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II. Postmodern Theory
III. Postmodern Thinkers
A. Jean-Francois Lyotard
B. Jacques Derrida
C. Michel Foucault
D. Jean Baudrillard
E. Anthony Giddens
F. Applications and Empirical Evidence
1. Socially Constructing Political Reality Through the Nightly News
2. The Social Construction of Crime Problems
3. The New Penology: Rabble Management and Actuarial Risk Assessments
4. Understanding Institutional Realities
IV. Policy Implications
V. Future Directions for Research
“Postmodernism,” writes criminologist John Crank (2003), “is a body of philosophy, methodology, and critical review of contemporary society that encompasses a variety of standpoints” (p. 153). Although we will revisit this simple description of postmodernism in some detail below, it is not uncommon that when first encountering this (or similar) encapsulations of postmodernism, many students of political theory are left scratching their heads. This is not necessarily the fault of the student. In fact, scholars, too, are left scratching their heads (sometimes angrily) over the dilemma of postmodernism and its “questionable” application to “real life.” Whether postmodernism and postmodern theories are applicable to real life is a debate, essentially, about the nature of reality and the value of some types of knowledge over others. This research paper intends to plunge the student directly into this debate. Drawing inspiration from famous postmodernist Jean- François Lyotard, this paper intends to expose readers to knowledge that will both enhance their knowledge base and change the way they acquire and process knowledge in the future.
As a serious student of political science, the reader is likely referencing this handbook in order to answer specific questions about postmodernism. The bad news is that philosophical postmodernism rejects absolute answers to almost any question. The good news, on the other hand, is that exposure to postmodern thought (and its application to empirical research) will broaden, and thus enhance, the reader’s knowledge of the world. Simply, while postmodernism may reject dominant narratives (i.e., “official” answers), it offers a great deal of insight into many social worlds that have gone largely unexamined. This handbook then will increase the reader’s level of sophistication regarding the “what is” and the “what ought to be” as conceptualized by postmodernist scholars. These are not unimportant questions in political science, and an enhanced knowledge of how postmodernism has influenced the way these realities are constructed will enhance the reader’s ability to think critically about political and other social phenomena.
This research paper summarizes the broad topic of postmodernism and distills it into its essential elements. First, it reviews the literature regarding what postmodernism is, in both a temporal and a theoretical sense. This review includes some of the common elements found in postmodern thought and writing, as well as some of the key differences among postmodern thinkers. Next, the paper discusses the application of postmodern thought to empirical research. The large body of contemporary research influenced by postmodernism cannot be reviewed here. However, empirical work deriving from social construction theory is an area in which postmodernism has been most influential, and this research paper discusses public perceptions of crime and politics and the application of social construction theory to our understanding of institutional life. Next, it discusses the policy implications offered by postmodern thought and research and, in particular, policy implications of the key postmodern assumptions that reality is entirely subjective and that there is a dark side to our existence in postmodern bureaucratic systems. Indeed, from a postmodernist perspective, dominant narratives and discourse blot out a myriad of politically and socially important experiences, perspectives, and voices of both individuals (e.g., prison inmates, radical political actors, sex offenders) and entire groups of people (e.g., undocumented immigrants, women, and ethnic and racial minority groups). Simply, postmodernists draw our attention to concerns that we would otherwise not consider. The paper also examines future directions for postmodern theory in relation to the mass media and ends with a summary and a conclusion regarding the importance of understanding postmodernity as both a temporal and a theoretical frame of reference.
II. Postmodern Theory
The postmodern world is less a world of facts and figures and more a world of story and performance.
William Bergquist (1993, p. 23)
Although there is little consensus on its origins, the concept of postmodernism began to be used in the late 19th century and has been embraced by a wide variety of fields, including architecture, visual art, literature, philosophy, political science, sociology, fashion, and many others. In the postmodern era, two primary philosophical positions compete for dominance: objectivism and constructivism. Postmodernists attribute objectivism—the notion that we can objectively determine reality, discover universal truths, and make sound decisions based on our findings— to modernity. For postmodernists, objectivism is an illusion. Rather, constructivism—the notion that individuals live in unique realities and construct these realities based on the situation in which they find themselves (e.g., race, class, gender, social context)—provides a more comprehensive intellectual platform from which we can understand the nature of reality. For postmodernists, there is no universal truth but rather billions of individual truths.
From a philosophical perspective, and as it directly applies to the social sciences, many scholars highlight French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard for his articulation and popularization of postmodernism. Before his expression of postmodernism is discussed, it is useful to briefly discuss the general controversies surrounding the postmodern movement and some of its essential intellectual components and applications.
Many positivist scholars turn away from postmodernist frameworks because of postmodernism’s rejection of positivist assertions regarding scientific objectivity (and positivism’s strivings toward that ideal), its lack of consistency as a theoretical framework, its lack of linguistic and empirical clarity, and the general disagreement in postmodernist literature on what postmodernism actually is. Simply, the concept of postmodernism is an often disputed and nebulous concept incorporating a number of temporal, spatial, and theoretical elements related to our understanding of multiple (if not countless) subjective realities. In fact, the concept is often debated, sometimes vigorously, within the postmodern literature itself. Additionally, the term post modernism is a broadly defined concept that incorporates a number of “strains” and subdisciplines, most of which are based on normative and subjective evaluations of past and present “realities”—all of which are individually subjective and subjectively interpreted. Simply, postmodern theories— in all their many forms—generally suggest an unmanageable subjectivity that could be problematic for our understanding of political phenomena and, indeed, for the maintenance of a cohesive social system.
