Social Theory and the Postmodern

Stephen Crook. Handbook of Social Theory. Editor: George Ritzer & Barry Smart. 2001. Sage Publication.


The idea of the postmodern is no longer a novelty in social theory. Themes that had been the recondite concerns of an avant-garde in the 1980s and exploded into an intellectual crazecum-publishing bonanza in the early 1990s are now part of the standard repertoire of social theory and cognate disciplines. Undergraduate students in cultural studies and sociology learn to distinguish the postmodern from other theoretical ‘frameworks’ or ‘perspectives,’ ably assisted by the textbooks, readers and websites now available. At the same time, the idea of the postmodern sits at the heart of contemporary ‘culture wars,’ where it is attacked variously as the bearer of cognitive relativism, ethical nihilism, political quietism, aesthetic triviality and historical anachronism, The question arises, now that the postmodern has become both such a familiar and such a contentious part of the intellectual landscape, of how we should assess its significance for social theory. The assessment developed in this chapter can be summarized in four linked propositions.

  • Themes strongly associated with the postmodern are now inescapable problems and resources for any serious attempt to engage theoretically (or empirically) with the contemporary social world. To that degree, social theory cannot ignore or reject the postmodern while retaining its salience.
  • Despite this, the modern-postmodern contrast remains troublesome. Clear formal or historical ruptures between modern and postmodern are difficult to draw and to defend, producing obvious anomalies. Claims for distinctively postmodern analytic procedures, poltical strategies or social forms often—and paradoxically—turn on the surreptitious borrowing of modern tropes.
  • Social theory requires an orientation to the postmodern that refuses the caricatures of modern and postmodern that have dominated recent culture wars. One route to such a sober and pragmatic orientation is a recognition that many themes now associated with the postmodern—and many of the anxieties provoked by those themes – have broad and deep roots in the histories of social theory and its cognate disciplines.
  • A modestly postmodern social theory that is alert to the complexities and the ironies of its present situation will be uniquely well placed to chart the contemporary mutations of the field that it once confidently labelled ‘the social’ and in so labelling claimed as its own.

These propositions are explored in five sections below. The first sketches the recent history of the idea of the postmodern in social theory and briefly draws some terminological distinctions. The next three sections address the first three propositions and assess the significance of the postmodern in relation to epistemology and method, values and politics, and change in culture and society. A concluding section pulls together the threads of the argument and spells out what the fourth proposition might entail.

The Advent of the Postmodern

Introducing a 1986 edition of Theory, Culture & Society devoted to ‘French social theory,’ Featherstone outlines a genealogy of postmodernism. A New York based artistic movement of the 1960s known as ‘postmodernism’ was exported to France where it was taken up by intellectuals such as Kristeva and Lyotard. It was eventually re-exported to the USA ‘with added epochal meaning’ (Featherstone, 1986: 2). This trajectory helps to explain the conjunction, in most of what was presented as postmodernist analysis to Anglophone audiences in the 1980s, of three elements: a focus on aesthetic or cultural issues, the intimation of an immanent epochal threshold and an emphasis on the work of French ‘post-structuralist’ theorists. Taking a rather longer and broader view, other developments in Anglophone social theory prepared the ground.

For example, the influential form of ‘cultural studies’ associated with the (British) Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies insisted during the 1970s and early 1980s on its Marxist credentials (see, for example, Hall and Jefferson, 1975; Hall et al., 1980; McLennan et al., 1977). However, the dominant legacies of CCCS were its refusal to ‘reduce’ cultural to socioeconomic processes, its emphasis on the effectivity of language and textuality, and its documentation of the heterogeneous forms of popular ‘resistance.’ Sociological studies of value change, environmentalism and ‘new social movements’ familiarized their readers with the possibility of an intense but fluid and fragmentary radical politics disconnected from the clear structuring principles of class (or, indeed, of gender) (see, for example, Cotgrove, 1982; Inglehart, 1977; Milbrath, 1984). Theoretical models of ‘post-industrial society’ (notably Bell, 1973 but also Touraine, 1974) thematized epochal change and introduced the trope of ‘posting.’ The curious episode of the unfolding deconstruction of Althusserian Marxism in successive books by Hindess and Hirst (for example, 1977) dominated British social theory for a while and popularized an analytic position close to that associated with post-structuralism and postmodernism (see Crook, 1991). These developments were clearly related to the spiralling crises of Marxism and socialism that culminated in the 1989 collapse of the Soviet bloc. It is a striking feature of the respective accounts that Nicholson and Seidman give of their ‘conversions’ to postmodernism (in Nicholson and Seidman, 1995: 1-7) that for each, disillusionment with an erstwhile Marxism broadened into a critique of enlightened modernity.

In the early 1980s the terminology of the postmodern became more familiar as a set of labels for trends that in various ways upset received ideas about the structures and dynamics of the modern. Foster’s (1983) collection The Anti-Aesthetic played an important role in linking debates about a postmodern aesthetic to broader cultural and social issues. Dews (1980) was among those who introduced to Anglophones (even if he did not endorse) the ideas of French anti-leftist ‘new philosophers.’ The new journal Theory, Culture & Society included from the outset (in 1982) papers on topics that helped to define the themes of the postmodern turn: advertising, consumer culture, diet, embodiment, sexuality and sport (to take examples from the first two volumes). The appearance in English of Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition in 1984 helped to focus the idea of postmodernity as an historically emergent social configuration.

Social theory in the 1970s had been dominated by variants of Marxism and neo-Marxism and the responses of Marxist theorists to postmodern themes ranged from overt hostility to cautious attempts at convergence. Callinicos (1982) polemicized against all post-structuralist, postmodernist trends while Smart (1983) explored convergences between Marx and Foucault. Early versions of Jameson’s influential model of the postmodern as the ‘cultural logic’ of consumer capitalism were published in the Foster collection and in New Left Review (Jameson, 1983, 1984). Berman’s (1982) book on Marx came close to portraying his ‘melting vision’ as a postmodern theory of flux and disorder. At the same time, the main elements of Habermas’ defence of the ‘uncompleted project’ of modernity were appearing in English through the translation of papers such as ‘Modernity versus postmodernity’ and ‘Neoconservative culture criticism’ (1981, 1983). (See the account in Ashley, 1990.)

The difficulty of defining the ‘postmodern’ is notorious, a reference point for almost all commentators. As Hassan famously expressed the problem, ‘in the last two decades the word postmodernism has shifted from awkward neologism to derelict cliché without ever attaining the dignity of a concept’ (Hassan, 1985: 119). In Lemert’s more recent bon mot, ‘postmodernism … like sin and Russia is something that tends to excite the development of theories inversely to the availability of the thing itself to be satisfactorily described by any known theory of it’ (Lemert, 1997: xi). Despite these well-known warnings, it will be difficult to take the argument of this chapter any further without offering at least some provisonal definitions of key terms and at least a sketch map of the terrain over which they operate.

