Overlooked in the vigorous debate over postmodernism that has consumed Troppo over the past week or so is the distinction between postmodernity and postmodernism, which is one strongly established in sociology (often associated with the work of Zygmunt Bauman.) Bauman argues that postmodernity is a useful analytic which can help us get to grips with what is distinctly different about the world we now live in, compared to what it was like prior to the 1970s (there’s a reason for the date, but more of that later).
Sociology as a discipline has been fairly resistant to postmodern theory, which is not surprising, for two reasons. The first is that sociology had its origins as a social science which sought to apply reason to the understanding of the human world, and how we make meaning of it. In other words, sociology is the child of the same Enlightenment that postmodernists often claim is the source of all evil in the world today. Postmodernism has a distinctly anti-rational bent. Many sociologists see postmodernist theory as a symptom of deep shifts in the world, rather than as a rigorous attempt to come to terms with those shifts (which it assuredly is not). The second is that sociology emerged at the same time as the modern world and has always been concerned with understanding the process of modernisation and its impact on society. That’s one of the key master narratives of sociology, if you like. For these sort of reasons, a lot of sociologists tend to prefer the term “late modernity”. I want to try to explain a little of what sociologists see as distinctive about the times we live in.
ELSEWHERE: The Currency Lad writes in praise of the Right-postmodernist, Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man.
Part of my motivation in doing so, is that I’d argue that we can’t turn back the clock, which is a point that Tim Dunlop made strongly in the context of the previous debate. A lot of phenomena we see as reactionary are better seen as reactions against modernity or postmodernity (for instance various species of religious fundamentalism which are actually quite opposed to tradition and would have been incomprehensible in pre-modern times). The conservative project, to the degree that it still exists in a meaningful sense, exists in massive tension with neo-liberalism, and much of the contradictions of our world are mappable along this point of fracture. Probably the most powerful reactionary force in politics today is neo-conservatism, which seeks to return to pre-modern forms of power politics and privileges honour and glory and the rule of an enlightened few. But the methods it uses are strikingly postmodern – rhetoric, the media, the power of symbol over substance, and a sort of nominalism which is held in common with postmodern theory – if I name something, I change the world (the obvious referent here is the rhetorical clusters around the wars of the last 10 years).
I lack the energy at the moment to write a new post on all this, but I do want to give readers a sense of where the debate on postmodernity is at. To that end, from the next paragraph onwards, I’ve posted an extract from a paper I wrote for a consultancy in 2003 – ironically, my commission was to map the contexts of teaching and learning in “New Times”. The basic brief was to do some big picture thinking for educational psychologists. This paper was a preliminary report, so it’s probably schematic and general enough to translate to the blog form. I haven’t done any editing on it though except to leave out some clearly extraneous material. So read on, if interested. It might be a bit heavy going, as it’s written for an academic readership (so I’ve no doubt it will appear jargon-laden to some), and it’s fairly long.
The Contexts of Education in New Times
Stuart Hall’s (1993) concept of ‘New Times’ is one commonly used in the sociology of education literature to capture the notion that the social and cultural contexts of education and learning have undergone significant and ongoing mutations over the last thirty years. Indeed, such is the diffusion of this concept that it appears in the selection criteria for academic positions in Education, in the rationale for curriculum documents in schooling, and in governmental policy reports. More broadly, a range of concepts and bodies of theorisation and analysis within sociology and social theory have arisen attempting to explain causally and map empirically the specificity of the contemporary social.
While the concept of globalisation, for instance, was almost unknown outside the International Relations discipline until the early 1990s (Bahnisch 2002), Harrison (2002) has demonstrated that a range of conceptual and theoretical periodisations across the social scientific and humanistic disciplines have identified qualititative shifts in areas such as political economy and culture in addition to a quantitative shift in the pace of change (Giddens’ ‘time-space distanciation’ and Harvey’s ‘time-space compression’). Harrison (2002) argues that such shifts are typically identified as having their symbolic beginning in 1973 the time of the OPEC Oil Crisis and the abrogation of the Bretton Woods conventions of international financial relations by President Nixon the significance of these developments being the ushering in of a period of simultaneous growth in inflation and unemployment which ended the post-War ‘Golden Age’ and led to what Habermas (1975) called a ‘legitimation crisis’ and Offe (1984) described as the ‘fiscal crisis of the State’. At the level of culture and forms of sociality, various shifts in social values in the West can be mapped whether the rise of ‘post-materialist’ politics described by Offe, the decline of class identities and values in favour of a range of particularistic social antagonisms theorised by Brown (1995) or the plurality of approaches to intimate and familial relationships traced back to the social movements of the 1960s and bemoaned by Bell (1976) and celebrated by Touraine (2001). These diagnoses of the shifting nature of the postmodern social could be (and have been) almost infinitely multiplied.
