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what is post modernism?

Post modernism lacks a single overarching definition but has been applied to explain anything from the architecture of the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao to just in time manufacturing, the deconstruction of a tourist guide, the fall of the Berlin wall, the aesthetic appeal of Andy Warhol, and why Google and Apple have become mega corporations.

Links between different ideas of post modernism are tenuous but there is an overlap in that commentators within different contexts are trying to make sense of a world when established or taken for granted ways of doing things have become unsettled in part because of an almost anywhere, anytime access to information and a ceaseless movement of people and ideas. What this means for social research is open to question but there are pointers.

First, post modernism is sceptical about ‘big ideas’, what Lyotard (1979) called grand narratives such as the Enlightenment or Marxism which advance universal propositions; extol scientific methods and empirical investigation; and make a claim to the possibility of social and scientific progress. Post modernism is critical of any notion of objective truth. Instead ideas of universal rights and universal reason inevitably come down historically to questions of power (Rourke 2011).

Second, post modernism deals with ‘multiples’: multiple interpretations of the world; multiple identities; and multiple roles to play. For example, if mass industrialism focused attention on a single identification with class, post modernism is equally concerned with further overlapping identities of gender, ethnicity, sexuality, and age. If researchers have been confidently analysing texts for content then post modernism tells us that each text is intertextual.

Going further, post modernism (or more accurately texts cited to support post modernism) is unwilling to accept scientific rationality as a privileged form of knowledge (Latour 1999). Scientific knowledge is ideological, science and scientists represent a view of the world but, as argued by Callon (1986) in his much cited account of scallop fishing in Britanny, France, when it comes to science ‘ anything goes’. In extremis post modernism is a critique of scientific rationality and Feyerabend (2010) advances the highly controversial view that a creationist account of evolution is as good as one based on natural selection if made with honest conviction.

In keeping with the very essence of the word there is not a single reading of the implications of post modernism for the conduct of social research. Those attracted to the notion of post modernism will need to define the term, or at least discuss the traditions within which it has been used. They might too try to explain both the popularity of post modernism and in many ways its decline, for post modernism has become displaced by more explicitly technological terms such as the digital age, or offshoots such as post postmodernism. Those attracted to post modernism might be expected to be particularly reflexive in the collection and interpretation of data and concern themselves with the difficulty, indeed sheer impossibility, of establishing ‘truth’.

Researchers may perhaps offer a series of narratives about a phenomenon rather than a single overarching text. Post modernism will be sceptical of notions of causality, treating any idea of cause and effect as situated within a particular context, and they might consider triangulation as a fiction. Post modernism will often seek out underreported perspectives and look for countervailing narratives which might have been neglected because of positions taken by researchers in the past. Post modernism may take a profoundly profane view of knowledge and will be critical of subject boundaries, instead arguing for a cross disciplinary approach. However those attracted to a post modernist perspectives will need to address some of the trenchant criticisms made of it: for example that as an approach it is self-indulgent; takes a stance of contrarianism for the sake of it; holds a puzzling commitment to scholarship given the doubts expressed about its value. At its worst post modernism is seen as denying the realities of oppression, colonisation, poverty and the universality of human rights though these and other arguments are hotly contested.

The lasting influence of post modernism however need not lie in a series of troubling and controversial texts on the nature of knowledge but in providing us with a ‘habit of mind’ to question the basis on which judgements are formed; to reject a sacred view of the established literature; to resist the top down application of theory to a problem and to live with competing versions of events. Post modernism questions on a scale rarely seen before the nature of judgement in social research. The classic texts of social science were at pains to establish that their work was not speculative or metaphysical but about systematic, painstaking reflection on data. Post modernism challenges this every step of the way. Post modernism should be treated as an invitation to revisit arguments over validity and trustworthiness and attend to ideas of reflexivity and positionality. Post modernism provides the provocation to develop a ‘grown up’ view of social research in which we cannot hide the justification of methods and methodologies behind what has gone on previously, we have to argue each case on its merits. Post modernism, furthermore, pushes us to renew a moral undertaking in research; if research is a matter of positionality what do we imagine our moral commitment to be and how can we find the time and space to debate this?


Bourke, J. (2011) What it means to be human: Reflections from 1791 to the present, London: Virago.

Callon, M. (1986) ‘Some elements of a sociology of translation: domestication of the scallops and the fishermen of St Brieuc Bay’, in J. Law (ed.) Power, action and belief: a new sociology of knowledge?, London: Routledge,196-223.

Feyerabend, P. (2010) Against method, New York, NY: Verso Books.

Giroux, H. (1992) Border crossings: cultural workers and the politics of education, New York: Routledge.

Latour, B. (1999) Pandora’s Hope: Essays on the reality of science studies, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Lyotard, J-F. (1979) Postmodern condition: A report on knowledge, published Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984.