The term postmodernism originates, for practical purposes, in the artistic milieu identified by Featherstone (above). Aesthetic postmodernism constitutes itself after and in crucial respects against what it takes to be an exhausted modernism (see Crowther, 1990; Harvey, 1989; Jencks, 1987). If modernism is marked by a commitment to aesthetic ‘progress’ and to ‘working out the possibilities in the aesthetic material’ (Lash, 1990: 14), postmodernism reacts against the intellectualism and formalism that so often results. It is marked by playfulness, anachronistic pastiche, parody and populism. This distinction between an earnestly progressive, unitary modernism and a populist, heterogeneous postmodernism plays out by analogy in other fields of practice. In politics, the totalizing modernist progressivisms of Marxism and social democracy are contested by the multiple postmodernist resistances of diverse social movements and neo-tribes. In social theory, the unifying, rationalist structural schemes and grand narratives of modernists from Hegel to Parsons or Althusser give way to postmodernist celebrations of the local, the subordinated, the non-rational. So, if modernists are committed to modernism understood as a project aiming to realize the potential of the modern in some field, postmodernists are committed to postmodernism understood as the advocacy of plural alternatives to modernism in that field. The symmetry is not precise because postmodernists reject the model of an unfolding and unitary ‘logic of development’ that they discern in modernism.

If the ‘ism/ist’ of postmodernism/ist signifies a self-conscious advocacy, the adjective postmodern does not. It simply designates its object as belonging to a configuration that comes after the modern. So, Tony Blair or Bill Clinton may be ‘postmodern’ politicians but not ‘postmodernists.’ If that distinction is clear in principle, it becomes blurred in practice because the question of whether any social or cultural phenomena are really ‘postmodern’ divides postmodernists from modernists. It may be more apt to define ‘postmodern’ as the way in which postmodernists describe the contemporary world than to define ‘postmodernism’ as an orientation towards an already constituted postmodern.

Postmodemity generally designates ‘a social and political epoch that is … seen as following the modern era in an historical sense’ (Ritzer, 1997: 5). To that degree, postmodemity is a synonym of ‘the postmodern.’ However, two specific inflections should be noted. First, the term is often used to imply that a specific ethos, or way of experiencing the world, or Zeitgeist is in play in the postmodern (see Bauman, 1992; Lemert, 1997; Lyotard, 1992a). Secondly, it is also used by theorists for whom the postmodern constitutes a new and distinctive social order (see Bauman, 1988; Featherstone, 1991; Ritzer, 1997). Finally, the term postmodernization has been used to denote the complex of intersecting processes responsible for the radical reconfiguration of modernity (see Crook et al, 1992).

The ambiguities of the idea of the postmodern are legendary, of course, so that the definitions and distinctions proposed here will be an imperfect guide through the literature. The difficulties are compounded by the equally legendary refusal of many major ‘postmodern/ist’ theorists to concede that they are anything of the kind (see, for example, Kumar, 1995: 139). Nevertheless, it will be clear that the distinctions outlined above make available a range of postmodern positions. So, the reluctance of a Baudrillard, Derrida or Foucault to accept the label ‘postmodern’ when their orientations seem so close to what was defined as ‘postmodern/si’ above can be linked to a fear of complicity in an idea of ‘postmodernity’ that seems to derive from modernist models of historical evolution and social system (see Ritzer, 1997: 8). In a mirror image, many analysts of postmodernity reject as subversive of, or indifferent to, all coherent social analysis the methodological prescriptions and proscriptions of postmodern/s/(see Featherstone, 1988: 127; Nicholson and Seidman, 1995: 8). These matters lead directly to the concerns of the next section.

Epistemology and Method

The best-known charge against postmodern/is that it subverts objective standards of truth and thus the distinction between knowledge and belief. Recently this charge has been levelled by protaganists in the so-called ‘science wars,’ in which ‘postmodernism’ has become a term of abuse akin to ‘political correctness.’ The well-known polemic from Gross and Levitt (1994: 11) accuses postmodernist critics of science of a ‘radical epistemological skepticism’ that subverts the cognitive authority of science although ‘rarely is it seen to impeach their own researches.’ In earlier critiques, the charge of relativism came as often from the left. For example, Norris (1990: 121) associates Baudrillard, Rorty and Fish with variants of the claim that ‘it is no longer possible to maintain the old economy of truth and representation.’ He notes that this stance relativizes all social criticism, including Marxism, and he turns to the language philosophies of Putnam and Davidson to save the concept of truth. Callinicos (1982: 178) had earlier used similar resources to argue that recognition that all knowledge is mediated by discourse ‘does not lead to scepticism, but merely to fallibilism.’

The many variants of postmodernist relativism share a critique of claims to authoritative knowledge in the social (and natural) sciences. Those claims are said to be based on a series of illicit assumptions: that language and textuality are transparent media through which knowing subjects can articulate the essential nature of a known object; that authoritative knowledge arises from concepts that are either truly timeless and universal (as in the natural sciences) or whose universality is underwritten by a rational logic of historical development (as in the social sciences); that the ‘will to knowledge’ in science is disinterested and uncontaminated by desire or power. The critique takes too many forms to review exhaustively here. However, two pairs of themes have been especially influential.

The first pair might be labelled ‘physicalism’ and ‘textualism.’ Physicalist themes debunk the claim that knowledge of the social has rational foundations by postulating quasi-physical principles that are the real origin (note the irony and difficulty) of both the social and knowledge. Florid examples include the idea of a material ‘intensity’ in the work of Deleuze (1994) and Guattari (1984), Baudrillard’s flirtations with figures drawn from astrophysics (see Baurillard, 1983) and Maffesoli’s (1996) re-cycling of a Bergsonian elan vital. Textualist themes suggest that language and textuality are not a transparent window onto the real but opaque media in and by which versions of the real are constructed. As Lemert has noted (1997: 80), the post-structural and then postmodern emphasis on textuality must be considered in the context of the broader ‘linguistic turn’ in philosophy and social analysis. Derrida’s critique of the ‘metaphysics of presence’ and his alternative account of language as the play of ‘difference’ (Derrida, 1976) has played a pivotal role, but his direct influence has been more marked in literary than social theory. Textualism and physicalism are often combined. Baudrillard’s early work (1981) argued for the ‘materiality’ of signifying systems and that idea survives the abandonment of its Marxist roots in his later accounts of the simulatory hyperreal (Baudrillard, 1983). Foucault’s studies of ‘power/knowledge’ combine in the compound term a model of ‘power’ that verges on the physicalist in its ubiquity and productivity with a significantly textualist account of the discursive elaboration of knowledges (see Foucault, 1980).

The second pair of themes can be termed ‘anti-historicism’ and ‘anti-universalism.’ Lyotard’s influential (1984, 1992b) critique of ‘grand’ or ‘meta-’ narratives draws the two together. In his view, the cognitive, as well as the political, projects of the past two centuries have legitimated themselves through meta-narratives of enlightenment, emancipation and progress. The unity of modern forms of knowledge has been guaranteed in the convergence and realization of these long-term historical projects. In the late twentieth century such narratives lost their legitimating force: science and technology as well as progressive politics revealed their dark side, so that ‘it is no longer possible to call development progress’ (Lyotard, 1992b: 91-2). Now, legitimation of knowledge is de-historicized and localized in small-scale language games. Vattimo (1992: 8-9) also links anti-historicism to anti-universalism in his model of a ‘transparent’ postmodern. ‘With the demise of the idea of a central rationality of history, the world of generalized communication explodes like a multiplicity of “local” rationalities—ethnic, sexual, religious, cultural or aesthetic minorities—that finally speak up for themselves.’ This anti-universalism is perhaps the best known and most scandalous epistemic theme in postmodernism. The direct targets of science warriors are what they construe as claims that ‘Science’ is inherently masculine (see, for example, Harding, 1991), or an effect of the local rationalities of laboratories (see, for example, Latour and Woolgar, 1986), or anthropologically equivalent to a variety of ethno-sciences (see Watson-Verran and Turnbull, 1995).

