Theories of Late Modernity

Late modernists completely disagree with postmodernists. They don’t believe society has entered a postmodern era but argue that the rapid changes in society are evidence of the features of modernity becoming intensified. We are still in modernity but have entered its late phase. Therefore, modernist theories are still useful for understanding society. Late Modernists also take the belief of the Enlightenment Project and argue objective knowledge can be discovered to improve society.

Giddens: disembedding & reflexivity

A defining characteristic of late modernity is rapid social change and Giddens argues this is the result of two factors – disembedding and reflexivity.

Disembedding refers to our ability to interact with one another without having to make face-to-face contact. This is thanks to the  beauty of  the internet. With Facebook & Skype we can break down geographical barriers and connect with people all around  the world.

Giddens also believes we are in a time where our behaviour  is no longer defined by tradition values. Think of the common date. Back in the good ol’ days, a man would open the door for a lady, pull out her chair at the dinner table, always pay the full bill at a restuarant and never go for a kiss on the first date. Now, we are no longer defined  by tradition which means we have to be reflexive. Does she look like the type that wants doors opened for her? If I insist on paying the bill, will she assume that I think she can’t afford it? She was touching my hand a lot at dinner, should I go for the kiss? We are constantly re-evaluating our ideas and actions as new information is provided – nothing is permanent.

The combination of the two has contributed to globalisation.

Modernity and risk

Giddens also argues that in society we face a number of high consequence risks – major threats. Like the threat of nuclear war, economic crashes or environmental risks like global warming. However, he believes – unlike postmodernists – that we can make rational plans to reduce these risks and achieve a better society.

Beck: risk society

Like Giddens, Beck believes that late modern society has become a “risk society” where we are threatened by manufactured risks. He also extends reflexivity and argues that we constantly take into account the risks attached to our actions – reflexive modernisation – and do our best to minimalise them – risk consciousness. Unfortunately, most knowledge of risks is given by the media which often give a distorted view of risks.

Risk, politics & progress

Beck argues that we do have the ability to better society  because we can rationally evaluate risks and take political action to reduce them. E.g environmentalists that challenge industrial development.

Evaluation of theories of late modernity

  • Reflexivity suggests we can all re-shape our lives, but a poor person living in a heavily polluted area may not be able to afford to move elsewhere.
  • Rustin critiques Beck and argues that capitalism with its love of profits that is the greatest risk.
  • Hirst argues political movements like environmentalism cannot bring about significant change as they are too fragmented to challenge capitalism.