Deproblematising Modernity

The enervated theory of modernity employed by sociologists of religion working within the multiple modernities paradigm lacks the analytical purchase necessary for a meaningful understanding of contemporary religious transformation. Such is the case, I argue, because their limited conceptualisation of modernity ultimately fails to understand contemporary religious developments as both regionally instantiated and transnationally accomplished relative to processes and dynamics which are, by their origin, character and impact, typically modern. As will be seen below, the fundamental validity of this assertion rests squarely upon the progressively global diffusion of forces and structures intimately associated with modernity as a historically novel social formation and epochally distinct mode of being in the world. As Gaonkar maintains, 'modernity has gone global' to the extent that 'the present announces itself as the modern at every national and cultural site today' (2001: 14). 'Now everywhere', and thereby empirically and theoretically 'inescapable', modernity: has arrived not suddenly but slowly, bit by bit, over the longue durée - awakened by contact; transported through commerce; administered by empires, bearing colonial inscriptions; propelled by nationalism; and now increasingly steered by global media, migration, and capital. And it continues to 'arrive and emerge' ... but no longer from the West alone, although the West remains the major clearinghouse of global modernity. (2001: 1)

In tandem with the multiple modernities paradigm, Gaonkar is at pains to distance himself from the 'universalist idioms' and 'convergence' narratives of traditional modernisation theory. At the same time, however, such is the all-pervasive presence of modernity 'as a form of discourse that interrogates the present', Gaonkar argues, that due consideration must be given to the 'strings of similarities' (e.g. 'cultural forms, social practices, and institutional arrangements') which 'surface in most places in the wake of modernity'. As he concludes by way of implicit reference to the multiple modernities approach, 'though cultural modernity is conventionally seen as both the machinery and optic for the limitless production of differences, such difference always functions within a penumbra of similarities ... all ineffable yet recognizable [as modern] across the noise of difference' (2001: 16-23). Though working within a different theoretical frame to that of Gaonkar, Schmidt's declaration that 'modernity is now a genuinely global phenomenon' employs a remarkably similar tone. Having 'fascinated generations of sociologists' from 'the beginnings of sociology as an academic discipline', the global spread of modernity has placed it squarely 'back on sociology's agenda'. As Schmidt maintains, 'in the past half-century, modernity has not only penetrated its Western birthplace much more deeply; it has also spread to other regions at a historically unprecedented pace' (2007a: 1, 3). While the global outworking of modernity will inevitably involve elements of regional variation, the 'substantial similarities that exist among modern societies' demands nevertheless, he argues, 'a theory of modernity' capable of analysing and capturing 'what is unique to modernity as against other societal formations' (2007a: 8-9).

In light of aforementioned discussions and views such as those of Gaonkar and Schmidt, the theoretical recuperation of modernity involves, at the very least, meeting the twofold challenge of making it:

1. sufficiently robust to engage the contemporary global scene in a manner which avoids the analytical provincialism exemplified above through reference to the multiple modernities paradigm; and

2. appropriately nuanced to the extent that it eschews the thoroughgoing universalism associated above with traditional modernisation theory.

In contrast to Schmidt, however, I do not believe that the perils of analytical provincialism are best avoided through the conceptualisation of modernity as an albeit reflexively self-critical form of grand theory such as that articulated by the differentiation theory of Niklas Luhmann (2007b: 205-28). Nor do I go along with the discursive indeterminacy of Gaonkar which achieves its hermeneutical nuancing of global modernity at the cost of failing to substantiate its 'band of similarities' through reference to anything as concrete as a defining attribute or typological characteristic (2001: 1-23). As Fourie argues in respect of contemporary discussions and their qualified approaches, 'it is less important to determine whether modernity is singular or multiple than it is to understand what comprises the defining features of modernity, and to what extent variation on these features exists around the world' (2012: 66).

