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See related article Modern world.

Modernity is a term used to describe the condition of being "Modern". Since the term "Modern" is used to describe a wide range of periods, modernity must be taken in context.

Modern can mean all of post-medieval European history, in the context of dividing history into three large epochs: Antiquity or Ancient history, the Middle ages, and Modern. It is also applied specifically to the period beginning somewhere between 1870 and 1910, through the present, and even more specifically to the 1910-1960 period.


Modern as Post-Medieval

One common use of the term is to describe the condition of Western History since the mid-1400's, or roughly the European discovery of moveable type and the printing press. This period is said to be characterised by:

In this context the "Modern" Modernity is said to develop over many periods, and to be influenced by important events which represent breaks in the continuity:

Periods include:

Important events in the development of Modernity in this context include"

It is usually suggested that some or most of these events led to the more complete realization of "modern" society in Europe.

Defining Characteristics of Modernity

There have been numerous attempts, particularly in the field of sociology, to understand what modernity is. A wide variety of terms are used to describe the society, social life, driving force, symptomatic mentality, or some other defining aspects of modernity. They include: Bureaucracy, Disenchantment of the world, Rationalization, Secularization, Alienation, Commodification, Decontextualization, Individualism, Subjectivism, Linear-progression, Objectivism, Universalism, Reductionism, Chaos, Mass society, Industrial society, Homogenization, Unification, Hybridization, Diversification, Democratization, Centralization, Hierarchical organization, Mechanization, Totalitarian, and so on.

Modernity is often characterized by comparing modern societies to premodern or postmodern ones, and the understanding of those non-modern social statuses is, again, far from a settled issue. To an extent, it is reasonable to doubt the very possibility of a descriptive concept that can adequately capture diverse realities of societies of various historical contexts, especially non-European ones, let alone a three-stage model of social evolution from premodernity to postmodernity.

However, in terms of social structure, many of the defining events and characteristics listed above stem from a transition from relatively isolated local communities to a more integrated large-scale society. Understood this way, modernization might be a general, abstract process which can be found in many different parts of histories, rather than a unique event in Europe.

In general, large-scale integration involves:

  • Increased movement of goods, capital, people, and information among formerly separate areas, and increased influence that reaches beyond a local area.
  • Increased formalization of those mobile elements, development of 'circuits' on which those elements and influences travel, and standardization of many aspects of the society in general that is conducive to the mobility.
  • Increased specialization of different segments of society, such as the division of labor, and interdependency among areas.

Seemingly contradictory characteristics ascribed to modernity are often different aspects of this process. For example, unique local culture is invaded and lost by the increased mobility of cultural elements, such as recipes, folktales, and hit songs, resulting in a cultural homogenization across localities, but the repertoire of available recipes and songs increases within a area because of the increased interlocal movement, resulting in a diversification within each locality. (This is manifest especially in large metropolises where there are many mobile elements). Centralized bureaucracy and hierarchical organization of governments and firms grows in scale and power in an unprecedented manner, leading some to lament the stifling, cold, rationalist or totalitarian nature of modern society. Yet individuals, often as replaceable components, may be able to move in those social subsystems, creating a sense of liberty, dynamic competition and individualism for others. This is especially the case when a modern society is compared with premodern societies, in which the family and social class one is born into shapes one's lifecourse to a greater extent.

These social changes are somewhat common to many different levels of social integration, and not limited to what happened to the West European societies in a specific time period. For example, these changes might happen when formerly separate virtual communities merge. Similarly, when two human beings develop a close relationship, communication, convention, and increased division of roles tend to emerge. Another example can be found in ongoing globalization - the increased international flows changing the landscape for many. In other words, while modernity has been characterized in many seemingly contradictory ways, many of those characterizations can be reduced to a relatively simple set of concepts of social change.

At the same time, however, such an understanding of modernity is certainly not satisfactory to many, because it fails to explain the global influence of West European and American societies since the Renaissance. Mere large-scale integration of local communities, seen in the Macedonia of Alexander the Great or the Mongolia of the Khans, would not necessarily result in the same magnitude of influence as the West European modernization. What has made Western Europe so special?

There have been two major answers to this question. First, an internal factor is that only in Europe, through the Renaissance humanists and early modern philosophers and scientists, rational thinking came to replace many intellectual activities that had been under heavy influence of convention, superstition, and religion. This line of answer is most frequently associated with Max Weber, a sociologist who is known to have pursued the answer to the above question.

Second, an external factor is that colonization, starting as early as the Age of Discovery, created exploitative relations between European countries and their colonies. This view has notably been explored by the world systems theory of Immanuel Wallerstein.

It is also notable that such commonly-observed features of many modern societies as the nuclear family, slavery, gender roles, and nation states do not necessarily fit well with the idea of rational social organization in which components such as people are treated equally. While many of these features have been dissolving, histories seem to suggest those features may not be mere exceptions to the essential characteristics of modernization, but necessary parts of it.

The Paradox of Modernity

Modernization brought a series of seemingly undisputable benefits to people. Lower infant mortality rate, decreased death from starvation, eradication of some of the fatal diseases, more equal treatment of people with different backgrounds and incomes, and so on. To some, this is an indication of the potential of modernity, perhaps yet to be fully realized. In general, rational, scientific approach to problems and the pursuit of economic wealth seems still to many a reasonable way of understanding good social development.

At the same time, there are a number of dark sides of modernity pointed out by sociologists and others.

Technological development occurred not only in the medical and agricultural fields, but also in the military. The atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II, and the following nuclear arms race in the post-war era, are considered by some as symbols of the danger of technologies that humans may or may not be able to handle wisely.

Stalin's Great Purges and the Holocaust (or Shoah) are considered by some as indications that rational thinking and rational organization of a society might involve exclusion, or extermination, of non-standard elements. It is pointed out by some that homosexuals, criminals, and the mentally ill are also among the excluded in the modern society.

Environmental problems comprise another category in the dark side of modernity. Pollution is perhaps the least controversial of these, but one may include decreasing biodiversity and climate change as results of development. The development of biotechnology and genetic engineering are creating what some consider sources of unknown risks.

Besides these obvious incidents, many critics point out psychological and moral hazards of modern life - alienation, feeling of rootlessness, loss of strong bonds and common values, hedonism, and so on. This is often accompanied by a re-evaluation of pre-modern communities, though such criticism may slip into a nostalgia for an idealised past.

Modernity and the contemporary society

There is an ongoing debate about the relationship between modernity and present societies. The debate has two dimensions. First, there is an empirical question of whether some of the present societies can be understood as a variation of modernity (such as hypermodernity) or as a distinctive type, such as postmodernity. Second, there is a judgement of whether modernization has been, and is, desirable for a society. Seemingly new phenomena such as globalization, the end of the Cold War, ethnic conflicts, and the proliferation of information technologies are taken by some as reasons to adopt a new vision to navigate social development.

See also

20th century - Modernity - Existentialism
Modernism (music): 20th century classical music - Atonality - Jazz
Modernist literature - Modernist poetry
Modern art - Symbolism (arts) - Impressionism - Expressionism - Cubism - Surrealism
Modern dance - Expressionist dance
Modern architecture
...Preceded by Romanticism Followed by Post-modernism...
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