So, how should social theory respond to these claims? The propositions set out in the introduction can shape the answer. First, social theory cannot simply ignore the epistemological and methodological dimensions of the postmodern. Even from the standpoint of the most objectivist social science, the de-legitimation, fragmentation and re-composition of previously authoritative knowledges must be signficant data for the sociology of knowledge. Even from such an objectivist standpoint, an unsettling feedback loop is built into the problem. If it transpires that major transformations are under way in the production, exchange and consumption of knowledge (as argued by Gibbons et al, 1994 and Stehr, 1992, among others), then why should social scientific knowledge expect to be immune? To put it another way, the postmodernization of knowledge must be a resource as well as a problem for social science and social theory.

But what degree of epistemological and methodological reflexivity is required of social theory in its attempt to grapple with the postmodern? In an influential paper that specifically posed that question of sociology, but has a much wider relevance, Featherstone (1988) distinguished between ‘a sociology of the postmodern’ and a ‘postmodern sociology.’ The former enterprise finds an exemplar in Bauman’s (1988: 811) claim that ‘post-modernity is an aspect of a fully fledged, viable social system which has come to replace the “classical” modern capitalist society and thus needs to be theorized in its own terms.’ A ‘postmodern sociology’ ‘would abandon its generalizing social science ambitions and instead parasitically play off the ironies, inconsistencies and intertextuality of sociological writings’ (Featherstone, 1988: 127). Kumar’s (1995: 139) observation that ‘it is very hard indeed to find anyone who declares unequivocally for the postmodernist position’ certainly applies to a ‘postmodern sociology’ as defined by Featherstone. Perhaps Game’s (1991) Undoing the Social comes closer than any other text. By contrast, the convergence of Bauman’s and Featherstone’s substantive contributions with those of anti-postmodernists, such as Beck and Giddens, suggests that a ‘sociology of the postmodern’ represents only a modest break with mainstream sociological practices and assumptions. The idea that a ‘sociology of the postmodern’ could remain uncontaminated by ‘postmodernwi’ themes was criticized by Smart (1990: 26) and Crook et al. (1992: 232-3) as implausible on the sociology of knowledge grounds noted above and unhelpful in placing a priori limits on the analysis of postmodernizing change. As Kellner (1998: 79) has recently observed, echoing those earlier critiques, Bauman’s conception of the postmodern ‘makes it appear that the postmodern paradigm is already fixed and established and is clearly at work establishing its dominance.’

These difficulties are linked to the second proposition from the introduction. Just what does the ‘post’ in postmodern mean in relation to epistemological and methodological debates? One seductive answer that Lemert (1997: 36) labels as ‘radical postmodernism’ would be to posit a double great divide, or rupture, in socio-cultural development and in knowledge, so that a new kind of theory and analysis is needed to comprehend a new kind of society. The problem here, and the reason why few postmodernist theorists would explicitly endorse this view, is that it almost directly replicates the defining moves of modern social theory a century and more before (see Crook, 1991: 24-9). Lyotard (1992b: 93) is alive to the problem: at the procedural level, the ‘post’ of postmodern becomes ‘ana-’ ‘a procedure of analysis, anamnesis, analogy and anamorphosis.’ As he recognizes elsewhere, such a definition of the analytic postmodern ties it directly to the modern. ‘What place, if any, does [the postmodern] occupy in the vertiginous work of questioning the rules that govern images and narratives? It is undoubtedly part of the modern’ (Lyotard, 1992a: 21). Kumar (1995: 109) has underlined the point, arguing that ‘the antinomian, anarchic, anti-systemic character of postmodernism seems at one with both the form and spirit of what we understood as modernism.’ Either way—in ‘radical postmodernism’ or in attempts to evade its implications—the analytic postmodern seems unable to draw the line that divides it from the modern.

This point is not made in an attempt to argue (following anti-postmodernists from Callinicos to Habermas to Gross and Levitt) that the analytic postmodern is in some way self-contradictory and therefore impossible. On the contrary, its procedures and outcomes merit close attention. The difficulty runs the other way: it is not plausible to represent the analytic postmodern as a generic and debunking critique of all other procedures in social theory and empirical social science. To do so is to recapitulate the defining modernist myth of a pure and redemptive critique that found its ‘thinnest’ and most sophisticated formulations in Adorno’s critiques of ‘identity thinking.’ It is notable that many commentators have drawn parallels between Adorno and the analytic postmodern (see, for example, Callinicos, 1990: 98; Dews, 1987; Jay, 1984: 510-37; Lemert, 1997: 41).

The third proposition from the introduction connects to these difficulties: the epistemological arguments and controversies associated with postmodernism have a pedigree at least as long as that of social theory itself. For example, Jones et al. (1993: 2) argue that postmodernist themes are linked to a ‘line of prominent European thinkers stretching from the late Eighteenth Century to the present.’ Drawing on Mannheim’s analysis of conservatism, they point out that most of the ‘thinkers’ in this line have been conservative ‘in the ontological-epistemological sense’ (Jones et al, 1993: 5). Of course, Nietzsche is almost universally accepted as a parent of the postmodern, by its friends (Antonio, 1995 for example) and enemies (most notably Habermas, 1987). Others make strong claims for Rousseau, Schiller and ‘romanticism’ (Beilharz, 1994), for Schopenhauer (Mestrovic, 1993) and for Heidegger (Vattimo, 1992). Social theory and my own discipline of sociology have engaged with this conservative ‘line of thinkers’ throughout their history. Simmel and Weber were both markedly influenced by Nietzsche while, in their different ways, Durkheim and Marx took up ‘romantic’ themes. Durkheim, Mannheim, Marx, Simmel, Weber and other ‘founders’ all advanced variants of the claim that ‘being’ determines ‘consciousness’ and all faced accusations that they destructively relativized knowledge.

Since at least the time of Mannheim, some social theorists have argued that ‘the objectivity of [scientific] knowledge’ and ‘the existential determination of all knowledge’ are not mutually exclusive claims. The view that the merest hint of a ‘social’ influence on a knowledge claim must destroy its validity is a variant of what Smith (1988) has termed the ‘egalitarian fallacy.’ This variant holds that unless the objectivity of science is completely independent of existential determinations, then science is no different from common sense or ideology. On a more balanced view, to consider scientific (or any other) knowledge as a ‘construct’ is not to debunk it, but to focus attention on the way it is produced. So, in most contemporary relativistic sociologies that have an empirical focus—for which Ethnomethodology/conversation analysis set the basic pattern—‘relativism’ is a methodological device that makes available a region of practices for sociological analysis. There are clear parallels here with the practice of deconstruction in postmodernisms deriving from Derrida and others, where deconstruction is a critical method that makes the practice of writing available to analysis and exposes its ontological complicities. Shared roots in Heidegger’s later analyses of language also link deconstruction to the ‘reflexive sociologies’ that flourished in the 1970s (see Blum, 1974; McHugh et al, 1974; Sandywell et al, 1975). These approaches were as ‘postmodern’ before the letter in their text-centricity as any later ‘postmodern sociology,’ such as Game’s (1991).