That being said, postmodernism is an intriguing and potentially useful philosophical approach to understanding current phenomena such as the impact of globalization on social relationships, the behavior of political actors and institutions, and the origins and behavior of criminal justice institutions and policies, to name only a few.
For the sake of clarity, it is useful to briefly unpack the notion of postmodernism in its temporal, spatial, theoretical, and conceptual senses, beginning with modernity. “Modernity,” asserts new-modernist Anthony Giddens (1990), “refers to modes of life and organisation which emerged in Europe from about the seventeenth century onwards and which subsequently became more or less worldwide in their influence” (p. 1). However, the term modernity, asserts Philip Selznick (1992), “is not a synonym for the ‘contemporary’ or ‘present day’” (p. 4). If that were the case, the term modernity would be meaningless in the sense that people living in every historical epoch would consider themselves to be living in a modern period. Modernity, perhaps best marked by the Enlightenment and the advent of rational, scientific thought, global exchange, mass media, and mass production, served to break up previous forms of traditional, precapitalist and premodern life (e.g., small, isolated villages and communal living). Selznick cites four reasons for the transformation from the premodern to the modern society: (1) “structural differentiation” where there was none before; (2) “secularization” and religion’s loss of power over governance systems; (3) “atomization” and the “weakening of social ties,” which facilitate the likelihood that the number of shared experiences will diminish and, when present, will be unlikely to continue to have a bonding effect; and (4) increasingly coercive “rational coordination” through “contract and bureaucracy” (pp. 4–5), which has facilitated experiential fragmentation among individuals working within increasingly large organizations, as well as among those who must be served by them.
Like the terms modernity and modernism, the term post modernism generally indicates both a historical period and an intellectual position in any given field. Simply, the postmodern historical period followed modernity and is closely associated with rapid advancements in technology, increased surveillance, rapidly accelerating globalization, atomization, increasing social disconnection between people and places, and the increasingly rationalized, bureaucratic state. In theory, the postmodern condition (as opposed to temporal and spatial notions of postmodernity), according to Giddens, is, in part, related to society’s generalized angst and confusion about the world and individuals’ perception that they are unable to control, or even make sense of, their own destinies. In short, argues Jean-François Lyotard, modernity’s “grand narrative”—the dominant, linear stories that we had constructed during the modern period about our history (See also: Research Paper on the History of Political Science) and (predictable) prospects for the future—have evaporated in the postmodern period. The evaporation of the grand narrative—or “the murder of reality,” as Jean Baudrillard (1996, p. xi) refers to it—has led to a great deal of social angst and uncertainty.
Interpreting and applying postmodern thinking in the social sciences is no easy chore. However, one way to begin thinking about its application in the social sciences is to think about the possibility that the dominant narratives (e.g., “sex offenders cannot be cured” or “Iraq, Iran, and North Korea are the axis of evil”) may not be accurate, and, it is important to note, are not the only important stories that need to be told in order to maintain social cohesion. Jonathan Simon (1997), for example, simply argues that postmodern thought revolves around concern over “what one thinks has changed in the present that requires breaking the useful interpretive frames that have been [traditionally] associated with modernity” (p. 171). One good example of applied postmodernism can be found in critical criminology. Critical criminologists, drawing from the assumptions of postmodernism, assert that hegemonic normative values, inextricably and historically linked to capitalism, are doing a great deal of damage to marginalized individuals, or rather, those individuals who do not conform to the grand narrative (e.g., racial and ethnic minorities living in poverty). Postmodernism in criminology then comprises theories that attempt to expand our conception of what is or is not criminal and what is or is not just. Thus, it should be no surprise that some criminologists are skeptical of penal strategies that attempt to predict or “solve” crime based on rigid and narrowly defined categories of crime and criminal—especially those that appear to sacrifice individualized justice or the greater collective good.
Postmodernism runs a similar course through the field of political science. Postmodernism in political science, as in the other social sciences, typically appears as forms of thought or of empirical research that question dominant narratives and seek out alternative voices and perspectives in order to enrich our political discourse through the inclusion of previously marginalized people. In addition to recognizing the importance of subjective, individual realities, postmodern theories highlight the role of conflict in social life—an important underlying consideration for many students and scholars who study complex societies and their institutions. For example, John David Farmer and others argue that in understanding modern organizational forms and purposes, postmodernism can help us understand how (and why) the instrumentalism of modern bureaucratic structures limits the ability of human beings to self-actualize. This postmodern focus is supported by a number of scholars in multiple and varied fields who, although not necessarily postmodernist, continue to emphasize the negative effect that instrumentally oriented organizations may have on society and on those who work (or who are imprisoned) within them.
