Reading Guide to: Beck, U, Giddens, A, Turner, B, Robertson, R and Swanson, G (1992) 'Review Symposium: Anthony Giddens on Modernity', in Theory, Culture and Society, 9, 2: 141 - 75.

by Dave Harris

Turner 'Weber, Giddens and Modernity' (141--7)

This is a review of Giddens (1991) The Consequences of Modernity. Generally, though, Turner is going to argue that Weber is a better theorist of modernity.

There are hints of Weber in Giddens' work -- for example 'differentiation, the rational application of scientific methods, secularisation/polarisation, the growth of administrative regulations and bureaucratic surveillance, the development of new personality structures and the or erosion of traditional values, symbols and beliefs' (142). Giddens' criticisms of classical sociology are (1) that it is monist rather than multi-dimensional [that is, attempting to reduce social complexity to privileged single causes, such as value systems, or modes of production]; (2) that it sees societies simply as nation states; (3) that there is insufficient attention to the role of reflexivity. In order to overcome these problems, or Giddens prefers to work with the concept of the 'risk society', which enables him to pursue some multi-dimensional evaluations, and to include globalisation.

Giddens sees the current situation as involving high modernity rather than postmodernity. Modernity features the 'separation of time and space, the disembedding of social systems, and the reflexive... re ordering of social relations' (143). Reflexivity and self-monitoring are the crucial elements of high modernity, leading to the importance of trust and risk. Sociology itself is a major source of reflexivity, as 'the most generalised type of reflection upon modern social life' (Turner, quoting Giddens). This is a major exaggeration though, says Turner, perhaps the only one, since philosophers could make the same claim.

These themes are already present in Weber, however. Weber argued for a multi-dimensional analysis, through his concepts of 'historical contingency and multiple causation' (144). He spelled out the ambivalences of bureaucratisation as a result. He was against the reified notion of 'society' as a nation state, and took an internationalist if not exactly a global perspective. He developed sociology as a reflexive form of analysis, as the contributions to the sociology of knowledge, apparent in the whole Heidelberg School, reveals. He even has a similar notion of the personality: the idea of a life project, a rational scheme of self-development, is apparent in his work on Protestantism.

Although arguing the case for Weber, Turner suggests that we could do a similar rehabilitation job for Parsons or Simmel.

Swanson  'Modernity and the Postmodern' (147--51)

For Giddens, modern institutions are still alive and spreading, especially those found in 'capitalism... industrialism... the concentration of societal administration in a national state, and... "apparatuses of surveillance"' (147). Giddens attacks Lyotard especially, as dignifying the common feelings that life is now out of control. There is a disorientation from modernity and the operations of modern institutions, and this has appeared at the personal level as feelings of insecurity, the experiences of trust and risk. Modernity is responsible, though, not postmodernity, and it can be controlled anew, through 'radical engagements... the "ethics of the personal", and "life politics"... [as in movements for]... peace... ecology... the feminist movement... global control... demands for democratic politics' (148 - 9). There are even new social traditions emerging, including new religions. As a result, postmodernity itself is a mere surface feature: Habermas's rebukes have dealt with it.

There is evidence, though, for some spreading insecurity, and feelings of imminent apocalypse [especially as the new millennium appeared]. Giddens argues that these offer no 'systematic or reliable observations' (149) and, there are many studies to refer to, which show the contrary, says Swanson. These show 'steady rates of satisfaction [with life]. Swanson goes on to list what might be seen as the 'nomic' aspects of social life in modernity, including work, friendship, families, 'religious and other associations' (150). It is the cultural commentators that seemed to have panicked instead!

Robertson 'Globality and Modernity' (153 - 61)

Giddens talks of radicalised modernity rather than postmodernity, and emphasises the discontinuities between this stage and the past. These include increased rapidity of change and commodification. Institutional analysis is the new focus for Giddens, via the 'themes of security versus danger, or trust versus risk' (154). This follows from criticisms of a lack of multi-dimensionality, for example in Durkheim.

There are some implications for the idea of the self. For post-modernists, the self is simply dissolved, but for Giddens, the self is to be empowered in radical modernity: 'the active processes of reflexive self identity are made possible by modernity' (Robertson quoting Giddens).

