Postmodern Social theory got its identity during 1990. But its roots go back to about three decades earlier. Before the emergence of social theory, we had sociological theory which explained the ordering of society within the disciplinary framework of sociology. Such theories included functionalism, conflict, symbolic interactionism, exchange, and structuralism.
The objective of sociological theories was to account for the world which goes beyond what we can see and measure. Such a theory has made generalizations about, and classifications of, the social world. What differentiates sociological theory from other social theories is that the former constructs its generalizations or abstractions within the conceptual and theoretical framework of sociology.
Social theory has a broader network and includes interdisciplinary boundaries. It extends beyond the framework of sociology. And, interestingly enough, a large number of social theory builders are non-sociologists by training. Postmodern theory, therefore, is essentially a social theory. It has also been a product of non- sociologists, namely, Lyotard, Derrida and Jameson.
The rise of social theory is related to post-modernity. Earlier, the sociological theory explained the ordering of traditional and modern societies. Theory is defined in different terms. According to Michael Faia, a theory is a set of interrelated propositions that allow for the systematization of knowledge, explanation and prediction of social life, and generation of new research hypotheses.
George Ritzer does not show his dissatisfaction with this definition of theory. Many of the celebrated sociological theories fall short on one or more of the formal components of this definition. His own view of sociological theory is that “it is big ideas in sociology that have stood the test of time, idea systems that deal with major social issues and are far-reaching in scope”. For Robert Merton, “a theory is a body of interrelated concepts, logically related and have an empirical bias”.
There is no definite consensus about the definition of theory. It is better to call a theory, which the sociologists define as theory. Sociological theory has enjoyed status of celebration for a long period in the discipline. It has witnessed theoretical celebrities of the kind of Durkheim, Pareto, Marx, Parsons, Merton and others. How is it that such a grand design of sociological theory collapsed like a pack of cards in 1990? The answer to this question explains the causes for the emergence of postmodern social theory.
These are noted below:
1. Modern sociology has changed radically:
Modernity promised a bright future for the common man. It interpreted history as a symbol of progress. Sociological theory took an inspiration from the idea that history has a shape; it goes somewhere and leads to progress. This notion of progress has collapsed.
Social inequalities have multiplied, poorer have become the poorest and unemployment has taken its worse toll. In the developing countries such as India and Africa, the sociological theories have conspired to maintain the status quo in such a way that the elite political leaders and high-ups have cornered a larger share of development benefits.
Weberian, Marxian or Parsonian image of society is now nowhere available. People everywhere are in a mood to commit mutiny any time. The modern society is now a consumer society, a simulation society, a media society, a cyber society and an information society. For the study of such a postmodern society, sociological theory is not equipped with an appropriate kit of concepts and theoretical frameworks. It has simply become outdated.
2. Environmental challenges:
There is yet another reason for the condemnation of sociological theory. The modernists under the slogan of positivism developed theories which posed serious environmental challenges. Nothing did they do to counter these challenges. Things have come to such a stage that at the start of 1990s everyone was an environmentalist of some sort.
In the past, the people were in touch with nature and were, therefore, in harmony with it. They may not have dominated nature in the way that we hope to, but by being subordinate to it, they may perhaps have lived sustainably with it. But, in the wake of modern industrialism, nature has been progressively marginalized.
As a result of it, environmental threats have disturbed our modern forms of social and political organizations. How do sociological theories plan to resolve these environmental threats? In countries like India, sociologists have yet not laid their hands on environmental threats.
What has happened in modern society is that its dependence on natural forces has been diminished considerably. For example, in practical terms, we have vastly shortened distances between our cities through innovations in transport technology. Nowadays, electronic communications permit virtually instantaneous interaction between one continent and another.
Our ability to harness energy from coal, gas and petrol has lessened our dependence on the climate. In this way people can live essentially similar lives, using essentially the same products, eating approximately the same food.
In other words, people have more or less overcome the environmental constraints presented by distances, the climate, and even the limitations which stem from the nature of living organism. Looking at all these changes between man and nature, McKibben (1990) has recently been able to speak of the end of nature.
These are some of the challenges to sociological theory. The theory has to mend its methods of building itself. If the environmental threats are not resolved in the favour of mankind, what is the use of such a theory?
3. Grand narratives marginalized the local narratives:
Sociological theories celebrate the status of being grand. They are holistic, i.e., they take the universal view of society. They draw their inferences from totality. And, in this approach, the plural and diverse culture is either negated or overlooked. What is meaningful in this respect is the local narrative. Local narratives always remain the embodiment of ‘little culture’. And, the ordinary man is related to the grass roots of the society. The meta or grand narratives produced by Emile Durkheim, Karl Marx and Max Weber in Europe and G.S. Ghurye, M.N. Srinivas and K.M. Kapadia in India do not show any concern for the subaltern people who pass their total life in local culture. For them, it is the local narrative which matters.
4. Modern society has created lots of problems for the modern man:
Modernity means industrialism, capitalism and state power. All these forms of modernity including rationality have been vulgarized beyond any hope of repair. Commodification of goods in post-Fordism era has made the society a consumer one, rationality has taken the form of hyper-rationality and social stratification has dragged the common man below the poverty line.
These are all the ‘yields’ of modernity. And, what have sociological theories done to solve some of these pressing problems. In such a situation, postmodern social theory seems to be a viable alternate, at least for a trial.