Although neither Gaonkar nor Schmidt offers a particularly satisfactory theorisation of modernity, each stands as a useful reference point on the respective margins of an otherwise viable via media between the overly determinative universalism of modernisation theory (with which Schmidt remains too close) and the unduly equivocal provincialism of the multiple modernities paradigm (by which Gaonkar stays too near). As such, the respective positions of Gaonkar and Schmidt stand as the Scylla and Charybdis between which a viable conceptualisation of modernity must steer. Taking Gaonkar and Schmidt as key reference points, I propose that a theorisation of modernity conducive to understanding contemporary religious developments should involve its conceptualisation as:

1. instantiating a particular type of social formation which represents a historically novel constellation of intersecting societal structures and cultural dynamics;

2. susceptible to academic investigation relative to an associated set of empirically analyzable practical-symbolic structures and processes; and

3. comprising a range of socio-cultural variegation which plays out across the macro-structural, mid-range institutional and micro-social dimensions of any given society.

Let me address each of these points in turn.

In respect of the first point, Yack makes a salutary contribution to understanding modernity as a particular type of social formation comprising a historically novel constellation of intersecting societal structures and cultural dynamics. Despite becoming 'the leading character in the [academic] drama of our time', he argues, 'there has been relatively little discussion of the viability of the concept of modernity itself' (1997: 1, 11). Addressing what he regards as the contemporary 'fetishism of modernities', Yack criticises those who regard modernity as a 'harmonious unity' or 'coherent and integrated whole' and thereby treat all phenomena appearing in modern times as typical characteristics of the modern experience. Rather, he maintains, because the 'modern era' (dieNeuzeit) comprises a mixture of old/pre-modern and new/modern features, all that exists or arises in the modern period does not necessarily contribute to what is characteristically unique about 'modernity' (die Modernität) as an existentially distinctive mode of 'being in the world' (1997: 7, 19, 37). More than a straightforward inventory of the phenomena and features existing in the current (i.e. modern) epoch, a viable definition of modernity must thereby include those characteristics identified, individually or in combination, as constitutive of both an historically novel social configuration and existentially distinctive mode of human signification.[1] Taking our lead from Yack, a definition of modernity of sufficient analytical purchase for the sociology of religion must therefore, at the very least, be able to make a meaningful distinction between features of the modern landscape which are, de facto, temporally present and characteristics which are, hermeneutically speaking, of epochal significance.

Regarding the second point, and bearing in the mind the need to focus upon matters of epochal significance, a number of approaches may be taken in respect of investigating modernity by way of analysing its constituent set of practical-symbolic structures and dynamics. Treating 'the Western program of modernity', for example, Eisenstadt typically focuses upon its 'cultural' domain, not least its particular conceptualizations of 'human agency', along with 'the possibility of different interpretations of core transcendental visions and ... the institutional patterns related to them'. Among the most significant of the West's typically modern conceptions, Eisenstadt identifies: 'the awareness of a great variety of roles existing beyond narrow, fixed, local, and familial ones'; 'the possibility of belonging to wider translocal, possibly changing, communities'; 'an emphasis on the autonomy of man' and 'his or her . emancipation from the fetters of traditional political and cultural authority'; and 'belief in the possibility that society could be actively formed by conscious human activity'. In combination, he says, these characteristically Western conceptions give rise to its 'modern program' of 'radical transformation' from which a new 'political order' emerges (2000: 3-5). In addition to his aforementioned framing of Western modernity as one among a number of regional manifestations, Eisenstadt here portrays modernity as a 'cultural program' (constituted by 'new self-conceptions and new forms of collective consciousness') born of 'arguments', 'premises' and 'interpretations' which narrate a typically new mode of being in the world. What he does not do, however, is relate these developments to the practical

symbolic structures and dynamics which have customarily stood at the heart of sociological studies of modernity as a typically novel and empirically realized socio-cultural formation. By overly focusing upon modernity as a cultural programme, Eisenstadt offers a lopsided theorisation that fails to pay due attention to the broader societal context within which 'new self-conceptions and new forms of collective consciousness' emerge.

