SOLUTION: Great Lakes Christian College Week 1 Sociology and Business Questions

The Consequences
of Modernity
Anthony Giddens
In what follows I shall develop an institutional analysis
of modernity with cultural and epistemological overtones. In so doing, I differ substantially from most current
discussions, in which these emphases are reversed. What
is modernity? As a first approximation, let us simply say
the following: “modernity” refers to modes of social life
or organisation which emerged in Europe from about the
seventeenth century onwards and which subsequently became more or less worldwide in their influence. This associates modernity with a time period and with an initial
geographical location, but for the moment leaves its major characteristics safely stowed away in a black box.
Today, in the late twentieth century, it is argued by
many, we stand at the opening of a new era, to which the
social sciences must respond and which is taking us beyond modernity itself. A dazzling variety of terms has
been suggested to refer to this transition, a few of which
refer positively to the emergence of a new type of social
system (such as the “information society” or the “consumer society”) but most of which suggest rather that a
preceding state of affairs is drawing to a close (“postmodernity,” “post-modernism,” “post-industrial society,” “post-capitalism,” and so forth). Some of the debates about these matters concentrate mainly upon institutional transformations, particularly those which propose that we are moving from a system based upon the
manufacture of material goods to one concerned more
centrally with information. More commonly, however,
these controversies are focused largely upon issues of philosophy and epistemology. This is the characteristic outlook, for example, of the author who has been primarily
responsible for popularising the notion of postmodernity, Jean-Franqois Lyotard! As he represents it,
post-modernity refers to a shift away from attempts to
ground epistemology and from faith in humanly engineered progress. The condition of post-modernity is distinguished by an evaporating of the “grand narrative3’the overarching “story line” by means of which we are
placed in history as beings having a definite past and a
predictable future. The post-modern outlook sees a plurality of heterogeneous claims to knowledge, in which
science does not have a privileged place.
A standard response to the sort of ideas expressed by
Lyotard is to seek to demonstrate that a coherent epistemology is possible-and that generalisable knowledge
about social life and patterns of social development can
be achieved.’ But I want to take a different tack. The disorientation which expresses itself in the feeling that systematic knowledge about social organisation cannot be
obtained, I shall argue, results primarily from the sense
many of us have of being caught up in a universe of events
we do not fully understand, and which seems in large part
outside of our control. To analyse how this has come to
be the case, it is not sufficient merely to invent new terms,
like post-modernity and the rest. Instead, we have to look
again at the nature of modernity itself which, for certain
fairly specific reasons, has been poorly grasped in the social sciences hitherto. Rather than entering a period of
post-modernity, we are moving into one in which the consequences of modernity are becoming more radicalised
and universalised than before. Beyond modernity, I shall
claim, we can perceive the contours of a new and different
order, which is “post-modern”; but this is quite distinct
from what is at the moment called by many “postmodernity.”
The views I shall develop have their point of origin in
what I have elsewhere called a “discontinuist” interpretation of modern social development? By this I mean that
modern social institutions are in some respects uniquedistinct in form from all types of traditional order. Capturing the nature of the discontinuities involved, I shall
argue, is a necessary preliminary to analysing what modernity actually is, as well as diagnosing its consequences
for us in the present day.
My approach also demands a brief critical discussion
of some of the dominant standpoints in sociology, as the
discipline most integrally involved with the study of modern social life. Given their cultural and epistemological
orientation, the debates about modernity and postmodernity for the most part have not confronted the
shortcomings in established sociological positions. An
interpretation concerned mainly with institutional analysis, however, as my discussion is, must do so.
Using these observations as a springboard, in the bulk
of this study I shall attempt to provide a fresh characterisation both of the nature of modernity and of the postmodern order which might emerge on the other side of
the current era.
The Discontinuities of Modernity
The idea that human history is marked by certain “discontinuities” and does not have a smoothly developing
form is of course a familiar one and has been stressed in
most versions of Marxism. My use of the term has no particular connection with historical materialism, however,
and is not directed at characterising human history as a
whole. There undoubtedly are discontinuities at various
phases of historical development-as, for example, at the
points of transition between tribal societies and the emergence of agrarian states. I am not concerned with these. I
wish instead to accentuate that particular discontinuity,
or set of discontinuities, associated with the modern period.
The modes of life brought into being by modernity
have swept us away from all traditional types of social
order, in quite unprecedented fashion. In both their extensionality and their intensionality the transformations
involved in modernity are more profound than most sorts
of change characteristic of prior periods. On the extensional plane they have served to establish forms of social
interconnection which span the globe; in intensional
terms they have come to alter some of the most intimate
and personal features of our day-to-day existence. Obviously there are continuities between the traditional and
the modern, and neither is cut of whole cloth; it is well
known how misleading it can be to contrast these two in
too gross a fashion. But the changes occurring over the
past three or four centuries-a tiny period of historical
time-have been so dramatic and so comprehensive in
their impact that we get only limited assistance from our
knowledge of prior periods of transition in trying to interpret them.
