Thinking Sociologically III
Using theory to untangle complex realities
You may not use theory to understand your reality, but theory certainly uses you.
Whether you are a teacher, principal, lecturer, student or simply curious, in this short EDDi section Dr Stephen Whitehead answers common questions related to sociological theory.
All of the answers were originally published on Quora.
We offer them (in revised form) via EDDi in the hope that you will acquire some sociological insights into the 21st century.
Treat these articles as a healthy, and heavier, counter-point to all the lighter fluff which gets posted on social media.
Is the postmodern dictum “there is naught but power” the truth overall if we exclude the scientific method? Is truth relative after all and the universalists mistaken?
There is no such ‘postmodern dictum’, claiming that everything in human society is reducible to power.
To begin with, postmodernists reject any simple generalisations, with possibly the exception of:
what we think is much less than what there is.
Secondly, there are several ways of exploring and interpreting postmodernism, from the radical modernist to the strategic postmodernist, encompassing philosophers and thinkers as diverse as Foucault, Derrida, Lacan, Baudrillard and Lyotard.
For example, radical modernists such as Marcuse and Habermas may well be tempted by the modernist sub-text inherent in any assumption that power is the ultimate human device. But then, they would, wouldn’t they, given their tradition within the German school of critical theory, usually referred to as the ‘Frankfurt School’.
Finally, it is important to realise that postmodernism refers to an epoch: a moment in human history when the grand narratives of modernism have been displaced by an intense credulity towards anything which purports to offer ‘utopia’ and absolutes as panaceas to the complexity and contingency of human existence.
So postmodernism is of the ‘now’ not of the past, in as much as it offers a critique of modernism and all that went with it.
Not to say that there are no longer pockets of modernism alive and well in human society in 2021, for indeed there are. But they are pockets, not empires as in the case of the British, German, Japanese, French or Communist.
In fact, the very notion of ideology (be it Marxist, Fascist or anything in-between) is increasingly an anachronism, given the detotallising effects of the Internet and social media.
As Jean Baudrillard put it:
‘In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation…The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people mediated by images.’
(Quoted in Lemert, C. (1997) Postmodernism is not what you think. London: Blackwell. p. 38, original emphasis)
As for the question ‘is truth relative’?
Of course it is.
Simply because there is no possibility of all 7.7 billion of us seeing and experiencing the world in exactly the same way. We each live our own reality and our unique and individual history is part of that process of subjective interpretation and seeing.
And when we add into the mixture the spectacle and representations analysed by Baudrillard, then one can see very clearly how intersubjectivity becomes an interplay of different moralities, ethics and identities.
As I see it, humans desire modernity and the ‘truths’ it offers, not least because such truths (as ideologies or dominant discourses) are comforting if only in the imagination. So this is a weakness we humans have - for absolutes. We much prefer them to complexity.
Unfortunately, we are stuck with complexity, made more so by social media, etc.
Ironically, the ultimate power of postmodernity is in the way it actually undermines modernist ‘truths’.
An example is in the USA, today.
Extreme Republicans, such as those who believe in QAnon conspiracies and the like, are defacto modernists; they desire a retreat to some utopian mythical past where the likes of them held sway and all ‘others’ were reduced or physically removed. Yet in order to promote their beliefs they must utilise postmodern devices and systems. The result being that they actually lose sight of what is real. Their quest for power is undermined by the means of that very quest.
A truth I personally find quite satisfying.
Individually, as people, we are certainly more than what we represent and maybe we each hold within us a modicum of truth and reality.
What we cannot do is expect our individual interpretation to be universally upheld by all others.
Since 2017, Dr Stephen Whitehead has answered over 10,500 Quora questions, mostly on relationships, education, sociology, life and living, and philosophy. To date, his answers have received approximately 3.2 million views increasing at the rate 60,000 views a month. He has nearly 1000 followers.
Stephen’s latest book (International Schooling: The Teacher’s Guide) is available via: teachabroad.ac.