Chapter Two: ‘How to be modern’: theorising modernity

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Most theoretical perspectives derived from sociology and social theory tend to argue that modernity – itself a contested term – has not yet been exhausted. ‘What is the nature of the modernity which we inhabit?’ is a key question preoccupying many theorists, giving rise to a plethora of competing views on what it is to be ‘modern’ and on how moderns think, feel and act (Garrett, 2008). Deliberating on these matters is inescapably political: sociologists and social theorists should not be perceived as providing ‘scientific’ or ‘objective’ accounts of how we are evolving because they all, more or less explicitly, owe allegiances to particular political projects intent on remaking the world in particular ways. Perhaps one of the best examples of this is Giddens, who appeared to provide a sociological ‘road map’ for the politics of New Labour. With his revealingly titled Beyond Left and Right, he furnished a ‘book full of sneers at social democracy and the welfare state’ and was to ‘become the ‘theoretician of the [former] British Prime Minister [Blair] and his New Labour regime, giving an intellectual gloss to a party that had lost – or rather severed – any connection to “first wave” social democracy’ (Therborn, 2007, p 100).

It was postmodernists who ‘stimulated an awareness of and a debate about modernity’, and this chapter will begin by briefly looking at their contribution (Therborn, 2011, p 55). After briefly examining the derivation and definition of ‘modernity’, the focus will be on postcolonial theory. Important here is the failure of many theorists to locate modernity in the context of European expansion and the domination of subjugated populations (Connell, 2007; De Sousa Santos, 2012).

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