Sociology: modernity or postmodernity?
While a textbook definition of sociology states that: `sociology is the systematic (or planned and organised) study of human groups and social life in modern societies`, its focus is on the relationship between people and social institutions (family, religion, media, law and order...) and how they interact with each other. Sociology is also concerned with researching and explaining the patterns of inequality, deprivation and conflict that are a feature of nearly all societies.
Sociology dates back to the nineteenth century when there was a general concern about the transformation from living in stable, traditional communities - where most people worked on the land - to the then unfamiliar modern lifestyle in rapidly growing, impersonal cities. This urban existence was characterised by factories, workshops and amazing new inventions such as railways, and the creation of both great wealth and appalling squalor. Religious beliefs declined, and early sociologists were both fascinated and concerned by the way developments in science and technology were revolutionising and transforming the way people lived.
In today’s world the pace of change is such that some sociologists believe we have experienced another transformation in the way we live. Modernity has been replaced by postmodern society this refers, in part, to the communication revolution, globalisation and the acceleration in the pace of technological change. Postmodernists believe there is much more flexibility in the way people construct identities (for example through social media) and that the old inequalities of gender, class and ethnicity have diminished considerably. At the same time, there is scepticism about the truth of any particular theory, the views of experts (for example, the weight of evidence against Brexit did not convince the majority of voters in the EU referendum) and indeed the whole idea of `progress` through science.
Of course this view is controversial, critics say that inequalities relating to class, gender and ethnicity are still substantial constraints on the identities we construct. An important skill of the sociology student is the ability to apply relevant knowledge and evaluate the strengths of competing views. For example, it is possible to look at a phenomenon such as New Age religion and see its preoccupation with self-improvement and ‘reflexivity’ as a continuation of the Enlightenment Project (of continual progress) associated with modernity. On the other hand, it is equally possible to identify New Age ideas and practices as postmodern in the way they emphasise choice in a `pick and mix` smorgasbord and that there is no overarching truth so that whatever feels right at that time is the appropriate belief and/or practice.
As a sociology student, if you were to discuss this in an essay, extra interpretation marks are available when you reference the appropriate sociologists with whom these views are associated. John Drane, for example, takes a postmodern view of New Age beliefs and activities, whereas Steve Bruce argues against this.
I hope this short article has conveyed something of my own enthusiasm for sociology. It is a fascinating subject that provides a better understanding of the global world, our society and our own roles, as well as encouraging you to work hard for that elusive A* grade! Sociology is also an important subject for the way its research informs social policy decisions. However, that is the subject for another article.