A note on the concept of modernity

(It prevents the reader that this is rather long)

Modernity is always one of the concepts of critical sociology. You can argue that the birth of the discipline is concerned with trying to explain the social changes that we have come to call modernity, and that sociology as a discipline is the social science that tries to understand the modernity (Giddens, 1977 [1973]). But a concern for modernity and for its development can also be observed in several of the synthesis of theoretical and more recent: In the analysis of Habermas on the colonisation of the world of the living from the systems (Habermas, 1987 [1981]), or in the discussion luhmanniana on the society of systems differentiated (Luhmann, 2007 [1997]); clearly we are faced with perspectives that try to give account of modernity. In fact, in general we can posit that an important feature of the social theory in recent years there has been a movement from synthesis to general theoretical concern about the social change in contemporary (Joas & Knöbl, 2009 [2004], page 463). In any case, it is clear that in the ideas of Beck on risk society (Beck, 2006) or Bauman on the transformation to a liquid society (Bauman, 1999), we are faced with a concern to develop a diagnostic sociological of contemporary societies.

Modernity has also been a relevant part of the discussion in the sociology of Latin america, and in particular in the chilean. The concepts of Morandé (1984) on an identity not modern, or at least not around a modernity illustrated; and the response of Larraín on the relevance of modernity to the identity in our societies (Larraín, 2001) are a sign of the presence of modernity in the debate in sociological. In fact, prospects that in the first instance could not be associated to a discussion of modernity –the perspective of the matrix, socio-political (Garretón, Cavarozzi, Cleaves, Gereffy, & Hartlyn, 2004)- are also embedded in this discussion. A central idea in this perspective is the idea of the project, and actors with projects they can pose is a constitutive part of modern society. Finally, this discussion is also linked to the transformations of the nation-state (Garretón, 2008), which is one of the key institutions of modernity.

It is interesting in this regard, a feature that is repeated several times in the discussions of modernity, as well as in the local debate has had an importance even greater: The modernity understood in terms of cultural and subjective. In a discussion of the currency under a the capacity of self-creation of the actors, clearly these aspects are central to understanding modernity. The discussion of Habermas on the project of modernity (Habermas, 1989) is not a study only philosophical, the analysis of Taylor on the imaginary of modernity (Taylor, 2006) can also be understood as part of this vision of modernity. The studies of Inglehart values are understood, finally, around a conception of modernity in which this dimension is crucial (Inglehart, 1997). Wagner (1997 [1993]) has been one of the representatives present more clear of this position: The modernity for him is focused in terms of the project of modernity –and in particular, the creation of free subjects and the self-employed-, and the dialectic between freedom and discipline organizes the stages of the modernity that difference: liberal, restricted, structured liberal and enlarged. As already mentioned, the discussion of Morandé (1984) and Larraín (2001)is explicitly a discussion of modernity in cultural terms. Ultimately, many sociological and subscribe to the following declaration of Wagner: ‘more than two centuries was recorded in the historical and sociological, a radical change in the discourses on men and societies. This rupture discursive established modern ideas as the meanings imagined for individuals and societies and instituted new types of subjects and social and political conflicts’ (Wagner, 1997 [1993], p. 30).

Now, this clearly is not the only way of referring to modernity. There are other dimensions and other processes over which you can also discuss about modernity. One of the arguments more clear by what aspects of discourse should have priority in an analysis of modernity delivers the same Wagner. In the first place, the change is more radical –more revolutionary and faster – with regard to the ideas concerning the structures. In the second place, the changes are more structural were not experienced by the people until a long time later: for example, the media of mass communication did not enter into the everyday experience of the people until very developed in the NINETEENTH century or even early TWENTIETH centuries (since they depend on processes of long duration as schooling).

