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sensitivity to language–power relations. The

latter usage (theory of postmodernity or postmodernization)

is associated with writings of such

thinkers as Fredric Jameson, Zygmunt Bauman,

and David Harvey, who analyze postmodernism

as a new configuration, and Jean Baudrillard,

Stephen Crook, Jan Pakulski, and Malcolm Waters

in Postmodernization (1992), who study postmodernization

as an ongoing process and directional


Postmodernism typically refers to changes in

cultural representations, mentalities, feelings,

and lived experience. While the idea of postmodernism

has been gaining currency since the 1970s

in relation to the visual arts and architecture, its

origins reach back to the second decade of the

twentieth century, when radical artistic avantgarde

movements, such as Dada, attempted to

link art back to life through the use of images

drawn from popular culture and found objects,

such as the hatstands of Marcel Duchamp (1887–

1968). It has been argued that this makes Dada an

early forerunner of postmodernism. However, the

Dada avant-gardism is usually seen as a failure in

the sense of its confinement to the isolated modernist

establishment. By the 1950s, modernist art

started to lose its isolation and radical edge, becoming

sanitized, popularized, commercialized,

and internationalized – a step in a postmodern

direction. The Pop Art of the 1960s has also

been seen as a forerunner of postmodernism. Pop

used images from popular culture, hyperrealism,

postindustrial society postmodern theory


collages, jokes, and parodies (for example Soft

Toilet). Recent decades have seen a bewildering

variety of postmodern styles: a resurgence of figurative

work, realism and hyperrealism, historicism,

and a deliberate superficiality that rejects

the psychological depth of modernism.

Postmodern architecture, like postmodern art,

rejects the elitist and avant-garde orientation of

modernism. It is programmatically popular, immediately

attractive to the eye, diverse, and eclectic.

The term has been applied to decorative

designs, neo-classicism, neo-vernacular, parody,

and pastiche. These styles are united in their

double coding of modernist techniques and materials,

and contain stylistic references to something

else. In one view, postmodernist architecture

and art are welcomed as popular, accessible,

and playful. In another view, they are deplored

because they become the decorative fac¸ade of contemporary

niche-marketed consumerism.

While there seems to be a consensus on what

constitutes postmodernism in art, there is no

agreement about contemporary notions of social

postmodernity. Some (like Mike Featherstone) contrast

the postmodern epoch with the modern era;

postmodernity implies a break with and shift

away from the organizing principles of modern

society. Others such as Jameson in Postmodernism

or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991) see it as

a continuation of modern trends; postmodernism

constitutes just the cultural reflection of modern

capitalism, an expression of American domination,

and a lifestyle of the “yuppies.” Jean Baudrillard,

in turn, sees social postmodernity as a

correlate of expanding mass media and communications

and mass consumption, and as a new era

brought by the proliferation of mediated communication,

symbolic consumption, and the compression

of time and space. This results in a

proliferation of self-referential signs, intensified

consumption of signs (for example brands), and

the emergence of social order based on symbolic


There are differences in the view of how widespread

the postmodern features are and how advanced

the postmodern trends are. Bauman and

Jameson see the advanced societies as already

postmodern. By contrast, Crook and his colleagues

analyze postmodernization as an ongoing – and

by no means even or complete – social process.

Postmodern trends include social fragmentation,

differentiation, and the increasingly ephemeral

nature of social formations; flexible specialization;

progressing cultural pluralism, depthlessness,

commercialization, and populism; widening

eclecticism and syncretism of styles; and generational

libertarian shifts in values and sensitivities.

Critical culturalists, such as Ronald

Inglehart, focus on changes in values and the

rise of diverse identity politics. Others, like

Lyotard and Baudrillard, highlight the decline of

ideological meta-narratives and the return to the

local and vernacular, and the ascendancy of

autonomous but empty symbols or simulacra.

For Baudrillard, the world is saturated by sounds

and images from mass media, eroding the distinction

between representation and (social) reality

and producing the “end of the social.”