For example, in articulating a defense of postmodernism in public administration, Farmer (1997) asserts that postmodernism is a response to the dominant and oppressive narratives that have defined the modern period. Primarily, these narratives have had a negative impact on women, ethnic and racial minorities, sexual minorities, and the poor. In particular, Farmer is critical of the rigid, hierarchical form that bureaucratic structures typically take and the lack of focus on what he calls the bureaucratic “inbetween.” Farmer’s focus on the bureaucratic in-between revolves around the idea that the study of bureaucracy should begin to focus more on the individual experiences of bureaucratic workers and less on bureaucratic technology and efficiency. In this way, we can run less oppressive— and thus more effective—bureaucratic institutions. This concern is somewhat derivative from the Hegelian notion that “man” will fight to the death in order to be recognized as something other than a slave and recognizes that social conflict results from the “enslavement” of marginalized peoples. As Farmer, Max Weber, and others see it, bureaucrats should be included in our understanding of oppressed peoples, primarily because they are enslaved and marginalized in a postmodern society. In suggesting reforms, then, postmodernists attempt to eliminate social conflict by allowing individuals to be recognized, considered, and treated as unique entities with unique perspectives and needs rather than as efficient (or inefficient) organizational instruments to be thought of only in aggregate, actuarial, or economic terms.
However, Frank de Zwart (2002) writes, “Postmodernists confuse wrongs of bureaucracy with arguments against modern science and then propagate relativism to clear up the muddle they created” (p. 482). In many ways, de Zwart is correct. Because postmodernism does not seek to obtain generalized knowledge, many argue that an entirely postmodern focus in the social sciences may leave us “empty-handed” in terms of usable facts. Simply, how does a society create sound policy based on anecdotal evidence? Obviously we cannot. But gaining an understanding of marginalized individuals and groups can help us expand the grand narrative to be more inclusive and, perhaps, less destructive to the social life of those who are marginalized. This, some postmodernists argue, will eventually benefit our entire society. For example, some postmodern approaches can help us better understand how and why prisons evolved, how the courts have responded to a variety of individuals and social conditions, and how and why the mass media generate distorted, yet influential, images of some phenomena but ignore others altogether.
To give students a working knowledge of a fairly vast and complex body of work, the next section identifies and delves into the work and intellectual assumptions of some of postmodernism’s more widely recognized thinkers. Further readings suggested at the end of this research paper provide more depth.
III. Postmodern Thinkers
Postmodernists (broadly speaking) are not interested in building theory in a traditional sense. That is, they reject positivism and are not interested in building theory through what Thomas Kuhn (1962) has referred to as normal science. Rather, postmodernists are interested in studying the anecdotal (e.g., individual experiences and perceptions, media portrayals of phenomena, and language construction and usage) and the intellectual implications that these phenomena have for social life—especially among marginalized populations. It is important to note that postmodernists are quite willing to change their minds, about the conclusions they come to initially and recognize that knowledge is socially constructed and, thus, fallible. The following five thinkers are generally recognized as some of social science’s most influential postmodern thinkers. However, and as discussed previously, postmodernism is a somewhat broad and nebulous concept, and the term postmodernist is rarely attributed to any of these philosophers (with the exception of Lyotard). That being said, all the thinkers discussed below are postmodern in the sense that they all reject positivist methodologies as the only valid form of knowledge acquisition. Similarly, they all reject modernity’s grand narrative and explicitly or implicitly offer support to Lyotard’s contention that the collapse of the grand narrative marks a new historical epoch.
A. Jean-Francois Lyotard
Our working hypothesis is that the status of knowledge is altered as societies enter what is known as the postindustrial age and cultures enter what is known as the postmodern age.
Jean François Lyotard (1979, p. 3)
French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard was concerned with articulating a coherent conceptualization of postmodernism and is widely regarded as having been successful in doing so. In The Postmodern Condition, Lyotard discusses the changing nature and acquisition of knowledge in the postmodern period, due, in large part, to rapidly changing technology and the resulting social transformation. Of interest in this work is Lyotard’s discussion on the changing nature of knowledge. In a postmodern, technological age requiring more and more technical knowledge, knowledge for knowledge’s sake is becoming less important to social survival and is being replaced by knowledge that may be sold to purchasers who seek to put it to work. In the social sciences, we see this transformation very clearly as knowledge becomes distinguished by its applied or theoretical nature. In addition to our ranking the natural or hard sciences over social sciences because of utility concerns, what we see is a trend toward valuing applied social science research far more than we value theoretical or philosophical social science research—a trend that many scholars see as disastrous for the acquisition of future knowledge. Implicit in Lyotard’s discussion in The Postmodern Condition is the idea that those who possess the skills and knowledge needed to produce applied research will garner most of the social, political, and economic power, essentially leaving those who pursue knowledge for knowledge’s sake outside the circle of power. In an ironic twist, then—irony is also a key feature of postmodern thinking—as we move away from the acquisition of broad-based, theory-driven knowledge toward increasingly specialized and applied descriptive and technical knowledge, we also decrease our ability to create generalizable knowledge in the future.
In other work, Lyotard has focused on the role of language in our acquisition and understanding of the world around us. In particular, Lyotard has focused on the collapse of the grand narrative, or rather, the metanarrative, due to social atomization (i.e., individual isolation) and the resulting rise of micronarratives. Micronarratives, according to Lyotard, represent the rejection of grand narratives at the individual level and the acceptance and integration of knowledge by an individual only as it relates to the individual’s particular circumstance (i.e., ideology, race, class, gender, experiential realities). As discussed below, understanding the micronarrative is a key focus in constructivist research and is extraordinarily important to, for example, our understanding of how the media influence public perceptions of any given phenomenon.
B. Jacques Derrida
The history of writing should turn back toward the origin of historicity. A science of the possibility of science? A science of science which would no longer have the form of logic but that of grammatics? A history of the possibility of history which would no longer be an archaeology, a philosophy of history or a history of philosophy?