In contrast to Eisenstadt, for example, Giddens and Wagner offer more rounded theorisations of modernity, each of which understands it as constituted by the triangular intersection of a range of epistemic, economic and political structures and dynamics. According to Giddens, modernity is 'associated with (1) a certain set of attitudes towards the world, the idea of the world as open to transformation by human intervention; (2) a complex of economic institutions, especially industrial production and a market economy; (3) a certain range of political institutions, including the nation-state and mass democracy'. 'Largely as a result of these characteristics', Giddens maintains, 'modernity is vastly more dynamic than any previous type of social order' and 'unlike any preceding culture lives in the future rather than the past' (Giddens and Pierson 1998: 94). In similar vein, Wagner associates modernity with a particular way of understanding (e.g. individual autonomy), instantiating (e.g. nation-state) and addressing (e.g. market economy) three 'basicproblématiques pertaining to 'the epistemic, the political and the economic' (2012: 74). Whereas Giddens and Wagner differ somewhat in respect of the processes and mechanisms through which modernity obtains its progressively global profile, their corresponding treatments of both its institutional and cultural aspects identify some of the most distinctive practical-symbolic features by which the typically modern social configuration may be subjected to sociological analysis.

By way of complementing the foci of Giddens and Wagner, and perhaps furnishing a more dynamic reading of modernity's empirically analyzable practical-symbolic characteristics, mention might also be made of typically modern, and mutually implicating, processes such as, for example, differentiation, transformation, detraditionalisation, de-collectivization and transnational integration. First, the typically modern characteristic of societal differentiation occurs principally through the combined processes of structural variegation and socio-cultural pluralisation. In structural terms, modernity is characterised by a dizzyingly diverse number of variegated mechanisms and specialized institutions through which the day-to-day activities of humankind occurs. At the same time, modernity exhibits a socio-cultural variety unprecedented in human history. Related in no small measure with structural differentiation, socio-cultural pluralisation occurs as the variegation of practical-symbolic structures engenders progressively diverse life-experiences for the different groups, categories or classes populating the increasingly varied terrain of modern society. Socio-cultural pluralisation also results from domestic and transnational migration and the resulting interaction and miscegenation of different social, racial, ethnic and linguistic groups. Second, modernity comprises a thoroughgoing transformative environment characterised by the rapid, widespread and ongoing reconfiguration of macro-structural, mid-range institutional and micro-social dimensions of societal existence. Exemplified by the transformational dynamics of urban-industrialization, the modern societal environment is constantly mutating through the ceaseless modification or wholesale replacement of, for instance, infrastructural networks (e.g. state, transport and communication), interactive contexts (e.g. education, work and leisure) and extended webs of dependency (e.g. food, health and technology). Third, and catalyzed in large part by the combined dynamics of differentiation and transformation, modernity weakens the influence and implications of both traditional modes of authority and signification and established means of collective determination (e.g. family, class, religion, sex and race). Detraditionalisation unfolds through the practical-symbolic disembedding of individuals, communities and cultures from the material processes and significatory structures bequeathed by past generations. Conventional authority and automatic appeals to tradition are thereby eroded, along with the disruption of established modes of reproduction which have customarily underwritten the continued force, significance and salience of inherited routines, habits, values, beliefs and rituals. The distancing of contemporary generations from received traditions and the authority structures through which they are operationalised incrementally undermines the degree of socio-cultural determinacy exerted by inherited forms of practical-knowledge.

