Chapter 2: The Sociological Perspective
Section 6: The Postmodernist Perspective
Did you ever stop and think that maybe, just maybe, everything you know to be real is actually just one big illusion? I mean, we’ve been talking about the social construction of reality and standpoint theory and symbolic interactionism. If reality is constructed, and my understanding of reality is based on my symbolic awareness of my particular standpoint, then my constructed reality must be different from your constructed reality…so whose symbolically constructed reality is true? Can that be determined and if it can’t, is there even a truth? I mean, we are living in a world where important political operatives are openly admitting to using “alternative facts” and “creating their own realities.” If reality can be created then is there even such a thing as a reality that is knowable? And if there isn’t, what’s the point of sociology at all?
You are either in the throes of an existential crisis, or you are on your way to becoming a postmodernist.
Which ultimately leads to existential crisis…so…you know…
In this chapter we are going explore about what is probably the most complicated of the sociological perspectives. The Postmodern Perspective.
Introduction: What is Postmodernism
With that in mind, let’s deal with the first complexity, that is, defining Postmodernism. With the other perspectives it is easy to give a nice, generalized definition and then spend the rest of the chapter expanding on that definition. That doesn’t work so well with Postmodernism. The problem is that postmodernists eschew the very notion that anything can be really defined because individuals can define things differently. So your definition of postmodernism may be different from my definition of postmodernism. So, the best we can do is describe how each of us define postmodernism and look for common elements…and that’s perfectly fine…
…but it’s not perfectly fine! We need a definition from which to build an understanding.
…but can you ever really understand anything!
…Gaaaaah! Shut up! I hate postmodernists!
It’s difficult to define Postmodernism because it is a perspective that focuses on subjectivity and the fluidity of reality that questions the notion of defining anything at all. Indeed, the one core assumption of postmodernism, that we are living in a world that can be defined as “postmodern” is up for debate. Many sociologists disagree with this underlying assumption.
So, let’s start over.
The Postmodernist Perspective is premised on two important assumptions. First, postmodernists assume that the social world as it exists today is distinctly different from the modern world from which previous sociological theories evolved. Postmodernists reject “modernist” approaches to understanding society based on reason and scientific method. Secondly, this postmodern world in which we live is characterized by a breakdown of traditional social structures, what can be described as Grand Narratives, in favor of individual freedom and personal discipline, or Personal Narratives. Consequently, sociology should focus on the nature and influences on these personal narratives rather than on larger, macro-level theory.
Since postmodern theory is a response to and critique of previous “modernist” theories, it can be seen as a critical perspective, much like the feminist perspective covered in the last chapter. The postmodern perspective developed to address the weaknesses and holes left by the theorists of the 19th and 20th centuries. Since postmodernism is, in essence, a critique of modernism, it is crucial to get an understanding of those elements of modernism that the postmodernists find problematic.
Modernism is characterized by two major social movements and trends:
- First, was the spread of what was called the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment was an intellectual movement that emphasized scientific reasoning and empiricism, religious tolerance and skepticism and individual liberty and rights. The Enlightenment corresponded with the development of the nation state, the fall of monarchies to republican forms of government and a flourishing of democratic social movements.
- Second was the growth of industrial economies, or Industrialization, and consequent growing urbanization. This growth of industrial capitalism also coincided with rapid technological change. Industrialized societies raised the standard of living for everyone, even the poorest members, but also exacerbated economic inequality. The division of labor became more acute and social life became more rationalized, or organized and structured around principles of efficiency. Power relations became imbedded in economic and political bureaucracies.
By the twentieth century modernism was entrenched in the western world. Industrialized nations were experiencing greater power and stability, while accumulating more wealth and expanding colonies all over the world. A growing middle class tended to stabilize these societies and define its culture. Democratic movements were shaping our understanding of government and citizenship. There were many upheavals, even violent revolutions, but it sure seemed that modernization with its emphasis on reason, efficiency, and technology was the endgame of history. There was no doubt that applying reason, science and technology in the right way could solve most if not all social ills. It was in this modernist social and intellectual environment that sociology as an academic discipline was born.
