11 Important Characteristics of Modernity – Explained!

Some of the most important characteristics of modernity are as follows:

The discipline of sociology has recently been flooded by literature on modernity, modernization and theories of modernization. The confusion on the meaning and definition is fast disappearing. Surely, there are various perspectives to look at; there is a definite consensus on the elements or the characteristics which constitute modernity.

Bauman, though a severe critique of modernity who calls it a holocaust, admits:

The modern age defined itself as, above all, the Kingdom of Reason and Rationality. Weber had a similar opinion. Almost all the theorists admit that the benefits of rationalization and industrialization, embodied in science and technology, were offset by the environmental and military excesses that scientific and technological progress allows. It is almost clear that the idea of rationality has triumphed in all areas of social life.

Modernity has become a model not for the west only but for all the former colonies of the world. Nisbet defined it as “technology, industrialism, democracy, secularism, individualism, equalitarianism, and for a few, socialism”.

There are a few sociologists who have counterpoised the attributes of traditionalism or backwardness or primitivism. For instance, Yogendra Singh in India has discussed modernity with reference to traditionalism. He dwells on the theme of the interaction between tradition and modernity.

These writings on tradition define it with reference to kinship, religion, ruralism, family and caste. The expected changes move from small-scale to large-scale societies, from simple to complex technology, and from personal to impersonal or anonymous relationships.

Myron Weiner with whom Indian intellectuals are well familiar made an attempt in 1966 to include writings of 25 western scholars in one volume. Modernization: The Dynamics of Growth. These scholars assumed that over a time, the rest of the world would become just like us. Thus, modernization is not only an evolutionary theory, it is an action programme.

A little later in 1968, Gunnar Myrdal came out with his three-volume book, Asian Drama: An Enquiry into the Poverty of Nations. While analyzing the situation of Asian countries, he concludes that the only alternative left with these nations is to adopt modernization as their way to progress. Bert Adams and R.A. Sydie, in their newly published book. Sociological Theory (2002) came to similar conclusion that modernity stands for progress and capitalism:

Capitalists, critics and Marxists all agreed that the world was headed toward large-scale capitalism. However, capitalists saw it as the end or completion of the process, while Marxists saw it as the semi-far stage, to be followed by worldwide revolutionary overthrow of capitalism. It is interesting to know that the discourse on modernity and modernization has passed through several researches and writings. This long exercise has helped us to bring out the basic characteristics of modernity.

We point them below:

1. Multi-dimensional:

The structure of modernity is multi­dimensional. While explaining modernity, Giddens argues that there are four institutional aspects of modernity. Giddens draws heavily on the thought of Marx and says that it would be mistaken to equate modernity with only liberalism, capitalism or industrialism.

It consists of four dimensions:

(1) Capitalism,

(2) Industrialism,

(3) Administrative power, and

(4) Military power.

2. Emergence of modern society from 15th century:

It is difficult to specify the exact date of the emergence of modernity. However, it is estimated that there came enlightenment sometime during 15th century. But modernity in the sense used here could hardly be said to exist in any developed form until the idea of the ‘modern’ was given a decisive formulation in the discourse of the enlightenment in the 18th century.

In the 19th century, modernity became identified with industrialism and the sweeping social, economic and cultural changes associated with it. In the 20th century many advanced industrial societies attained the status of modernity.

3. Role of internal and external forces:

The development of modernity is largely due to the interplay of internal and external forces. The west made its identity in relation to endogamous factors emanating from America and Europe. For instance, the invention of steam, an endogamous factor, influenced the whole production system. But, the European modernity was also influenced by the colonized countries. These countries provided raw material and new market. Thus, the development of modernity has been the outcome of internal and external factors.

4. Modernity consists of a cluster of institutions:

Modernity is made up of a large number of institutions. Each of these institutions has its own pattern of change and development.

These institutions include:

(1) Nation-state,

(2) A developing and expansionist economy, particularly market economy,

(3) Increasing role of private property,

(4) Industrialism,

(5) Growth of bureaucratic organizations,

(6) Dominance of secular, materialist, rationalist and individualist values, and

(7) The formal separation of the ‘private’ from the ‘public’.

5. Growth of capitalist market relations over global scale:

Modern capitalism gets very much organized at international level. There are formal institutions which promote capital market at a world level. But, the industrial capitalism is not without its evil effects. There have emerged striking patterns of social inequality; there has come a serious divide between the rich and the poor. Distinctive class relations, based on those who own and control the means of production and those who only have their laboring power to sell, have become serious.

