POSTMODERNISM (Social Science)

Ever since its ideas first took hold in the 1980s, postmodern theory has had a significant influence on the social sciences. At the time, social theory imported certain theoretical concepts from literary criticism, including deconstruction and other discourse-based theories of textual interpretation. It is best, however, to refer to a postmodern "turn" within contemporary social science, because many academics influenced by these intellectual trends abjure the term postmodernism. Nevertheless, many contemporary social scientists acknowledge a debt to deconstructive methods of textual interpretation and to deconstruction’s (or poststructuralism’s) rejection of teleo-logical theories (or "grand narratives") and the concept of a coherent, fixed human subject.

Judith Butler’s writings on the unstable and "constructed" nature of both sex and gender identities played a crucial role in transmitting postmodern concepts into social theory and the social sciences. Yet Butler herself rejects the term postmodernist, claiming only to deploy deconstructive techniques to better discern the "discursive construction" of identity. Postmodern conceptions of the "hybrid," "plural," and "inconstant" nature of "identity" have had their greatest influence in the areas of cultural, gender, and postcolonial studies, though they have also influenced anthropology (e.g., James Clifford) and international relations theory (e.g., James Der Derrian).

Many people working in these areas reject behavioral, structural, and hermeneutic interpretations of the relationship between individuals, groups, and social structure, favoring instead analyses of the "decentered," "local," and "fragmented" nature of social phenomena. Postmodern social theory rejects traditional social science’s goal of discerning causal relationships among social phenomena. It also rejects social science aspirations to discern superior or "parsimonious" interpretations of human behavior. In the postmodern conception, no "readerly" interpretation of a "text" can be more "truthful" than another. In fact some postmodernists refer to the concept of "truth" as "terroristic," for the "truth" can only defend itself by repressive "exclusion."

Postmodernism represents both a sensibility in regard to social science research and a normative critique of modernity. According to postmodernism, the Enlightenment’s search for rational understanding that could ameliorate the human condition engendered ideological or false "grand narratives" of history, which are based on "essential-ist," "universal," and "fixed" conceptions of human nature. Drawing upon Jean-Francois Lyotard’s analysis in The Postmodern Condition (1984), postmodernists reject the Enlightenment’s search for "totalizing" theories that offer "universal" narratives of human motivation and experience. Building on the work of Michel Foucault, postmodern theory claims that these "grand narratives" underpinned the Enlightenment’s efforts to "normalize" human beings through the bureaucratic and repressive institutions of "governance" (e.g., both state and nonstate organizations, such as the asylum and the hospital) that "categorize" human beings.


According to postmodernists, social theories that claim to "represent" reality fail to comprehend that humans have no unmediated access to "reality." Human conceptions of reality are, unavoidably, a product of subjective interpretation. Modern media and technology deny people the ability to discern the original author or to distinguish the original from the imitation. In 1936 Walter Benjamin argued that in an age of "mechanical reproduction" it is nearly impossible to distinguish the original from a copy. Following this lead, postmodern theorists such as Jean Baudrillard have contended that reality itself is a simulacrum (a copy of a copy). In a world of corporate image production and virtual realities, one cannot determine what is authentic or inauthentic, real or fake. When computers allow people to "live" in cyberspace, the very concepts of reality, time, and space are contestable and destabilized. Thus attempts to interpret the "essence" or true nature of social phenomena deny the reality that the world is a constantly shifting image.

Postmodern social theory draws heavily upon Jacques Derrida’s and deconstruction’s critique of structuralism. Claude Levi-Strauss’s structural anthropology and Louis Althusser’s structural Marxism (which investigated the structural role that class played within capitalist economics and ideology) dominated French intellectual life in the 1960s. Both of these theorists drew upon the early twentieth-century structural linguistics of Ferdinand Saussure. Saussure held that the meaning of a particular speech or language (laparole) is structured by the underlying structure of grammar (la langue, the structured relationship between signifier and signified that yields the meaning of a sign). But Derrida in Marges de la philosophie (1972) held that the relationship between signifier and signified is inherently unstable. For Derrida, "meaning" includes both identity (what is) and differance (what is not). Thus postmodernists argue that any attempt to "fix" meaning will yield repressive attempts to eliminate the ineluctable "other" of human reality.

To avoid eliminating the play of differance, postmodern-influenced social science rejects the "binary oppositions" that allegedly ground Western philosophy: subject-object, man-woman, reality-appearance, reason-emotion, and speech-writing. In this view, the very effort of representation and causal analysis excludes and devalues the "inferior" part of the binary term that is traditionally denigrated as being irrational or emotional. This rejection of binary oppositions as repressive and "norming" has had a profound influence on contemporary feminist and critical race theory, which warn against "essentializing" identities of gender and race. These studies of identity focus upon the "socially constructed," hybrid, and ever-shifting nature of individual and group identity.