It’s an awesome truth that just as human beings begin to think that we have reached the pinnacle of our civilization and development, history has this bad habit of reminding us that it’s not done. By some historical reasoning, the opening decade of the twentieth century was the apex of modern society and the Enlightenment. This sentiment was expressed in a quote attributed to English Foreign Minister Sir Edward Gray in 1914, “The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our life.”
He was, of course, talking about the advent of World War I, the most devastating human catastrophe in history up to that time. In many ways, World War I was a totally irrational consequence of rational processes that had been put into effect to avoid a war that nobody wanted. Once soldiers entered the battlefield, however, they discovered that the very scientific, industrial methods and technologies that were put to good use to efficiently and cheaply produce consumer goods could also be applied to efficiently and cheaply slaughter thousands of people. Rationally derived military strategies resulted in the madness of trench warfare and military stalemate. In essence, reason and rationalization led directly to an insane, psychotic human construct that devastated millions of lives and changed the direction of history.
The nineteen twenties saw a growing skepticism with traditional institutions. Cultural movements like existentialism, that emphasized the futility and emptiness of life, became popular. The United States turned to rampant consumerism and isolationism while Europe struggled to rebuild its devastated economies. In the 1930’s, however, the rational processes of capitalism led to overproduction, overinvestment and, ultimately, to economic collapse that devastated the entire world with a new human made catastrophe, the Great Depression.
As a result of this upheaval, people all over the world, from the capitalist nations of Europe to the communist USSR, turned their backs on liberal democracy and embraced fascist dictators like Mussolini, Hitler and Franco or the communist totalitarian Joseph Stalin. Part of this new fascist and totalitarian doctrine was to scapegoat others, most especially Jews. The resulting Holocaust applied grotesque techniques of rational efficiency to commit genocide.
The wheels were set in motion for an even more devastating war, World War II, which culminated in the ultimate expression of the irrationality of rationality, the development of the Atomic Bomb. When the dust settled from World War II, the entire world found itself inundated with Coke-a-Cola, Hollywood movies, Rock n Roll, television sets and the prospects of nuclear annihilation.
So, yeah, turns out that reason, science and technological advancement…um….isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Rise of the Postmodern world
After World War II, many academics understood that we were living in a qualitatively different kind of world than existed before the war. In The Sociological Imagination, C. Wright Mills observed, “We are at the ending of what is called The Modern Age. Just as Antiquity was followed by several centuries of Oriental ascendancy, which Westerners provincially call The Dark Ages, so now The Modern Age is being succeeded by a post-modern period. Perhaps we may call it: The Fourth Epoch.”
At the same time that Mills was declaring the opening of The Fourth Epoch, The Frankfurt School started to look into the increased influence of Mass Media on shaping our ideologies. The world had changed, but in what way? And how do we understand these changes? Are sociological perspectives developed in the context of a modern industrial society useful in understanding this new, skeptical, media influenced social world that was emerging after World War II?
By the 1970’s many scholars were saying “no.” We needed to have a new perspective for understanding the social changes that were emerging in this new, postmodern society. There were, according to postmodern thinkers, emerging trends that were creating social realities that were distinct from those that characterized modern societies dominated by industrial production, reason and rationalization.
- First: Postmodern societies were experiencing a transition from economies dedicated to industrial production to those based on commodity consumption. In a modern world, you were what you did. What you did for a living shaped your identity. Today, you are what you buy. You consume goods to present an image of self. Even things like life experiences that were once organic are now consumed, such as visits to virtual worlds in theme parks.
- Second: Mass media and communication technology were shaping our sense of reality. With the advent of radio and television, messages were beamed from a central location right into our homes. These messages were incorporated into our sense of self. Much of this messaging was in the form of advertising and entertainment rather than information, blurring the lines between fact and fiction. Media has become an agent of socialization.