The long-standing influence of social evolutionism is
one of the reasons why the discontinuist character of modernity has often not been fully appreciated. Even those
theories which stress the importance of discontinuist
transitions, like that of Marx, see human history as having an overall direction, governed by general dynamic
principles. Evolutionary theories do indeed represent
“grand narratives,” although not necessarily ones which
are teleologically inspired. According to evolutionism,
“history” can be told in terms of a “story line” which imposes an orderly picture upon the jumble of human happenings. History “begins” with small, isolated cultures of
hunters and gatherers, moves through the development of
crop-growing and pastoral communities and from there
to the formation of agrarian states, culminating in the
emergence of modern societies in the West.
Displacing the evolutionary narrative, or deconstructing its story line, not only helps to clarify the task of analysing modernity, it also refocuses part of the debate
about the so-called post-modern. History does not have
the “totalised” form attributed to it by evolutionary conceptions-and evolutionism, in one version or another,
has been far more influential in social thought than the
teleological philosophies of history which Lyotard and
others take as their prime objects of attack. Deconstructing social evolutionism means accepting that history can-
not be seen as a unity, or as reflecting certain unifying
principles of organisation and transformation. But it does
not imply that all is chaos or that an infinite number of
purely idiosyncratic “histories” can be written. There are
definite episodes of historical transition, for example,
whose character can be identified and about which generalisations can be made?
How should we identify the discontinuities which separate modern social institutions from the traditional social orders? Several features are involved. One is the sheer
pace of change which the era of modernity sets into motion. Traditional civilisations may have been considerably
more dynamic than other pre-modern systems, but the rapidity of change in conditions of modernity is extreme. If
this is perhaps most obvious in respect of technoiogy, it
also pervades all other spheres. A second discontinuity is
the scope of change. As different areas of the globe are
drawn into interconnection with one another, waves of
social transformation crash across virtually the whole of
the earth’s surface. A third feature concerns the intrinsic
nature of modern institutions. Some modern social forms
are simply not found in prior historical periods-such as
the political system of the nation-state, the wholesale dependence of production upon inanimate power sources,
or the thoroughgoing commodification of products and
wage labour. Others only have a specious continuity with
pre-existing social orders. An example is the city. Modern
urban settlements often incorporate the sites of traditional cities, and it may look as though they have merely
spread out from them. In fact, modern urbanism is ordered according to quite different principles from those
which set off the pre-modern city from the countryside in
prior periods.’
Security and Danger, Trust and Risk
In pursuing my enquiry into the character of modernity, I want to concentrate a substantial portion of the
discussion upon the themes of security versus danger and
trust versus risk. Modernity, as everyone living in the
closing years of the twentieth century can see, is a doubleedged phenomenon. The development of modern social
institutions and their worldwide spread have created
vastly greater opportunities for human beings to enjoy
a secure and rewarding existence than any type of
re-modern system. But modernity also has a sombre
side, which has become very apparent in the present
On the whole, the “opportunity side” of modernity
was stressed most strongly by the classical founders of sociology. Marx and Durkheim both saw the modern era as
a troubled one. But each believed that the beneficent possibilities opened up by the modern era outweighed its
negative characteristics. Marx saw class struggle as the
source of fundamental schisms in the capitalistic order,
but at the same time envisaged the emergence of a more
humane social system. Durkheim believed the further expansion of industrialism would establish a harmonious
and fulfilling social life, integrated through a combination of the division of labour and moral individualism.
Max Weber was the most pessimistic among the three
founding fathers, seeing the modern world as a paradoxical one in which material progress was obtained only at
the cost of an expansion of bureaucracy that crushed individual creativity and autonomy. Yet even he did not
fully anticipate how extensive the darker side of modernity would turn out to be.
To take an example, all three authors saw that modern
industrial work had degrading consequences, subjecting
many human beings to the discipline of dull, repetitive labour. But it was not foreseen that the furthering of the
“forces of production” would have large-scale destructive
potential in relation to the material environment. Ecological concerns do not brook large in the traditions of
thought incorporated into sociology, and it is not surprising that sociologists today find it hard to develop a
systematic appraisal of them.
A second example is the consolidated use of political
power, particularly as demonstrated in episodes of totalitarianism. The arbitrary use of political power seemed to
the sociological founders to belong primarily to the past
(although sometimes having echoes in the present, as indicated in Marx’s analysis of the rule of Louis Napoleon).
“Despotism” appeared to be mainly characteristic of premodern states. In the wake of the rise of fascism, the Holocaust, Stalinism, and other episodes of twentiethcentury history, we can see that totalitarian possibilities
are contained within the institutional parameters of modernity rather than being foreclosed by them. Totalitarianism is distinct from traditional despotism, but is all the
more frightening as a result. Totalitarian rule connects
political, military, and ideological power in more concentrated form than was ever possible before the emergence
of modern nation-states:
The development of military power as a general phenomenon provides a further case in point. Durkheim and
Weber both lived to witness the horrendous events of the
First World War, although Durkheim died before the war
reached its conclusion. The conflict shattered the antici-
pation Durkheim had previously held that a pacific, integrated industrial order would naturally be promoted by
industrialism and proved impossible to accommodate
within the intellectual framework he had developed as the
basis of his sociology. Weber gave more attention to the
role of military power in past history than did either
Marx or Durkheim. Yet he did not elaborate an account
of the military in modern times, shifting the burden of his
analysis towards rationalisation and bureaucratisation.
