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Sociology of Modernity (SO947)

Can ‘Modernity’ be an object of scholarly inquiry? Doesn’t it refer to too many things at once, or on the contrary, to little more than the quality of being ‘modern’?

These are good questions, and the better answers come from different disciplines. Here I am going to follow a lead from Peter Wagner and say that the remarkable feature of the modern world that has grown up in the west since the 18th century is its paradoxical and ambivalent character: never before in history have individual people found it easier to think of their lives as defined by their own decisions, while at the same time, never before have human beings been more vulnerable to the power of institutions and organisations to shape their lives.

‘Liberal modernity’ in the political sense has also been the age of totalitarianism and military machines, experimental art made by autonomous creators has existed alongside the mass culture dominated by big publishers and film studios, the modern economy is that of the small business person and the multinational conglomerate.

On this module, you will think in terms of politics, economic and culture, and the loosening and binding of individuals that takes place in each of these three ‘spheres’. The sociological classics were aware of these paradoxes; Weber gave us the unanchored Protestant self and the iron cage of bureaucracy, Marx an idea of human emancipation at the centre of which was work, whilst Simmel saw the money economy as a structure of interdependence that at the same time strengthens individuality. Earlier, Immanuel Kant saw enlightenment as making free use of one’s reason in public while obeying authority. And so on. In the late 20th century, thinkers such as Michel Foucault, Richard Sennett, and Philip Rieff articulated these paradoxes in new ways, particularly around the culture of therapy.

Sociology of Modernity

Module Director

Charles Turner


This module is worth 20 CATS.