- Third: Globalization, our perceptions of the world are getting smaller yet still far away. Much of the goods we consume are produced somewhere else, often under extremely exploitative conditions. So the global economy impacts our daily lives directly, but many of the consequences are so far away that they are almost invisible.
- Finally: Computer technology, including the internet, robotics, artificial intelligence and virtual reality are transforming our culture and, consequently our very identities. Problem is, we don’t even really know the extent to which these changes are shaping us, and these changes are happening so rapidly that we barely have time to adapt to one change when we find ourselves facing another.
As a result of these factors, postmodernists claim that the structures that used to shape and define human relations are no longer relevant to social science. With so many diverse and even global influences over our lives coming from multiple directions, societies are no longer defined by a shared consensus of what is real and not real, right or wrong. Without this larger consensus that used to be a product of shared religious beliefs, cultural traditions, folkways and mores, culture is fragmented, subject to individual whim. Society, in essence, breaks down into nothing more than individuals more or less collectively sharing their own personal perspectives.
In sharing our personal experiences we are constructing reality, but if constructing reality breaks down to nothing more than the sharing of individual experiences and perceptions, then it is impossible to truly understand reality. The best you can do is develop a personal understanding of reality that you then communicate to others. Your communication is then subject to the perceptions of others. Reality, truth itself, has no real meaning. Yes, we can apply research methods to validate our understanding of the world and society, but these methods are no less subject to interpretation, communication and reinterpretation than any other method. So any attempt at objectivity is in vain. Human awareness of the world is innately subjective. There’s no getting around it.
According to the postmodernists, talking about truth and reality is nothing more than a manipulation. If you are going to be honest about your analysis you must admit that there are multiple truths and multiple realities, none of which is any more privileged than the other.
If you’re confused at this point, congratulations…you’re getting!
Studying this New World
In essence, according to postmodernists, everything that you know is a story. When you share your knowledge, you are sharing your story. Society, then, is a collection of everyone’s stories or, as postmodernists following the theories of French scholar Jean Francois Lyotard say, personal narratives. A narrative is how we talk about things. Now in any given society we might have dominant narratives that are more or less accepted by the larger society. We may have competing narratives, those narratives that challenge the dominant narrative. We might have marginalized narratives, those stories that are largely silenced or ignored by the larger society. Finally, there are deviant or dissenting narratives, those that are attacked and rejected by most in the larger society.
Regardless, a central concept of postmodernism is that there are no longer any Grand Narratives. In other words, there are no singular stories that describe all of society. This is a real problem for theorists in general because the whole point of theoretical work is to find those grand narratives. The postmodernist rejects this theoretical approach to understanding the world. Theories are nothing more than narratives that may be legitimized by science or academics, but are narratives nonetheless.
For the postmodernist, the best method for research is an examination of the narratives that exist within a particular society. If reality is a social construct, then the appropriate method of examination is to deconstruct the reality in order to identify the underlying narratives that shape our assumptions and knowledge of the phenomena.
So you can see why this is such a challenging, but valuable perspective. Let’s take a deeper look by examining some of the major contributors.
The first scholar I want to look at is Michel Foucault. Now Foucault was a huge contributor to social theory in the 60’s and 70’s. He was very prolific and his ideas far reaching in sociology, history and philosophy. It is impossible for me to adequately cover the full breadth of his thought. But what I want to focus on in this lecture is his central concept of Power/Knowledge.
Foucault never referred to himself as a postmodernist. Of course, one of the things about postmodernists is that they eschew labels. Foucauldian theorists usually place him in a school of thought called Poststructuralism. Poststructuralists were scholars in the 1960’s who rejected the value of a structural analysis of society such as that advocated by Talcott Parsons in the United States, or the semiotics advanced by French linguist Ferdinand Saussure.
Specifically, poststructuralists posited that traditional social structures are no longer constraining to individuals and are, therefore, meaningless. Even an understanding of structure through a study of language and signs as emphasized in France was inadequate because language was too subjective to be of analytical value and signs were becoming more fragmented. Many signs, or signifiers that we use all the time, really reference nothing. We imbue them with whatever meaning we want. Take, for example, the fist bump. We use this as a greeting, or a sign of agreement or congratulations, but what is this action actually referring to? Nothing. It’s just two fists bumping.