Fourth, and though by no means eradicating communal forms of belonging and identity formation, modernity nevertheless recalibrates collective-individual dynamics in a manner which both enervates the former and empowers the latter. As such, and in comparison with what has gone before, the modern individual enjoys historically unrivalled degrees of self-determination (re: education, employment, leisure and relationships) and subjective expression (re: sexuality, belief and lifestyle). Fifth, scientific developments impacting travel, communications and information technology combine to characterise modernity as a time/place of increasingly rapid and progressively large-scale circulation of material goods, people, information, tastes, values and beliefs. Such is the nature of this worldwide circulation, and so powerful are the market-driven forces implicated within it, that domestic structures and local dynamics are, like it or not, ineluctably interwoven within a highly integrated network of transnational processes and flows. Modernity, then, is typified by an incrementally global network of economic, political, legal and aesthetic dynamics and structures which connect localities and regions to a seemingly limitless number of otherwise disparate locations. Enmeshed within this worldwide network, modern society is constituted by the transnational flow of goods, people, information, power and values occurring at a seemingly unfathomable scale and vertiginous speed.

Having explored the first two aspects of the aforementioned conceptualisation of modernity (as comprising a historically novel social formation embodying a range of practical-symbolic structures and dynamics susceptible to sociological scrutiny), it is now time to examine the third aspect; i.e. the socio-cultural variegation of modernity which plays out across the macro-structural, mid-range institutional and micro-social dimensions of any given society. Again taking Gaonkar and Schmidt as the reference points by which we steer towards an understanding of modernity of use to the sociological study of contemporary religion, the explication of modernity's socio-cultural variegation must navigate between the Scylla and Charybdis of uncritical universalism and granular provincialism. Among those seeking to chart a navigable course between these twin extremes, the self-styled 'cosmopolitan sociology' offers academics of contemporary religion a potentially viable theoretical route-map by which modernity's socio-cultural variegation may fruitfully be explored. According to some of its earliest proponents, cosmopolitan sociology arises in response to the 'global transformation of modernity' and the resulting need 'for a re-thinking of the humanities and the social sciences'. Radicalised by its historically recent constitution as a 'cosmopolitan constellation' of 'border-transcending dynamics, dependencies, interdependencies and intermingling', global modernity requires 'a new conceptual architecture' better suited to understanding the contemporary 'growth of many transnational forms of life', along with 'the emergence of corresponding supra- and transnational organizations and regimes'. Presenting itself as one such example of this new conceptual architecture, cosmopolitan sociology responds to the challenge that 'social and political theory be opened up, theoretically as well as methodologically and normatively, to a historically new, entangled Modernity' (Beck and Sznaider 2006; Beck and Grande 2010).[2]

By way of meeting this challenge, cosmopolitan sociology formulates a 'normative and empirical' package of (analytically discrete but theoretically complementary) approaches which address the moral and methodological issues raised by the emergence of 'Second [i.e. global] modernity'. Understood as a 'normative-political'/'philosophical' project, cosmopolitanism both identifies a range of 'imperatives' engendered by global modernity and proposes a series of 'norms' and procedures by which these imperatives might best be addressed.[3] It is, however, the insights of the 'analytical-empirical' preoccupations of cosmopolitan sociology which add most to the current concern with establishing a balanced conceptualisation of modernity's socio-cultural variegation. In respect of its 'analytical-empirical' treatment of modernity, cosmopolitan sociology includes two elements which speak directly to the topic at hand. First, it articulates an approach to modernity as 'entangled' which steers between the two extremes identified above as uncritical universalism and granular provincialism. Second, it operationalises the notion of cosmopolitan entanglement in a way which preserves the hermeneutical resilience of modernity as an analytical concept while allowing due appreciation of socio-cultural variegation as it plays out across the macro-structural, mid-range institutional and micro-social dimensions of any given society.

Regarding the first contribution, cosmopolitan sociology echoes aforementioned critiques of classical modernisation theory by rejecting its 'naive universalism' and the resulting 'diffusion or transfer of European theories' of modernity to other parts of the world. 'Implicitly applying conclusions drawn from one society to society (in general)', it is argued, classical theories of modernity have consequently drawn on a very narrow range of national experiences (e.g. England/Britain in the economic realm, France in the political domain and Prussia/Germany in the field of bureaucracy), which are presumed to be universally valid or, at the very least, a model to be replicated in other regions of the globe (Beck and Grande 2010: 411-12).