None of those arguments seems very crucial. Although the structural changes may be very slow, do not cease to be ‘revolutionary’ in its effects. And don’t forget that the changes in discourse also were: the emergence of new discourses of modern may have been a radical break, but the speeches traditional did not disappear abruptly. And in relation to the second is crucial to recognize that a structure can affect the everyday life of the people without necessarily being present in their experience: the development of global markets can affect communities relatively isolated; and the industrialization produces effects in societies that do not experience it. The industrial warfare, and we must not forget the importance of the military conflict as one of the dimensions of modernity (Giddens, 1985), is one of the clearest cases: the modern weapons and their ammunition require industrial processes, even when they are used in contexts that are ‘not modern’. Ultimately, in societies that have experienced conscription and the enrolment mass –both changes associated with modernity – you can’t say that the experience has not affected the ordinary people. As well as raises Hobsbawm, if one requires that a structural change is revolutionary is a change that affects simultaneously all sectors of the society, then practically one has argued that these changes are impossible (Hobsbawm, 1997, p. 117): The growth in the Industrial Revolution was modest, and the industries with radical changes hidden away by those who remained more traditional, but this does not prevent to observe that those sectors that were suffering fundamental changes were produce effects of great importance. Fernand Braudel began his work on Material Life, Economy, and Capitalism (Braudel, 1979), with a pretend trip to Voltaire. Its main intention is to show us that, while discussing with Voltaire, we would find a world very familiar; the spend to the daily life and material goods, we would be faced with a world that is very strange. Or to use another example, when De Vries and Van der Woude defend the idea that the economy of the Republic of the United Provinces was already a modern economy these are the aspects that emphasize, for example, in relation to the population: ‘In a Europe where population change still revolved around some combination of land, food prices, mortality crisis, and peasant norms,. The relevant factors in the Republic had become: jobs, urbanization, migration, marriage age, modern experience’ (De Vries & Van der Woude, 1997, page 689). Some of the factors are cultural, but not all are.

These are transformations crucial that differ from our world to the world of pre-modern, and there are transformations that are captured in this centrality of the discussion on culture. And it seems that a discussion that gave no account of them it is abandoning some central aspects of the experience of modernity. By the way, the discussion of discursive and subjective around modernity refers to processes is very actual in relation to it: is There such a thing as the modern project, and there’s such a thing as the emergence of societies where they appear to the subjects and historical subjects in particular. These represent crucial changes in order to understand contemporary societies and can not be forgotten. But they are not the only ones.

There are two other dimensions that also suffer transformations that seem to be relevant in the discussion of modernity. At least are coeval with the breakup of discursive and subjective as mentioned above: an institutional dimension and a dimension of ‘material’.

In relation to the first, we can say that modern societies are societies in which changes occur such as the following: with high urbanization, which are affected in their daily lives (even when they do not actively participate) due to industrialization, are societies with means of communication (which decouple the participation in social activities of the information on them), are societies in which large spaces of social life operate through organizations, and in particular societies where wage labor is transformed into one of the bases of the organization of the work and where the economic life is organised around the ‘firms’ and ‘companies’, societies where it exists and the social life is affected by the development of science (and in particular, that mix of math and empiria that characterizes the natural sciences from the SEVENTEENTH century onwards).

And these correspond to changes that are also radical breaks. In terms of urbanization, there are no societies with levels of urbanization close to 80% in societies with pre-modern. The fact that recently, the level of global urbanization has exceeded 50% represents a level of urbanization higher than that of any society pre-modern. The media as such are virtually an invention of modernity: the newspaper, and all of their descendants, are an invention of these societies (Thompson, 1998 [1997]). It is interesting the fact that you can not simply say that the print media are a result of the paper: China and Japan –who knew the printing press, and they met a publishing industry relatively massive (Matsunosuke, 1997)- did not meet the media. The organization as a social form is not an invention of modernity, the first organizations to appear with the development of the first complex societies, but the fact that a large part of the social life experience through organizations, that a large part of the ‘social problems’ are resolved institutionally through organizations yes you can argue is a feature of modern societies (Coleman, 1990). And in fact, the corporation as an organizational structure –with the creation of a divisional structure, with the creation of directories etc – yes you can raise it was a creation of modernity (Ekelund & Tollison, 1997; Pomeranz, 2000), created by the requirements of the colonial trade, the Dutch company (VOC) with their owners, the shareholders, your directors (the Heeren XVII), and its directorate-general (CEO if you will) in Batavia has several similarities with their descendants in contemporary (Adams, 1996) And these transformations in turn have had profound influences and have been very interrelated. The formation of the modern markets –where the market no longer refers to a specific space where they perform economic transactions, but rather to an abstract space – requires communications ‘modern’: without them it would not be possible to decouple parts of the market. In fact, in the ‘early modern’, that link was crucial: the function of Amsterdam as entrêpot of world trade is based on the physical proximity among all the central places that organized the market, from the Bag to the storage locations, which was what allowed the existence of a market-coordinated (De Vries & Van der Woude, 1997). In the same way, one might think that the relationship of science with the media has been crucial in the development of science as an institution: the scientific results are disseminated through this institution, which is the scientific journal –that is a media type finally. It is the publicity of science, if you recall the conceptions of Merton in this regard, an essential part of what constitutes the social organization of it; and the passage of the secrecy of communication by letter to the scientific journal one of the crucial steps.

