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Modernity is a type, mode, or stage of society, initially abstracted from the recent history of West European countries from the Renaissance to the rise of mass media, and characterized by a larger-scale integration of formally isolated local communities and departure from tradition and religion to individualism, rational or scientific organization of society, and egalitarianism. A society in the state of modernity is called a modern society. The process of a society becoming a modern society is called modernization[?]. The most defining events in the modern period include:

The more particular events in the West European history include:

It is usually suggested that some or most of these events led to the more complete realization of modern society in Europe.

Defining Characteristics of Modernity

There has been a numerous attempts, particularly in the field of sociology, to understand and conceptualize what modernity is. A wide variety of terms are used to describe the society, social life, driving force, symptomatic mentality, or some other defining aspects of modernity. They include: Bureaucracy, Disenchantment of the world[?], Rationalization[?], Secularization[?], Alienation, Commodification[?], Decontexutalization[?], Individualism, Subjectivism, Linear-progression[?], Objectivism, Universalism, Reductionism, Chaos, Mass society[?], Industrial society[?], Homogenization, Unification, Hybridization, Diversification, Democratization[?], Centralization, Hierarchical organization, Mechanization, Totalitarian, and so on.

Characterization of modernity is often done by comparing modern societies to premodern[?] or postmodern ones, and the conceptualization of those non-modern social status is, again, far from a settled issue. To an extent, it is reasonable to doubt the very possibility of a descriptive concept that can adequately capture diverse realities of societies of various historical contexts, especially non-European ones, let alone a three-stage model of social evolution from premodernity to postmodernity.

However, in terms of social structure, many of the defining events and characteristics listed above has to do with a transition from relatively isolated local communities to a more integrated large-scale society. Understood this way, modernization might be a general, abstract process which can be found in many different parts of histories, rather than a unique event in Europe.

In general, large-scale integration involves:

  • Increased movement of goods, capital, people, and information among formally separated areas, and increased influence that reaches beyond a local area
  • Increased formalization of those mobile elements, development of 'circuits' on which those elements and influence travel, and coordinated standardization of many aspects of the society in general that is conducive to the mobility.
  • Increased specialization of different segments of society such as division of labor, and interdependency among areas

Seemingly contradictory characteristics given to modernity are often different aspects of this process. For example, unique local culture[?] is invaded and lost by the increased mobility of cultural elements, such as recipes, folktales, and hit songs, resulting in a cultural homogenization across localities; however, the repertoire of available recipes and songs increase within a area because of the increased inter-local movement, resulting in a diversification within each locality. (This is manifest especially in large metropoilises[?] where many mobile elements pass). Centralized bureaucracy and hierarchical organization of governments and firms grow in scale and power in an unprecedented manner, leading some to lament the stifling, cold, rationalist, and/or totalitarianistic nature of modern society. Yet individuals, often as a replaceable component, may be able to move in those social subsystems, creating a sense of liberation, dynamic competition and individualism to others. This is especially the case when a modern society is compared with premodern societies, in which family and class one born into shapes one's lifecourse to a greater extent.

These social changes are somewhat common to many different levels of social integration, and not limited to what happened to the West European societies in a specific time period. For exsample, when formerly separate virtual communities merge into one, for example, these changes might happen in the process. Similarly, when two human beings develop a close relationship, such as a couple, communication, convention, and increased division of roles tend to emerge. Another example can be found in the ongoing globalization - changing landscapes of many through the increased international flows. In other words, while modernity has been characterized in many seemingly contradictory ways, many of those characterizations indeed can be reduced to a relatively simple set of concepts of social change.

At the same time, however, such conceptualization of modernity is certainly not satisfactory to many, because it fails to explain the global influence of West European and American societies since the Renaissance. Mere large-scale integration of local communities, seen in Macedonia of Alexander the Great or Mongolia of Khans, would not necessarily result in the same magnitude of influence as the West European modernization. What has led the Western Europe so special?

There has been two major answers to this question. First, an internal factor is that only in Europe, through the Renaissance humanists and early modern philosophers and scientists, rational thinking came to replace many intellectual activities that has been under heavy influence of conventions, ungrounded beliefs, and religeons. This line of answer is most frequently associated with Max Weber, a sociologist who is known to have pursued the answer to the above question.

Second, an external factor is that colonialization[?], starting as early as the Age of Discovery created exploitative relations between European countries with colonies. Emanuel Wallerstain[?] and world systems theory that he pursues is probably most famous along this line of thinking.

It is also notable that such commonly-observed features of many modern societies as nuclear family, slavery, gender roles, and nation states does not necessarily fit well with the idea of rational social organization in which components such as people are treated equally. While many of these features have been dissolving, histories seem to suggest those features may not be mere exceptions to the essential characteristics of modernization, but necessary parts of it.

Modernity as the hope, modernity as the doom

Modernization brought a series of seemingly undisputable benefit to people. Lower infant mortality rate, decreased death from starvation, eradication of some of the fatal deseases, more equal treatment of people with different backgrounds, economic affluence, and so on. To some, this is an indication of the potential of modernity, perhaps yet to be fully realized. In general, rational, scientific approach to the problems and the pursuit of economic wealth seems still a reasonable way of conceptualizing a good social development to many.

At the same time, there are a number of dark sides of modernity pointed out by sociologists and others.

Technological development occurred not only in medical and agricultural fields, but in military as well. Bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki using atomic bombs during the World War II, and the following nuclear arms race[?] in the post-war era are considered by some as the symbol of the danger of technologies that humans may or may not be able to handle wisely.

Stalin's Great Purges and Holocaust (or Shoah) is considered by some as indications that rational thinking and rational organization of a society might involve exclusion, or extermination, of non-standard elements. It is pointed out by some that homosexuals, criminals, and the mentally ill are also among the excluded in the modern society.

Environmental problems comprise another category in the dark side of the modernity. Pollution is perhaps the least controversial of these, but one may include decreasing biodiversity and climate change as results of development. The development of bio- and genetic- technologies are creating what some considers sources of unknown risks.

Besides these obvious incidents, many critics point out psychological and moral hazards of modern life - alienation, feeling of rootlessness, loss of strong bonds and common values, hedonism, and so on. This is often accompanied by a re-evaluation of pre-modern communities, though such criticism may slip into a nostalgia to an idealized past.

== Feminism and egalitarianism === (to be added)

Modernity and the contemporary society

There is an ongoing debate about the relationship between modernity and contemporary societies. The debate has two dimensions. First, there is an empirical question wheather some of the contemporary societies can be understood as a variation of modernity (such as hyper-modernity[?]) or it should be conceptualized as a distinctive type, such as postmodernity. Second, there is a normative question of wheather modernization has been, and is, desirable for a society. Seemingly new phenomena such as globalization, end of the Cold War, ethnic conflicts, the proliferation of information technologies are taken as reason to adopt a new vision to navigate social development for some.

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