Jacques Derrida (1967/1997, pp. 27 28)
As is the case with all the postmodernists discussed here, French philosopher Jacques Derrida questioned the notion that there is an objective truth. Rather, social reality is highly subjective and prone to abuses by powerful, self-serving elites who use their power to help society construct dominant narratives about reality. Unfortunately, these grand narratives are used to oppress or enslave social minorities, non-elite workers, women, and the poor, among others. Throughout history we can see that some “truths” were simply not that accurate at all. For example, the medieval notion that animals were as culpable (and thus, as punishable) as the humans who abused them in medieval bestiality cases, or that “quirky” women were witches, simply did not pan out over time. However, these “truths” did serve to facilitate the power interests of elites for a time. The same can be said of the United States’ early and long-lasting use of prisons as places of “rehabilitation,” or the perpetuation of Black slavery based on the accepted “truth” that African American slaves were less human than Whites. This latter, erroneous “truth,” perhaps more than any other social construct associated with American slavery, continues to haunt and create conflict within our society to this day.
According to postmodernists, we continue to live in a world rife with dominant and harmful mythologies designed to serve powerful elites. To cite one example, today, most citizens of the United States mistakenly believe that sex offenders (broadly defined) are incurable. Unfortunately, this “truth” is unsupported by empirical research yet has led to a large number of lifelong penal sanctions (including the possibility of the death penalty) for a large number of people convicted of sex offenses ranging from indecent exposure and simple kidnapping to the most serious types of rape and child molestation. It is interesting that the technologies of control and penal leniency (Foucault, 1977/1995) designed to control sex offenders have now begun to move to other offenders and, ultimately, will likely be used to maintain control over society more generally (see Diana Gordon, 1990). One recent example is a proposal by South Dakota corrections officials to make identities, addresses, and criminal histories available about all offenders, not just sex offenders, via online websites.
Language—and the manner and means in which it is delivered—is an important part of how society constructs reality and an important part of understanding the essential focus of postmodernism. Derrida, like Lyotard and Baudrillard, was concerned with the role of language in our society and the way language is used to construct reality. In particular, Derrida was concerned with deconstruction—an examination of the underlying meaning and foundations of language, text, symbols, and other signs—in order to show that the dominant interpretation and foundational logic were flawed. In other words, multiple interpretations and meanings are possible and the foundation on which dominant interpretations rest is not solid ground but rather nothing more than subjective and biased beliefs.
Derrida, essentially, was criticized by peers and laypeople alike for his philosophical position—often likened to nihilism—that we cannot really know anything. In particular, academics attempting to generate useful, if not generalizable, knowledge vigorously opposed Derrida’s position and philosophy. Indeed, Derrida poses a somewhat serious epistemological problem for social scientists attempting to conduct, analyze, and interpret research and its findings: They all rest on subjective and biased foundations and so cannot really be true. Derrida’s intellectual position on the acquisition of knowledge generated a great deal of controversy precisely because it devalued all acquired knowledge.
C. Michel Foucault
In my view one shouldn’t start with the court as a particular form, and then go on to ask how and on what conditions there could be a people’s court; one should start with popular justice, with acts by the people, and go on to ask what place a court could have within this.
Michel Foucault (1980, p. 1)
Foucault’s (1977) understanding of power, influenced to a large degree by Friedrich Nietzsche and Max Weber, is linked, somewhat ironically, to the rise of an enlightened and egalitarian society in the 18th century. That is, argues Foucault, the rise of the egalitarian state in the 18th century also gave rise to distinctly less-than-egalitarian forms of social control. In order to ensure that the rights of “all” were respected, it was necessary to segment and discipline society in order to control, correct, and monitor transgressors. The disciplining and “correction” of transgressors set an example for society and ensured a more disciplined society. Therefore, in implementing egalitarianism, society in fact became more repressive and repressed. However, argues Foucault, these methods of control, correction, and surveillance were not born out of thin air and in fact had been present in very diffuse form for quite some time. Thus, Foucault’s understanding of power is heavily reliant on an understanding of preexisting forms of social control and their systematic linkage and evolution through reform (e.g., penal leniency) in the 18th century. In doing so, argues Foucault, the egalitarian project merely enabled a more systematically intrusive governance system and repressed society.
In Discipline and Punish, Foucault (1977) shows how irregular forms of punishment were consolidated and “reformed” in order to better regulate and economize the state’s use of power in its attempt to transform and control society. The reformation of technologies of power was not so much about the elimination of certain behavior as about modulating social behavior so that it could more efficiently serve the needs of the state. In reforming punishment, then, the point was not so much to eliminate crime or criminals as to ensure that the efficient and economical regulation of crime and criminals served the state’s and, ultimately, society’s needs. Simply, crime and criminals serve the economic and political needs of the state, as well as establish a model, or an example, for the rest of society of how not to behave. This new “political economy” was facilitated by the development of panopticism. Panopticism, in relation to 18th-century reform, draws on, and integrates, notions of internment, hierarchical differentiations, and inescapable surveillance, much as the “new penology” does today. Thus, Foucault’s postmodern analysis regarding the rise of prisons not only helps us understand the driving force behind mass incarceration in our society but also gives us insights into the driving force behind all our institutions.
D. Jean Baudrillard
Reality is a bitch. And that is hardly surprising since it is the product of stupidity’s fornication with the spirit of calculation—the dregs of the sacred illusion offered up to the jackals of science.