If we want to understand Michel Foucault’s rather complex ideas, we have to get a grasp of his methodologies for studying the role of Discourse in shaping individuals. First, a Discourse is another way of saying narrative. We make sense of the world through language, or how we talk about things to each other. The accepted way of talking about things becomes a Discourse and this Discourse, in turn, shapes how we know things, how we know everything, from our deepest dreams and thoughts, to our understanding of the universe and everything in between. The discourse shapes our knowledge and knowledge reproduces the discourse. So to understand individuals, Foucault felt that we need to understand the discourses that shape who they are and structure their lives.
Foucault’s work can be divided into two methodologies, or ways of studying something: Archaeology and Genealogy.
By Archaeology, Foucault is talking about not just studying the events and people of the past. Instead, he wants to uncover the artifacts of how people of the past understood their worlds and constructed meanings. He’s basically applying social constructionism to history. His goal is to uncover how these meanings evolved over time to give us our present understanding of the world. He referred to this as a counter-history, or a “history of the present.” To accomplish this archaeology, the historian must cast a wide net and study not just the records of the past, but the art and literature and philosophy, even the architecture of the time.
For instance, Foucault examined something that we often take for granted–madness. For us, madness is understood as an illness of the mind, some kind of chemical imbalance that, if we can find the right combination of drugs and therapy, can be treated and even cured. Seems obvious to us. We don’t even really use the term “madness.” We talk about mental illness. Now we recognize that our scientific understanding of mental illness is far superior to our ancestors’ understandings of madness as an aberration, a curse from God or a form of possession by evil spirits. But is it?
Foucault’s study of madness reveals that our assumptions don’t really hold. According to his Madness and Civilization, before the late Middle Ages people who were considered “mad” were looked at as simply “different, even strange, but not without a certain amount of wisdom. The mad had something to offer against the limits of reason. By our standards, it may have been cruel to allow people with mental illnesses to go without treatment, but they remained free people and even enjoyed a certain status.
Discourses on madness changed after the 15th century in which the mad were understood as a threat to the community. Rules were put into place to segregate the mad from society on ships, then in asylums where they were caged with common criminals [as well as political dissidents and abandoned wives]. In the late 19th century and early 20th, with the rise of Freud’s theories of the unconscious, what we understood as madness came under the scrutiny of scientific experts in an attempt to “cure” a patient. But as medical experts took control of madness, the scope of what constituted mental illness expanded to the point where experts tell us that about 1 in 5 Americans suffer from some kind of mental illness–illnesses that can be treated by experts.
In the late Middle Ages, few people were considered “mad”. In modern times, millions of people are under treatment, supervision and even mind altering drugs under the discourse of “mental illness.” Under scientific scrutiny, people today are expected to conform to a much narrower concept of “mental health”. This process of acutely defining specific categories of mental illness as opposed to the more general idea of “madness” could be understood as just another way to get nonconforming individuals to conform. This is a powerful technique of control. Instead of state power taking a defined “mad” person off the street and throwing them into an asylum, the modern individual evaluates themselves according to discourses of mental health created by mental health experts (which could be anyone from mental health professionals and psychologists/psychiatrists, to schools, to self-help gurus on YouTube) and then submit themselves to care and even professional health.
In 1975, Foucault wrote probably his most famous book, Discipline and Punish. This book elaborated how discourse is shaped into power and can have a significant impact on individuals and how they conduct their lives. Looking at the relationship between discourse, power and individuals is a method Foucault called Genealogy.
In Discipline and Punish Foucault points out how discourses of power have changed, seemingly to become more democratic and humane, but are, in fact, more constraining and tyrannical. You see, in the old days, the lord in charge of a fiefdom literally had the power of life and death over his subjects. Conformity was enforced through conspicuous use of violence. In other words, the power of the sovereign was visible. Executions were public events and bodies were dramatically destroyed and displayed for all to see. Now this may seem barbaric to us today, but in reality, there were some limits to the power of the sovereign. If he so brutally executed someone who was popular, this could cause his own authority to be discredited, riots or open rebellion were not uncommon responses to executions.