The changes that we have mentioned are all institutional changes, related to the forms that follow and who has the social life. And these changes operate through different contexts of culture and of sense: the fact of living in urban contexts and with a constant presence of media is something that characterizes almost all societies today, whether in discursive or cultural can discuss if they are modern. In relation to their cultural patterns it can be discussed whether Chile or Latin america to be modern, but in regard to the newly discussed just can’t. In all of these respects, more closely resemble the united States or France of what could be likened to a society of the FIFTEENTH century.

In this sense, this institutional dimension can be understood as a form of ‘social technology’ of modernity, Conceived in this way, modernity is equivalent, in some sense, to the formation of the first complex societies, in which the birth of the State, the writing, and the cities also involved a change in the basic forms of social organization (Maisels, 1999). In a certain sense, if one remembers the analysis of Marvin Harris, are societies in which the language of kinship as the organizing core of social life (Harris, 1979). And in that case we were also faced with a change that crossed through a variety of cultural contexts, and which refuses to be explained only through the discourses and subjects.

In relation to the second dimension, which we have called the ‘material’ we can establish something similar to the above. Under this perspective, modern societies are societies in which experienced increases huge energy use by part of the society, with increases in productivity that are of a scale much greater than before it (Voth, 2001), in which the increase of the population is also notable, and where the increase of the quality of life, measured in physical indicators such as life expectancy and the average height of the people, has also been of a great importance. Ultimately we are speaking of societies in which, for the first time, the majority of the population do not work directly in the achievement of food (in fact, this is not only a novelty in human societies, but on the biological life in general). This is a change that, to put it another way, future archeologists and future paleontologists could discover, it is a change that is in our ‘bones’ (both in what refers to the number of them as to its features such as height). When we think of the ecological effects of the modern society we are thinking in these dimensions. Here, the difference is not that pre-modern societies do not suffer ecological disasters produced by themselves, given that they experienced and produced (Diamond, 2005); but again in its scale; no other society had the ability to affect the concentration of elements in the atmosphere. The example of societies in pre-modern that produced ecological catastrophe will also serve to criticize those who hold that they are attributes of the discourses and modern concepts which would produce ecological problems, and that this was not the case in societies with pre-modern and more adapted and more close to the nature. That only happens, if you want to in the discourse of the ‘good savage’, but that is a speech typically modern.

We are once again here with a fundamental change. In relation to this change here, modernity is equivalent to the neolithic age: also a basic change in the materiality of social life: the way to a regime producer of food (agriculture and livestock) from a regime collector also resulted in central changes in the demographics of societies and in the use of resources. It is interesting to note that not necessarily this change involved a change in technology on social –societies based on small groups could live in both regimes, the relationship between changes of this dimension and changes in the institutional dimension are not necessarily associated. In any case, what is clear is that neither are these changes that have a necessary relationship with the discursive dimension and subjective. Again, the increase of the population crosses diverse cultures, and the increase in life expectancy has occurred in cultural contexts very different.

The above dimensions are also aspects of modernity, and a discussion of modernity that do not address is, necessarily, a discussion incomplete. By the way, any discussion requires addressing all the dimensions of a subject, and probably address all of the dimensions will be an expectation unreasonable; but it is relevant anyway be aware that dimensions are not addressed.

Perhaps more that of modernity, what we can say is that they are transformations that occur at the same time that the changes to the project of modernity. These are changes that clearly develop in the NINETEENTH and TWENTIETH centuries, and which have their roots in the ‘early modern’ (centuries XV to XVIII). It is interesting to consider the question of whether this occurrence in contemporary involves a partnership required of these dimensions, or if the situation was one contingent that took three changes are not connected to occur at the same time. It is not impossible that these transformations occur together due to a series of specific historical circumstances and not to a need of the processes as such (which would have required the occurrence of mutual of them).

