At its simplest, postmodernism is a challenge to the consensus held among the educated classes in the Western capitalist nations, since the Enlightenment at the end of the eighteenth century, that universal, objective scientific truths can be reached by scientific methods. In this section I establish what modernity and postmodernity are, what postmodernism as a social theory is, and briefly explore two sources of resistance to its current intellectual pre-eminence. The two sources of resistance, from sections of feminism and self-appointed defenders of science, are discussed because their positions are relevant to debates on feminist sociology. Empirical research on gender and on science will also be used to illustrate some of the controversies. Postmodernism in sociology has two distinct meanings (there are other meanings in architecture and literary criticism which are not dealt with at all here). Postmodernism is both a term used to describe the era in which we live, and a theoretical perspective. The latter is the main focus of the chapter, but many sociologists are busy writing about the former. The argument that Britain, the USA, and the rich nations of western Europe have moved on from being modern nations to being late modern or postmodern runs as follows. Expressed simply, those who believe in postmodernism argue that with the agrarian and industrial revolutions, and the shift from societies of peasant farmers to societies of urban factory workers, western Europe entered an era of modernism. People’s identities (or men’s identities at least) were grounded in their social class, which meant identities were rooted in their role as producers. The rise of science, and the belief in objective scholarship, were inextricably linked to that modernism.
For these theorists, the past 50 years have seen the globalisation of production and the de-industrialisation of Western Europe, and thus an era of post-industrialisation. When people (or men) no longer draw their deepest sense of identity from jobs in production and thus their social class, an era of postmodernism dawns. In this era, identities are multiple and fragmented, and people (or men) structure their lives
around their tastes as consumers. Lyon summarises this set of propositions: ‘is modernity itself… disintegrating, including the whole grand edifice of Enlightenment world-views? And, is a new type of society appearing, perhaps structured around consumers and consumption rather than workers and production?’ (1999: ix). This chapter is not an appropriate place to explore whether this is a true account of the changing social structures of North America and Western Europe. Lash and Urry (1994) address those issues, and they are not directly relevant to my topic. Here I focus on the impact of the vogue for postmodern theory in social science.
For scholars embracing postmodern theories in social sciences and humanities, the argument of the Enlightenment project that universal, objective, scientific truths can be found by applying correct methods, was a naive, mistaken faith that could only be cherished in an era of modernism. As the developed world has become postmodern, so the Enlightenment Project has to be abandoned. Before exploring further what a postmodern position means for social science analysis, it is important to remind ourselves that this is a debate confined to a small elite in a few disciplines in a few countries in a small part of the world. The Enlightenment project and its faith in scientific objectivity, were not, and never have been universal.
Beliefs in the possibility of scientific objectivity have never been held by the majority in western societies, or by anyone in many other cultures. For most of the world, poverty, lack of any education, beliefs about gender, and strong religious faith, have stood between the working classes, the uneducated, all-women, and whole populations holding to other belief systems, and the scientific revolution of the Enlightenment. In Western Europe and North America the Enlightenment project was never a mass phenomenon: it was always an elite project. The masses were never part of the Enlightenment project because the elite never wanted, or never managed, to educate the masses sufficiently to make them accept rationality, objectivity or the scientific method. We can remind ourselves that only those classes or fragments of classes which had access to elaborated code speech (Bernstein, 1971) could buy into the Enlightenment project: and that the Enlightenment project has been, for 200 years, the habitus of the intelligentsia (Bourdieu, 1996). This point was made forcibly in a letter to the London Review of Books, from K. W.C. Sinclair-Loutit, recounting a conversation with a proud Orthodox Serb in 1994: ‘My friend, a good Serbian Orthodox Christian, was of a culture continuous with that of the Byzantine Empire. The Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution had not touched him’ (LRB, 16 April 1998: 4). Postmodernism is not a problem if the Enlightenment never occurred in your culture.
Even in advanced industrial societies many of those with access to the education which promotes the Enlightenment project reject it: most noticeably the large number of Americans who choose a literal, creationist, reading of the Bible over Enlightenment science (Numbers, 1992; Peshkin, 1986; Rose, 1986). Bearing in mind the caveat about the elite minority among whom the Enlightenment project had become the habitus, it is possible to explore what a postmodernist social theory is.
There is one complication which will arise throughout this chapter: many writers defending objectivity and/or positivism against what they see as its enemies now use ‘postmodernism’ as a portmanteau term of abuse, lumping together all their enemies under that label. Callon (1999), for example, shows how Sokal and Bricmont (1997) conflate a galaxy of French postmodernist theorists with all the philosophers, historians, and sociologists of science. They thus conflate the arguments of Kuhn and Popper (who held totally opposed positions on the philosophy of science) and apply the label ‘postmodern’ to both. The same authors and texts are being attacked as ‘positivist’ and as ‘postmodern’: Paul Atkinson was attacked in 2000-1 by Bochner (2001) for being a positivist, and by John Brewer (2000) as a postmodernist, while his whole academic career has been anti-positivist and he is deeply sceptical about claims we are ‘all’ postmodern now (Atkinson et al., 1999; Delamont et al., 2000a).