Jean Baudrillard (1996, p. 3)
Like Derrida, French philosopher Jean Baudrillard questioned the notion that there is an objective truth. Rather, social reality is highly subjective and prone to abuses by powerful, self-serving elites who use their power to shape society’s construction of dominant narratives about reality. In particular, Baudrillard was interested in semiotics, the study and understanding of how words (signs) interrelate. Specifically, semiotics is not necessarily interested in what words themselves mean but rather what they mean in relation to one another. For example, a semiotic approach to understanding an individual’s reality would assert that if an individual thinks about his or her automobile, the individual is actually thinking about those things that are not his or her automobile (e.g., home, spouse, school). This is because in order to construct an image of the automobile, an individual must locate it within a previously constructed web of meaning. This focus is evident in Baudrillard’s work, especially in his analyses of mass media.
In The Perfect Crime, Baudrillard (1996) is concerned that we have overburdened ourselves with meaningless, confusing, referential imagery and positions the age-old philosophical question, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” (p. 2) as a straw-man argument. Baudrillard rebuts his own question with another: “Why is there nothing rather than something?” (p. 2). In answer, he argues that the perfect crime has been committed. In fact, he argues, we have murdered reality—false though it may have been to begin with—by extinguishing the grand illusion. The grand illusion, according to Baudrillard, is a personally coherent set of referential signs and meanings—to include the cherished notion of an objective reality and the formal illusion of truth, which we have traditionally used to hide from grim social realities. This “murder,” he argues, has been accomplished through the swamping of society in a sea of virtual and meaningless imagery (e.g., fantasy video games, the trials and tribulations of Paris Hilton, infomercials, Facebook). It is a perfect crime because the sea of meaningless images masks the “murder” of society’s mythical image of an objective reality. In sum, society continues to believe, generally, in an objective reality but only on an individual level. Reality, then, is very individualized, and perceptions of reality are unlikely to be shared on a very large scale.
Included in the idea that we are left to our own devices when constructing individual realities is the notion that we construct our individual realities based on imagery (signs and symbols) that were not real to begin with. In Simulacra and Simulations (1981), Baudrillard suggests that we are creating “bad” copies from false images— images originally constructed to mask the fact that there was nothing there to begin with. There are a number of rather poignant examples we can use to illustrate this point. The one that may resonate most with students is the notion that men and women seek physical inspiration from the sea of visual imagery depicting perfect bodies in perfect health. Unfortunately, very few of these images are real and are most likely airbrushed or digitally enhanced in some way. Thus, many of us attempt to personally re-create a physical reality that never existed to begin with, and inevitably we “produce” (e.g., through cosmetic surgery, obsessive dieting and exercise, and the conspicuous consumption of name-brand products) incomplete physical “copies.” Needless to say, the results of this “copying” process have led to a great deal of social and personal angst (e.g., the inability to accurately simulate our favorite supermodels, media stars, or sports heroes).
E. Anthony Giddens
The views I shall develop have their point of origin in what I have elsewhere called a “discontinuist” interpretation of modern social development. By this I mean that modern social institutions are in some respects unique—distinct in form from all types of traditional order.
Anthony Giddens (1990, p. 3)
British sociologist Anthony Giddens is a critic of modernity in the temporal sense and of postmodernism in its theoretical and philosophical sense. However, he is, arguably, a postmodern thinker in the sense that he places a great deal of importance on the study of power, knowledge acquisition (and the influence of power on knowledge acquisition), and the influence of knowledge on people’s ability to alter their individual and collective social and material reality. In particular, Giddens confronts the question of how social reality is constructed. In his theory of structuration, Giddens’s main area of concern is whether social reality is primarily influenced by individuals or by broad social forces.
In The Consequences of Modernity, Giddens confronts the issue of whether we are in a postmodern period, as Lyotard and others argue, or whether we are experiencing a type of radicalized modernity in which modernity has simply accelerated its pace. This radicalized modernity is primarily fueled by the disembedding processes of globalization, best characterized by global, cultural homogeneity; the disappearance of tradition; the erosion of place-based community; and the erosion (and shifting nature) of trust in persons, institutions, and abstract systems. In sum, radicalized modernity, although postmodern in a temporal sense, is not postmodern in a theoretical sense, because it is simply a continuation of modernity, not a temporal epoch that will usher in a dramatically different type of social order (such as the transition between premodern and modern societies).
Unfortunately, argues Giddens, riding the “juggernaut of modernity” has a dark side. Primarily because of the increasing lack of trust in abstract systems, institutions, and people, the accelerated pace of modernity is likely to usher in one or more forms of totalitarianism. We can see hints of this today from the expanded use of closed-circuit television on street corners and other highly engineered social environments, developed by governments in response to perceived (or contrived) security concerns. (Jonathon Simon, 1997, discusses this governance style as being very similar to an airport model of governance.) What this means, simply, is that much like Stalin’s Soviet Union, internal passports (i.e., one or more forms of valid, government-issued identification) must be carried by individuals so that authorities can assess an individual’s identity and background on a moment’s notice and prior to letting that individual proceed in peace.
