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Allowing the Other to Speak: the Relevance of Postmodernism to Political Analysis

by Fran Amery, Centre of West African Studies, University of Birmingham [1]

 

ABSTRACT

Political analysts often dismiss postmodernism, claiming that it is self-contradictory or simply irrelevant to the social sciences. While claims about the self-contradictory nature of postmodernism have some grounding, the latter assertion is more difficult to justify. In this article, I consider the main contributions of postmodernism to the discipline of political science and why these contributions are still highly relevant. The postmodern critique of positivism has important implications for all analysts working within a ‘scientific’ framework. Moreover, postmodernism’s exposal of the hidden values and assumptions underlying much political thought, including the development of a methodology for interrogating these values and assumptions, has value both to critical analysts and to members of disempowered social groups.

KEYWORDS: Postmodernism, social sciences, political science, critical theory, deconstruction, positivism.

 

INTRODUCTION

Terry Eagleton aptly sums up postmodernism as ‘a style of thought which is suspicious of classical notions of truth, reason, identity and objectivity, of single frameworks, grand narratives or ultimate grounds of explanation’ (Eagleton, 1996: vii). However, there is no one unified theory of postmodernism. Rather, it should be regarded as a mode of interrogation that seeks to problematise the epistemological assumptions and notions of ‘ rationality’ which characterise much of social science.

While postmodernism has been highly influential in areas such as literary criticism and the study of international relations, it has not made a huge impact on the discipline of political science (Hay, 2002: 234). In fact, many authors have dismissed postmodernism as irrelevant, despite the serious challenges it poses (Lee, 1999: 739). This criticism is not entirely unjustified. Postmodern scepticism can be used to legitimate political and social inaction. Moreover, the call for the end of grand narratives and of claims about truth and progress rests on a contradiction. As Hay expresses it, postmodernists advance ‘the metanarrative to end all metanarratives’ (2002: 247). Nevertheless, postmodernism should not be ignored. It has questioned the notions of progress and emancipation, attacked the philosophical position of traditional political science, denied the possibility of objective research and emphasised the socially-constructed nature of reality (Vasquez, 1999: 215-24). These are important contributions to a critical approach to political science. Whatever one’s opinion of the postmodern project, its challenges to orthodoxy should not simply be dismissed.

The critique of positivism is one of these contributions. While most sociologists are not explicitly positivist, their work often embodies positivistic tenets, such as the belief that it is possible to reflect the world without relying upon presuppositions and assumptions (Agger, 1991: 106). Postmodern social theorists have attacked this tendency and argued that claims to objectivity are misleading and dangerous. Their work has exposed some of the assumptions and bias underlying supposedly objective studies. Postmodern critiques also highlight what is excluded from or marginalised in traditional political theory (women, ethnic minorities, etc.) and as such ‘allow the other to speak’ (McQuillan, 2002: 6). This makes postmodernism a potent tool for feminists and others wishing to empower their own social groups.

The method of deconstruction is a final significant contribution to political science. While it is often associated more with post-structuralism than postmodernism, the two approaches overlap and cannot easily be separated (Agger, 1991: 111-12). Deconstruction is certainly in line with postmodernism’s suspicion of claims of truth and objectivity, and its emphasis on discourse supports the postmodern view of the socially constructed nature of reality. It aims to problematise the fundamental premises and assumptions of a text by undermining generalisations, dichotomies and binaries (Rosenau, 1991: 121), and thus aids postmodernism’s emphasis on what theory marginalises or ignores.

 

THE PRECURSORS OF POSTMODERNISM

Postmodernism emerged from the existentialist and phenomenologist philosophies of, amongst others, Nietzsche, Heidegger and Husserl. It is unsurprising, then, that it has many features in common with social phenomenology and ethnomethodology, which share some of the same philosophical precursors. While these approaches were more methodologically inclined than postmodernism, they similarly rejected the Enlightenment attempt to create universal knowledge, preferring to emphasise subjective meaning and to problematise everyday occurrences (Agger, 1991: 117).