Modern states, however, assert power privately, outside of the view of the public. The prison replaced the scaffold as the symbol of the state. In the 18th century, philosopher Jeremy Bentham designed a brand new kind of prison that was never actually used, but rather became a model for a new kind of power. The Panopticon was a prison in which the cells were on the outer wall, totally visible to guards in a central tower. The windows in the tower were small and dark. Since the prisoners could always be seen while the guards could never be seen, the prisoners had to conduct themselves as if they were being watched all the time…even if they weren’t. Again, this is a technique of power by which individuals act voluntarily on themselves rather than reacting to physical coercion.
One of the most important of Foucault’s ideas is Panopticism. This concept is named after a human prison innovation designed by utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham. It’s a design in which prisoners are always potentially visible to guards, but guards are never visible to the prisoners. Consequently, prisoners must assume that they are always being watched, and behave accordingly. This arrangement requires few actual guards and little physical coercion.
An analysis of how surveillance is used as a mechanism of power is called panopticism and is central to Foucault’s concept of power/knowledge. Those who have power in a given society are those with the most knowledge about others. This knowledge is acquired through surveillance technologies which includes direct observations, but also through information gathered through bureaucracies, documents, files, records, studies, all analyzed by experts in the social sciences. This information is then used by those in power to effectively create knowledge that will be accepted by people in the society. Those in power shape our understanding of deviance, crime, mental illness, health, and what it means to be a normal person. Knowing that we are being watched, we then conform our behaviors to these normative expectations through processes Foucault called Discipline. In other words, we regimen our lives in ways that make us appear normal to expert observers. Furthermore, we do this not because we are afraid of being punished, but because we believe that it is our choice to do so. But is it really our choice when what it means to be normal is constructed by others?
From this perspective, power/knowledge is not necessarily strictly coercive, though it can be. Rather, power is exercised through many ways by doctors and health experts, psychologists, economists, demographers, teachers, advertisers and the media as well as the standard exercise of state violence committed by policing authorities. Because these discourses come from multiple sources and can be applied in multiple ways, Foucault refers to this as Polymorphous Techniques of Power.
But is the exercise of power less tyrannical because it is being exercised by psychologists, or by corporations rather than by the state? Foucault not only says no, but he claims that it is even more tyrannical because we can’t even conceptualize a possibility of resistance. Resisting a discourse is harder than resisting the power of the state because doing so is often understood as an aberration of an abnormal, pathological person. This process by which people exercise power over themselves Foucault referred to as Governmentality and it imbues every aspect of our lives, from our relationship with the state to our sexual relationships. As Foucault said, “a stupid despot may constrain his slaves with iron chains; but a true politician binds them even more strongly by the chain of their own ideas.”
Though Foucault was not strictly a postmodernist, his writings certainly held some postmodernist themes: his emphasis on narratives, what he called discourses. Also, how he fragmented our understanding of power from forms of centralized state repression to a decentralized and productive practice of individuals. Foucault said, “The strategic adversary is fascism… the fascism in us all, in our heads and in our everyday behavior, the fascism that causes us to love power, to desire the very thing that dominates and exploits us.”
Jean Baudrillard, on the other hand, falls squarely in the postmodernist realm.
Baudrillard was interested in culture. Specifically, he was interested in how contemporary culture confuses appearance and reality. Baudrillard sees this confusion happening as a result of our postmodern, consumerist culture, or a culture that emphasizes the purchase of goods and services. At first, human cultures were grounded, in other words, they were based on face-to-face contact in which symbols, or signs, represented shared meanings and people were moral actors. In postmodern societies, however, we have what’s called commodified culture, or a culture that is dedicated to the sale and purchase of commodities. Consequently, today, the normal symbols or signs have broken down, making it impossible to understand ourselves and our reality in a concrete way.