Values and Politics

The charge that postmodernism relativizes truth has been broadened to include the relativization of all values, and hence nihilism. It comes in two variants. In one, nihilism results from the inability of deconstructionist and post-structuralist post-modernisms to set limits to the scope of their radical critiques of knowledge and value. As Billig and Simon (1994: 6) put it, ‘no voice is secure in this mood of promiscuous critique.’ In O’Neill’s critique, the post-rationalist critique of foundations has consumed all commonality, so that the ‘sparkling signifiers’ of postmodernism are ‘flashing out momentary values against a great black sky of nonsense’ (O’Neill, 1995: 191). A second variant of the charge is made against postmodernist physicalisms: Foucault’s concept of power, Deleuze and Guattari’s ‘intensity,’ Baudrillard’s treatment of ‘the masses,’ the varied ‘problematics of desire’ and related figures. These are versions of a monistic, physicalistic metaphysics incapable of sustaining distinctions of value. So, in perhaps the most systematic treatment of this theme Rose (1984: 197) notes the ‘scandalous consequence’ that Foucault’s concept of power cannot ‘distinguish between fascist ressentiment and the Freudian analysis of ressentiment.’ Callinicos (1990: 102) reads Deleuze and Guattari’s work as a ‘bizarre if often entertaining neoromantic Naturphilosophie,’ while Crook (1990: 62) argues more generally that ‘postmodernism’s reliance on either reductionist or formalist monisms renders it nihilistic.’

In Crook’s (1990: 59) account, the nihilism of postmodernism links to an inability to explain how change happens and an inability to explain why change is either desirable or undesirable. In these circumstances, the political options for postmodernism are either a nihilistic endorsement of action—as in Foucault’s ‘resistance’ or Guattari’s ‘experimentation’ or a quietist withdrawal from political engagements. O’Neill (1995: 18) parodies the triviality of postmodernism as a ‘will to willessness,’ while Squires (1993: 1) complains that while deconstruction may be ‘liberating, even democratizing’ up to a point, ‘it is paralysing in its destruction of all “principled positions’”. In stronger versions of this argument, the alleged postmodernist substitution of word-play for political engagement is an explicit and deliberate ‘sell-out.’ For Callinicos (1990: 115) ‘the term “postmodern” would seem to be a floating signifier by means of which [part of the] intelligentsia has sought to articulate its political disillusionment and its aspiration to a consumption-oriented lifestyle.’ Callinicos’ view converges here with Lash’s less judgemental (1990: 20, 18) account of a postmodernist culture favoured by the ‘newer, post-industrial middle classes’ and serving as a vehicle for the restabilization’ of bourgeois identity. The arguments of Jameson (1984, 1991) and Harvey (1989) that postmodern culture articulates with the configuration of late or consumer capitalism have clearly shaped many of the stronger critiques of the (non-) politics of postmodernism.

Turning again to the propositions from the ‘introduction,’ a first point is that the postmodern problems of value and politics clearly cannot be ignored by social theory. It is difficult to deny that both the idea of universal and binding norms and values and the idea of a unified progressive political practice have lost their force: any social theory conceived with ‘practical intent’ must engage with these circumstances. On the second and third propositions, away from the clamour of ‘culture wars’ debates, there are productive convergences between postmodern positions and other strands in social theory. As a rule of thumb, postmodern approaches are particularly fruitful on the ‘value’ question while other theroetical and empirical resources perhaps have more to contribute to the question of politics.

Classical social theory was subject to the charge of nihilism just as postmodern theory has been more recently. Strauss famously charged Weber’s value doctrine with nihilism: the residual exhortation ‘thou shalt have ideals’ has lost the capacity to distinguish between the excellent and the base (Strauss, 1953: 44-6). More ambiguously, Rose (1984: 211) portrays Weber, and sociology more generally, as delicately poised on the brink of nihilism in its defining operation of ‘turning juridicial things into social interaction.’ Weber grappled with the problem of value in two registers. In the register of method, sociology must be both ‘value neutral’ and ‘value relevant’ if it is to constitute a science of social action. In the register of historical sociology, the rationalizing disenchantment of the world engenders incommensurable value-spheres and erodes the grounds of rational value-choices. For a Weberian, Strauss’ condemnation of Weber’s decisionism shoots the messenger: it is history, not Weber, that produces nihilism. Postmodern theorists might plausibly make a similar claim.

Social theory has never finally resolved its post-Weberian value dilemma. If it works too hard to establish foundations for its value commitments, it stands accused of an illicit dependence on anachronistic metaphysical formulae. If it opts simply for ‘value neutrality’ in the manner of radical empiricisms, or founds itself in directly political commitments, it opens itself to charges of nihilism and decisionism (see Crook, 1991). The attempts by Adorno, Horkheimer and their colleagues to establish a ‘critical theory of society’ represented the most significant and sustained effort to find a way out of this post-Weberian corner. For Habermas (1987: 119) their failure turns on a ‘performative contradiction.’ In the figure of a nihilistic ‘dialectic of enlightenment’ Adorno and Horkheimer claim on the one hand that instrumental reason has abolished the distinction between validity and power, destroying the basis of critique. On the other hand Adorno, particularly, commits to a totalizing and relentlessly negative critique – which ought to be impossible on his own diagnosis. The contradiction arises, argues Habermas (1987: 113), because Adorno and Horkheimer ‘do not do justice to the rational content of cultural modernity that was captured in bourgeois ideals (and also instrumentalized along with them).’ However, Habermas’ stupendous attempt to overcome nihilism in a critical theory that preserves an ‘affirmative’ dimension has won more respect than acceptance. It is not clear that it evades the ‘metaphysical’ arm of the dilemma noted above.

If modern—and modernist—social theory has not been strikingly successful in handling the problem of nihilism there has been a vigorous debate about value-questions among approaches usually classified as postmodern. Lyotard (1992a: 13) engages with the Weberian problem of value-fragmentation as well as the Habermasian plea for ‘unity’ when he asks what type of unity Habermas has in mind: ‘the constitution of a sociocultural unity at the heart of which all elements of daily life and thought would have a place, as though within an organic whole?’ or alternatively ‘the path to be cut between heterogeneous language games—knowledge, ethics, politics …?’ Habermas opts for the former when only the latter is available. Lyotard’s emphasis on heterogeneity overlaps with Rorty’s (1989) pragmatism of foundation-less ‘conversations,’ the bearers of values with no guarantees. Fekete’s (1988) introduction to an influential collection of essays on value problems characterizes postmodern approaches in terms of their passage beyond a neurotic obsession with ‘the Good-God-Gold standards’ (1988: xi). In the same collection, Barbara Smith also identifies modern ethical theories with anxieties summed up in what she terms (1988: 6) the ‘egalitarian fallacy’: ‘unless one judgement can be said or shown to be more “valid” than another, then all judgements must be “equal” or “equally valid’”. For Smith as for Lyotard or Rorty, the work of evaluation-without-guarantees goes on regardless of the anxieties of the philosophers.