Alfred Schutz was concerned with developing Husserl’s phenomenological philosophy – which dealt with the study of consciousness from a first-person perspective – in order to supply philosophical foundations to the social sciences. He criticised the notion that observation could be theory- and value-neutral, arguing that we do not grasp the meaning of an act through simple observation:

we first observe the bodily behaviour then place it within a larger context of meaning […] this context of meaning need not […] be identical with the context of meaning in the mind of the actor himself (Schutz, 1974: 36).

Schutz went on to argue that the meaning of an action could only be understood within the context of ‘the formation and structure of those lived experiences’ which led to its occurrence (1974: 51).

This notion was taken further by the discipline of ethnomethodology, developed by Harold Garfinkel, which sought to problematise everyday events and to pay them the attention usually only given by social scientists to extraordinary events (Garfinkel, 1967). Garfinkel’s concern was to '[make] commonplace scenes visible’ (1967: 36) and to interrogate hidden assumptions: the ‘"seen but unnoticed” background of common understandings’ (1967: 44).

Many of these aspects of phenomenology and ethnomethodology are reflected today in postmodernist texts: the rejection of universalist theories, the emphasis on subjectivity, and the focus on uncovering concealed assumptions. However, they have been developed by postmodernists in order to interrogate language, history and culture and to question the validity of claims to have discovered a universal ‘truth’.

 

THE DECLINE OF THE GRAND NARRATIVE

A central feature of postmodern writing is scepticism towards ‘meta-' or ‘grand’ narratives, including liberalism, Marxism and other attempts to formulate a universal political theory (Rosenau, 1991: 6). These theories, it is argued, overlook the diversity of the social world and even repress certain elements of it (Seidman, 1991). Jean-François Lyotard defined the postmodern as ‘incredulity towards metanarratives’, and claimed that the metanarrative was ‘losing its functors, its great hero, its great dangers, its great voyages, its great goal’ (1984: xxiv). This scepticism is reflected in the works of authors such as Jacques Derrida, who criticised the totalising effect of structuralism and queried whether meaning could really only be said to have importance within the totality of a unified system or narrative (Derrida, 2001). This critique of metanarratives is fundamental to postmodernists’ rejection of the project of modernity, itself a grand narrative.

This approach was famously dismissed by Habermas in 1981. Habermas was concerned that postmodernism’s rejection of modernity undermined the modern project of emancipation by telling us that ‘the impulse of modernity […] is exhausted’ and that ‘modernism is dominant but dead’ (1981: 6). Habermas connected the postmodern rejection of grand narratives with neoconservative attempts to link progressive ideology to extremism, citing Peter Steinfells’ observation that neoconservatives

[draw] the connection between modernism and nihilism […] between government regulation and totalitarianism, between criticism of arms expenditures and subservience to communism, between Women’s liberation or homosexual rights and the destruction of the family […] between the Left generally and terrorism, anti-semitism, and fascism (Steinfells, cited in Habermas, 1981: 7).

Postmodernism can thus be interpreted as a rejection of progressive politics. In emphasising diversity, plurality of experiences and the decline of the metanarrative, postmodernism also rejects the notion that the social sciences can provide universal, solid foundations on which to ground political theory and action (Hay, 2002: 229). For this reason, Habermas’s dismissal of postmodernism as a neoconservative project has some justification: without solid foundations or the notion of a shared reality, it is difficult, if not impossible, to speak meaningfully of emancipation, reform or even of any normative role for the state. Thus postmodernists, if they follow antifoundationalism and epistemological scepticism through to their logical conclusions, must resign themselves to a ‘vow of absolute silence’ (Hay, 2002: 249) and political inaction.

A further criticism of this approach to grand narratives points out that the postmodern critique of metanarratives is itself a metanarrative, and therefore ‘silenced by the very voice that expresses it’ (Hay, 2002: 247). Postmodernism’s suspicion of claims to truth is founded on a similar contradiction. As Habermas ([1976] 1998) has demonstrated, all communication relies on the concept of truth, even if the speaker knows what they are saying to be untrue. In other words, claims to truth are a necessary condition of communication and as such, postmodern texts rely on the very condition of truth they try to deny.