More recently, developments in political economy and governance characterised both by a tendential dedifferentiation of social spheres (Bauman 2000) through the hegemony of a neo-liberal celebration of the economic and by the putative end of the nation state and of traditional cultural diversity unified under the rubric ‘globalisation’. Neo-liberalism and globalisation have become the master-terms of social scientific discourse since the mid-1990s (Wallerstein 1999). However, both can be demonstrated to be analytically incoherent and to be quasi-concepts which mistake effect for cause. This section of the paper identifies these two putative causal agents of ‘New Times’ and four key social shifts which are often wrongly ascribed to them but which on a broad level can be said to be characteristic of the new social orders in the West before subjecting the two causal concepts to a brief critique. It is the task of the next section to suggest analytically more rigorous concepts which are useful for identifying the socio-cultural contexts shaping the contemporary engagement of learning and a changing world.
A crucial caveat to enter about the proliferation of social theoretical and sociological diagnoses of ‘New Times’ relates to two related issues the hyperbolisation of change and the tendency to generalise invalidly from empirical particular to putative universal. The contention of this researcher would be that the four key social shifts in late modernity are the fragmentation of the Fordist model of work and organisation, the emergence of individualised and economic forms of calculability which govern the social and the self, the pluralisation and fluidisation of social identities, and the detraditionalisation multiplying life courses and values.
To take but one of these four shifts by way of example, it is important not to exaggerate the degree to which post-Fordist forms of production, network forms of organisation and the priority of consumption over production have in fact displaced their Fordist antecedents. Contentions, for instance, that the internationalisation of production necessarily displaces mass production using Fordist forms of work organisation to developing countries attribute a monocausality to the apparent weakness of the nation state and the power of capital and gloss over the persistence of high-wage unionised forms of labour in the West as well as ignoring the fact that labour markets are increasingly divided by skill level rather than national origin within the international economy. While there has been a secular trend towards the export of low wage production to developing countries (Hutchings & Bahnisch 1998), one must guard against the assumption that these developments (export of jobs, value-adding within high technology and service sectors, a much more rigidly separated labour market within advanced countries) are mutually exclusive (Harvey 2000). The celebration within some of the academic literature of the glories of post-Fordism (Mathews 1989) is not unrelated to an acceptance at face value of an ideological analysis which in itself reinforces policies of skills development, for instance, which are articulated to the processes of neo-liberal restructuring.
It would be possible to develop a similar critique of aspects of the literature surrounding each of these four social shifts. However, the broader point is that it is essential to recall constantly that most meta-analyses of ‘New Times’ describe and theorise processes tendential in character and to avoid a certain determinism which often slips into such analyses and obscures the interests of social actors and associated power dynamics causing social change. Castells (1989), in discussing the ‘Information Revolution’, correctly concludes that post-Fordist forms of production ‘free’ displaced workers to enter expanding low-waged occupations within the service sector. Thus, at both global and local levels, the creation of new industries and the destruction of old ones is a process with social agency lying behind it which offers the same sorts of ‘freedom’ that Marx (1976) long ago argued was a pre-condition for a new stage of the creation of surplus value. Thus, it must be recognised that it is necessary to avoid positing explanations which are characteristic of large segments of both ‘postmodernity’ and ‘neo-liberalism’ discourse by eliding the agential nature of social change and effecting discursive closure to disallow consideration of social and political alternatives.
This leads to the causal and conceptual imprecision of ‘globalisation’ and ‘neo-liberalism’ as social scientific concepts adequate to their object and having theoretical utility. The case against globalisation as a social scientific concept has been extensively argued by this writer elsewhere (Bahnisch 2002) and similar arguments have been made recently by Brown (2003) and Rose (1999) from governmentality theory with regard to the way in which neo-liberalism should be characterised. To summarise the first argument briefly, Wallerstein (1999) is correct in suggesting that the concept of globalisation is inevitably contaminated by its ideological investments. In other words, rather than a value-free concept describing social practice, it is more accurate to understand globalisation discourse as a social fact through which political and social actors mobilise meanings in order to circumscribe the discursive space for the articulation of social and political alternatives. Globalisation, too often, stands in metonymically as legitimator of political practices which lead to increasing social exclusion and policy stasis. Similarly, Watts (2001) correctly suggests that neo-liberalism should not be seen as a disembodied force disconnected from particular social and political interests and projects. Again, neo-liberalism operates as a hegemonic discourse which enables certain practices and disables others. The virtue of the approach taken by theorists such as Rose (1999) and Brown (2003) is that neo-liberalism can be analysed as a particular configuration of forms of governing the social and the self rather than as a force emerging at the ideational level. In both cases, globalisation and neo-liberalism should more properly be taken both as social facts in the sense that their discursive employment does work in the world through shaping values and action and also in the sense that they are terms which seek to unify a range of disparate effects in the social rather than being causal agents producing those effects.
