Postmodernism is a theory that questions grand narratives and objective truth. Instead, it focuses on how truth emerges through contextual and subjective circumstances.
It refers to a range of interrelated movements in art, sociology, philosophy, film, and literature. These movements are broadly influenced by the 1970s French philosophy of theorists, including:
- Michel Foucault
- Giles Deleuze
- Jean Baudrillard
- Jaques Derrida
Postmodernists in sociology believe that language, media, and social discourse construct reality and, in the process, necessarily create norms, in-groups, and out-groups.
In this process, discourses shape our understandings of what can and cannot be done. For example, they shape idealized notions of femininity and foreclose other versions of ‘doing’ womanhood.
Postmodernism in Sociology: Key Concepts
1. Questioning objective truth
Postmodernists examine concepts considered to be “truth” and explore how those concepts have changed over time.
They argue that the fact the truth has changed over time demonstrates that truth is contextual and subjective, not objective.
In his doctoral dissertation Madness and Civilization, Michel Foucault proposed that scientific discourse was used to instruct society about what is and is not considered ‘madness’.
This dissertation was hugely influential on what would become postmodern thought because it demonstrated how concepts like ‘madness’:
- Have changed over time,
- Are therefore social constructs, and
- The ways these concepts are constructed affect how people can live their lives.
Foucault argued that throughout Euroepan history, madness had been socially and culturally constructed in the following ways:
How the ‘Truth’ about Madness has Changed over Time
Renaissance Era (mad people are wise): During the renaissance era, so-called “mad” people were seen as wise. Their divergent ways of thinking had hidden truths embedded within them that the rest of us could not access, but that we could learn by spending time with mad people.
Classical Era (mad people are pariahs): So-called mad people were shunned by society. Their ability to participate in society was severely restricted.
Modern Era (mad people are sick): So-called mad people were pathologized and science was used to try to ‘fix’ them. It was a part of the rise of medicalization in normative scientific discourse.
In each era, the possible ways ‘mad’ people could participate in society, move through public spaces, and gain employment were vastly different.
The lesson we can learn is this: society creates stories (“regimes of truth”) about social identities that include and exclude, enable and constrain, and marginalize and idealize.
This lesson is not just restricted to madness.
The stories society tells about single mothers, trans people, women at work, children, and so forth, influence the ways in which those people are allowed to participate in society or, at times, be excluded, pathologized, and marginalized.
2. The Constructed nature of reality
In the above story of madness, we can see that madness is ‘constructed’ by society. At one point in history, mad people were seen as wise. During modernism, they were seen as sick.
The lesson we learn from this story is that society’s perceptions of truth and reality change dramatically over time, space, and cultural contexts.
There are things that you and I take for granted as unquestionable truth.
During a previous era, these things may have been so far outside of the norm that we would have been laughed at. The idea that black and white people should be considered equals is a classic example.
Another example is that of childhood: medieval scholar Philippe Aries examined how our perception of childhood was once that it ended at around the age of 12. Now, we see that it ends around age 18.
Before Industrial Revolution (Childhood is not a protected identity): Childhood ends around age 12. Children are not protected from adult knowledge. Child labor is common, marriage is young, and ‘children’ are not a protected class of people.
Industrial Revolution – 1980s (Childhood as innocent): With the rise of the middle class, children are no longer seen as an economic necessity. Middle-class people see their children as innocents who need to be protected and coddled.
Contemporary childhoods (Childhood as agentic): Children are seen as competent, capable, and agentic. They are still considered largely innocent, but their intelligence is increasingly respected and acknowledged.
According to postmodernists, the reality of social categories like childhood is constructed by society. There is no objective truth here – only an agreed upon set of beliefs.
3. Grand narratives
So far, we have seen that postmodernists believe that truth changes over time and, therefore, appears to be constructed by societies.
The dominant truth at any one point in time is labelled the “grand narrative” by postmodernists.
During the medieval era, an important ‘grand narrative’ was that of religion. The unquestionable truth was that which was written in the Bible. It was the Catholic Church’s sole ability to interpret the Bible. During this era, the Church owned and controlled the grand metanarrative.
People could not speak up against it for fear of being shouted down and, therefore, this ended up being unquestioned truth in most people’s minds.
During the modern era (20th Century), the grand metanarrative was scientific: science and economic rationalism ruled. Sick people were pathologized, sent to shrinks, and given medications to fix their ailments.
While it is arguable that the move toward scientific rationality in the age of modernism is a good thing, you need only look at the over-diagnosis of ADHD medications to see how sometimes the “scientific grand narrative” has led us astray at times.
4. Language and Discourse
Post-modernists believe that grand narratives are constructed through discourse. In post-modern speak, discourse is a way of speaking about something.
For example, if we look at mass media in the 1950s, we’ll see a very narrow understanding of women. They tend to be seen on screen in limited roles: passive, submissive, housewives.
There were no female role models working in business or as political leaders. They were constructed in language and discourse in a particular way.
Through continual, repeated, reiteration of the dominant discourse that women should look and act a certain way, our understandings of gender were socailly constructed in a very narrow way.
To highlight how dominant discourses construct reality, postmodernists deconstruct dominant discourses.