The resulting 'expectation of convergence in which a homogenized 'model of (Western) modernity' is ultimately 'followed everywhere' is, the authors maintain, 'the exact opposite of our theory of cosmopolitan modernities'. Such an acknowledgement need not, though, entail the kind of granular provincialism associated above with the multiple modernities paradigm and its insufficient elaboration of the 'structural variations' of and 'relationships' between the 'respective types' of modernity conceived. While the 'cosmopolitan turn' opens up 'the possibility of a variety of different and autonomous' modernities, the 'plurality of modernities' proposed remain very much 'interlinked' or 'entangled' within the aforementioned 'cosmopolitan constellation' and its 'border-effacing', 'boundary transcending' web of 'transcontinental processes', 'global interdependencies' and 'transnational spaces ... and structures'. As a result, cosmopolitan sociology accepts the reality of difference and plurality, but does so in a manner which refuses their absolutisation and thereby avoids flipping 'over into an incommensurability of perspectives which amounts to pre-established ignorance'.

The interlinking or entanglement of modern societies within the cosmopolitan constellation of second (i.e. global) modernity, it is argued, necessitates a change of theoretical focus which moves beyond what is identified as 'methodological nationalism'. According to Beck and Sznaider, methodological nationalism equates societies with nation-state societies and sees states and their governments as the primary focus of social-scientific analysis. It assumes that humanity is naturally divided into a limited number of nations, which organize themselves internally as nation-states and externally set boundaries to distinguish themselves from other nation-states (2006: 3). In view of the historically recent formation of the aforementioned cosmopolitan constellation, the authors maintain, a new 'cosmopolitan perspective' is required to break 'the fetters of methodological nationalism' and thereby move beyond the national context as the principal 'orienting reference point for the social scientific observer'. Though necessarily entailing 'a re-examination of the fundamental concepts of "modern society"', the cosmopolitanisation of sociology does not negate the theoretical significance of 'different national traditions of law, history, politics and memory'. It does, though, involve their analytical integration within broadened conceptual horizons in which national contexts and traditions are duly acknowledged yet interpreted against the globalised hermeneutical backdrop of the 'cosmopolitan moment'.

Steering a course between the two extremes of uncritical universalism and granular provincialism, the acknowledgement and globally-informed interpretation of national contexts and traditions is effected by cosmopolitan sociology in a manner that both preserves the hermeneutical resilience of modernity as an analytical concept and permits due appreciation of localized variegation as it plays out across the macro-structural, mid-range institutional and micro-social dimensions of any given society. Accepting the need to furnish a serious theoretical account of 'how different types of modern societies' emerge, cosmopolitan sociology sets about identifying the 'patterns', 'origins' and 'consequences' of societal variation. Cosmopolitan sociology does this by drawing a theoretical distinction between the 'basic principles' and 'basic institutions' of modernity. In respect of the former, 'basic structural and organizational principles' comprise the fundamental features by which modernity, as an epochally distinct mode of social formation, can be defined. Identified as such basic principles, 'the market economy', 'individualization', 'risk' (e.g. ecological and nuclear) and 'the cosmopolitan condition' effectively function as typological characteristics of modernity. The global spread of modernity thereby occurs as basic principles such as these impact upon, manifest within and progressively interlink respective local, national and regional contexts around the world. The regional instantiation of its basic principles thereby underwrites the global diffusion of modernity as both a historically novel type of social formation and epochally distinctive mode of being in the world.