For Robertson, globalisation involves a 'compression of the world', and it is this that leads to the collisions between different narratives, and therefore to relativism. This work seems to be ignored in Giddens, who sees globalisation as merely an enlargement of modernity. The cultural implications are neglected. Sociology is actually rather poor at self reflexivity, and was slow, for example, to notice space/time compressions. However, there were global themes in Durkheim or Weber [and Marx, of course].

Giddens' notion of 'disembedding' involves the '"lifting out" of social relations from local contexts of interaction and their restructuring across indefinite spans of time - space' (Robertson quoting Giddens again). How should this be connected to the institutional dimensions? These have to be central to modernity to explain its expansion, but they do not seem to be 'entirely unique to modernity' (160). Claiming it is necessary to introduce a new concept of disembedding, rather than use the old one of functional specialisation seems overdone -- better to work with notions of social and cultural differentiation together with attempts to de-differentiate? (160). [If I am not mistaken, Robertson is urging Giddens to use concepts identified with Baudrillard here].

Thus Giddens offers a grounded, sociological account of modernity rather than a cultural or epistemological one. This might be a kind of marxism. It tries to ignore culture altogether [as a separate dimension, that is], even though cultural changes are implied as in arguments about globalisation crushing non-Western cultures. Giddens' work on the lifeworld is a kind of substitute for proper studies of cultures, producing 'exceedingly little empirical evidence, even though the book is replete with... empirical generalisations' (161).

Beck  'How Modern is Modern Society?' (163 - 69)

Is the motor of change of modernisation increased reflexivity? Modern societies escape the conceptual frameworks of the past and this leaves modernity as a highly abstract compromise. For Giddens, industrialisation provides the mechanisms of modernity, the separations of space and time, the symbolic media, and the institutional reflexivity. The system seems to have just run away with itself -- 'social relationships are getting unstoppably disentangled and re-entangled' (164). This process is not willed. People survive if they are provided with basic levels of trust. Traditions persist, but new 'sources and horizons of meaning' also develop (165). Modernity is therefore not rootless, and there is no need for a nostalgic critique. Giddens describes the emergence of trust. For Beck, everything depends on an institutional core, and 'anticipatory security' (166).

Reflexivity in Giddens refers to 'direct feedback from knowledge to action'. This is OK insofar as it describes personal lifestyles, but is it generalisable? Ar a e there reflexive structures too? How is reflexivity, which is the mechanism of globalisation, for Beck, also denied to people? Domestic labour would be a good example of such denial. Such examples are not just relics, but are modern constructs, and are likely to persist until reflexivity spreads.

Giddens, 'Commentary on the Reviews' (171 - 4)

Most of the UK critics have been riding their hobby-horses and are too dismissive. As an example, Weber has been selected as a better critic, but so has Marx and Simmel as well. Weber's approach has its flaws too, of course: (1) it is methodological individualism; (2) it fails to see that the world is out of control, rather than developing along rational bureaucratic lines; (3) its conception of historical contingency is 'wanting' (172); (4 and 5) there is an insufficient theorising of the nation state; (6) the analysis of the Protestant Ethic is contentious; (7) there is nothing on institutional reflexivity (172).

Giddens denies that he has neglected evidence, or ignored the separate influences of cultural and epistemological changes.

Giddens likes the work of Beck, and claims that a new agenda altogether has been raised by the notion of 'risk society'. This conception does not argue that life is actually riskier now than it was, but suggest that there is now a dominant 'decisionist social environment' (173). Society is now best seen as a kind of laboratory, and 'our everyday lives have become more experimental' (174).

Generally, we need to get hold of the proper implications of modernity, and resist 'relapsing into the aporias of post-modernism' : 'Modernity: no longer equals Enlightenment' (174).

[Note that pages 175f of this special edition contain lots more reviews of Giddens' work, including reviews of his work on structuration. Among highlights, very briefly, Craib says that Giddens is really a theorist of social action, while Bauman suggests that figurationalism is a better approach! (177].

go here for more notes on these and other theorists