This more relaxed approach to matters of value meets objections from within the camp of postmodern/ism/ity itself. For Baudrillard (1994: 11, 26, 35), postmodern ethics are implicated in a suspect ‘curving back of history’: ‘it is as though history were rifling through its own dustbins and looking for redemption in the rubbish.’ Postmodernity is marked by ‘the recycling of past forms, the exalting of residues, rehabilitation by bricolage, eclectic sentimentality.’ Bauman’s cautious endorsement of a postmodern ethics of being together recognizes that both modern and postmodern configurations have their unavoidable pathologies. ‘Just as the modern adventure with order and transparency bred opacity and ambivalence, postmodern tolerance breeds intolerance’ (Bauman, 1993: 238). The range of views held within the camp of postmodern/ism/ity only underlines two critical points: that modern and postmodern approaches to problems of nihilism and value are intertwined within social theory, and that little purpose is served by the more zealous attempts to disentangle them.

A similar conclusion holds for the problem of the relations between sociocultural analysis and political action. Indeed, the naivety of the view that there might be a single authoritative answer, or even a single authoritative question, is even more striking in this field. In Lemert’s (1997: 149) tart formulation, ‘resistance is the foremost social problem of late modern, or early postmodern societies. But resistance to what?’ Once, Marxists of various stripes were able to give an authoritative and general answer to this question: resistance to the economic and political power of the bourgeois class. Contemporary animal rights activists, environmentalists, feminists or indigenes can also give reasonably precise, but more circumscribed answers. Notoriously, extremely vague answers are furnished by some postmodernisms of resistance. Foucauldians once urged resistance to ‘power,’ while a cluster of French writers including de Certeau (1984), Lyotard (1993) and Maffesoli (1996) urge resistance by the ‘weak’ against the ‘strong.’ Rorty (1982) refuses to align a postmodern politics with resistance, preferring the pragmatist tradition of cautious social engineering. In a variant of Smith’s diagnosis of ‘the egalitarian fallacy,’ Rorty questions the obsession of French intellectuals with revolutionary politics. In Kumar’s (1995: 181) summary, ‘if revolutionary politics cannot be justified, there is no politics. The choice for them is total revolution or total nihilism.’ Hence, one might add, the stress on ‘resistance,’ however imprecisely drawn its target. There is a clear parallel with problems in the epistemic postmodern considered in the previous section: postmodern approaches are at their least compelling when they seem to be in the grip of attenuated, residual ghosts of modern dreams of purity—whether in epistemology and method or values and politics. Of course, this model of an attenuated but pure radicalism is not confined to the postmodernist side of the fence. Habermas’ reconstruction of critical theory may be more subtle and thorough than the postmodernisms of resistance, but (in Rorty’s terms) it is the thinnest possible version of the German project to specify the philosophical foundations of modernity (see also Crook, 1991).

It has become conventional among both critics and supporters to align postmodernism with the progressive politics of multiculturalism, new social movements and ‘political correctness’ (among the critics see Gross and Levitt, 1994: among the friends see Nicholson and Seidman, 1995). While the link is well established empirically, it is rather radically underdetermined by the methods and themes of major postmodernist texts. The analyses of Baudrillard, Derrida, Deleuze, Foucault or Rorty can as well be aligned with ‘conservative’ as ‘progressive’ themes and resources. This is a central plank in Habermas’ attempted (1987) debunking of the postmodern, of course. By contrast to the rather ‘thin’ treatment of politics in most post modernisms, recent years have seen the rise of the ‘new political sociology’ (see Nash, 2000) and politically oriented social theory. Beck’s (1994) model for the ‘re-invention’ of politics under conditions of risk and reflexivity, Etzioni’s (1993) embrace of ‘communitarianism,’ Giddens’ (1991) postulate of the emergence of ‘life politics’ and his subsequent (1998) embrace of the British New Labour ‘third way,’ Inglehart’s (1990) ‘post-materialism’ hypothesis, the examination of the cultural politics of globalization (see Featherstone et al, 1995) and the re-awakening of interest in the analysis of ‘civil society’ (see Alexander, 1998) are all elements in a rich and vital ‘conversation’ about the prospects for a political re-making of contemporary societies. Within that conversation, some (for example, Boggs, 1995, 1997) take a gloomy view of the new politics as a collapse of the public sphere. Others (such as Beilharz, 1994) more optimistically fold new politics and postmodern themes into a new socialist programme. Few of the writers cited above would regard themselves as postmodernists, but the themes they address place their work at the heart of debates about the complex of postmodern/ism/ity.

Change in Culture and Society

Within a very few years during the early 1990s, the question of the postmodern came to dominate social theory. As late as 1990, Smart was able to note that ‘relatively little consideration’ had been given thus far to the implications for sociology of ‘movement beyond the social, political and epistemological limits of modernism’ (Smart, 1990: 25). Only two years later, Rosenau (1992: 3) could write that ‘post-modernism haunts social science today.’ Kumar (1995: 194) was soon able to present the question of whether social and cultural changes were ‘fundamentally a new departure or … simply another twist in the capitalist tale’ as ‘perhaps the central question of contemporary social theory.’ The defining and – for some—scandalous novelty of the postmodern/ism/ity complex lies in the links it has forged between long-standing debates in the social sciences and allegedly immanent epochal change. As Whitebook (1982: 53) put it quite early on, ‘while the announcement that Minerva’s owl is about to depart may be premature, one is increasingly struck by the sense of living in the closing of an epoch.’ The idea of the postmodern drew together all of the ‘ends’ that were fiercely debated during the last quarter of the twentieth century in the different regions of academic and, in some cases public, cultures: ends of art, of class, of history, of the human, of literature, of the nation-state, of science, of socialism and of society.

However, for reasons considered above, many theorists associated with the idea of the postmodern, such as Baudrillard, Derrida and Foucault, are reluctant to address epochal change directly, or even at all. To do so smacks of the speculative philosophies of history that they reject. Yet postmodernist writing gets its edge from showing (if not saying) that the way things are now is radically different from the way things were then. We attend to Baudrillard’s analyses of the hyperreal, Foucault’s dissections of power/knowledge or Lyotard’s critiques of meta-narrative at least in part for the clues they give us to the specificity and direction of the present. The slightly teasing rhetorics of showing or intimating but never (quite) stating plainly links the question of historical ruptures to the epistemic themes discussed above. Maffesoli’s physicalism (1996) is buttressed by the suggestion that the collapse of Apollonian modernity allows Dionysian ‘sociality’ to re-assert itself. The privilege given to textualist themes and methods gains plausibility from assertions that the contemporary world is the outcome of a transition to generalized communication in Vattimo’s account or to a generalized logic of simulation in Baudrillard’s. Both anti-historicism and anti-universalism draw strength from intimations that a linear and progressive universal history is at an end.

