There is some consensus about what this term refers to as a body of theory: namely, a selection of texts by such writers as Jean-François Lyotard and Jean Baudrillard, augmented by a particular reading of a further selection of texts by post-structuralists such as Jacques Lacan, Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida. (It should be noted, however, that most if not quite all of these thinkers would deny the applicability of the label to their work-a fittingly ironic state of affairs, some would say.) However, what it is that this body of theory (and its architectural, cinematic, and literary equivalents) has in common, is certainly much less settled.
Despite the fact that he neither invented the term nor claimed a very broad meaning for it (the word itself is commonly credited to Arnold Toynbee), it was Lyotard's announcement in 1979 (The Postmodern Condition) that the inhabitants of the advanced capitalist societies had been living in a post-modern world since at least the early 1960s, which made post-modernism a topic of sociological interest. What he did that was new was to declare that post-modernism was a generic social condition, and not just a new creative style or body of theory: to wit, a condition wherein there exists a widespread if belated recognition that the two major myths or ‘meta-narratives’ that have legitimated scientific (including social scientific) activity for the past two hundred years, are no longer widely believed.
On the one hand, ‘The Myth of Liberation’ has been rendered incredible by the complicity of all the sciences in the great crimes of the twentieth century, including the Holocaust, the Soviet gulags, and the creation of weapons of indiscriminate mass destruction. On the other, ‘The Myth of Truth’ has been rendered incredible by the sceptical thoughts of historians and philosophers of science (as, for example, in the relativism of Paul Feyerabend and Thomas Kuhn)- in other words, the disbelief of those who are supposed to know. The net result of such a generalized ‘incredulity towards meta-narratives’, according to Lyotard, is that the inhabitants of advanced capitalist societies now live in a world in which the following is the case: there are no guarantees as to either the worth of their activities or the truthfulness of their statements; there are only ‘language games’; and there are no economic constraints on the cultural realm.
Perhaps surprisingly, it is the American Marxist literary critic, Fredric Jameson, who has provided the most concrete and influential description of what the culture of this supposed new world looks like. In so doing, he may also be read as specifying what it was that the post-modernists and their precursors are either sensitive to, or have been instrumental in producing (see his Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, 1984). According to Jameson, a survey of recent aesthetic, philosophical, and social criticism reveals multiform ‘senses of the end of this or that’, and as a result projects an image of a culture that is assertively concerned with surfaces, and hence exhibits a certain ‘depthlessness’; is voraciously hungry for variations in surface decoration and hence very adept at pastiche and careless of historical time; is aware of its own depthlessness, and hence characterized by both a penchant for irony, and a certain ‘waning of affect’ or chariness as regards the expressing of strong emotions; is fascinated with, and hence productive of, schizophrenic psychological conditions; and, finally, is strikingly utopian on the grounds that what you dream is what you might get.
Post-modernity, in whatever guise it appears, thus implies the disintegration of modernist symbolic orders. It denies the existence of all ‘universals’, including the philosophy of the transcendental self, on the grounds that the discourse and referential categories of modernity (the subject, community, the state, use-value, social class, and so forth) are no longer appropriate to the description of disorganized capitalism. There is instead a new culture of ‘paralogy’-of imagination, inventiveness, dissensus, the search for paradox, and toleration of the incommensurable. Post-modernism is therefore characterized by ‘a pluralisation of life-worlds’. Its most conspicuous features are, to quote Z. Bauman (Intimations of Postmodernity, 1992), ‘variety, contingency, and ambivalence’, the ‘permanent and irreducible pluralism of cultures, communal traditions, ideologies, “forms of life” or “language games”’.
Sociologists have been largely concerned to argue about whether or not post-modernism as a social condition exists; and, if it does, why it exists (the latter interest prompted no doubt by the post-modernists' own blithe lack of concern with this issue). Perhaps strangely, few even of those who accept that the condition exists have asked themselves what, if anything, would or should happen to sociology itself, if it took post-modernist ideas seriously. By far the best sociological treatment is David Harvey's The Condition of Postmodernity (1989)-a text which makes this whole difficult literature readily accessible to the uninitiated.
The implications of post-modernist theory for the actual conduct of sociological analysis and research are perhaps best understood in relation to an (all too rarely encountered) concrete illustration. For example, the field of class analysis has been subjected to a sustained post-modernist critique, most notably in a series of critical essays by Jan Pakulski and others (see, The Death of Class, 1996; , Postmodernization, 1992). These authors maintain that, even under organized capitalism, the various class categories begin to decompose and fragment, as social inequalities come progressively to be structured more by patterns of consumption than production (see consumption, sociology of ). This results, in the later stages of capitalism, in a ‘hypercommodification of products in which they are consumed not in terms of use values but in terms of their semiotic capacity to establish unequal relationships’; and then, under conditions of post-modernity, in a ‘simulation of multiple and cross-cutting identities which are situated in equally multiple “imagined communities” … membership of [which] is a function of taste, choice and commitment [so that] the categories are therefore fluid in relation to one another and indeterminate at the boundaries’.
Nowadays, therefore, we are experiencing a process whereby ‘classes are dissolving and the most advanced societies are no longer class societies’. One allegedly obvious aspect of this change is ‘an attenuation of the class identities, class ideologies, and class organizations that framed West European corporatist politics in the middle of the century’. Equally, ‘the communal aspects of class, class subcultures and milieus, have long since disappeared’. The decomposition of economic class mechanisms, though perhaps proceeding more slowly, is steadily being accomplished via ‘the wide redistribution of property; the proliferation of indirect and small ownership; the credentialization of skills and the professionalization of occupations; the multiple segmentation and globalization ; of markets and an increasing role for consumption as a status and lifestyle generator’. In this way, according to Pakulski and his colleagues, we have arrived at a social condition and at forms of everyday life that are the very antithesis of a class society.
There is incontrovertible evidence that, here as elsewhere, the post-modernist critique of conventional sociology has simply detached itself from empirical reality (compare, for example, the broad-ranging and persisting class inequalities documented in, Repositioning Class, 1997). More importantly, if (as Pakulski and his colleagues claim) post-modernity does indeed entail ‘the final erosion of boundaries between the knowledges and practices of science and those of other domains’, then it follows (as they conclude) that the truth claims of social science ‘enjoy no guaranteed salience or guaranteed cognitive privilege’, that ‘sociology is quite free to tell what stories it likes about change or any other matter’, and that ‘these stories are part of a more general economy of discourse in which they must fight to find an audience and establish a salience in competition with other stories, and in the absence of guarantees’. In other words sociology has the same epistemological status (see epistemology ) as do (say) New Age beliefs in reincarnation. However, if sociologists are expected to take this critique seriously, then they should be clear that it commits the discipline irrevocably to the world of the cultural madhouse. They might also recall that when the resolution of language games is linked solely to the exercise of power, then the result is invariably a totalitarianism in which the definitions that stick belong to those who wield the biggest stick, and in earlier times this has included both the Church and the Party.
The term itself is now applied as an adjective to an alarmingly large number of nouns. For example, there is now a recognized ‘post-modern feminism’, represented in the work of (among others) Luce Irigaray, Hélène Cixous, and Julia Kristeva. In Kristeva's case, the label is usually justified by reference to her suspicion of and deconstructive attitude towards all essentialisms , including those propounded by feminists. A very useful English-language introductory selection of her work may be found in Toril Moi, The Kristeva Reader (1986). See also cultural studies.

Dictionary of sociology. 2013.

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