In these developing countries new social strata and occupational groups have emerged. Modernity also initiated ‘new’ social movements, which put forward their competing demands. As a result of these processes there have come into existence complex patterns of asymmetrical life chances, both within nation-states and between them.

6. Proliferation of consumer products and emerging new lifestyles:

Modern societies are increasingly characterized by their complexity. There has been a wide growth of consumer products. And, this growth has made the modern society a consumer society. Consumerism, as is usual, gives emergence to a variety of lifestyles. In this process, traditions get weakened.

The individual does not go by the dictates of societal traditions. His choice of consumer articles, therefore, becomes his personal choice. Emphasis on personal life and on the spheres of intimacy has weakened the boundaries between the public and private. Nevertheless, this greater cultural pluralism and individuation has been accompanied by a growth of organizations (from hospitals to schools) seeking greater regulation and surveillance of social life.

7. Modernity is power sui generis:

Power is the most important constituent of modernity. All our social relations are characterized by the presence of power. Not only our social relations, social struggles between classes, social movements and other groups are made part of the organization of society but also from part of the structures and policies of the state.

Because of the existence of power modern states are large, interventionist, administratively bureaucratic and complex systems of power, which intervene to organize large areas of social life. Liberal democracy in its contemporary form is the prevailing type of political regime in the industrial societies.

It is partly the result of the struggles between different social groupings and interests, and partly the result of opportunities and constraints created by power politics and economic competition in national and international arenas.

8. Modernity is latest also:

There are sociologists who characterize modernity with historical periods. It is an evolutionary process. There was renaissance followed by enlightenment and modernity. Modernity is considered to be the latest in the world. However, in the western world, post-modernity is said to be the latest shift. Despite this, in the developing countries, modernity is even now taken to be the latest process of social change. Thus, from historical and evolutionary point of view, one of the characteristics of modernity is its latest form.

9. Modernity is loneliness, competition and dissatisfaction:

It must be mentioned here that modernity emphasizes on individualism. Though there is crowd and cosmopolitan city life, the individual always finds himself lonely. He is isolated and alienated from the masses of people. He lives a very hectic life, always coming from house to market, office or workplace. This has landed him into mental stress. In the western countries, the wide prevalence of tension and strain is due to modern hectic life.

10. Modernity and technology:

There are a few sociologists who argue that the dominant characteristic of modernity is technology. Jacques Ellul, in his book. The Technological Society explains modernity with reference to technology. According to him, modernity is nothing but technology only. Both these terms are synonymous.

The term ‘technology’ in social sciences is used in a very loose sense. Often it is understood as mechanization. In other words, whatever is used to increase the production is technology. Jack Goody, in his newly published book. Production and Reproduction, discusses the distributive aspects of technology and says that modern technology is for the rich and elite classes of society.

It has little value for the underdog of the society. Modernity, therefore, has the specialty of technology, which is friendly to the higher classes. And Goody further condemns technology for the degradation of environment.

11. Economic, political and cultural aspects of globalization shape the face of modernity:

Robertson, in his book. Globalization: Social Theory and Global Culture (1992) has observed that globalization is the necessary accompaniment of modernity. If modernity is capitalism, globalization is the creation of a single world market. Giddens concludes that the consequence of modernity is globalization.

Quite like Giddens, in his edited book. Globalization and Development Studies (2001), Frans J. Schuurman takes globalization as a concept, a theory and a discourse which is multi-dimensional and includes within its fold urbanization, the acceleration of industrialization, and increasing individualization.

As a matter of fact, globalization is the latest form of modernity. Following Giddens and Schuurman, Martin Albrow argues that there is a paradigmatic shift from modernity towards “globality characterized … by the displacement of the axial principles of modernity and the fact that the state has increasingly to compete with other agencies in the global field”.

Thus, the idea of modernity is intimately tied to the development of Europe. In its initial stage it developed in art. It was Weber who separated it from religion and metaphysics. And then, there came industrialism, capitalism and nation-state.

Viewed as a process, modernity has still to scale many distances. It will be logical to conclude the article by mentioning the statement of Habermas who says that modernity is still an incomplete project though post-modernity is knocking at the door of European nation-states and some of the developing states.

Submitted by : Professor Alex, Category : Sociology, Tag : Modernity