This section has necessarily schematised a more complex critique. Its primary purpose is to demonstrate that more nuanced and analytically rigorous sociological concepts are needed which escape problems of spatial and temporal generalisation and implication in ideological discourse. The argument has nevertheless been developed at some length so that the point is clear and to give a flavour of the importance of the adequation of concepts to the objects subsumed under the rubric of ‘New Times’. More sketchy in character are the following brief notes on the four key social shifts indentified which characterise the new social orders in the West. It should however be noted that these will be developed at much greater length in the research as they also play a very important role in disassembling the socio-cultural contexts of learning in the new millennium. Research into these shifts is also at a preliminary level, and much material has been collected for review including a large volume of papers describing the intersection of these shifts with education and learning which remains to be evaluated and synthesised. Preliminary analyses have been constructed from the researcher’s past reading and general knowledge of the relevant sociological literatures.
It is argued, then, that the following social shifts are of prime importance in mapping the contexts of individuals’ and communities’ engagement with learning in new times. The categories have been binarised to draw out the interconnections between shifts at the material and cultural levels of the social. The strategy of binarisation and the blurring of these analytically generated categories is also symbolic of the argument to be made in the next section that these social shifts characteristic of new times are susceptible to broad conceptualisation and also to reinforce the fluidity and tendential nature of the new social orders which resist monocausal and ideological explanations of the type criticised above.
The fragmentation of the Fordist model of work and organisation/ The emergence of individualised and economic forms of calculability which govern the social and the self
A number of factors are of importance here. Both at the level of organisation of the labour process and of the development of individuals’ skills and career trajectories, flexible specialisation is increasingly emphasised. In addition, there has been a reaction against bureaucratic forms of organisation and value systems in favour of network organisations and values attuned to organisational culture and the servicing of particular niche markets. Work has been assimilated to culture in that the development of disciplines of Human Resource Management and Organisational Learning have entailed attempts to shape and govern the subjectivity of employees as well as their work performance. Costs of training and development are increasingly shifted from firms to individuals or displaced onto the education system which in turn is marketised and linked strongly to discourses of responsiveness and competitiveness. Careers are seen as the responsibility of the individual. Forms of insecure employment have become more common, and the model and ideology of contract increasingly dominates the social construction of the employment relation. The workforce has been sectorally restructured and ‘feminised’ and income inequality is increasing with the generalisation of the ‘flexible firm’ model of core and peripheral employees to the labour market as a whole. Changes in the labour process, flexibilisation and individualisation all contribute to the fragmentation of the collective subject of labour and unionisation is strongly stigmatised by the hegemonic ideologies of work. The models of work and specialisation and choice construct the individual as free to choose but also as governed by circuits of inclusion and exclusion as access to life chances is individualised rather than socialised and increasingly negotiated through strategies of rational action and calculation of risk and insurance.