However, scepticism towards metanarratives and truth claims does not have to lead to their rejection. This element of postmodernism can be of use to critical analysis if reasserted within a foundationalist epistemology: one which accepts that while grand narratives tend ignore the diversity of the social world and exclude certain people and experiences, they do not inevitably do so. Instead of entailing a rejection of the metanarrative, the postmodernist approach may be seen as a way to interrogate narrative forms of knowledge and to give voices to those who have been excluded.

POSTMODERNISM AS A CRITIQUE OF POSITIVISM

Postmodernism’s critique of positivism is a potentially important contribution to political analysis. While most political scientists do not label themselves positivists, they often rely implicitly upon the positivist tenets that experience is the basis of knowledge and it is possible to reflect the world objectively, without relying upon philosophical and theoretical assumptions (Giddens, 1977: 29; Agger, 1991: 106). Following Giddens, I use the term ‘positivistic attitude’ to refer to approaches that involve any of these suppositions: that the methods of the natural sciences may be directly adapted for the social sciences; that the role of the political analyst is that of an impartial observer of social reality; that the goal of political analysis is to formulate law-like generalisations; that knowledge and language are purely instrumental (Giddens, 1974: 3-4).

Postmodernism has done much to challenge this positivistic attitude in the social sciences. Michel Foucault, a key postmodern thinker (although he rejected the label), is noted for his appraisal of the social sciences. He dismissed social scientists’ claims to objectivity and neutrality by showing how they conflated moral and legal norms into scientific truth (Simons, 1995: 43-46). For example, Foucault asserted that crime was judged against a scientific ‘knowledge’ of what was normal, and that punishment had come to be legitimated as much by social science as by the legal system. Deviations from the law came to be seen as offences against ‘objectively’ known human nature (Simons, 1995: 45).

Specifically, Foucault expanded Nietzschean historic philosophy in order to question beliefs and aspects of everyday life – such as madness or sexuality – thought to be timeless (Foucault, 1977). Through this technique of ‘genealogy’ he was able to trace the development of present-day institutions and ideas and to show that they were grounded in history rather than the ahistorical notions of Reason and Truth. For example, in his first major work Madness and Civilization ([1964] 2007), Foucault argues that the modern experience of madness, rather than being grounded in unchanging scientific fact, has its roots in the ‘Great Confinement’ of the seventeenth century, when ‘unreasonable’ members of society were placed in asylums.

Jacques Derrida, although he differed from Foucault in important ways, advanced an equally significant critique of positivism. To Derrida, all discourses, including supposedly scientific reports, rely on concealed assumptions and cannot be understood without them (Agger, 1991: 112). As with Foucault, these texts also present a certain view of the world as objective truth. Thus, traditional status-attainment research which defined social mobility in terms of the occupational status of one’s father was far from neutral: it presented a view of the social world where only men worked or should work, and in fact misrepresented reality by ignoring women who worked (Agger, 1991: 113). Derrida pioneered the technique of ‘deconstruction’ in order to expose the hidden assumptions of texts (Hay, 2002: 231).

These critiques are valuable ways in which to interrogate the positivistic attitude underlying much of political theory and research. Foucault and Derrida’s contributions to political analysis have shown that ideas, institutions and language conceal assumptions and presuppositions about the social world, and provided methods for exposing these assumptions. In uncovering the values and assumptions underlying supposedly neutral research and political theory, postmodernists have greatly aided critical analysis of political science; firstly, in revealing that ‘theory is always for someone and for some purpose’ (Cox, 1981: 128), and secondly, in emphasising the need for critical self-reflection when conducting social research.

Postmodernist critiques often lead to the conclusion that absolute truths cannot be attained because all theory and research is based on subjective norms, and all theory and research presents a view of the world that is far from neutral. As above, however, the conclusion that claims to truth are always flawed is internally inconsistent. Rather, we should conclude from these critiques of the positivistic attitude that objective truth is difficult to access – though not necessarily impossible – and that self-reflection is essential if it is to be obtained.

