Modernism, modernity and modernization (Anthropology)

The word ‘modern’ has served as an important, if shifting, point of reference in anthropology’s developing sense of disciplinary identity and purpose. So, for example, anthropology may be thought of as the work of ‘modern’ people studying other ‘traditional’ (or ‘premodern’, or ‘primitive’) people. The people it studies may be thought of as undergoing a process of ‘modernization’ in the course of economic development. Anthropology itself may be treated as part of a broader intellectual and cultural movement in the West known as ‘modernism’. And, in recent years at least, those social, cultural and intellectual features which mark out the West as distinctive may be collectively referred to as ‘modernity’, a condition which could be investigated ethnographically like any other.

These different projects and terms overlap in meaning, and have been deployed differently at different points in anthropological history.

Nevertheless we can discern a broad historical movement from the first example (modern anthropologists studying traditional societies), which covers the greater part of the work done in the first half of the twentieth century, through the second (modernization as a process and an intellectual problem), which most obviously covers work done in postcolonial societies in the 1950s and 1960s, on to the third (anthropology as one kind of modernism), which is a view propagated by self-consciously postmodern anthropologists in the 1980s, culminating for now in the fourth position (modernity as an ethnographic object), which is only beginning to take shape in areas such as the anthropology of science, capitalism, consumption and the mass media. There is some continuity linking these different usages: even when we study the most apparently different and non-modern society, we seem to be implicitly asking what it is about ‘us’ that marks us off as ‘modern’? In other words, understanding our condition as modern people is – usually implicitly but occasionally explicitly — one part of the anthropological problem. Nevertheless there has been an important change in recent years as ‘our’ sense of ‘ourselves’ as modern has become increasingly problematic and open to empirical critique. One possible consequence of the ethnographic study of modernity is a quite radical undermining of fundamental, mostly unarticulated, assumptions about anthropology, anthropologists and their place in the world.

The modern and the modernizing

It is impossible not to discuss these words in anything other than sweeping terms. The self-conscious use of the word ‘modern’ has its roots in European intellectual life in the second half of the nineteenth century. Not coincidentally, the concern with ‘modern life’ as a cultural and intellectual problem, coincides with the florescence of classic social theory in the works of Marx, Durkheim, Simmel and Weber. Classic social theory is predicated on the assumption that there is something radically new about the modern world and its social and intellectual arrangements. Our era has no precedent, so the models of the past can only serve as contrasts to what we now have, and all we know for sure about the future is that it too promises to be different in equally unprecedented ways. The use of contrast as a means to come to terms with the present is the source of many of our most pervasive theoretical structures — tradition and modernity, status and contract, mechanical and organic solidarity, Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft, hot and cold societies. But in applying such contrasts to empirical situations in the present we displace our subjects to another time — the primitive, savage, premodern — somewhere in our past.

In this respect, evolutionary assumptions have lingered on in anthropology long after the demise of grand nineteenth-century theories of social evolution. This is most obvious in the anthropology of development, a term which itself implies a process of regular qualitative change through time. In the first phase of the Cold War, so-called modernization theory dominated social scientific understandings of development. In its crudest version, modernization theory treated development as a unilinear process toward the ‘modern’ (an imaginary telos apparently located in the suburban United States, but with its intellectual roots in Weber’s account of the growing rationalization of capitalist societies) and away from the traditional. This process involved both social and cultural change, particularly the shedding of those aspects of traditional culture which served as a hindrance in progress to the modern.

For some anthropologists (for example those, like "Clifford Geertz and Lloyd Fallers, involved with the University of Chicago’s Committee for the Study of the New Nations in the 1960s), modernization theory took them into close interdisciplinary collaboration with economists and political scientists, and opened up areas such as the study of education and intellectuals, popular culture, mass politics and postcolonial nationalism (Geertz 1963). But the cruder versions of modernization theory received their richly deserved comeuppance from radical critics in the 1960s and 1970s who pointed out that there were structural features in the world economy which might provide better explanations for ‘backwardness’, in which case attributing poverty to some irrational attachment to traditional culture was rather missing the point. Unfortunately, modernization theory’s empirical concerns went down along with its theoretical pretensions, not least because its intellectual successors such as structural Marxism and world-systems theory showed little interest in the study of such quintessentially modern topics as mass education or urban popular culture outside the West.


