Reading Guide to: Giddens, A (1991) The Consequences of Modernity, Cambridge: Polity Press

Dave Harris

This is a very brief set of notes only, and I tend to reproduce the summaries of the arguments rather than the detail. For example, I think the main themes are nicely summarised in the table on page 150, which tries to clarify the differences between Giddens' view of modernity and post modernist views.




Social fragmentation and dispersal Epistemological crisis
A dialectic of dispersal and globalisation Centrifugal tendencies and dislocation
The self as active and reflexive  The self as dissolved and dismembered
Globalisation will produce more universality and so systematic knowledge is still possible Contextual, historical truths only
A dialectic between powerlessness and empowerment Powerlessness
Daily life as a complex of reactions to abstract systems Daily life replaced by abstract systems
Co-ordinated political action is both possible and necessary Political action is now impossible because of contextualty
Postmodernity means moving beyond modernity [to socialism and a good life] Postmodernity as the end of epistemology, the individual, and ethics

These themes are illustrated through discussions of various kinds of social forces, micropolitics and so on, although there is still a curiously abstract level to the discussion, especially about active or reflexive selves.

The implications for sociology are drawn. Sociology is part of the reflexivity of modernity, but it needs to be reformed to take into account the space/time manipulations and dimensions of late modernity. For example we need to look beyond the nation state as a model of society. Processes of differentiation that have been identified by earlier theorists need to be replaced with concepts of embedding/disembedding, which would widen into an account of the whole subsequent dialectic operating between risk and trust, faceless and face-to-face commitments.


(a) The 'problem of order is one of time - space distanciation', in that time and space are ordered in modernity to connect presence and absence.

(b) These space - times separations produce disembedding [of traditional forms of relationships], as standard and abstract dimensions of space and time come to order and rationalise activities in the place of local contexts. Examples include the use of a timetable to co-ordinate going on a journey by car and plane. Such organisations also clearly involve reflexive accounts of past activities. Disembedding both '"lifts out social relations from local contexts of interaction", and restructures them "across indefinite spans of time and space"'. This is a better way of describing what has happened compared to concepts of social differentiation [in Parsons, say or Weber ] which are evolutionist.

(c) Disembedding mechanisms require the creation of symbolic tokens, especially money, defined as mechanisms to control time and space (22 f). They also lead to the establishment of expert systems. These disembed further, because they provide abstract guarantees of expectations across time and space: these impersonal tests and public forms further 'stretch' social systems. They also imply a different kind of trust.

(d) Trust is defined fairly extensively, page 31f. To summarise, it arises from the lack of full information; it connotes reliability in the face of contingency; it operates as a link between faith and confidence; it involves principles rather than relying on the morality of others, developing 'confidence in the reliability of a person or system' (34). It takes on a more calculative form in modernity.

(e) Everyday life is more reflexive, so that many people already know something of more specialist areas such as official statistics on divorce, for example (42) and 'It would not be at all unusual to find a coroner who had read Durkheim' (42). Everyday life becomes both sociologised and psychologised.

(f) Anti-foundationalism [in post-modernism ] is dismissed as 'inchoate' (47), if pushed to appear as a theory, or a mere description of a normal part of modernity -- 'Modernity coming to understand itself' (48), 'fuller understanding of reflexivity inherent in modernity itself' (49). Giddens claims that it expresses an awareness which is widespread, 'anxieties which press in on every one' (49).

A summary of these points is then offered, pages 53 - 54.

Modernity can thus be described as the greater and greater use of disembedding mechanisms to organise social life. However, there is also considerable re embedding, involving the pinning down of disembedding mechanisms to local contexts again. This happens when relations of trust are also formed by facework commitments (80), and as a more generalised trust in abstract systems develops, even where these involve faceless commitments (80). Goffman's work is cited here on the relationships which develop between strangers and how they are managed (81f). [Giddens also tells us that the personal and impersonal are deeply intertwined in everyday life, page 121].

Relations of trust are always ambivalent. Confidence is needed because there is a fundamental ignorance of the social world, but this means that trust is largely a matter of making pragmatic connections, based on past experiences. However, there is another dimension to it, based on a general 'ontological security'. This arises in early childhood as a result of definite child rearing practices -- and some child psychology is summarised, such as Erikson (94).

Traditional and modern cultures can be contrasted in terms of how they create environments of trust and risk. Giddens' table, page 102, shows how the traditional social bonds such as kinship community and religion can be seen as devices to organise environments of trust, while the characteristic environments of modernity are seen as personal relationships, abstract systems, future - oriented counterfactual thinking, and a perception of threats, not from nature, war, or the gods, but from the greater reflexivity of modernity, industrialised war, and personal meaninglessness [the chance is missed here, perhaps, to sketch of the dangers of excessive reflexivity?].

The adaptive mechanisms to these perceptions of risk and threat are common to both expert and lay people. Expertise rapidly runs into the limits of the predictability of the world, and this can produce a pragmatic acceptance, an interest in surviving. As Lasch has suggested, this can produce and numbness and deep anxiety. An alternative coping mechanism is sustained optimism, based on faith in reason or in God. A third possibility is cynical pessimism, where people cope with risks by using black humour, the celebration of anachronism and so on, as a way of coping with pessimism as such. Finally, there is the possibility of radical political engagement in various social movements. [I was reminded very much of Merton here, with his table of possible adjustments to social strain -- Giddens seems to have missed out retreatism and 'innovation', the development of illegal activity as in criminal careers. He has added sustained optimism and cynical pessimism].

Trust is crucial to modern life, and it is intertwined with the growth of globalisation. Trust on a more personal level is best seen as a project, something to be worked at, involving a 'mutual process of self disclosure' (121). Giddens focuses on erotic involvement here, especially the 'romantic love complex'. He also takes on Lasch's gloomier view of an increasing manipulation and powerlessness, the result of a growing 'menacing appearance of the contemporary world' [This seems reminiscent of Bauman's insistence that only pure or 'we-' relations offer hope in modernity].

Globalisation leads to displacement of the old embedding mechanisms and a possible re embedding, in a whole dialectic of displacement and re embedding, intimacy and impersonality, expertise and reappropriations, privatism and engagement (140).

[Referring to Habermas], expert systems do not colonise life worlds, but engage in a dialectic so that changes in every day life also affect disembedding mechanisms, and 'technical expertise is continually re appropriated by lay agents' (144). Thus expertise continually 'filters back' into the life world [certainly a welcome attempt to modernise the concept of the life world in Habermas?].

Finally, modernity institutionalises doubt (176). We have not developed a new post modernist phase, but rather a complex meaning of presence and absence -- 'not primarily an expression of cultural fragmentation or of the dissolution of the subject into a "world of signs"' (177). Rather, the experience of modernity arises from a 'simultaneous transformation of subjectivity and global social organisation against a troubling backdrop of high consequence risks' (177).

 more notes on social theorists