THE POLITICAL UNCONSCIOUS

This exposition of the ‘political unconscious’ (Seidman, 1997: 21) underpinning the social sciences provides a radical way of looking at political theory. Postmodernists have highlighted how much of political theory and research ignores or relegates certain social groups to the sidelines, furthering their disempowerment. All theory, they argue, comes from a particular standpoint, and in the Western world the dominant standpoint has often been that of a white, heterosexual man (Lorde, 1990: 281). As demonstrated above, these theories have the power to present their view of the world as scientific truth, and thus legitimate a social and political order where certain groups are marginalised or oppressed.

Postmodernism condemns the exclusion of these groups and seeks to shift political science’s focus to them. As it emphasises what a large amount of political thought takes for granted or even views as ‘common sense’ (e.g. issues of gender, race or sexuality), this approach has a great deal to offer critical analysis. Thus the postmodernist critique of the status-attainment research cited above reveals the dominance of a male viewpoint and the marginalised status of women in political inquiry. By emphasising the gendered assumptions of the studies, postmodernism allows feminists to protest against the exclusion of women. Similar critiques of colonial thought, the representation of sexuality, and other topics have allowed the marginalised to speak in the same way (e.g. Bhabha, 1990; Lorde, 1990; Wittig, 1990).

Again, it is uncertain why this approach is of any use for those who subscribe to a strictly antifoundationalist viewpoint. If there are no solid foundations on which to ground political theory, and if there are no universal ‘facts’, then claims about marginalisation or empowerment are almost meaningless. The very language one uses to talk about these concepts is constituted of fallible categories and dichotomies. Moreover, there is no ‘valid’ reason why the postmodernist should contest the dominance of a particular group. As Sayer has noted, ‘it is not clear why a relativist should bother to argue anything’ (2000: 69).

Nonetheless, this approach has clear utility for those wishing to critique and transform the existing political order. All critical theory is keen to tackle inequality, and it is clear that political research and other discourses have a part to play in making unequal power relations seem natural or ‘ common-sense’. It is possible to confront these discourses within a foundationalist framework that allows for some truths to be known about the world. In fact, the contradictions inherent in postmodernism show that this is the only way this task can meaningfully be undertaken. Critical analysts can learn a lot from postmodernism’s attempt to ‘[allow] the other to speak’ (McQuillan, 2002: 6).

DECONSTRUCTION, BINARIES AND THE ‘OTHER’

These approaches have their benefits, as I have shown. But they do not constitute a distinct method of inquiry, only an attitude. The deconstructivist methodology, although it is more closely associated with post-structuralism than postmodernism in general, offers a way to interrogate the hidden values and assumptions underlying political discourse and theory.

Deconstruction is a mode of inquiry used by some postmodernists which draws on Jacques Derrida’s analytical techniques (Hay, 2002: 231). It is not a ‘method’ in the strict sense of having a fixed set of rules and practices (McQuillan, 2002: 3). In line with the aforementioned principles of postmodernism, deconstruction seeks to uncover the concealed assumptions of a text and emphasise what has been excluded or ignored. It does so by questioning binary oppositions, denying the legitimacy of dichotomies, and by pushing generalisations until they seem absurd (Rosenau, 1991: 121).

Non-postmodernists such as Jürgen Habermas have argued that deconstruction is simply destructive, making no positive methodological contribution to the social sciences (Rosenau, 1991: 123). Of course, it is unclear why deconstruction would have any use within postmodernism’s ontological and epistemological framework. As above, there is a contradiction: if deconstruction can ‘reveal’ something, this implies that there is something there to reveal (Rosenau, 1991: 122). However, as many have pointed out, deconstruction is not simply destruction (Murphy, 1988: 608; Sayer, 2002: 67; Norris, 2002: 135). Instead, it should be viewed as re-evaluation. Problematising the fundamental premises of a text does not always lead to rejecting them; and when it does, a new alternative may be constructed.

Deconstruction questions the binaries which structure texts (civilised/savage, man/woman, justice/injustice, etc.). These binaries, deconstructivists argue, are intrinsically political and involve the privileging of one concept over another – civilised over savage, man over woman, justice over injustice – and thus repress and marginalise the ‘other’. By unpicking these binary oppositions, deconstruction seeks to empower these others (Hay, 2002: 233).