Post-modernists argue that we have reached the end of the Enlightenment project: the faith that we can find a neutral standpoint from which to gather objective facts and scientific truth about the world. Postmodernists argue that, in 2002, it is no longer possible for a thinking person to believe in objectivity, truth or ‘science’ because the epistemological basis for a belief in objectivity has been destroyed. For 200 years elite white men have believed that objective research was possible in science, social science and the humanities. Today a subset of such men, the postmodernists, are arguing that this belief was misguided: objectivity was actually the biased perspective of those same elite white men who were lulling themselves into a false sense of security by claiming objectivity. They thought that what they were doing and calling science was really objective. They did not realise that it was only their elite male view which they were extrapolating and elevating to the new status of universalism. The postmodernists who have argued for the past 30 years that there is no universalism, no objectivity, are themselves a subset of the white male intellectual elite who have broken ranks. The postmodernist subset of white men are having their biggest impact in arts and social sciences. In these disciplines a fierce debate has been raging about the need for a postmodern analysis: a debate which has mystified many onlookers. An amusing exemplification of what
postmodernism ‘means’ was printed in the correspondence page of the Times Literary Supplement. There had been an angry debate about the beneficial or malevolent influence postmodernism was having in various intellectual areas, which was followed by some letters printed asking plaintively what the term meant. The following letter effectively closed the correspondence.
Sir, – Paul Boghossian mentions Stanley Fish’s article, in which Fish refers to the meaning of ‘ball’ and ‘strike’. I have not read Fish and so do not know if he mentions a well-known piece of baseball philosophy. Three umpires are discussing how they do their job. The first, who is also the least experienced, says, ‘I call ‘em as they are.’ The second, who has been in the game a little longer, says, ‘I call ‘em as I see ‘em.’ The third says, ‘They’re nothing till I call ‘em.’ These three could be characterised as objectivism, relativism and postmodernism respectively. (Andrew Rawlinson, TLS, 3 January 1997: 17)
The third umpire was pointing out that there is nothing objective about whether a pitch is legal or not, only a human decision and label. A legal pitch is a ball so labelled by the umpire.
Postmodernism in this chapter refers only to social and cultural theories. There is no discussion of architecture, of literature or other 140 media such as film. Nor does this chapter discuss whether the formerly industrialised capitalist nations have passed on into a post-industrial and/or even postmodern state. The debates in Lash and Urry (1994) or Beck et al. (1994) are not addressed here. Readers totally unfamiliar with the concept should start with Lyon’s (1999) introduction. The term’s notoriety is usually dated from the publication of Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition in 1979 in France, and in 1984 in English. Outside France, the ideas of Lyotard, Derrida, Lacan and Foucault have been treated closer than they probably were when their authors were all alive, and as the core exponents of a unitary theoretical position. Parisian sociology is rarely that coherent (Lemert, 1981). Tony Judt, for example, is scathing about the vogue for the French postmodernists in America and Britain: ‘For the foreigner, occasional forays into the rich treasure chest of French cultural discourse are a cost-free exercise’ (1992: 300). As Judt summarises this fashion: ‘Foreign universities are full of professors who not only study the work of Lacan, Foucault, Derrida, Barthes, Lyotard, Bourdieu, Baudrillard and others, but apply their “methods’’ assiduously to their own research, in a bewildering array of disciplines’ (1992: 299).
Charles Lemert (1981) was careful to stress the diversity and variety of the different figures important in French sociology in his collection. As several authors from continental Europe have pointed out, many of the authors lauded in the USA have been academically marginal, even unemployable, in France. Bourdieu (1988: xviii) points out that many
French scholars who are intellectual heroes in the USA held ‘marginal positions’ in the French university system. The women lionised abroad are even more marginal than the men. Noticeably while Lemert’s collection contained papers by 22 different French sociologists, they were all men. Judt’s list of the key figures is an all-male one. So while many feminists see inspiration in men and women from French circles, male commentators see only French men. As Callon says, ‘It is always amusing for a French national to discover which French authors are all the rage in the Anglo-Saxon world, and to learn that they are all exalters of postmodernism’ (1999: 284). Braidotti comments that postmodernism ‘far from being the prestigious site of high theory – as it seems to be in the United States – has remained a marginal and radical “wing’’ with barely any institutional pull’ (2000: 94). She explains this with named examples. Derrida was refused chairs at three universities, Irigaray has not held a teaching post since Lacan sacked her in 1974, Deleuze, Lyotard and Cixous worked at Vincennes/Saint Dennis, a marginal institution. Kelly Oliver (2000a), editor of an American collection of papers by French feminists, is careful to warn her readers that: (1) she has selected theoretical papers that have been influential in the Anglophone world, rather than papers representing all spheres of French feminism; and (2) the papers come from scholars who write on either social theory or psychoanalytic theory. Each of the French women is contextualised in an essay introducing her life and work. Thus the reader is warned that Kristeva ‘has an ambivalent, sometimes hostile, relationship to feminism’ (Oliver, 2000b: 155). In Hansen’s (2000) introduction to Irigaray the reader is directed to thoughtful secondary sources, such as Whitford (1991). Postmodernism is an American social construction, as much as a ‘real’ coherent intellectual movement. However, for the purposes of this chapter, the furious reaction to postmodernism among some feminist sociologists and among some scientists is more important than arcane differences between Lyotard and Foucault.