Critics have repeatedly argued that the millennial strain in postmodernism is anachronistic. Perhaps the most influential critique has been Habermas’ (1987) argument that modernity remains an ‘uncompleted project.’ Both ‘neoconservative’ and ‘anarchist’ versions of post-modernity treat the horizon of ‘the self-understanding of European modernity’ as the ‘horizon of a past epoch,’ but both remain dependent on modern presuppostions, both dress up ‘counter-Enlightenment in the garb of post-Enlightenment’ (Habermas, 1987: 4-5). Other commentators and critics have pointed to supposedly discrediting continuities between ‘postmodern’ and ‘modern’ themes. For example, Lyotard’s critique of a modernity premised on ‘meta-narratives’ replicates Comte’s distinction between metaphysical and postive stages of evolution (Crook, 1991: 155) while Foucault’s concept of discipline ‘merely adds a third stage to Durkheim’s two laws of penal evolution’ (Rose, 1984: 176). These claims are themselves close to the spirit of Kumar’s critique of postindustrial theorizing as a reiteration of the pattern and politics of theories of industrial society, simply adding another stage (Kumar, 1978: 191). While they are less polemical, influential theorists of change such as Beck (1992) and Giddens (1990) have argued that the present is still to be understood as a variant of modernity. Finally, even sympathetic commentators frequently concede that historical and thematic ruptures between modern/ism/ity and postmodern/ism/ity are blurred (see Boyne and Rattansi, 1990: 9; Lash, 1990: 172-3; Lemert, 1997: 24; Smart, 1990: 20-2).

To amplify Kumar’s claim, the questions raised in these debates are surely the most fundamental faced by contemporary social theory. What kind of social and cultural world do we now inhabit? What continuities and what ruptures mark its relations with the worlds of the recent and distant past? What forms of theory and analysis will help us to answer those questions? To what degree are those forms shaped by the processes they seek to comprehend? It is clear that the first proposition from the introduction holds good here: social theory cannot reject or ignore the ‘problematic’ of the postmodern and retain its salience. However, and in relation to the second proposition, it is not clear that postmodernist answers to the questions above command the same assent. As indicated in the third proposition, a much broader range of social theoretical resources may be brought to bear on the problems. Debates about postmodernist aesthetics and an aestheticized postmodernity are at the centre of the problem of postmodernizing change and can provide a point of entry to the more general question.

The playfulness of postmodernist critique and the accessibility of postmodernist cultural products are among the more obviously attractive aspects of the postmodern/ism/ity complex. As Lyon (1999: 97) puts it, it can seem as if ‘postmodernists relax in a playground of irony and pastiche, where pluralism and difference contrast with the older “terrorism” of totalizing discourses.’ However, the critical positions that condemn postmodernism as relativist, nihilist and quietist also portray its aesthetic as a trivialization. For example, Harris and Lipman (1986) condemn the triviality of postmodern architecture that has abandoned the link between design and the socialist project. This theme was prominent in many early critical responses to the postmodern from Callinicos (1982) through Jameson (1983) to Norris (1990). In O’Neill’s recent version, triviality is a symptom of nihilism. Disconnected from history and community, postmodernism can align itself only with the dross of consumer capitalism: ‘the footings of postmodernism are sunk in fast food, information desks, rattling waterfalls, lifeless plants and indifferent elevators that marry time and money to the second’ (O’Neill, 1995: 197). However, the aesthetic turn of postmodernism also attracted the attention of theorists who found in it a clue to the apparent decomposition of socio-cultural structures defined by relations of production. Bell’s (1976) pessimistic diagnosis of a contradiction between a postmodern culture and a modern economy, recently re-stated by Saunders (1995), set the pattern for subsequent—but less overtly conservative—theories of the postmodern that turned on the transformation of ‘society’ into ‘culture’ (as in Bauman, 1992; Crook et al, 1992; Featherstone, 1990).

In cultural studies, social theory and sociology the most obvious symptom of this aestheticization of the social is the development of new areas of research and teaching which turn away from classical and structural conceptions of ‘society’ as something ontologically or epistemologically distinct from ‘culture’: consumption, embodiment, food, popular culture, tourism and the like. A more overt rejection of classical models is implied in announcements of the ‘death of class’ (see Pakulski and Waters, 1996). Class, after all, was the quintessential socio-structural concept: hidden from immediate view, the fundamental cleavages of class produced the structural arrangements in which they were reflected. To an important degree, the decomposition of class would be the decomposition of social structure. More radically still, the recent focus on global structures and processes requires, in the words of Featherstone and Lash (1995: 2), ‘that we must now embark on the project of understanding social life without the comforting term “society”.’ For Touraine (1998: 127) it is the late twentieth-century retreat from projects for the intellectual and political ‘reconstruction’ of society that has led to its decomposition, so that we ‘have learned to do without the idea of society as it was … renovated and reinforced by the theorists of modernity, of industrial society, of the welfare state and also of national development policies.’ Crook, Pakulski and Waters (1992: 229) have argued that the twin processes of ‘the increasing effectivity of culture’ and ‘the return of nature’ play a critical role in a process of postmodernization that not only moves away from modern and towards postmodern configurations but also transforms what we can mean by society and ‘the social.’ The argument that we must look not only to the cultural but to the technological and natural dimensions of social relations is well established in actor network approaches (see Bijker and Law, 1992, for example) and has recently been taken up by analysts such as Knorr Cetina (1997).

As Lyon (1999: 105) has observed, there is ‘much agreement on what are the crucial analytic issues … on the eve of the third millennium,’ surely the issues noted in the previous paragraph would no doubt figure in most lists. But not only is there disagreement, as Lyon notes, about ‘whether our social condition is “postmodernity”, or “high”, “late”, “radicalized” or “reflexive” modernity,’ there is also disagreement about the legitimacy of any such periodizations. Students of Foucault are among the most radical sceptics on this question. Their ‘histories of the present’ refuse typification and generalization. For example, Dean (1996: 212-13) suggests that the Foucauldian ‘ethos’ shares some concerns with social theory, but ‘without its will to represent world-historical epochs, conflicts, powers and processes, and without its godlike perspective over the destiny and attributes of humanity.’ In similar vein, Barry et al. (1996: 7) dismiss ‘grand genealogies of the present moment.’

Rhetorics of this type must be assessed with care. Sweeping historical narratives of social evolution were substantially discredited well before Foucauldian or other postmodern positions were formulated. Adorno and Benjamin were among the pre-war critics of both Hegelian and ‘scientific’ Marxism, while Weber’s historical sociology can be read as a refutation of sociological models of ‘stages of development.’ More recently, Althusserian Marxism has been a significant influence on anti-historicism. For all its fame, Lyotard’s (1984) announcement of the death of meta-narratives can have surprised few of its readers: it re-packaged what had already become received wisdom in a variety of traditions. In that context, terms such as ‘godlike’ and ‘grand’ are elements in the rhetorical production of an exaggerated disjunction between careful attention to micro-level contingencies (good and Foucauldian) and the formulation of general theoretical propositions (bad and social-theoretic). The use of theoretical concepts in narrative accounts of social change need be neither a symptom of a closet Hegelianism nor a reversion to grand narratives. The production of provisional and qualified diagnoses of the times that draw on equally provisional and qualified middle-range historical schema is a quite legitimate theoretical pursuit.