None of the classical founders of sociology gave systematic attention to the phenomenon of the “industrialisation of war.”‘
Social thinkers writing in the late nineteenth and early
twentieth centuries could not have foreseen the invention
of nuclear weaponry.* But the connecting of industrial innovation and organisation to military power is a process
that dates back to the early origins of modern industrialisation itself. That this went largely unanalysed in sociology is an indication of the strength of the view that
the newly emergent order of modernity would be essentially pacific, in contrast to the militarism that had characterised previous ages. Not just the threat of nuclear
confrontation, but the actuality of military conflict, form
a basic part of the “dark side” of modernity in the current
century. The twentieth century is the century of war, with
‘Yet, writing in 1914,just before the outbreak of the Great War, H. G. Wells
did make such a prediction, influenced by the physicist Frederick Soddy, a collaborator of Ernest Rutherford. Wells’s book, The World Set Free, recounts the
story of a war which erupts in Europe in 195 8, from there spreading throughout the world. In the war, a terrible weapon is used, constructed from a radioactive substance called Carolinum. Hundreds of these bombs, which Wells
called “atomic bombs,” are dropped on the world’s cities, causing immense
devastation. A time of mass starvation and political chaos follows, after which
a new world republic is set up, in which war is forever prohibited.
the number of serious military engagements involving
substantial loss of life being considerably higher than in
either of the two preceding centuries. In the present century thus far, over IOO million people have been killed in
wars, a higher proportion of the world’s population than
in the nineteenth century, even allowing for overall population increase.’ Should even a limited nuclear engagement be fought, the loss of life would be staggering, and
a full superpower conflict might eradicate humanity altogether.
The world in which we live today is a fraught and dangerous one. This has served to do more than simply blunt
or force us to qualify the assumption that the emergence
of modernity would lead to the formation of a happier
and more secure social order. Loss of a belief in “progress,” of course, is one of the factors that underlies the dissolution of “narratives” of history. Yet there is much more
at stake here than the conclusion that history “goes nowhere.” We have to develop an institutional analysis of
the double-edged character of modernity. In so doing, we
must make good some of the limitations of the classical
sociological perspectives, limitations which have continued to affect sociological thought in the present day.
Sociology and Modernity
Sociology is a very broad and diverse subject, and any
simple generalisations about it as a whole are questionable. But we can point to three widely held conceptions,
deriving in some part from the continuing impact of classical social theory in sociology, which inhibit a satisfactory analysis of modern institutions. The first concerns
the institutional diagnosis of modernity; the second has
to do with the prime focus of sociological analysis, “society”; the third relates to the connections between sociological knowledge and the characteristics of modernity to
which such knowledge refers.
I. The most prominent theoretical traditions in sociology, including those stemming from the writings of
Marx, Durkheim, and Weber, have tended to look to a
single overriding dynamic of transformation in interpreting the nature of modernity. For authors influenced by
Marx, the major transformative force shaping the modern world is capitalism. With the decline of feudalism,
agrarian production based in the local manor is replaced
by production for markets of national and international
scope, in terms of which not only an indefinite variety of
material goods but also human labour power become
commodified. The emergent social order of modernity is
capitalistic in both its economic system and its other institutions. The restless, mobile character of modernity is
explained as an outcome of the investment-profitinvestment cycle which, combined with the overall tendency of the rate of profit to decline, brings about a constant disposition for the system to expand.
This viewpoint was criticised both by Durkheim and
by Weber, who helped initiate rival interpretations that
have strongly influenced subsequent sociological analysis. In the tradition of Saint-Simon, Durkheim traced the
nature of modern institutions primarily to the impact of
industrialism. For Durkheim, capitalistic competition is
not the central element of the emerging industrial order,
and some of the characteristics upon which Marx laid
great stress he saw as marginal and transitory. The rapidly
changing character of modern social life does not derive
essentially from capitalism, but from the energising impulse of a complex division of labour, harnessing production to human needs through the industrial exploitation of nature. We live, not in a capitalist, but in an industrial order.
Weber spoke of “capitalism,” rather than the existence
of an industrial order, but in some key respects his view
is closer to Durkheim than to Marx. “Rational capitalism” as Weber characterizes it, comprises the economic
mechanisms specified by Marx, including the commodification of wage labour. Yet “capitalism” in this usage
plainly means something different from the same term as
it appears in Marx’s writings. “Rationalisation,” as expressed in technology and in the organisation of human
activities, in the shape of bureaucracy, is the keynote.
Do we now live in a capitalist order? Is industrialism
the dominant force shaping the institutions of modernity? Should we rather look to the rationalised control of
information as the chief underlying characteristic? I shall
argue that these questions cannot be answered in this
form-that is to say, we should not regard these as mutually exclusive characterisations. Modernity, I propose,
is multidimensional on the level of institutions, and each
of the elements specified by these various traditions plays
some part.
2. The concept of “society” occup…
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