According to Baudrillard, this breakdown happened in four stages:
- In Premodern societies, most interaction was face to face. The signs, or symbols we used represented something that existed in reality.
- About the time of The Renaissance, written and print communication proliferated. Signs started to represent abstract ideas. Think about the rich symbolic meanings in Renaissance paintings.
- With the advent of the Industrial Age, we see the beginning of a consumer society. With mass production and advertising, we are no longer purchasing and owning things because of their use-value, the utility of the commodity, or its exchange-value, what we can get in return for the commodity. Instead, we make purchases because of its sign-value, because of what this commodity says about us. What we buy becomes a symbol of our status and power. Think about buying a Ferrari rather than a Ford Taurus. A car isn’t just a way of getting around.
- Finally, in postindustrial societies, our primary function is to consume. Signs, like the famous Nike “swoosh” really don’t represent anything except itself.
This transition into a consumerist culture driven by media images and advertising has had some real consequences for our ability to understand reality. According to Baudrillard, from the Renaissance into modernity signs exploded. Simulations, or representations of the real world proliferated so much, that they began to replace the real world. Postmodernity, then is characterized by an Implosion of signs. Since the modern age, the simulations have, themselves, been simulated. We are surrounded by what Baudrillard calls Simulacra, or simulations that do not have a real referent. Take, for instance, going to Universal Studios and visiting Hogwarts. Well, you’re not actually visiting Hogwarts, you are visiting a simulation of Hogwarts. But wait, Hogwarts isn’t real. It’s a fiction. So you are actually visiting a simulation of something that never really existed, or a simulacra.
But it sure seems real. We’ve read the books, seen the movies. We’re emotionally invested. Heck, we watched those kids grow up right before our eyes!
No. no. We really didn’t. We watched talented young actors portraying roles, often in front of green screens that created the illusion that they were actually in these magical places. This is called hyper-reality, when the distinction between what is real and what is simulated breaks down.
Now it’s easy to see the simulations, simulacra and hyperreality in entertainment media like popular movies, but that’s not Baudrillard’s point. Baudrillard claims that this hyperreality is an all pervasive part of our lives now. It is impossible to differentiate the simulations from the real. In the early 90’s, during the first Gulf War, news organizations like CNN reported on the war through embedded reporters giving us news that was approved by the military, bringing us “inside the war room,” but not the real war room, a model of a war room with monitors that allowed us to look at dramatizations and re-enactments of what was happening during this war, but it was impossible to tell the real footage from the staged, the real news from the propaganda. Reporting on the Gulf War was presented as spectacle little different from that produced by entertainment media. This led Baudrillard to conclude, somewhat tongue in cheek, that the Gulf War never happened…at least not in any real way that could be analyzed.
We also might want to think about the consequences of hyperreality when it comes to personal identity. We derive a sense of who we are as people based on the symbolic nature of our interactions and the cultural representations around us. If our cultural representations are nothing more than imploded signs and simulacra, then how can we, as individuals, be secure in our personal identities? Well, Baudrillard says we can’t. Strong and clear identities can’t exist in this kind of an environment. The best we can hope for is a fragmented and decentered self that depends on the representations in any given situation. Baudrillard refers to this as the Death of the Subject.
Postmodern feminist and queer theorist, Judith Butler builds on this concept in her critique of gender. Butler points out that much of what we know about so-called normal sexuality and gender is defined according to a heterosexual matrix. Men have specific anatomic features, are naturally masculine and are sexually attracted to women. Women have specific anatomic features, are naturally feminine and are sexually attracted to men. The expectations of how proper men and proper women act in accordance with their gender and their sexuality pushes us into a particular performance of gender.
Butler uses the term Performativity to describe how gender becomes a sustained and repeated performance. Because there’s so much pressure on individuals to continue this performance of normal sexuality, gender seems like a natural, objective reality. According to Butler, it’s not. Butler says, “Gender is a kind of persistent impersonation that passes as the real.” All gender and sexuality is a performance, no different from a drag routine. That’s what makes drag routines so challenging. They make explicit the performative nature of gender.