Postmodernization typicallymeans the processes

that accelerate and reverse modern trends. One can

see the accounts of postmodernization as ranging

from less radical, pointing to some continuities, to

more radical, suggesting discontinuities. Jameson

and Harvey, for example, analyze postmodernization

as involving continuities: a gradual commodification

of culture, collapse of styles and high/low

cultural tastes, populism of standards, fragmentation

of social classes, and political realignments

as reflected in the proliferation of ephemeral

movements. Crook, Pakulski, and Waters (1992)

see postmodern trends in the “reversal through

acceleration” of the key processes of modernization:

commodification to hypercommodification,

social differentiation to hyper-differentiation, and

rationalization to hyper-rationalization. They identify

postmodern trends in the domains of culture

and identity, the role of the state, politics, work

and production, and weakening class relations.

Hypercommodification extends market relations

to formerly non-commodified regions (for example

intellectual property, and televangelism).

Hyperdifferentiation breaks up institutions into

fragments that combine in an unpredictable

manner (for instance syncretic lifestyles, multimedia,

transdisciplinary science). Hyperrationalization

splits off inaccessible “expert cultures,”

produces “irrational” social responses and pluralizes

rationalities (for example fundamentalism

and new age cults). On this view, postmodernization

involves also the blurring of the boundaries

between social, cultural, and political domains.

For Crook and his colleagues this means that flows

of social action (as in new social movements) are

no longer contained in social institutions.



Associated with postindustrial society and poststructuralism,

postmodernism arises as a consequence

of advanced modernization, in particular

postmodern theory postmodernism


the fragmentation of the West’s institutionalization

of unilinear history and systems of meaning.

A conception of history as having a single direction,

the endeavor to develop a rational program

of collective emancipation, the grounding of all

human experience and representation in reason:

these are some of the key criteria of modernity. Yet

in our own time, paradoxically, it is precisely such

modernist aims for self-mastery and control that

fall victim to the very social processes they seek to

colonize. Recent decades have powerfully shown

that the ethos of modernity has come to haunt us.

Global risks, threats, and pandemics, from AIDS to

terrorism, have served to highlight the gross limitations

of modernist perspectives, generating in

turn the emergence of new social and political


Postmodernism confounds identity, theory, and

politics in a scandalous way, with its leveling of

hierarchies, its dislocating subversion of ideological

closure, its interpretative polyvalence and

its self-reflexive pluralism. In this sense, postmodernism

refers to certain currents of cultural and

critical discourse which seek to deconstruct the

ideological affinities of totalizing thought, the operations

of power, the legitimating functions of

knowledge and truth, and the discursive practices

of self-constitution.

A growing appreciation of the limits of rationality,

various postmodernists have argued, has led

to the abandonment of the epistemological illusions

of emancipatory declarations made in the

name of freedom, truth, equality, liberty, and so

on. As the pioneering postmodern analyst Jean-

Franc¸ois Lyotard put this in The Postmodern Condition

(1979 [trans. 1984]), postmodernism is defined

as an “incredulity toward metanarratives.” The

grand narratives that unified and structured western

science and philosophy, grounding truth and

meaning in the presumption of a universal subject

and a predetermined goal of emancipation,

no longer appear convincing or even plausible.

Instead, in the anti-totalizing, postmodern perspective,

knowledge is constructed, not discovered;

it is contextual, not foundational.

Social transformations are understood to be of

central importance in this erosion of the grand

narratives of the modern era. Globalization and

especially the proliferation of new information

technologies introduce a qualitative transformation

in the experience of space and time, the

result of which is a dramatic acceleration in the

turmoil and flux of personal and cultural life. The

overall effect, as Jean Baudrillard argues, is an

implosion of all boundaries, an erasure of the

distinctions of high and low culture, of appearance

and reality, of past and present. Postmodernity

is thus inherently decentered and dispersed:

everything is of the same value, which means

that nothing much counts in terms of meaning,

distinction, hierarchy.

There are two major criticisms of postmodernism,

one sympathetic, one critical. The sympathetic

argument is that sociology should remain

critical of the postmodern turn by attempting to

develop a sociology of postmodernism, rather

than succumbing to a postmodern sociology.

This case has been vigorously argued by Zygmunt

Bauman. The second response within sociology

has been to reject the view that postmodernism

spells the end of modernity. ANTHONY EL L IOTT


The idea of postmodernity has until recently been

the focus of a contested debate amongst intellectuals.