The pluralisation and fluidisation of social identities/ The processes of detraditionalisation multiplying life courses and values
Late modern society has privileged freedom over security, in direct contrast to the social values and structures of high modernity. Authoritative articulations of values from social institutions such as religion and the patriarchal family have rapidly declined in importance, and neo-traditionalising religious movements and neo-patriarchal ‘men’s movement’ ideologies should be seen as reactions to modernisation rather than as continuing survivals of pre-modern value systems. There is much more fluidity in gender relations, family structures, and the forms of friendship and romantic and intimate relationships are much less formalised and rigid. Identity is often expressed through consumption. Traditional distinctions between ‘high’ and ‘popular’ culture have eroded. In Elias’ terms, processes of informalisation have pervaded many social relations and structures. Traditional identities related to class position, geographical location or occupation have tended to disappear or become less powerful. Identities related to values (eg ecological, feminist), sexualities or ethnicities have formed the basis for social and political movements and in turn been structured by such movements while differences of party and class decline. Sects and counter-cultural movements multiply. Identity can often be perceived as reflexively unstable, to be redefined through narrative or daily identifications. The constitutive outside to identity is often a matter of contextual negotiation or the subject of media and political mobilisation (for instance in the processes of discursive identification surrounding the signifiers of the Tampa and s11). Heterogeneity and choice are paradoxically often expressed through consumption and marketing. Work is held up politically as a key value but more a site of responsibilisation and a marker of inclusion and exclusion rather than as a traditional vocational or career based identity. Identities such as those related to gender or social position can be defined by their riskiness and insecurity. Lifecourses are becoming less predictable, both in terms of career choice, and in relation to economic and status position, choice of intimate relationship. Generational transitions are less clear with the ‘disappearance of childhood’ and the prolongation of youth maintaining a tense dialectic while generational conflict is often culturally signified as the refusal of the baby boom generation to grow old and the differential life and wealth chances of generations. Identity over time is now expressed through a wider range of personal and social narratives. New forms of identitification and sociality are increasingly mediated informationally, communities constructed virtually and identities shaped by exemplarity celebrity and narratives of success and loss.
The next section attempts better to conceptualise these shifts characteristic of the ‘New Times’ which form the socio-cultural contexts of the government and practices of learning by describing two axes of analysis and one concept which it is argued is useful in unifying the analysis.
Conceptualising ‘New Times’
The previous discussion argued against reductive and circular causal explanations of the social shifts which have been described as characterising ‘New Times’. More productive and rigorous are explanations which are placed on two axes of theorisation (which should be thought of as continua) those of modernisation/reflexivity and the cultural dominant of the mode of production. This section outlines these two axes of conceptualisation, suggests governmentality as a concept capable of being applied to the broad range of processes and social-cultural contexts which embed practices and theories of learning, and then in closing reviews the ideas of four key social theorists of late modernity (Zygmunt Bauman, Ulrich Beck, Anthony Giddens and Nikolas Rose) in order to demonstrate the utility of the governmentality perspective reflected in Rose’ work while suggesting that it can and should be supplemented eclectically by aspects of the theoretical and descriptive work of the other notable conceptions of the nature of the late modern social. In this way, it is hoped that the platform for the forthcoming work on ‘Investigating the Learning Society’ can be constructed firmly. This exposition, necessarily summative and schematic, should not be implied as reflecting a desire for theoretical closure. As mentioned above, this research is proceeding in an iterative fashion and will be further informed both by a deeper engagement with literature currently collected and other literatures to be reviewed. The purpose of the current paper is to lay some theoretical guideposts for further work and reflection.
The distinction often made between postmodernity and modernity in social theory and philosophy in order to theorise the nature of ‘New Times’ is unhelpful analytically. This is partly because postmodernity is in itself a concept dependent on and parasitic to modernity. Anderson’s (1998) investigations of its genealogy in The Origins of Postmodernity are revelatory of two important points as well as of the irony that postmodernity developed very much as a notion constructed processually through a kind of bricolage, and through often mis-contextualised debates. Its diffusion also reflects a process of (mis)appropriation and (mis)characterisation of complex positions in continental philosophy in terms of very different problematics in American humanistic scholarship, and Rapaport (2001) demonstrates that some of the now canonical theses of postmodernism were articulated in a highly contingent manner depending on the rate and sequence of the translations of various authors’ oeuvres from the French, German and Italian. Anderson (1998) correctly identifies the political unconscious of the debates over postmodernity in terms of the sociology of knowledge as grounded in particular teleological perspectives on history associated with the discursive triumphalism of the celebration of the ‘end of Communism’ (Bahnisch 2003). More importantly perhaps for its conceptual validity, Anderson (1998) also demonstrates that postmodernity is better understood as a radicalisation of modernity or a moment within it (following Lyotard’s revised theorisation) and no comparable break in the fundamental structures of the social order comparable to that between feudalism and modernity can be identified. In light of his earlier work in historical sociology (cf. Anderson 1974), this judgement is surely authoritative.
