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Definition: modernity from Collins English Dictionary

n pl -ties

1 the quality or state of being modern

2 something modern


Summary Article: Modernity from The Social Science Jargon-Buster
Longer explanation

I think modernity is best characterized by the notion that ‘We've got it all figured out’ (as compared to postmodernity when we realized, ‘Hey, maybe we don't know much at all’). Modernity is when we became ‘enlightened’ and knew the answers - or at least had defined methods for finding answers. When it came to self, we were unambiguous. We knew who we were and had pride in our sexual, ethnic, cultural and religious identity. We had a defined set of morals and values tied to family, church, community and nation. And the family, which consisted of dad, mum, and 2.3 children, was our core social unit. It may have been hierarchical, but so was the rest of society. Modernity's also a time when we believed in progress, the opportunities inherent in capitalism, and the benefits of industrialization. We even had faith in our political systems. When it came to knowledge, we believed in reason, rationality, objectivity, and mastery… and put our faith in science. We also believed in metanarratives, or big answers, for example that the truth is out there and science will help us find it. In a nutshell, modernity is a period of minimal cultural confusion.

Debates and controversies

Okay, I might have just presented what looks like a clear depiction of modernity, but it's really just a sense of some of the things that theorists claim characterize the modern. And this is certainly not without debate. There's little agreement on the precise characteristics of this period, and whether we've moved beyond it. Perhaps this is because modernity is such a confusing historical label. It means not old, or not antiquity. It means ‘now’ but has been used to capture ‘now’ at various times (and for various cultural forms) since the eighteenth century.

Practical application

There's growing recognition that what we know, what we believe, in fact our orientation to everything, is a product of socio-historical realities. So modernity, which gives much of the world its frame of reference, should be of great interest. This is particularly true as social scientists attempt to capture, analyse, critique and even free us from its confines (see postmodernity).

Key figures

The social sciences are actually founded on the economic, social, political and cultural opportunities and threats associated with modernity. So a list of key figures reads like a who's who of social, philosophical and political theory. Parker and Sim (1998) (see Recommended reading below) overviews 100 modern theorists.

Modernity exists in the form of a desire to wipe out whatever came earlier, in the hope of reaching at least a point that could be called a true present, a point of origin that marks a new departure.

Paul de Man (1919-1983) Belgian-born US literary critic - in ‘Literary History and Literary Modernity’, Blindness and Insight (1971)
Recommended readings

Modernity: An Introduction to Modern Societies (Hall et al. 1996) or Gidden's contemporary classic The Consequences of Modernity (1991) offer good starting points. Also worth a look are A Singular Modernity: Essays on the Ontology of the Present (Jameson 2002), which provides a critical exploration of modernity and A-Z Guide to Modern Social and Political Theorists (Parker and Sim 1998).

© Zina O’Leary 2007

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