In academia, this often takes place through discourse analysis. A discourse analysis involves a close semiotic reading of a corpus of texts to identify the dominant narratives and ideologies that the texts are normalizing as ‘truth’.
In art and literature, desconstructionism is often more playful: it involves using techniques such as pastiche which chop up, blend, and undermine traditional ways of doing art and literature. Through pastiche, artists demonstrate the absurdity of grand metanarratives.
You can see ten examples of postmodernism in art and literature here for more examples of how deconstructionism takes place in postmodern texts.
Another key concept in postmodernism is that of normativity. Normativity refers to the construction of ‘norms’ or, literally, the things that appear normal.
For example, when cultural discourse repeatedly only shows us stories of men in power and women cooking, we learn that it’s normal for men to be leaders and women to be housewives.
Over time, children learn that there are normative ways of doing gender (and racial constructs, and class, and so on).
According to theorists like Judith Butler, these normal ways of doing identities become so normalized that we believe them to be true! Nevertheless, postmodernists believe in the social construction of gender, as well as other categories of identity (e.g. heteronormativity).
7. Power as Productive
One way in which postmodernists differ from critical theorists is in their perception of power.
Like critical theorists, postmodernists are often very concerned with how people are oppressed and marginalized.
However, postmodernists don’t see the world as a series of battles between the powerful and the weak where the powerful use hard power in the form of oppression and punishment.
Rather, the stratification of society occurs through discourse: women learn to believe that women should behave certain ways, and women come to learn that if they behave like the ‘good’ housewife, they are rewarded by society.
Thus, people aren’t oppressed against their will into taking on gender norms (and other social roles). Rather, they learn to believe that’s their destiny because that is the idealized identity construct they are presented with by society.
To describe this, postmodernists say that power is not just oppressive (which is what the critical theorists think). Rather, power is productive: it produces discourses and norms that shape how we think about ourselves and relate to our world.
A Criticism of Postmodernism
You may have read this piece and come to the conclusion that I am a postmodernist. And indeed, it’s true that I used postmodernism as a theoretical lends when writing my PhD. But, I am not wedded to the idea and see many, many flaws in its arguments.
I see postmodernism as a lens for analysis and not a rulebook that explains how we should live or think.
My main critique of postmodernism would be that it is too quick to reject the scientific rationality of modernism.
During the modern era, rationalization and the scientific method ruled. Science was the “grand metanarrative”.
In general, I embrace the ability of the scientific method to get closer to some sort of scientifically accurate truth. Most scientists don’t think we’ll ever reach natural ‘truths’, but we can get to a close approximation of the concept through use of the scientific method.
I would agree that the scientific method gets us closer to natural truths. But I’m not sure all people who use postmodern theory would.
A Critique of my Critique?
Where the scientific method fails is when it over-reaches when talking about social categories like gender, childhood, and culture.
We can’t draw a direct line from science to social categories in the same way that we can draw a direct line from science to things that are measurable in nature.
What the ‘end of childhood’ is can be informed by science (i.e. when our brains mature) but it’s ultimately a socio-political task to decide when children are endowed with the rights of adults and seen as adults rather than children in the eyes of society.
Similarly, while we can objectively measure sex by looking at X and Y chromosomes, gender is a cultural category that we’ve layered over sex: gender roles, gender identities, and gender norms are historically connected to sex, but they’re ultimately cultural categories that have layers of cultural expectations layered over them that are outside of the domain of science.
Here, I think postmodernism does a good job at pushing back at modernism’s constant attempts to pathologize and rationalize concepts that belong to the sociocultural rather than natural-scientific domains of thought.
Postmodernism can, for example, push back at science’s attempts to pathologize. It argues, instead, that we as a society should change our perceptions of the disabled, gay, sick, neurodivergent, etc., to ensure they can live full lives with equal social participation.
We need to change our grand metanarratives to ensure we are as inclusive as possible.
Postmodernism is a key theory that has shaped sociological thought since the 1970s. It has also greatly influenced art, literature, and film.
It has also broken into popular culture, with its beliefs about social constructivism and undermining of norms around gender and sexuality coming into the cultural zeitgeist in the 21st Century.
While being an extremely useful tool for understanding how language has power to influence our ideas of what is normal, idealized, and truthful, it’s faced criticism for undermining the concept of truth to the point that it could be seen as nihilistic and relativistic.
In my estimation, a lot of the problem arises because of the failure of academics and society to reconcile social constructionism with the ability of the natural sciences to get us closer to an approximation of objective truths in nature.
Ariès, P., & Baldick, R. (1962). Centuries of childhood. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Derrida, J. (2020). Deconstruction in a nutshell: A conversation with Jacques Derrida, with a new introduction. New York: Fordham University Press.
Foucault, M. (2003). Madness and civilization. London: Routledge.
Lash, S. (2014). Sociology of postmodernism. London: Routledge.
McHale, B. (2012). Constructing postmodernism. London: Routledge.
McGowan, J. (2019). Postmodernism and its Critics. In Postmodernism and its Critics. New York: Cornell University Press.Searle, J. R. (2021). Postmodernism and the western rationalist tradition. In Campus Wars (pp. 28-48). London: Routledge.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]