Given the absence of a stable referential relation between subject and object, postmodernists argue that social theory should focus upon the way subjects are "constructed" by discourse itself. The postmodern conception of how the subject is a product of language and thought draws heavily upon philosophical traditions deriving from Friedrich Nietzsche. In addition, Martin Heidegger’s critique of Western philosophy’s ineluctable search for a fixed conception of "Being," and of its attempt to dominate nature in the name of the "human," informs postmodern analysis. Postmodern social science frequently draws upon Foucault’s conception of power-knowledge discourses to examine how subjects are "produced" by discourse. While Foucault’s earlier "archaeological" work on how epistemes (or systems of thought) "norm" and "exclude" has influenced postmodern analysis, it is his later genealogical analysis of power as "productive" and "enabling" (rather than as primarily coercive) that has most influenced postmodernism’s critique of "agency." As Butler holds, the conception of a coherent, rational, human individual who exercises conscious agency ignores the reality that human identities are continually being reconfigured through performative "self-inscriptions" of dominant norms and discourses.


Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe’s Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (1985) represents a highly influential poststructuralist critique of the use of "grand narrative" in the social sciences. Rejecting a "determinist" Marxism that drew from the workers’ structural position in production of the teleological necessity of a "revolutionary consciousness," Laclau and Mouffe asserted the "discursive"—and open—nature of social consciousness. In the determinist Marxist view, both social democracy and authoritarian communism believed that capitalism’s interdependent division of labor would inevitably yield (whether through gradual self-organization or via a revolutionary external agent) a self-emancipating working-class movement for democratic control of the interdependent capitalist mode of production. In contrast to the Marxist tradition, Laclau and Mouffe held that one cannot—and should not— mechanistically determine a subject’s "objective, true consciousness" from the subject’s alleged "structural" position in society. Rather, consciousness itself is discursively produced and represents a contested arena for politics.

In this view, much of the emancipatory impulse for democracy has come from the "new" social movements of racial, gender, and sexual identity. The consciousness of these identity-based groups cannot be deduced from their "objective" social role in society. Thus social theorists had to abandon privileging the "old" movement of the working class and construct a new, plural, and democratic theory that would unite (without homogenizing) the liberatory discourses of the new social movements. Laclau and Mouffe’s work has had a great influence on both social movement theory and postcolonial studies.


The postmodern turn in social science has generated considerable controversy, some of it finding its way into the mass media. Most visible has been the neoconservative critique that postmodernist analysis dominates the humanities and social sciences, imparting to students a dangerous, nihilist critique of American democracy. Ironically, this critique conflates postmodernism with Marxism, despite postmodernism’s hostility to macrostructural and teleo-logical forms of social analysis, including Marxism. Some left-leaning social theorists concur with the postmodern analysis that the marketing of images and lifestyles partly supplants the production and sale of physical goods in late capitalism. But these analysts of late capitalism (such as the geographer David Harvey and the cultural theorist Frederic Jameson), in contrast to postmodernists, offer macrostructural and analytic explanations for the emergence of these phenomena. They locate the production of images-as-commodities within the global corporate conglomerates of the "infotainment," media, and publishing industries.

The postmodern rejection of the realist conception that economic and social institutions constrain the choices of individuals has occurred at a time of rapidly increasing global violence and economic and material inequality, and some critics have pointed out the ironic element in the timing of this development. Postmodernists often explain their critique of fixed, "linear" conceptions of time and space by metaphorical references to chaos theory’s rejection of periodicity and to the finding of quantum mechanics that mass, force, and acceleration cannot be independently determined. This postmodernist rejection of even an "unrepresentative" realist conception of an external reality independent of theoretical interpretation helped engender the "Sokal affair." Alan Sokal, a physicist (and materialist Marxist) at New York University, submitted a paper to the postmodern journal Social Text in 1996. The article cleverly deployed postmodern concepts while making alleged scientific references that any physics undergraduate could readily deem to be ludicrous. After the essay was published, Sokal revealed that it was a hoax aimed at revealing postmodernism’s ignorance of both science and the nature of material reality. The story made the front page of the New York Times.

Some leftist theorists note that the postmodern turn arose at the very moment that conservative political dominance decreased the prestige of leftist theory and practice. A crude "sociology of knowledge" of the postmodern turn might contend that, absent mass social movements contending for state power, left-wing academics retreat into the realm of pure theory. The rejoinder to this might be that postmodernism’s insistence on the relevance of the particular, local, and hybrid has had a salutary effect on limiting the imperial claims of "grand narratives." Either way, analytic attempts of macrostructural and historically oriented social theorists to discern the interaction between social agency and social structure are likely to remain a major theme within social science. And the postmodern concern with the fate of marginalized groups would seem to push the discussion ethically beyond postmodernism’s emphasis on the local and particular. The quasi-universal concepts of citizenship and global human rights may not have an irrefutable, a priori basis in a fixed human nature, but if human beings cannot develop shared understandings and values that bridge their differences, it is unlikely that the emancipatory, democratic project embraced by many postmodern theorists will ever be realized.

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