The question of historical thresholds made its way back to the centre of attention in social theory, in association with the problem of the postmodern, during the late 1980s. Lash and Urry’s (1987) The End of Organized Capitalism and Harvey’s (1989) The Condition of postmodernity followed Jameson’s lead in offering middle-range compromises in debates about postmodernity. Significant transformations of social relations were, indeed, under way but their roots lay in processes that could be grasped by established theoretical concepts and arguments. Capitalist disorganization follows the period of organization as a result of developments in the global economy, changes in the class structures of advanced societies and new spatial divisions of labour. In Harvey’s account, Fordism gives way to ‘flexible accumulation’ in an example of a secular pattern of oscillation between structure and flexibility in capitalist development and crisis management. Each book takes the idea of the postmodern seriously, but nests it inside a middle range historical sequence. For Lash and Urry (1987: 7) it is a ‘cultural ideological configuration’ correlated with other features of disorganization. For Harvey (1989: 328), it is a ‘historical—geographic condition’ fused with flexibility, just as mature modernity is fused with Fordism.

When these modestly discontinuist accounts are compared with the explicitly continuist theories of late modernity offered by Beck (1992) and Giddens (1990 and subsequent texts) the interesting thing is that, if anything, the supposedly continuist texts offer the more radical departures from previously mainstream views. Beck’s model of late modernity as ‘risk society’ and Giddens’ explorations of ‘reflexive’ post-traditionalism are less respectful of conventional models of structure and established hierarchies of determination than are Lash and Urry or Harvey. The radicalism of their departure from standard accounts of industrial capitalism is masked by their insistence that they are analysts of an only now maturing modernity. Among the discontinuists, there is a tendency for breaks from the grid of modernity to become more radical over time. So, Lash and Urry’s (1994) Economies of Signs and Space is a more radical enterprise than their first book, embracing a strong version of ‘post-societal sociology’ and implying a sharper distinction between ‘now’ and ‘then.’ Bauman (1988) embraced a version of the postmodern early in the piece, but as Kellner (1998: 76) points out, his critique of ‘modern’ ideals and frameworks becomes much sharper over the years.

The elusive thematic boundaries between modernity and postmodernity place formidable difficulties in the way of attempts to locate postmodernity as an historical phase placed after the modern. For any given attempt to specify definitively ‘postmodern’ themes, examples can be found which locate those themes firmly within historical periods that are clearly ‘pre-postmodern.’ In response to that difficulty, many commentators have argued that postmodernism is clearly an aspect of modernity itself—perhaps one that is now more prominently, now less prominently displayed. So, for Boyne and Rattansi (1990: 9) postmodernism, like modernism, is a critique of modernity. For Beilharz (1994: 15), ‘perhaps postmodernism is the self-styled doppelgnger of modernity.’ But these moves do not finally determine the location of postmodernity in its troublesome double relation—historical and themetic—to modernity. If the model of postmodernity as an already formed ‘social system’ (see Bauman, 1992) cannot be defended, some analysts have offered more cautious accounts of posteriority to the modern. For example, Turner (1990) suggests that we renounce the idea of a postmodern that is thematically opposed to the modern while retaining the sense of posteriority—the postmodern is after, not against, the modern. Lyon (1999:95) is among those who link the posteriority of the postmodern to an internal unravelling of the modern—‘the very items that modernity used to banish ambivalence and uncertainty’ have the effect of undermining ‘the modern sense of reality.’ The account of ‘postmodernization’ developed by Crook, Pakulski and Waters (1992) generalizes a similar point: the modernity-constituting processes of commodification, differentiation, organization and rationalization accelerate and intensify within modernity, producing effects that radically disrupt and eventually decompose modernity itself.

These positions loop back to a familiar paradox: the real contribution that the idea of the postmodern has made to social theory has been its interrogation of modernity as a category of history and society. To paraphrase Hegel, you don’t quite know what you’ve got ‘til its gone. The view that the postmodern is—at present—primarily a passage out of modernity gives rise to two rather distinct perspectives on the receding modern. In one, the defining contours of modernity emerge more sharply, like the skyline of a city seen from some kilometres away. So, modernity was rational, organized, Fordist-industrial, class-divided etc. while our present conditions seem less clearcut. This view, often linked to ‘middle-range’ periodizations such as organization-disorganization and Fordism-postFordism, is probably dominant. But from an alternative perspective, the opposite effect is observed: far from becoming sharper, the boundaries of modernity become blurred as we move away, like Los Angeles seen from the air on a smoggy day. To paraphase Lemert, maybe modernity wasn’t what you thought. It is an interesting feature of ‘continuist’ accounts of the present, such as Giddens’ and Beck’s, that they re-interpret the ‘industrial society’ of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as not fully modern. For example, Beck (1992) emphasizes the quasi-feudal character of class cultures and family networks in the industrial period.

More generally, the benefit of hindsight might show that cultures and societies of the modern period were always more multidimensional, and always had more in common with earlier configurations, than was allowed in theoretical constructs of ‘the modern’ (see also Seidman, 1991). For example, in Maffesoli’s (1996) account it is a waning of the grip of an Apollonian model of the modern that allows us to re-assess the force of an archaic Dionysian sociality. The pattern of trying to link the themes of a postmodern order to pre- or at least early modernity is by now well established. Turner (1990) is among those who saw an analogy between our present condition and the crises of the Baroque period. There too, rapid change and marked dislocation was matched by highly decorative cultural forms and an unstable mixture of the rational and the non-rational in religion and politics. Lyon (1999) is among those who has drawn attention to the recent popularity of premodern—especially Greek—models in ethics, politics and religion among social theorists.

The claim that ‘we have never been modern,’ associated with Baudrillard (1983), Latour (1993) and Maffesoli (1996), dramatized a growing sense that models of ‘modern society’ were always highly selective, marginalizing processes, experiences and practices that were constitutive of everyday life. Here, the idea of the postmodern is linked to the recognition that the modern was always in crucial respects premodern. A similar challenge to the idea of ‘modern society’ arises in some studies of change in non-Western societies. Brazilian, Chinese or Indonesian ‘modernities’ cannot be trimmed on the Procrustean bed of the Anglo-American West. The case of Japan is particularly interesting because the global power of the Japanese economy makes it difficult to marginalize Japan as a case of defective or incomplete modernity. On one plausible diagnosis (see Clammer, 1995), Japan should be regarded as postmodern in its mix of traditionalism, economic hypermodernity and simulatory popular culture. If, as Clammer suggests, Japan has passed directly from its own ‘premodernity’ to ‘postmodernity’ without experiencing an Anglo-American ‘modernity’ it poses a double challenge to social theory. It undermines models of modernity as a necessary and universal stage of development while it equally undermines accounts of the postmodern as a stage located after the modern.

Conclusion: Social Theory and the Postmodern

How, then, are we to answer the question, posed in the introduction, of the significance of ‘the postmodern’ for ‘social theory’? The three main sections of the chapter have set out to demonstrate that three propositions hold good for each of three major areas of concern to social theory: epistemology and method, values and politics, and change in culture and society. The propositions, set out in full in the introduction, are that postmodern themes are inescapable problems and resources for contemporary social theory, that the modern-postmodern distinction is nevertheless troublesome, and that postmodern themes have deep roots in social theory. To the degree that those propositions hold, the phrase ‘postmodern social theory’ is really a pleonasm: any social theory that engages with the contemporary world is ‘postmodern.’ Two qualifications to that statement might reduce the risk of misunderstanding. First, it does not imply that all social theory must be postmodernist as that term is usually understood. It is possible to engage theoretically with the postmodern without buying one of the packaged positions usually termed ‘postmodernist’ in epistemology, methodology, ethics, politics, aesthetics and history. At the same time, our understanding of the world has not been markedly advanced by attempts to demonize those positions, to use the guilt of postmodernism as an alibi for the innocence of non-postmodern social theory.

