Of course, this does not mean that the traditions can never be thought about, or challenged). In post-traditional times, however, we don't really worry about the precedents set by previous generations, and options are at least as open as the law and public opinion will allow. All questions of how to behave in society then become matters which we have to consider and make decisions about. Society becomes much more reflexive and aware of its own precariously constructed state. Giddens is fascinated by the growing amounts of reflexivity in all aspects of society, from formal government at one end of the scale to intimate sexual relationships at the other.

Modernity is post-traditional. A society can't be fully modern if attitudes, actions or institutions are significantly influenced by traditions, because deference to tradition - doing things just because people did them in the past - is the opposite of modern reflexivity. Because of this, Giddens suggests that societies which try to 'modernise' in the most obvious institutional sense - by becoming something like a capitalist democracy - but which do not throw off other traditions, such as gender inequalities, are likely to fail in their attempt to be successful modern societies.


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This is only an edited and simplified version of material which will appear in this book.

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© David Gauntlett 2001