In contrast with classical modernisation theory, however, cosmopolitan sociology allows for the global diffusion of modernity engendering a 'plurality' or 'variety of modernities' across the world. The emergence of a 'variety of different types of modern society' occurs as different socio-cultural contexts actualize aforementioned basic principles through 'institutional' arrangements specific to respective national or regional domains. For example, the 'West European' context institutionalizes the basic principle of individualization through liberal-democratic and rights-based structures and processes. Within the authoritarian and collectivist context of China, however, the individualizing dynamics of modernity are 'unfolding in a characteristically different, indeed reverse sequence'. Unlike the multiple modernities paradigm, though, the difference engendered by regional institutionalization is not one of unqualified 'pluralisation' and the resulting incommensurability of granular provincialism. Rather, the plural modernities wrought by the local institutionalization of basic principles such as individualisation are regarded as 'variants of modernity' and thereby ultimately understood against the overarching conceptual backdrop of 'cosmopolitan modernization'. Though globally diffused and regionally varied by way of their local institutionalisation, the basic principles of modernity retain their analytical resilience as typological characteristics enabling the comparing and contrasting of different forms of modern society and their respective socio-cultural variegations. A particular societal context may thereby be regarded as modern to the extent that the basic principles of modernity manifest through otherwise local institutional structures and processes; while modernity is varied as concrete institutional arrangements refract its basic principles relative to regional socio-cultural dynamics of a macro-structural, mid-range organisational and micro-social kind.

Something more, though, might be said about the dynamics of local instantiation by moving beyond cosmopolitan sociology's assertion that the same typological characteristics (here 'basic principles') of modernity may be regionally 'institutionalised' in a variety of ways relative to prevailing conditions on the ground. What the aforementioned proponents of cosmopolitan sociology do not consider, and what I wish to propose here by way further nuancing regional variegation, is the possibility that not every typological characteristic of modernity be contemporaneously instantiated within any one specific locale. Thus, not only is it possible that different locales institutionalise the same basic principles in varying ways, but it is also possible that different regions of the globe instantiate a respectively varied combination of modernity's typological characteristics. Such an assertion is feasible, I suggest, if modernity is conceptualised in a polythetic manner. Popularised among academics of religion by Alston (1967) and Southwold (1978), the polythetic (literally 'many aspects or themes') approach lends itself to defining phenomena not readily conceptualised by reference to a single characteristic or unduly narrow range of features. Arguing that the variegated character of religion makes it impossible to define relative to one or a small number of typological characteristics, Alston and Southwold independently offer polythetic definitions comprising what each respectively regards as the most commonly occurring (i.e. empirically observable) features pertaining to religious belief and practice enacted across the world (Alston 1967: 141-2; Southwold 1978: 370-371). Where a sufficient number of these characteristics are in evidence, they argue, you have religion.

Alston and Southwold do not weight the individual components of their polythetic definitions in a way which allows certain characteristics to be ranked as typologically more significant than others (e.g. necessary but not sufficient). Nor do they nuance their definitions by suggesting that each of the individual characteristics of religion may be more or less present in any one context. If qualified appropriately, however, a polythetic approach to modernity may well be weighted and nuanced in a way which permits comparisons between different regions as to the particular kind, overall number and individual aspect (i.e. how much) of the typological characteristics present. Whereas such comparisons may well involve judgements as to whether some contexts are more or less modern than others, this is not the reason I propose it here. Rather, I suggest that a polythetic conceptualisation of modernity be considered on the grounds that its employment promises to enhance appreciation of the variegated ways in which modernity plays out from one context to the next.

  • [1] Yack identifies, for example, the 'emphasis on innovation', 'continual challenge to traditional authority' and 'the explosion and ever-increasing differentiation of knowledge' as three such instances of characteristically distinctive features of modernity (1997: 35, 133).
  • [2] Unless otherwise stated, all of the following quotes pertaining to cosmopolitan sociology are taken from these two articles.
  • [3] Beck elsewhere identifies a number of contributions which 'reflexive' (here, moderate) religion stands to make to the normative-political project of cosmopolitanism (2010).
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