This methodology has made an extraordinary contribution to political science, even if it has largely been ignored or dismissed. As Bernstein has observed in his commentary on Derrida,

Few contemporary thinkers have been so alert and perceptive about the temptations and dangers of violently crushing or silencing differences, otherness or alterity – in ‘others’ or even the ‘other’ in ourselves. Few writers have written with such nuanced understanding about the suffering, mourning other’ (Bernstein, 1992: 184).

The attention deconstruction pays to the ‘other’ is of vast importance. Any critic wishing to challenge inequality would do well to study how this inequality is constructed and maintained through language and discourse. Deconstruction offers a way in which to challenge inequality and to question the concealed values and assumptions which legitimate it.

Nevertheless, deconstruction has come under fire from theorists who would normally be sympathetic to critiques of inequality. Edward Said, Terry Eagleton and others have criticised the approach for having failed to subvert the power relations it attacks (Readings, 2002: 396). They argue that it privileges discourse and texts at the expense of the real world, and ask why the work deconstruction has done on texts has not been translated into political action (Readings, 2002: 390). Gayatri Spivak has noted that ‘if one wanted to found a political project on deconstruction, it would be something like wishy-washy pluralism on the one hand, or a kind of irresponsible hedonism on the other’ (Spivak, 2002: 397-98).

These criticisms are difficult to dismiss. Deconstruction does not offer any solid basis for constructing a political theory or political programme. However, this should not imply that it has no practical use. As I have already noted, deconstruction’s re-evaluation of a text’s fundamental premises does not always mean rejection of them. Furthermore, there is little reason why deconstruction should not simply be a precursor to reconstruction. In forcing a rethink of the political, deconstruction allows the weaknesses of certain binaries and assumptions to be known, and thus allows stronger, more reliable political theory to be constructed.

CONCLUSION

Postmodernism is, on the whole, problematic. Its ontology of difference and epistemological scepticism can legitimate political inaction, because without the existence of a shared reality, it is hard to speak meaningfully of any sort of collective action or policy aimed at change or emancipation. What is more, postmodernism’s insistence on the lack of validity of truth claims or metanarratives is a contradiction. The critique of the metanarrative is itself a metanarrative; the critique of notions of ‘truth’ is itself a claim to truth. In short, postmodernism’s antifoundationalism and scepticism make it inconsistent and unreliable. This does not mean that postmodernism has not made any useful contributions to political science as a discipline, however. While its input has largely been ignored or dismissed, it has the potential to greatly aid critical theory and analysis.

Postmodernism’s first great contribution to the discipline has been its appraisal of positivism. Postmodern theorists have exposed the hidden values, assumptions and generalisations underpinning supposedly objective, value-free research. Theorists such as Derrida and Foucault have shown social and political theory and research to be founded upon subjective principles, and that this research in turn helps to legitimate the existing political order. As such, postmodernist work is a valuable resource for those wishing to critique and challenge power relations in society. Postmodernism has also brought attention to the ‘other’: those who are marginalised, ignored or repressed. By emphasising what political theory and discourse excludes or relegates to the sidelines, the postmodern approach shows how unequal power relations are created and provides a way of tackling them. This is an especially important contribution for feminists, minority groups and anyone desiring to confront social exclusion and marginalisation. Finally, the postmodern method of deconstruction has an important role to play in critique. While it does not offer a sound basis for political action, it can aid political theory by forcing a rethink of what the ‘political’ is and by uncovering the hidden values and assumptions mentioned above.

To conclude, it may be said that while postmodernism may not have had a huge impact on the discipline of political science, it has certainly made some positive contributions. These contributions should not simply be dismissed because of the flaws inherent in the postmodern perspective. Rather, they have much to offer critical political analysis, and postmodernism can teach critical theorists a great deal.


 

Notes

[1]Fran Amery is a third year Anthropology and Political Science student at the University of Birmingham. Following graduation she plans to undertake a PhD in Political Science.

 

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