We can see then what next. These changes initially occurred in Europe (Hobsbawm, 1997). The association between modernity and a culture, and the whole discussion around it, is due to that circumstance. If modernity, as we have seen, exceeds the specific characteristics of a culture, then that association is not necessary: different cultures may have modern institutions. But perhaps it could be argued that for institutions and the materiality of modern to emerge, independent of its later expansion, it was necessary to the existence of a culture and subjectivity in particular. In that sense, one can understand a thesis ‘weberian’ on modernity (i.and its relationship with a process of rationalisation, which would be culturally specific to the West) as a thesis specifically historical, but not structural. By the way that it is debatable whether they were cultural characteristics which distinguish the West, other hypotheses have been developed in this respect; and recently the idea that what is crucial for the development of the social formations today was the fact that it does not arise in the West a formation imperial has acquired a certain importance (Giddens, 1985; Wallerstein, 2004). However, this discussion shows the importance that can have the distinguish and take into account all the dimensions of change modern that we have analyzed.

In any case, don’t forget some of the reasons for the emphasis on the subjective aspects and project. It is not only that these have also been changes that have occurred in modernity, but they are changes that have implications of the utmost relevance. In particular, we refer to its impact in order to understand the subject of the policy: Because the dimensions of discourse of modernity, in both self-creation of the actors are dimensions that affect the operation of the policy and which relate directly to it. But the other dimensions that we have mentioned, the institutional and the material, although they can be (and regularly are) affected by the policy, are not created in it and for it. The changes that allow that in a society only a few will devote themselves to the production of food, or which allow the development of means of communication, may be promoted or held back by politics, but they are not created through political processes. In the last instance, political regimes of various types and with various objectives and proposals have existed in the XX and XXI centuries, and the process of urbanization was through these various projects: even while there were projects anti-urban (think Pol Pot) the fact that these societies are associated with urbanization emerged even in spite of them. In other words, if one wants to emphasize and understand the political aspects of modernity is the cultural dimension, the central. The other dimensions represent elements on which the policy plays and opera, but they are not dimensions that are understood primarily through the policy.

The discussion on modernity, as we have seen, is finally a historical discussion. And in this sense, the historical comparison is always crucial. To understand what is specific to modern societies, it is necessary to compare with other companies. In fact, let us think of classical antiquity. It can be argued, Castoriadis, in a certain sense (Castoriadis, 1975), that the idea of autonomous subjects –that they created themselves – it’s part of classical Greek civilization, and therefore an attribute that could not differentiate to the societies of the past centuries. In the end, we know that the discussion on the good constitution –that is, about the way in which we organize ourselves – it was part of the political discussion and philosophical of these societies. If we associate modernity to societies with developed markets –where people buy the goods that it consumes by purchasing – one can mention that the developed markets, reaching the level of some basic goods, were known in the roman empire, and that we know that there were ‘marks’, or at least a very basic version of them) around the pottery (Dyson, 1992; Ward-Perkins, 2005). The association between secularization and modernity did not only shows its limits with the discussion of cases contemporary as the experience of the united States: One can find societies in pre-modern and relatively secular. The traditional society of china is based around a thought that ‘confucian’ is not supernatural, or the situation of the elites of classical antiquity, where religion had a presence relatively minor it also shows us that secularization and modernity did not necessarily go hand in hand. Even beyond the above, we can posit that some of the changes of contemporary societies, which include the crisis of the institutions of classical modernism (Beck & Lau, 2005), in several circumstances involving a renaissance of institutional forms that had occurred in other contexts before. For example, it is interesting that to illustrate the structure of the armies medieval a author makes the following comparison with organizations contemporary: ‘The situation of medieval states varied between that of the United Nations and NATO in the late twentieth century. The un has no operational forces of its own but has to rely on voluntary efforts from its members to enforce decisions, while NATO as an organization controls part of the armed forces of its members but have to rely on a broad political agreement if they are to be used operationally under NATO control’ (Glete, 2002, p. 12). The creation of a family where the majority of its members work, and where a relevant part of the ‘household chores’ is achieved in the market instead of being produced in the home is not a development of contemporary societies, is a development of the early modern and predates the modern invention of the home of the ‘winning of bread and the housewife’ (De Vries, 2009 [2008]).

These examples also show us another of the classical problems of the sociology to understanding modernity: To reduce all societies are not modern to the mold limited the ‘traditional society’ you can’t observe the diversity and specificity of these other social formations, that is what would in turn allow a more adequate understanding of modernity. The few traditional-modern, an heir of the Gemeinschaft – Gesselschaft of Tönnies, has always proved inadequate for understanding either the society as ‘traditional’ as a society ‘modern’.

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