In fact, there are many ways to express and present ourselves in terms of gender and sexuality very few of which have anything to do with our particular anatomic structures. In the postmodern world, the standard definitions of male and female, masculine and feminine are breaking down or rather expanding to incorporate new and varied identities. We are cisgendered, transgendered, crossdresser, gay, straight, bisexual, asexual. If gender is nothing more than a performance, then that performance can change, can be situational. We are free to choose different performances to satisfy a whole world of desires.
Today, we are engaged in nationwide debates that can be informed by Butler’s theories. Much of our society is built around the male/female dichotomy. If that dichotomy falls, then there are a lot of decisions that must be made. Public restrooms is just the beginning. What about sports and school activities? What is the role of transgender people in the classroom? The military? The police force? In politics? As performances become liberated, accommodating gender diversity must be negotiated.
Overall, the underlying mission of postmodernist sociology is freedom. The idea is to liberate human narratives from all traditional constraints that have been constructed around traditional discourse. In other words, postmodernists are interested in transferring the power to shape personal narratives from institutions and social structures into the hands of individuals living their own lives. For this to happen, individuals within a society will have to demonstrate more tolerance for those narratives that deviate from historically established but still arbitrary social norms. It’s a laudatory goal.
It’s also hard to deny that postmodernists have a point when they describe the increasingly fragmented and decentralized nature of our society. Media and computer technologies are challenging the norms and moral values of our social world. Furthermore, these changes are happening in ways that are hard to cope with as individuals. It sure seems that the standard explanations for understanding the world just don’t cut it any more.
And postmodernist methods for peering behind the curtain of reality can lead to really innovative and creative ways of understanding the social world. Postmodernists do have some very interesting and challenging things to say that can enlighten our understanding of the contemporary world. Analyzing personal narratives can lead us to a greater understanding of those who have diverse stories to tell, and understanding can lead to tolerance and openness to pluralism, multiculturalism and wide diversity in how millions of people shape their lives.
On the other hand, by emphasizing personal narratives over structural, interactional and phenomenological methods of inquiry, the postmodernists may be losing the bigger picture. After all, anyone who has ever stubbed their toe in the dark knows that there is an underlying reality regardless of particular perceptions. It’s always been the goal of sociology to uncover those underlying social realities in terms of how they function and how power is reinforced within these systems. The postmodernist mission seems to abandon much of what C. Wright Mills referred to as the sociological imagination in favor of a fragmented analysis of personal narratives. This analysis has its own contradictions. After all, claiming that there are no Grand Narratives is, itself, a grand narrative!
Regardless of how we happen to define our own lives and tell our own stories, there remain larger social and historical forces that tend to shape our existence. Inequities still exist and trends that indicate well-being can still be understood only by looking at individuals in aggregate. And these revelations remain important for shaping social policy or establishing institutional norms. Personal narratives must be shared through interaction and interpersonal relations. Uncovering the underlying rules of interaction serves to improve the lives of individuals in very real ways.
Denying the existence of these larger realities to privilege personal narrative may play into the hands of those who benefit from an abandonment of structural or conflict analysis. After all, there are populations who really are exploited, who really are denied the same access to life chances as others, who really are subject to violence and other forms of negative social consequences that it would be well to understand. Wars really do create casualties, many of whom really are not combatants. There really are refugees seeking real asylum from the real hazards of living in really dysfunctional societies. Denying these underlying realities does not make them go away. Your own personal narrative may lead you to believe that global warming isn’t happening, but the world is really going to heat up regardless of your personal narrative.
So the postmodernists have something to offer in examining personal narratives and how those personal narratives may be shaped in various ways. After all, if there is a foundational element of society, it is the individual and the story she can tell about herself and her life. By privileging this element of society, the postmodernists hope to uncover an understanding of society in much the same way that the invention of the microscope advanced our understanding of life. However, personal narratives take place within a larger context, and it is the larger mission of sociology to understand and shed light on that larger context.