Second, the argument that social theory cannot help but be postmodern is not intended to beg periodizing questions about whether the contemporary world ‘is’ postmodern, high modern, neotraditional or whatever. There can be little serious doubt that the social world, and the ways in which social theory has tried to engage with that world, have changed in significant ways over a relatively brief period of thirty or forty years. For example, how many contemporary social theorists still align themselves with a triumphal, enlightened Western modernity? How many still maintain that ‘class’ is the template for all inequalities of gender and race? How many maintain that the key to the analysis of consumption lies in the analysis of production? How many take their object of study to be integrated and autonomous national societies? The claim that social theory cannot but be postmodern says no more initially than that social theory must engage with the complex transformations that are shaping both the contemporary world and the ways in which we apprehend it. Perhaps the claim implies a little more than that: naturally enough, social theorists who have directly addressed the idea of the postmodern have made major contributions to clarifying the complex of issues that have been labelled ‘postmodern themes’ here. But the match is not exact: some notable postmodernist do not address the idea of the postmodern other than in passing, while anti-postmodernists such as Beck and Giddens do address important ‘postmodern themes.’ So, a range of positions that apply differing labels to the present can contribute to social theoretical debate on the postmodern.

The fourth proposition in the introduction calls for a ‘modestly postmodern’ social theory, focused on the shifting shapes and textures of ‘the social.’ That proposition can be addressed by posing two questions. First, in what ways has the postmodern made a decisive difference to social theory? Secondly, in what ways might social theory productively turn away from what are usually understood as postmodern positions? The materials for an answer to each question have been provided in the preceding sections.

On questions of epistemology and method, the postmodern has focused efforts to re-assert in contemporary conditions the fundamental insight of social theory that knowledge is relative to the context and the means of its production. There can be legitimate debate as to which version of this insight is to be preferred, but social theory cannot now credibly ignore its reflexive dimension. So here the postmodern has made a difference. But at the same time, postmodern approaches that mobilize the reflexive moment to debunk all knowledge claims—other than those produced by their own deconstructive or genealogical procedures—are implausible. They recapitulate modernist mythologies of pure critique, fail to distinguish between methodological and other variants of relativism and commit epistemological variants of Smith’s ‘egalitarian fallacy.’ So social theory need not consider itself bound by the more strident postmodernist positions on these questions. To be ‘modestly postmodern’ here is to trace the ways in which the reflexivity of knowledges of the social constitutes and limits, but does not destroy, modes of validity. One effect of such a positioning would be to draw postmodern social theory back towards a closer relationship with the social sciences. Here, the point is not to mock the methodological naivety of ‘positivism,’ but to understand what can legitimately be inferred from particular empirical studies and how the inferences might inform theory. Social theory has a legitimate synthetic, as well as analytic, moment.

A symmetrical case holds for questions of value and politics. On value questions, particularly, the postmodern has reminded social theory of the potential nihilism of value relativism and re-awakened interest in the attempt to resolve the problem. If some variants of the postmodern stand charged with nihilism—like some variants of non-postmodern social theory—others have made significant contributions to a post-foundational ethics. On questions of politics, the postmodern stress on the multiple forms and sites of subordination and on the repressed voices of the subordinate has become a significant resource for the post-Marxist left. However, in contemporary debates about value and politics little purpose is served by the search for a clear, sharp line that divides postmodern from other approaches. In the hands of critics, it produces only the slogans and caricatures of culture warriors. In the hands of advocates, it produces positions that parallel the epistemological mythologies noted above and give credibility to the culture warriors. Strident postmodernisms of ‘resistance’ perpetuate the idea of a ‘pure’ politics uncontaminated by tendencies to oppression or compromise. Such positions misconstrue the nuances of value relativism, commit ethical and political variants of the ‘egalitarian fallacy’ and endorse resistance in a way that drifts towards nihilism. A modestly postmodern social theory must begin from the diagnosis that there are no historical or universal principles that can stand as guarantor for its ethical or political positions. But rather than embrace the problematic certainties of postmodernisms of resistance it should range more widely across contemporary ‘conversations’ about post-foundational ethics and politics. Its engagement should include both a careful assessment of programmes of social scientific research and attention to the whole gamut of political activities, including electoral politics.

Questions of social and cultural change are the elusive core of the postmodern. They are the core because it is the assertion, or frequently the intimation, of immanent epochal thresholds that defines the ‘post’ in postmodern and holds together postmodern positions on aesthetic, epistemological, ethical and political matters. The questions are elusive because, in any register we choose, it turns out to be extremely difficult to align thematic and historical disjunctions to produce unambiguous boundaries between the modern and postmodern. This difficulty leads many critics to reject the idea of the postmodern out of hand as vague and incoherent. As we have seen in the previous section, there are ample grounds for such impatience. But at the same time, even if the answers given are unsatisfactory, the questions posed by the postmodern will not go away. Social theory cannot abandon the attempts to determine what kind of world we now inhabit and to trace its relations of continuity and discontinuity with the worlds of the past.

So, what would be the tasks of a ‘modestly postmodern’ social theory that took up these questions? An obvious first task must be to find a way of addressing change theoretically that neither falls back into historicist grand narratives nor remains fixed on genealogical particularities. Unfashionable as it may be to say so, the historical and methodological texts of Marx and Weber provide important pointers here, since each in his own way tried to find a path between unpalatable alternatives similar to those we now face. A second task must be to determine what remains of ‘the social’ after we have given away the defining idea of ‘society.’ Here, classical authorities are of less help. One important possibilty is that ‘the social’ becomes the way in which natural, technical, discursive and psychic processes hang together, to the extent that they do hang together. In the vocabulary of Latour, Law and their colleagues, the social then inheres in the production of ‘networks’ or ‘chains of association.’ In Lyotard’s vocabulary, the social becomes the ‘path’ between language games. One implication of this approach is that the social is neither a predetermined terrain, always available as a scene for action, nor a fixed quantuum. Understood in this way, the sphere of the social expands or contracts depending on the length of the chains or paths. If such a possibility were pursued, it would generate a third and related task. If we can no longer take ‘society’ as a given reality in the Durkheimian sense, and if the space of the social can both expand and contract, how do we account for the orderliness of social and cultural life? We can no longer answer that question plausibly by constructing a model of a unitary, homogeneous and hegemonic order or structure. The task, rather, must be to explore the ways in which multiple programmes for the ordering of social life interesect with, contest and accommodate each other. Of course, these tasks do not begin to capture the great diversity of projects that are carried on, and should continue to be carried on, under the rubric of social theory. However, a case can be made that they must be addressed if social theory is to engage with the contemporary world in a way that is both adequate to the challenge of the postmodern and also merits the dignity of the title ‘theory.’