F. Applications and Empirical Evidence
As Ray Surette (2007) has so eloquently put it, “Reality is a collective hunch” (p. 34). Perhaps no other sentiment exemplifies the empirical focus of scholars who view (and research) social phenomena through a postmodern lens. In other words, social and political reality is entirely subjective. In a democratic system subject to the constraints of people’s beliefs about any given phenomenon, this may be a problem. In fact, many postmodern thinkers challenge the idea that policies influenced by a majority of people who believe the same thing are good policies. In fact, postmodernists tend to think these policies are quite destructive both to marginalized individuals and to society as a whole. Primarily, they argue, this is because people have been subject to, and influenced by, powerful actors who attempt to dominate mediated policy discussions for reasons of power, economic profit, or both. Four areas of research influenced by postmodern thought illustrate these themes.
1. Socially Constructing Political Reality Through the Nightly News
Scholars conducting news media research are concerned with both how news media organizations represent reality and how the public makes sense of these depictions, not to mention the influence that both of these phenomena may have on policymakers and on public policy generally. Media scholars have generated a great deal of empirical data regarding the influence of the news on public policy. Generally speaking, the consensus among scholars is that the news, depending on the individual attributes of the viewer, has a more or less significant effect on people’s attitudes toward any given phenomenon, which in turn may have an effect on the political agenda and on policy and election outcomes. Drawing from constructivist theory, many news media scholars view the news media (printed, electronic, and “new” media) as a sort of gladiatorial arena in which a variety of competing viewpoints vie for time and space. As media scholar Regina Lawrence (2000) puts it, “[The news] is an arena of problem construction in which struggles to designate and define public problems are waged” (p. 3). The “winners” of these competitions tend to dominate the policy process and, if consistently dominant in the media, win clear electoral, legislative, and policy victories on a fairly regular basis. Unfortunately (from a normative, postmodernist perspective), and with few exceptions, those who tend to dominate media also tend to be social, economic, and political elites.
2. The Social Construction of Crime Problems
Scholars who study the social construction of crime problems are typically concerned with why the public misperceives the actual incidence and seriousness of crime, how the public has constructed this distorted image, how these images influence crime control policy, and why, in many cases, these distorted images are resistant to actual data. In addition to focusing on news and other media portrayals of crime and criminality, scholars who study the social construction of crime problems are interested in the influence of individual attributes (e.g., age, race, gender, social context) and personal experiences on perceptions of crime as well as the way people think about crime and talk about crime with one another.
3. The New Penology: Rabble Management and Actuarial Risk Assessments
Simply stated, the new penology is both a critical, postmodern theoretical framework and, in a temporal sense, an emerging set of penal policies related directly to the conditions of postmodernity. As a theory, the new penology is considered a critical or postmodern theory (depending on the epistemological assumptions of any given approach— e.g., critical theories are more tightly coupled to Marxist assumptions). Postmodern theories are used to analyze and critique postmodern penal strategies and asymmetrical uses of power, as well as to suggest reforms. The new penology, critical criminologists and penologists argue, is a postmodern penal strategy worthy of critique.
According to Feeley and Simon (1992), the new penology emphasizes penal language that moves away from the traditional focus of criminal law—individualized justice concerns such as due process, punishment, redemption, and rehabilitation—and focuses more on the management of risky aggregates (e.g., actuarial tables and risk assessment instruments designed to detect actual and potential criminal offenders by categorical grouping). Typically, arguments critical of the new penology assert that individualized “justice” cannot be achieved through current policing, adjudication, and incarceration processes due to a widespread institutional failure to recognize any moral dimension (i.e., moral deficits) to criminal offending or an individual’s unique characteristics and circumstances. The recognition of a moral component to criminal offending and the uniqueness of individual offenders have been the traditional focus of British and American transformative penal practices. These practices date back to (at least) U.S. colonial reforms implemented by the Quakers in the 17th and 18th centuries, which emphasized transformative punishment through solitary confinement, individual repentance, and successful reentry. The focus on individual offenders and their moral transformation continued onward through 19th-century Jacksonian-era institutional prison reforms and 20th-century Progressive-era indeterminate sentencing reforms—all of which continued to emphasize both the moral components of offending and the social requirement to transform each individual into a productive, conforming member of society. The moral dimensions of offending, as well as the individual characteristics and circumstances of offenders, it is argued, are now ignored by institutional actors, having been replaced by profit- and budget-maximizing concerns, actuarially based risk assessments, and other aggregate management techniques that favor institutional management interests over individual and community justice. For example, the potential riskiness of convicted sex offenders is determined through the use of actuarial tables and statistically advanced risk assessment instruments. Based on the statistically determined risk level of an individual, traditional justice concerns may be minimized or ignored. This is especially evident in policies that do not factor “needs” into a risk and needs assessment and policies that dictate the indefinite (or lifelong) civil commitment (detention) of sex offenders even after they have served their prison time.
The new penology, echoes Lisa Miller (2001), is unconcerned with reducing crime through traditional rehabilitation programming or more comprehensive social programs. Rather, argues Miller, the new penology “is aimed at simply managing the harm that crime inflicts” (p. 170). Toward this end, the practices and policies of the new penology emphasize the empowerment of the U.S. culture of control (Garland, 2001; Gordon, 1990) through increased surveillance and actuarially based risk management that, it is hoped, can be used to prevent crime altogether. As summarized by Miller (2001), the new penology, in characterizing all aspects of criminal justice policy, relies only on actuarial precision and efficiency in order to manage and contain risky groups and individuals— what Lynch (1998) has also referred to as a “waste management” model of criminal justice.