It is preferable, this paper argues, to analyse the social shifts described above as characterising the social order of the West in ‘New Times’ in terms of degrees of modernisation understanding modernisation as a tendential process which can be spatially uneven and which can proceed through dedifferentiation rather than simply unilinear differentiation. The categories of the differentiated lifeworld theorised by Habermas (1984) may not then reflect the conditions of possibility of modern social organisation on analogy with the Kantian categories of knowledge as if they also had some sort of ideal or ideational existence. Rather, it may be more helpful for the purposes of concrete social analyses to understand the emergence of the normative model of the calculative rational actor and the extension of economic logics to the government of social domains such as the educational as reflecting a tendency towards calculability and rationalisation already theorised by Weberian sociology and also the tendential detraditionalisation and individualisation theorised by both Marx and Weber. For instance, the individualisation and responsibilisation of self and career formation and its intersections with shifts in the nature of the labour market, production and work organisation is much better theorisable from this perspective in that agency can be reinscribed to disassemble the processes veiled by the invocation of discursive motifs such as ‘globalisation’ and the notion of epistemic breaks which defy explanation is avoided. This perspective of modernity as processual and of the persistence of older cultural and social forms in multiple modernities also enables an analytic grasp of the logic of the integration geographically and spatially of processes of change without the need for incoherent and loaded notions such as globalisation.
It is therefore preferable to think in terms of late modernity rather than postmodernity. This has the added advantage of enabling conceptual mapping of the homology of cultural and social processes and forms with shifts in the nature of the capitalist mode of production which have become evident since the symbolic marker of 1973. Following Jameson (1981, 1991, 1994), then, one can also view the complex social and cultural manifestations of change described by the rubrics of ‘New Times’ or the postmodern as the cultural dominant of late capitalism while at the same time avoiding prioritising the dominance of economic explanation. Indeed, only a perspective which posits homologous relations between differentiated though blurred social fields can form the basis for a critique of the economism inherent in the putative explanatory value of quasi-concepts such as globalisation and neo-liberalism. The tension inscribed within the social values informing discourses and practices of lifelong learning described above and the reflexivity of changes in learning theory and practice and societal and self empowerment and change are better susceptible of theorisation from a perspective which is able to understand the homologous relations between economy and society without ideologically mirroring the hegemonic dominance of economic modes of action and calculation which are themselves the cause of the dehumanisation of learning.
Similarly, the idea of governmentality as developed by a range of theorists (Burchell 1991, Dean 1994, Brown 1995, Lemke 1997, Rose 1999, Rose 2002, Brown 2003) from the work of Michel Foucault provides a useful analytic for thinking about the range and complexity of social practices which shape education and learning. Government, in Foucault’s thinking, refers not merely to the institution or activities of the State but also to the techniques for shaping the self. While Foucault’s work has sometimes been criticised as destroying subjectivity and eliding agency, in fact the governmentality perspective articulates a rich conception of power as a social relation to the reversibility of the notion of government. While also avoiding the determinism that Alexander (1995) argues is inherent in Bourdieu’s notion of habitus, the idea of the technologies of the self has the possibility to reveal the ways in which practices are not unilaterally imposed but are rather capable of re-appropriation and of producing alternative and differing meanings and values. The analytics of governmentality also overcomes continuing problems in social scientific theorisation such as the macro/micro link and the structure/agency problem by redefining power as circular and strategies as assemblages of action reinforcing action at contiguous levels.
In Rose’s and Brown’s work in particular, there is a powerful analysis of the linkage between broad social and political shifts and the consequent impulses to the redefinition of education and learning as sites of responsible development of the self. Thus, this perspective enables the possibility of understanding the circuits of inclusion and exclusion which currently privilege the economic and the market in incitements to individual responsibility and learning while also framing social fact from a different lens which arises immanently from an empirical analysis but is also able to generate a critique and to open rather than close the social possibilities of empowering learning. Rose in particular is useful for his nuanced and refined analyses of advanced liberalism and its strategies of government in late modernity. The insights of other social theorists of late modernity, such as Bauman’s focus on individualisation and Giddens’ and Beck’s theorisation of reflexive modernisation can usefully reinforce the insights of the governmentality perspective.
All of these social theorists can be understood as developing a social psychology of the self and of social identification which relates the shaping of selves and the individualisation of subjectivity to social and political change and structures operating at multiple levels of action and causation. All also understand the labour of creating a self as a process which is deeply shaped by the processes of modernisation and whose difficulty and risk increases as late modernity creates an intense dynamic of individualisation and detraditionalisation. Increasingly, in late modernity, Rose (1999) and Brown (2003) argue, we are governed through our freedom. Yet this subtle government through the construction of a field of choice and action also necessarily implies that we are free to choose otherwise. However, such sociological analyses reject the utopian impulses which would render the construction of mid-range theory and policy and strategies nugatory and have the benefit of enabling an analysis of future directions to proceed from a conceptualisation of and from where exactly we stand now.
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