An Essay on Postmodernism in the Modern Society

Categories: Art Movements

Anthony Giddens defines postmodernism as “the belief that society is no longer governed by history or progress.” He sees postmodern society as “highly pluralistic with no ‘grand narrative’ guiding its development”(Giddens, 2001). But it is also important to look at ‘postmodernity’ in relation to ‘modernity’, to see it as the direct result of the latter, as a reaction to the industrial, functional qualities of the modern movement (James-Chakraborty, 2001). From a sociological view-point the two movements can be seen as follows: the ‘modern’ movement taking into account the changes brought about by the Industrial Revolution, and the “postmodern’ movement, the changes brought upon us by the Information Revolution (Macionis, Plummer, 1998).

But, to what extent can it really be said that cities have recently entered a ‘postmodern’ stage in their development? To answer this question one must first grasp what the ‘modern’ and ‘postmodern’ movements entail, particularly in relation to cities, in their physical form and urban life in general.

The period of modernisation fundamentally began with the Industrial Revolution and the huge economic growth that ensued.

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Peter Berger has clearly expressed four major characteristics of the modern age (Macionis, Plummer, 1998). The first, perhaps the most important or indeed obvious, is the gradual decline of the traditional community, what Toennies saw as the passing from the Gemeinshaft; the traditional close-nit community where social solidarity is ever present and conformity is ensured by strict, often spiritual, moral values, to the Gesellschaft; the society of city life, characterised by large urban communities where the sense of community is diminished to a great extent and the individual is often left with a sense of alienation.

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And yet, it puts people “in touch with the pulse of the larger society and even the entire world”. Berger goes on to note that modernisation allows the individual a greater scope of choice as traditional values erode in the face of individualisation. This is linked to Berger’s next point; the increase of diversity in beliefs (Macionis, Plummer, 1998). When the individual is released from the demands of conformity of the Gemeinshaft, he is influenced by the rational perspective of modern life. This is what Weber saw as the “disenchantment” of the world (Macionis, Plummer, 1998). Finally Berger notes the modern concern with time and future orientation, for the modern individual prospects of the future are more important than past events and clich of time equals money’ almost becomes a philosophy of life with daily routines coloured by strict scheduling.

Thus, one can see the modernist movement as concerned by a forward motion, equated to scientific progress and financial gain. It is a movement which seeks functionality, through sound rational scientific thought, rather than aesthetic and cultural value (Giddens, 2001). Although an obvious generalisation, this can be seen physically through the large-scale rational urban planning of the early 20th Century and the Post-war period which evoke austerity and promote functionalist efficiency above all else (Harvey, 1989). Even the impressive heights of the Sky-scrapers of the New York skyline, although inspiring in their magnitude seem to represent and glorify above all the financial greatness of various corporations while aesthetically not much more than bleak facades. Therefore, it is perhaps the apparent recent switch from this functional emphasis to a more cultural and aesthetic emphasis that can be related to the passing of “modernity and modernism to postmodernity and postmodernism” (Featherstone, 1991).

Various factors lead to the emergence of the Postmodernist movement. Among these is certainly the failure of much modernist housing projects for instance, but also the gradual process of deindustrialisation in cities (Harvey, 1989). These processes were accompanied by a change of values and the increased importance of cultural capital in urban areas as cities began to acquire more value in the architectural natural beauty they provided (Featherstone, 1991). Alternative sources of wealth beyond financial wealth became increasingly apparent, made more potent by the earlier destruction of “treasured civic spaces” (James-Chakraborty, 2001) to pave the way for the city wide modernist expansion. Indeed, the move towards postmodernism came with the “aestheticization of everyday life and mass consumer culture.” (Featherstone, 1991) Postmodernism thus also induced a populist culture. Museums ceased to be elitist institutions, appealing to more mainstream popular demands with “a shift from discursive to figural forms of culture manifest in an emphasis upon visual images over words” (Featherstone, 1991). Postmodernism also beckons a partial return to premodern values in the appreciation of heritage while doing so in a modern context. Featherstone expresses the resulting synthesis as follows; “The postmodern city is therefore much more image and culturally self-conscious; it is both a centre of cultural consumption and general consumption.” The diversity involved in the postmodernist urban movement is perhaps its most astounding feature, as we note the dropping of cultural “time and space” barriers, as can be seen through the “China Towns” around the world, and the emergence of new fashions in Clothing and architecture often reminiscent of previous decades, or indeed, previous centuries (Harvey, 1989).