The term ‘modernism’ has its intellectual foundations in the study of literature and the visual arts. There it usually refers to a broad cultural movement characterized by a spirit of constant challenge to received forms — modernism opposes itself to the figurative tradition in the visual arts and to realism and naturalism in literature. It is the source of the ‘modern’ in ‘modern art’, and its exemplars are Picasso and T.S. Eliot, Schoenberg and Le Corbusier, Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein, Charlie Parker and Ornette Coleman. As some of these names suggest, modernism in this sense is a movement of a relatively small avant-garde, usually working in the rar-ified atmosphere of elite culture. Moreover, its proponents were far from unanimous in their celebrations of the modern: many were politically conservative, nostalgic for a lost world of tradition, although some (like Le Corbusier) saw their own work as a positive force for social change.

It is fair to say that no adequate account exists of anthropology’s relationship with modernism in this sense (although Manganaro 1990 provides the beginnings of such an account). On the one hand, the empirical concerns of the founding giants (Malinowski, Boas and his circle) overlap with a wider interest in ‘primitivism’ among modernist writers and artists of the time: Picasso’s use of African masks, D.H. Lawrence’s interest in the Native American rituals of the American Southwest, Max Ernst’s collection of Hopi dolls (Torgovnick 1990). On the other hand, anthropology’s own cultural productions — ethnographies — were characterized by stylistic conventions such as naturalism and realism, modes usually associated with modernism’s nineteenth-century predecessors. Formal experimentation in modes of representation, the defining feature of literary modernism, is usually taken to be the defining feature of anthropological postmodernism. (As all this probably indicates, this is not the most coherent field in the history of ideas.)

Without postmodernism, it is quite likely that these problems of definition and periodization would never have arisen. But from the point of view of the most grandiose accounts of postmodernism, modernism has a much broader meaning than that discussed so far. It is no longer merely a particular phase in Western high culture, but can be taken to denote the whole era of grandes histoires (or metanarratives in the clumsy translator’s rendition of Lyotard’s ‘big stories’), what has come to be known as the ‘Enlightenment project’. This version of modernism would collect together all attempts at the application of universal reason to the understanding of human affairs, along with all attempts at planned intervention in the cause of human emancipation. It may be difficult to think of modernism in this sense as an ethnographic problem, but there are signs of a new anthropology of modernism (as apart from a modernist anthropology) in recent studies of architecture and urban space in France (Rabinow 1989) and contemporary Brazil (Holston 1989).


So far I have discussed a point of reference (the modern, the moment without precedent), a process (modernization as the shedding of tradition), and a cultural movement characterized by certain kinds of cultural product (modernism). Finally we arrive at a condition of the world — modernity. At its most general, modernity may serve as a broad synonym for capitalism, or industrialization, or whatever institutional and ideological features are held to mark off the modern West from other, traditional societies. With the political demise of Marxism in Eastern Europe in the late 1980s, and the academic ascendancy of postmodernism, ‘modernity’ has become an increasingly fashionable term in revisionist social theory.

Paradoxically, because most theorizing about modernity and the modern has been conducted at a lofty level of generalization, the possibilities for an anthropological approach to modernity are extremely rich. Since the late 1970s there has been a growing number of ethnographic studies of quintessentially modern institutions and practices — scientific laboratories, capitalist corporations, consumer cultures, as well as the studies of architecture and planning already mentioned – both within and outside the ‘West’. Needless to say, empirical scrutiny reveals that supposedly modern institutions fail to live up to Weberian expectations of impersonality and rationality, and the anthropology of modernity might go no further than repetitive, if amusing, empirical challenge to Western self-images of modern life. As such it would remain parasitic on those self-images, rather as much other anthropology has remained dependent on Occi-dentalist stereotypes of ‘the West’, ‘Western thought’ and ‘Western institutions’.

There is, however, another more radical possibility. Developing his own empirical research in the history and ethnography of science, "Bruno Latour (1993 [1991]) has argued that the very idea of the modern world is based on a set of impossible intellectual distinctions – between the objective knowledge of nature and the subjective world of culture, between science and politics, between the modern and the traditional. Empirical research swiftly shows these distinctions to be untenable: science and politics are connected in complex social networks, while our public life is increasingly concerned with hybrids, objects and problems which are at once social and natural. An anthropology of modernity would employ ethnographic holism to dissolve the illusions that convince us that ‘we’ are modern, unprecedented but objective observers of other people’s cultural worlds. As yet such an anthropology hardly exists, and it is difficult to imagine quite what an ‘amodern’ (rather than postmodern) intellectual landscape would look like, except to say that it would be far more empirically challenging and far more genuinely ‘decentred’ than any of the oddly Eurocentric products of scholastic postmodernism.

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