Robert Bohm (2006), in tapping into the very essence of the new penology (without actually ever calling it so), argues that a “McDonaldization” of criminal justice has occurred. His thesis revolves around the idea that a hyperefficient criminal justice system—reminiscent of the somewhat sinister, Weberian depictions of the technicalrational bureaucracy—has evolved to more efficiently handle increasing numbers of offenders and potential offenders. This efficiency, primarily handled by nonhuman technologies—technologies that are becoming increasingly advanced—allows elites to more effectively control society by creating a criminal justice system that is more calculable and predictable, although less just. Bohm ultimately argues that this new rationality (see Research Paper on Rationality and Rational Choice) has led to a great deal of irrationality in the sense that McDonaldized criminal justice systems do more social harm than good.
Implementation of new penology policies and practices can have unpleasant consequences for everyone but is especially problematic for particular groups and classes of people. For example, using racial criteria (e.g., racial profiling) as a determinant or an indicator of bad character or criminal intent, though legal (with some qualifications), is widely condemned as unfairly stigmatizing an entire group of people. Similarly, John Irwin (1985, p. 2) asserts that the use of police and jails is a form of “rabble” (i.e., people of lower socioeconomic status) management and that prisons have become “warehouses” (Irwin, 2005, p. 2) and receptacles for the “new dangerous classes” (p. 8). Finally, the most vehement critiques—if usually only implicit— surrounding new-penology crime control strategies revolve around the notion that these strategies may destabilize communities and actually create more, rather than less, crime and violence (Clear, 2007), as well as resistance to all formal authority (e.g., the No Snitch Movement in some African American communities).
4. Understanding Institutional Realities
Research influenced by postmodern assumptions can be both interesting and useful to the successful management of our political and social institutions. For example, Earl Babbie (2007) has commented that institutional ethnography—an approach developed by Canadian sociologist Dorothy Smith as an approach designed to study the everyday experiences of women—was initially intended to better explain the institutional experiences of “oppressed subjects” (p. 300). Institutional ethnography then incorporates a variety of methodological approaches designed to capture the personal experiences of those who do not often (if ever) get to speak about their experiences. Dorothy Smith (2006) writes, “Institutional ethnography explores actual people’s activities as they coordinate in those forms we call institutions” (p. 14).
From the perspective of Smith and others, institutional ethnography is a postmodern form of critical microsociology that largely draws its inspiration from Marxism and the assumptions of postmodernism. As a standpoint approach to research and action (Harding, 2004)—theory building and activism based on understanding the world through the eyes of oppressed peoples—its effort to link the microsocial experiences of marginalized subjects to macrosocial structures and trends has generally been well regarded.
IV. Policy Implications
In our discussion of postmodernism thus far, many of the policy implications may be self-evident to the reader. On the other hand, conceptualizing theoretical, philosophical, and applied postmodernism is a vast undertaking, and it is useful to briefly summarize some of its key policy implications. However, because postmodernism discourages the belief that we can objectively “know everything” (or anything, in the case of Derrida), that is, knowledge is subjective and dynamic, the following list is not all-inclusive. Rather, it is designed to inspire thinking about a few of the possible policy implications suggested by postmodernism:
- Language: Postmodernism’s focus on linguistics underscores the policy problems associated with language and the role of language in the social construction of reality at the micro- and macrolevels. In particular, Baudrillard’s focus on the mass media suggests that in a postmodern age, the mass media may be a highly problematic source of information— an assertion that has been supported by a number of media scholars conducting theory-driven empirical research.
- Radical modernization: Giddens’s idea that we live in an age of radical modernization suggests that we will become more and more disconnected from one another on the individual level, while becoming more and more homogenized and integrated on a global level. In sum, radical modernization, driven by radical globalization, will atomize individuals even while allowing us to check the weather in Bangkok and to “facebook” with “friends” in Australia. The downside to radical modernization is that doubt, as Giddens argues, will become institutionalized on a global scale, and trust in individuals, institutions, and abstract systems will be eviscerated. What this may mean in the future is that we will continue to have more surveillance, less freedom, and an increasingly diminished ability to collectively solve social problems.
- Knowledge for knowledge’s sake: As Lyotard suggests, the pursuit of knowledge for knowledge’s sake may be a pursuit of the past. In the postmodern age, knowledge must be practical, applicable, and if at all possible, technically useful. Most important, this type of knowledge has monetary value and is generated in order to be sold. While all this may sound fine, there is a dark side to abandoning the pursuit of knowledge for knowledge’s sake. In particular, we can see the impact of this trend on university campuses everywhere as some departments—such as English, sociology, and history—continue to lose their places as important components of a university education, even among traditionally liberal arts schools.
- Bureaucratic efficiency versus individualized justice: Related to many of the concepts previously discussed, another dark side to postmodernity (and a key focus of public administration scholars and criminologists) is the focus on bureaucratic efficiency over individualized justice. In other words, the increasing focus on economic and technical efficiency in all our social institutions may cause a great deal of what Adams and Balfour (1998) have termed “administrative evil.” Simply, administrative evil is the disconnection of means from ends. From the critical perspective of postmodernists, it means that the ends, regardless of how these were conceived, are more important than the means institutions use to achieve their goals. Many political science, public administration, and policing and prison scholars, not to mention critical criminologists, have been pursuing this line of research for quite some time.