It is important to attach particular importance to changes in architectural practices since the emergence of postmodernism when considering urban city life. If indeed architectural practices have begun to adopt the principles of postmodernism it would be evidence of a recent postmodern stage in urban development: It is true that since the nineteen sixties greater care has been taken in respect to aesthetic qualities in design (it is interesting to note the use of the word ‘design’ when regarding postmodern construction rather than such phrases as ‘urban planning’; reminiscent of modernisation (Harvey, 1989). Furthermore technological improvements over the course of the 20th Century have enabled the construction of more or less authentic period materials at minimal costs allowing for the surge in eclectic designs ‘borrowing’ as it were elements from classical architecture for instance, and combining them with modern preferences and functional needs (Harvey, 1989). Examples of such designs are extremely varied. Ranging from the parodies of period constructions and experiences in theme parks such as Disneyworld (Featherstone, 1991) to more serious postmodern designs such as the ‘Public Piazza d’Italia’ recently built in New Orleans to accommodate the local Italian population: the piazza resembles the function of an Italian piazza and imitates of the regional style while using classical forms of architecture made unique by a more modern design. Thus the ‘Public Piazza d’Italia’ is a perfect example of postmodern architecture in that it ignores time and spatial barriers through its fundamentally eclectic form while accommodating the social need of renovating what was a potential slum, but with the local populations ‘needs and fancies’ at heart (Harvey, 1989).

On the other hand, it is imprudent to herald postmodernism as an immediate success. One fundamental flaw is that postmodernism is a system dominated by market economy as a general rule. This has had many perverse effects: On the one hand while claiming to remedy the social inequalities and lack of democracy induced by urban planning, particularly in the post-war period (Harvey, 1989), postmodernism “in practice caters to a corporate capitalist and elite few” (Klotz), for “the construction of our habitat continues to be dominated by market forces and short-term financial imperatives.” (Rogers, 1997) Thus, to some extent postmodernism within the city has been a segregating force in multiple ways: on the one hand, postmodern urban development is inaccessible to the poorer population, and on the other hand, the recent process of inner city gentrification, although improving these areas has meanwhile often exiled the poorer previous inhabitant to suburban slums (Featherstone, 1991). Therefore, “postmodern architecture fails to achieve what it originally set out to do. It fails to help resolve social issues of class, ethnicity and crime.” (Klotz) Finally, despite the efforts of postmodernist planners and architects to counter the monotony of modernist planning, due to market domination it has not been possible to avoid the homogeneity in urban planning once criticised in modern architecture (Klotz).

So it would seem that postmodernism is a quite real phenomenon today. It can be seen in all aspects of our lives, particularly through a new-found populist cultural capital which seems to touch everyone. Be it in the appreciation of traditional art or in a trip to theme park or a zoo, cultural capital seems almost equal a source of wealth as financial capital and what’s more, rather than merely accomplishing a function, postmodernism has attempted to turn all elements of our daily lives into a spectacle, an eclectic experience that all can relate to. Furthermore postmodernism is becoming an increasing part of the urban landscape. On the other hand one must remember that though postmodern development may have begun, it remains inaccessible to many and will remain so while it continues to serve and rely on the market economy.


  1. Featherstone, Mike, 1991, “City Cultures and Postmodern Lifestyles”, chapter 7 of Consumer Culture and Postmodernism
  2. Giddens, Anthony, 2001, Sociology
  3. Harvey, David, 1989, The condition of Postmodernity
  4. James-Chakraborty, Kathleen, 2001, Postmodern Architecture and Urbanism Available at:
  5. Klotz, Heinrich, History of Postmodernism Architecture Available at: Outlines/OH_wk9_03.htm
  6. Macionis, John J, and Plummer, Ken, 1997, Sociology, a global introduction
  7. Rogers, Richard, 1997, “This is Tomorrow”, Independent on Sunday, 23rd November 1997

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