Postmodernism is a complex term, and it is important to define its boundaries as it concerns social problems. Generally speaking, analysts examine the postmodern world with a focus on four areas: the self-concept; moral and ethical discourse; art and culture; and globalization. In the context of social problems, the conceptual development of postmodernism and globalization has been influenced by the ideas of such leading exponents as David Harvey, Jean-Francois Lyotard, and Michel Foucault.
Harvey describes modernity as the period after the end of the Enlightenment that began at the start of the industrial revolution and went well into the 20th century. The Enlightenment promoted thinking in a more rational, uniform way in order to achieve rational but conditional progress. Postmodernists, however, question the validity of such a single truth or uniformity. Society, to them, is more complex than belief in a rational, singular truth, and social problems have more causes than any formalized list. In the age of greater globalization, social problems have become international, with a greater comparative focus on issues such as education and poverty. The new postmodern conditions thus lead to a questioning of modern ideology.
Postmodern theory focuses on a critical, almost skeptical, view of society. Lyotard argued that grand narratives such as Marxism were in decline. Grand narratives are stories that contain knowledge or a discourse that supports a universal truth. A grand narrative is a story big enough to encompass social problems and provide potential social solutions. Lyotard highlighted the Marxist concept of class—in particular the division of society into the proletariat and bourgeoisie—and the argument that the working class would overthrow the middle class through class conflict and consequent social revolution. Marxism implied that history is progressive and knowledge is liberating. However, Lyotard questioned the notion of the emancipation of humanity and that knowledge produced by science is truth and therefore eternal. Lyotard argued that these arguments had lost respectability since the end of the Second World War. The Marxist argument that the proletariat would overthrow the bourgeoisie after a political and consequent social revolution did occur in some cases, but not universally. Lyotard suggested that people still believed in grand narratives, but as time progressed, society changed and the grand narratives fragmented. Indeed, grand narratives are visible in both nationalist and religious conflicts. Lyotard thus questioned the validity of grand narratives in a postmodern world that has witnessed enormous changes.
The construction of both modern and postmodern knowledge and its usage relates to social issues and problems. Foucault’s work examined the complex histories of social knowledge as codified within institutions. He argued that institutions (e.g., the penal system) could never be neutral. Foucault wanted a focus on how institutions were linked to operations of power in society. He argued that the self was intertwined with social structures. Power was visible through the knowledge of control (i.e., surveillance, rules, and regulations). Discourse, for Foucault, involves the institution (e.g., the prison service) putting language to use (e.g., the state formulating a prison policy), and a discipline (e.g., the law governing criminals). Foucault was interested in how knowledge evolved before, during, and after modernity. The control of knowledge has become a continuing political issue with its own discourse. In a postmodern context, times changed but the institutions remain, with little more than incremental changes. Discourses remain systems of exclusion (i.e., for criminals in jail), but the social categories that have been created (e.g., the criminal) remain. Foucault suggests that we question current discourses and examine forms of power and knowledge that are around us in society.
Globalization is nothing new and was certainly visible in the premodern and modern worlds within trade, commerce, and imperial conquest. However, creation of the World Wide Web enables us to see the nature of globalization through a postmodern lens. The social construction of knowledge has changed dramatically with the creation of new social spaces where knowledge can be disseminated, discussed, and critiqued. There are many truths, and the World Wide Web has witnessed the debate concerning what information and knowledge should and should not be controlled in a postindustrial age. China is an interesting example of a national state that has attempted to control knowledge dissemination on the World Wide Web.
Another example of the distribution of global knowledge concerns the pictures of the execution of Saddam Hussein in January 2007. Was it morally correct to telecast these images and the audio exchange between Hussein and his executioners? These images were posted on the World Wide Web, so the decision, be it a regulated or unregulated one, occurred without any political or ethical debate. Does the Internet give us the right to be a postmodern humanist; that is, having the moral and ethical right to make up our own minds on all social issues and problems? The World Wide Web, whether it is morally correct or incorrect, has widened social contexts because more individuals and groups can use this means of communication to express differing viewpoints. However, does this create more social problems than it solves? Postmodernist theories provide a critical theoretical framework that attempts to answer some of these questions.
- Anderson, Walter Truett. 1996. The Fontana Post-Modernism Reader. London: HarperCollins.
- Butler, Christopher. 2002. Postmodernism: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Foucault, Michel. 2002. The Archaeology of Knowledge. Abingdon, Oxford, England: Routledge Classics.
- Harvey, David. 1992. The Condition of Postmodern. New York: Wiley-Blackwell.
- Lyotard, Jean-Francois. 1984. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Translated by G. Bennington and B. Massumi. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press.