- Individual realities of marginalized peoples: A key aspect of empirical postmodern research is its focus on uncovering the stories of those who do not usually, if ever, get to speak about their experiences. Through this line of research, we have learned a great deal about street gangs, homeless people, prison inmates, ethnic and racial minorities, women, and the poor. This line of research has helped expand the dominant narrative to be more inclusive and more accurate. For example, the dominant U.S. narrative that everyone who works hard will live a comfortable life has now been shown to be less than accurate, especially when considering the plight of women, some ethnic and minority groups, and others who do not conform to traditional and accepted images of the hardworking American. Indeed, thanks to the application of postmodernist ideas to empirical research, we can now safely say that not everyone who works hard will live a comfortable life.
- Misunderstanding crime: Many of the ideas and methodologies derived from postmodernism have uncovered not only that most people do not understand the seriousness or prevalence of crime, but that their attitudes toward crime, offenders, and victims tend to be influenced primarily by their own experiences, their discussions with others, and distorted and inaccurate media portrayals of crime and criminal justice. Unfortunately, it appears that hard data rarely seem to influence people’s opinions about crime. The policy implications of this discovery are already being felt in this country as more than 2 million people continue to be incarcerated in our jails and prisons and more and more of our tax dollars go to building prisons, hiring additional police, and funding other types of criminal justice activity.
- Atomization, social capital, and collective efficacy: Finally, and perhaps most important, postmodernism and the conditions of postmodernity (or radical modernity, as Giddens argues) suggest that as trust erodes, we will become focused inward, less interested in collective goals, and less willing to work with others to solve problems unless the problems are directly related to our own needs. The implications of this condition are clear for a democratic system of governance: It will cease to function as it was intended, and powerful interest groups (and other elites) will dictate the terms of our democratic system.
V. Future Directions for Research
As should be clear to the reader by now, postmodernism offers an unlimited number of possibilities for future research. Some of the ideas and methodologies influenced by postmodernism (constructivism in particular) are content analyses, ethnomethodologies (institutional ethnography, ethnographic realism, confessional ethnography, critical ethnography, dramatic ethnography), narrative analyses, historical narratives, life histories, ethnographic case studies, focus groups, and other forms of qualitative research that seek out “thick descriptions” rather than generalizable, statistical knowledge. Future research based on any one of these methodologies is entirely up to the individual researcher. Whether it be philosophical, theoretical, or applied research, the number of topics at the researcher’s fingertips is limitless.
That being said, a great deal of research effort continues to focus on the role of the mass media in our society. In particular, researchers continue to pursue knowledge about the influence of the mass media on policymakers and public policy, their influence on people’s beliefs about any given policy, their role in agenda setting, their influence on the behavior of people (e.g., video games and juvenile crime), and other areas in which the mass media are influential. Recently, attention has begun to focus on the new media, or Internet sources of information such as blogs, social network sites, advertising, Internet porn, and other Internet phenomena. Much more needs to be done in this arena as the old theories and understandings regarding the role of the media in society may not hold up when one is attempting to understand the influence of the Internet on society.
In this research paper, the broad topic of postmodernism was summarized and distilled into its essential elements. In discussing the essential literature regarding the assumptions of postmodernism, it is hoped that students will become intrigued and inspired by the ideas put forward by the founders of postmodern thought. The application of postmodern thought to empirical research holds a number of interesting possibilities—possibilities that do not necessarily need to supplant quantitative approaches but rather may supplement these approaches with a more complete accounting of subjects that are difficult to measure (in a quantitative sense) and are rarely the focus of positivist research. Because postmodernism offers students of the social sciences alternatives to positivism, it expands opportunities for substantive, empirical research on a variety of intriguing topics. Conducting research from a postmodern perspective is, in many ways (and as many postmodernists would argue), the route to intellectual freedom. Simply, the only limits placed on the postmodernist researcher are the limits of the researcher’s imagination.
The policy implications offered by postmodern thought and research are significant. In particular, the notion that reality is entirely subjective and that there is a dark side to our existence in postmodern bureaucratic systems suggests a number of interesting research topics that have significant implications for public policy, organizational theory, criminology, and other areas of social science research. Important in any research agenda based on postmodernist assumptions is the notion that dominant narratives and discourse blot out myriad politically and socially important experiences, perspectives, and voices of both individuals (e.g., prison inmates, radical political actors, sex offenders) and entire groups of people (e.g., undocumented immigrants, women, ethnic and racial minority groups). Simply, postmodernists draw our attention to concerns that researchers would not otherwise consider or have considered from dominant perspectives and methodologies that intentionally (or unintentionally) obscure the day-to-day reality of marginalized groups.
An engaging example of the application of postmodern assumptions to empirical scholarship is the work of sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh (2008). Venkatesh wrote Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets after nearly a decade observing gang behavior from inside the gang. Although we cannot generalize from his research, it substantively contributes to our knowledge of urban poverty, the day-to-day activities occurring in a Chicago housing project, and violent street gangs (i.e., marginalized groups and individuals). This is not work that could have been accomplished (or accomplished as thoroughly) through positivist methods.
As is the case with much postmodern scholarship, Dr. Venkatesh stumbled into his line of research. Indeed, much postmodern research is a result of accident, chance, and the ability of postmodern researchers to expand (and implement) their sociological imagination (Mills, 1959). The task of the postmodernist is to move beyond the obvious and measurable and look behind the scenes at those phenomena that cannot be easily measured or quantified. Postmodern thought, then, is an important epistemological, ontological, and methodological step toward developing a more complete understanding of the confusing, diverse, and busy world that we live in today.
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