Those seeking to defend the concept (it has

many detractors) use it as a way to imply a change

in modern social conditions and a new way of

relating to modernity. The changes in modern

social conditions usually include the development

of new technologies, the decline in the power of

tradition, the erosion of a strong version of secularism,

globalization, the role of culture and communications,

and the emergence of ecological

issues and of other world regions challenging

Euro-American modernities. New ways of relating

to modern times have led to an enhanced questioning

of ideas of progress and a reflection upon

the limits of reason.

These arguments and others have begun to

emerge in a political and intellectual context

that has begun to debate the limits of specifically

western modernity. A growing realization that

there are other non-western civilizations and the

idea that Euro-American forms of development

have a number of negative side-effects, making

them unsuitable for universal application, have

aided thinking on these questions. In addition,

the cultural turn in sociology has led to an increasing

recognition of both the complexity and

cultural plurality of modern societies. Zygmunt

Bauman has arguably gone the farthest in pressing

the claim that the condition of postmodernity

is more than just changing social conditions. Postmodernity

articulates a particular crisis for intellectuals

who have suffered a period of relative


First, intellectuals are unable to offer authoritative

solutions to questions of truth, the normative

claims of justice, and taste. Their position of

postmodernism postmodernity


influence in modern society then can be said to be

in decline. In this respect, Bauman suggests that

they become interpreters of knowledge rather

than legislators of new social systems. Second,

the recognition of the inevitably pluralistic features

of modern life disrupts universal claims

and introduces questions of relativism into the

production of knowledge. Finally, modern social

conditions have also changed, introducing the development

of a society based upon consumption

rather than production. This means that the

system now requires the pleasurable consumption

of commodities rather than the deferral of gratification

and thrift. Political domination is no longer

achieved through the legitimation of social values

as much as through a combination of seduction

and repression. The requirement that we recall

our unconditional responsibility towards the

other without trying to reinvent the existential

security of rules and expert systems takes us to

the heart of postmodernity. In this respect, processes

of globalization and individualization offer

new opportunities for responsible political engagement

beyond the now permeable walls of

the nation-state.

Many intellectuals have sharply disagreed with

these and similar ideas. They have suggested that

ideas of postmodernity signify not so much a new

social order, but a form of intellectual defeatism.

The failure of intellectuals to offer up new

blueprints for alternative social orders exhibits a

lack of social responsibility. The global triumph of

capitalism, new imperialist wars, the continuation

of nationalist violence, and a planet that is

being pushed beyond its ecological limits are

reason enough to reject the label of postmodernism.

Rejecting any notion of new times, many

point to both the continuation of a largely capitalist-

driven modernity and the need to develop

solutions to social problems. NICK STEVENSON


This is concerned with the relations between

human beings, the world, and the process of

making and reproducing meanings (see Catherine

Belsey, Poststructuralism. A Very Short Introduction,

2002). There are at least two historical narratives

which relate to this definition, offering different

routes leading to the intellectual position which

became dominant in France in the last quarter of

the twentieth century and, by extension, globally

significant through the translations into English

of the work, in particular, of Louis Althusser,

Roland Barthes, Jean Baudrillard, Pierre Bourdieu,

Jacques Derrida (1930–2004), Michel Foucault, Julia

Kristeva, and Jean-Franc¸ois Lyotard. One route

tends to locate poststructuralism in the context

of language and literature, whereas the other

associates it with philosophy and the social


The first account takes the work of Ferdinand de

Saussure in linguistics as the main starting-point.

In analyzing “signs,” Saussure distinguished between

the “signifier,” which is the sound or

appearance of words being deployed, and the

“signified,” which is their meaning. Linguistic

signs are arbitrary. Particular combinations of

signifiers and signifieds are arbitrary entities.

There is no natural correspondence between signifiers

and what they signify (the signified). To

analyze language, one has to analyze the relations

between signs rather than the relation between

those signs and any prior reality which they might

be thought, fixedly, to represent. Language is not

a nomenclature but a relational system of signs.

But Saussure also distinguished between “langue”

and “parole,” between the systemic structure of

language and contingent speech-acts. It was his

contention that the primary purpose of linguistic

science was to understand the structure of the

non-contingent system of non-referential signs.