5. Opposition to regimented boundaries:
Disciplinary boundaries in sociology are so abiding that no theorist can dare to cross these. The modern sociological theories have become regimented theories.. There is no openness. Nothing in stratification is complete without reference to Marx, Durkheim, and Weber.
Any discussion on such themes ultimately boils down to the pioneering thinkers. For example, Dipankar Gupta, who analyzes caste hierarchy in Indian society in his book Interrogating Caste, admits his indebtedness to Marx, Durkheim, Weber and Levi-Strauss and says:
I learnt a lot from such inter-subjective communications. Marx, Durkheim, Weber and Levi-Strauss were most helpful in this connection. They were kind friends who helped me grow. I would like my students to learn from them too. I am sure they will make better use of their friendship than I did.
Now that the unlearning phase of postmodernism is over, and with it the pretentious posturing of cultural studies where every intellectual weakness become a moral value there is hope ahead. Sociology and anthropology can once again draw strength from their disciplinary grid and look forward to a grand renewal (emphasis added).
Obviously, Dipankar Gupta is among those who hope that there is almost end of post-modernity. And, the renewal of mega-narratives is somewhere round the corner. The literature on post-modernity in sociology has an ascending graph all over the world and there are also sociologists who are eager enough to celebrate their past glory of metanarratives. Such rejoicings also give rise to the emergence of postmodern social theory in developing countries like India.
6. Postmodern social theory is the ‘mutiny’ against established sociologists:
Some celebrated non-sociologists, namely, Lyotard, Derrida and Jameson have started writing within the realm of so-called sociological theory. These non-sociologist postmodern thinkers have alleged that so far sociological theory has failed to work for the emancipation of human beings. On the other hand, life today has become more miserable.
What is worse, one who writes against these established sociologists is considered to be a rebel. The postmodern social theorists, to be honest enough, have also been not successful to provide any alternate theory of society but for one thing, it is certain: they have declared ‘mutiny’ against the so-called established sociologists.
7. Scientific sociology has invited postmodern social theory:
The pioneer sociologists tried to develop sociology on the idea of positivism. Jurgen Habermas, who is known for his support for modernity, also argues that sociology took to science as its method of enquiry.
He says that “the project of modernity formulated in the 15th century by the philosophers of the Enlightenment consisted in their efforts to develop objective science, universal morality and law; and autonomous art according to their inner logic”.
The modernists still have the extravagant expectation that the arts and sciences would promote not only the control of natural forces but also understanding of the world and of the self, moral progress, the justice of institutions and even the happiness of human beings.
The research conducted by Lyotard (1979) on the state of scientific knowledge and information brought out some shocking findings. Lyotard asserted that the current state of scientific knowledge is outmoded myth. It is not a complete knowledge. After the Second World War, many of the scientific generalizations and assumptions collapsed and with it there came the postmodern social theory.
8. Sociological theory is only foundational:
In a newly edited book, The New Social Theory, Steven Seidman and Jeffrey Alexander argue that in contemporary sociological theory, there is a break from scientific theory. “This means not only going beyond disciplinary boundaries and arguing in an explicitly normative way, but the new theory has abandoned the limiting constraints of the foundational frameworks of theoretical traditions themselves. The result is that the boundaries of traditions have been blurred.” The bondage of sociological theory to foundationalism, that is, classical and modern theories, has rendered them irrelevant to the analysis of postmodern society.
9. Sociological theories are insular:
There is no dearth of sociological theories. Even in the functional theory, there are several variants – variants of Parsons, Merton, Peter Blau – and above all variants of anthropology. Similar is the situation in the case of conflict theories – Marxian, Dahrendorf and Coser variants.
Added to it are the micro-theories of Mead, Garfinkel and Goffman. All these theories are insular, and bound up within the framework of disciplines. The postmodern social theory comes out of all these insular boundaries and gives appropriate place to societal pluralism.
10. Sociological theories only narrate impressive stories:
It is alleged that the subject matter of modernity is hardly related to realities of life. It is fascinating but never substantial. Sometimes, the descriptions given by the sociological theories appear like interesting stories, which hardly relate to the reality of life.
These theories do not establish any interaction with the ordinary people and as a result of which they marginalize the weaker sections of the society. Now, with the coming of postmodern society, the new society has witnessed un-historical changes. There is immediate need to study and analyze the new society from the perspective of postmodern social theory.
11. Sociological theories are merely totalizing theories:
Sociological theories claim to view the world as a coherent mass of people. There is widespread consensus. There are no dilemmas of sorts. For these theorists, there is universality. It is claimed by each theory that its validity is total. For instance, the Marxian theory is applicable to all parts of the worlds.
Something like this is claimed by system theory also. But these are totalizing claims. The present world is a broken one. Our social plurality is immense. In this fragmented and fractured society, no simple sociological theory can grasp the complexity and fluidity of current conditions.
Almost all the aspects of this broken world – knowledge, identity, needs and views – are conflicting and it is beyond the capacity of sociological or totalizing theories to analyze and understand it. There is an urgent need for the postmodern social theory to take the place of sociological theories.
It appears that the postmodern social theory is best suited to study the present society. There is no need today to disguise our disagreement, diversity and differences. Postmodern social theory perhaps is the effective mechanism in this respect. Glenn Ward (1997) has the following observation in this respect:
Many postmodernists prefer to take the opposite approach. They propose that we should activate the differences between people and between the cultural spaces they inhabit; this is the only way to generate new ideas and experiences. As well as possibilities for creativity, this obviously contains the potential for violent conflict, but it seems that some postmodern thinkers would rather see violence than flabby tolerance.