In this account of the origins of poststructuralism,

the work of Barthes was critical in following

Saussure’s notion of signification while rejecting

his attempt to generate a universal analysis of

signs. At the beginning of his S/Z (1970 [trans.

1975]), Barthes has commented that there are

said to be Buddhists whose ascetic discipline enables

them to perceive a whole landscape within a

single bean. He asserted that the first analysts of

narratives worked on this premise, attempting

what is ultimately undesirable because the text

as a result loses its distinctiveness and difference.

Barthes’s science of signs, semiology, was poststructuralist

in emphasizing “difference” rather

than structural uniformity, but for a poststructuralist

social scientist like Bourdieu, Barthes persisted

in operating with the fundamentally

structuralist assumption that an a-priori, systemic

“langue” regulates speech practice. Bourdieu

wanted to de-regulate “langue” as well as liberate

signs from referential constraint. The second account

of the development of poststructuralism

incorporates the influence of Edmund Husserl’s

phenomenology and the ontology of Martin

Heidegger (1889–1976). These influences from

philosophy pushed the social sciences towards a

recognition of the primacy of agency, towards the

recognition of difference at the level of signifying

actions rather than at the level of objectivized

poststructuralism poststructuralism


signs. There is a close relationship between the

development of poststructuralism and postmodernism.

One could say provocatively that

postmodernism exposed the extent to which poststructuralism

remained parasitic on structuralist

assumptions. DEREK ROBBINS


This concept describes an empirical reality, both

globally and in individual societies, but the meaning

of which is contested. What constitutes poverty

depends on how it is defined and measured.

The main debates around definition concern the

role of material resources, in particular income,

and whether poverty should be understood in absolute

or relative terms. The nature of the debates

differs according to context, in particular that of

the global South or North.

Disagreements about the role of income revolve

around a number of issues. One concerns the relative

importance of income versus living standards,

which may also reflect factors such as access to

services and quality of the local environment. Another

raises wider questions about the significance

of nonmaterial aspects of poverty that are

often raised by people in poverty in both the

North and the South. These include disrespectful

treatment, loss of dignity, lack of voice, and of

power. With regard to nonmaterial aspects, it is

possible to resolve any disagreement by making a

distinction between the (narrower) definition and

(broader) conceptualization of poverty. The latter

is better able to embrace the relational aspects of

poverty while the former focuses on poverty as a

material condition.

The other key definitional debate has revolved

around whether poverty should be understood in

absolute or relative terms. Definitions deployed in

the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries

by Charles Booth (1840–1916) and Seebohm Rowntree

(1871–1954), the pioneers of modern poverty

research, were supposedly absolute in the sense

that poverty was said to be understood as lack of

sufficient money to meet basic physical needs to

subsist and survive. The alternative, relative definition

was pioneered by Peter Townsend. In his

major study Poverty in the United Kingdom (1979),

he defined poverty in terms of exclusion from

the living conditions, and inability to participate

in the activities, taken for granted by the wider

society because of lack of material resources. Central

to his approach was the concept of relative

deprivation, but understood as an objective condition

rather than a subjective feeling as in W. G.

Runciman’s formulation.

In judging whether relative poverty exists, comparison

is made with others living in the same

society at the same point in history. This means

that historical and global North/South comparisons

are misplaced. Such a comparison also highlights

any inequality of resources between groups

in a society, although relative poverty and inequality

are not synonymous. The latter does not

necessarily imply the inability of some members

to participate fully in society because of lack of

material resources. A relative definition also involves

a particular reading of human needs not

merely as physical but as socially and culturally

constituted. One implication of an understanding

of even the most basic physiological needs as socially

conditioned is that the conventional notion

of absolute poverty falls apart. Indeed, contemporary

scholarship questions the conventional

wisdom that Rowntree promulgated a definition

of poverty, in terms of subsistence, that was


There have also been attempts to develop a

framework that treats absolute and relative as

complementary rather than competing formulations,

which can be applied to both North and

South. The first was by Amartya Sen (1933– ). He

identified an absolutist core to poverty, the most

obvious manifestation of which is starvation and

malnutrition. He suggested that what one is able

to do or be (capabilities) is a question of universal

absolutes, whereas the goods (or commodities)

needed to translate this ability into actual being

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