Social Research Glossary


A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z Home


Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-20, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 19 December, 2019 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2020.


A fast-paced novel of conjecture and surprises



core definition

Modernism is a mutilayered concept that refers to developments in art, literature architecture, philosophy, politics, ethics and culture in the century up 1970.

explanatory context

Modernism was first used to refer to a trend in Roman Catholic theology around the end of the 19th century. It was a system of views aimed at reconciling Catholic tenets with contemporary science. In 1907 Pope Pius X issued an encyclical condemning the modern trend.


Modernism is a complex concept that has come to refer to a multitude of aspects that mark out the historical period from around 1870 to the 1960s. These are described below.

analytical review

The Victoria and Albert Museum (2013) state:

Modernism in design and architecture emerged in the aftermath of the First World War and the Russian Revolution – a period when the artistic avant-garde dreamed of a new world free of conflict, greed and social inequality. It was not a style but a loose collection of ideas. Many different styles can be characterised as Modernist, but they shared certain underlying principles: a rejection of history and applied ornament; a preference for abstraction; and a belief that design and technology could transform society.

Keep et al. (1993–2000) under the heaing 'Modernism and the Modern Novel' describes the impact of medernism on fictional literature

The term modernism refers to the radical shift in aesthetic and cultural sensibilities evident in the art and literature of the post-World War One period. The ordered, stable and inherently meaningful world view of the nineteenth century could not, wrote T.S. Eliot, accord with "the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history." Modernism thus marks a distinctive break with Victorian bourgeois morality; rejecting nineteenth-century optimism, they presented a profoundly pessimistic picture of a culture in disarray. This despair often results in an apparent apathy and moral relativism.

In literature, the movement is associated with the works of (among others) Eliot, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, W.B. Yeats, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, H.D., Franz Kafka and Knut Hamsun. In their attempt to throw off the aesthetic burden of the realist novel, these writers introduced a variety of literary tactics and devices:

the radical disruption of linear flow of narrative; the frustration of conventional expectations concerning unity and coherence of plot and character and the cause and effect development thereof; the deployment of ironic and ambiguous juxtapositions to call into question the moral and philosophical meaning of literary action; the adoption of a tone of epistemological self-mockery aimed at naive pretensions of bourgeois rationality; the opposition of inward consciousness to rational, public, objective discourse; and an inclination to subjective distortion to point up the evanescence of the social world of the nineteenth-century bourgeoisie. (Barth, "The Literature of Replenishment" 68)
Modernism is often derided for abandoning the social world in favour of its narcissistic interest in language and its processes. Recognizing the failure of language to ever fully communicate meaning ("That's not it at all, that's not what I meant at all" laments Eliot's J. Alfred Prufrock), the modernists generally downplayed content in favour of an investigation of form. The fragmented, non-chronological, poetic forms utilized by Eliot and Pound revolutionized poetic language.

Modernist formalism, however, was not without its political cost. Many of the chief Modernists either flirted with fascism or openly espoused it (Eliot, Yeats, Hamsun and Pound). This should not be surprising: modernism is markedly non-egalitarian; its disregard for the shared conventions of meaning make many of its supreme accomplishments (eg. Eliot's "The Wasteland," Pound's "Cantos," Joyce's Finnegans Wake, Woolf's The Waves) largely inaccessible to the common reader. For Eliot, such obscurantism was necessary to halt the erosion of art in the age of commodity circulation and a literature adjusted to the lowest common denominator.

Bose (2008) wrote:

Trying to define modernism can be a frustrating exercise. As a style, it is less coherent, its boundaries looser, than, say, classicism. Many critics would argue that modernism is not even a singular style, that it incorporates a great variety of aesthetics and sensibilities. And just who were the modernists? Frank Lloyd Wright vehemently opposed being grouped with them, but modernist architecture would not have been the same without him.

Modernism roughly spans the time between World War I and the early 1970s. What we generally think of as the modernist ethic evolved first in Europe, among such architects as Le Corbusier, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and Walter Gropius, the latter two of the German Bauhaus school. The European modernists imbued their work with an inherent morality and social consciousness and were often associated with left-wing politics. Intrigued by the emerging technologies of the day, they embraced concrete, glass, and steel in their revolutionary creations. They eschewed ornament, rejecting what they saw as the frivolous strokes of Victorian and art nouveau styles. Their work was both spare (think of Mies' famous dictum "Less is more") and lyrical. Perhaps above all, they believed in function dictating form, though many architects, such as Le Corbusier, would eventually distance themselves from that tenet.

In 1932, Philip Johnson and Henry-Russell Hitchcock curated a landmark exhibition at New York City's Museum of Modern Art in which they coined the term International Style. Aside from introducing the work of architects such as Mies to the American public, the exhibit consciously tried to define a movement. The ground was now broken for a distinctly American modernism to emerge, and the architects who subsequently worked in this country became less concerned with the moral and social aspects of building and more interested in appearance. Jonathan Glancey, the architecture editor of The Guardian, sums up the movement this way: "Modernism was not simply a style: but more of an attitude, a determination to break with the past and free the architect from the stifling rules of convention and etiquette."


Tate Gallery (undated):

Modernism refers to a global movement in society and culture that from the early decades of the twentieth century sought a new alignment with the experience and values of modern industrial life. Building on late nineteenth-century precedents, artists around the world used new imagery, materials and techniques to create artworks that they felt better reflected the realities and hopes of modern societies.

The terms modernism and modern art are generally used to describe the succession of art movements that critics and historians have identified since the realism of Gustav Courbet and culminating in abstract art and its developments in the 1960s. 

Although many different styles are encompassed by the term, there are certain underlying principles that define modernist art: a rejection of history and conservative values (such as realistic depiction of subjects); innovation and experimentation with form (the shapes, colours and lines that make up the work) with a tendency to abstraction; and an emphasis on materials, techniques and processes. Modernism has also been driven by various social and political agendas. These were often utopian, and modernism was in general associated with ideal visions of human life and society and a belief in progress.

By the 1960s modernism had become a dominant idea of art, and a particularly narrow theory of modernist painting had been formulated by the highly influential American critic Clement Greenberg. A reaction then took place which was quickly identified as postmodernism.


Under the entry for Postmodernism, modernism is contrasted with postmodernism see below 'associated issues', and there the Tate provides a somewhat different characterisation of modernism.

associated issues

Modernism and postmoderism

The following is the view from the persepctive of art. The Tate Gallery (undated) under the heading, POST-MODERNISM AND MODERNISM, writes:

Postmodernism was a reaction against modernism. Modernism was generally based on idealism and a utopian vision of human life and society and a belief in progress. It assumed that certain ultimate universal principles or truths such as those formulated by religion or science could be used to understand or explain reality. Modernist artists experimented with form, technique and processes rather than focusing on subjects, believing they could find a way of purely reflecting the modern world.

While modernism was based on idealism and reason, postmodernism was born of scepticism and a suspicion of reason. It challenged the notion that there are universal certainties or truths. Postmodern art drew on philosophy of the mid to late twentieth century, and advocated that individual experience and interpretation of our experience was more concrete than abstract principles. While the modernists championed clarity and simplicity; postmodernism embraced complex and often contradictory layers of meaning.


See also Lash 1984 [pdf file]

related areas

See also

modern art



Bose, S., 2008, 'What is Modernism?', Preservation (May/June), available at, accessed 15 March 2013, page not available 22 December 2016..

Keep, C., McLaughlin, T. and Parmar, R., 1993–2000, 'Modernism and the Modern Novel' available at, accessed 14 March 2013, still available 22 December 2016.

Tate Gallery, nd, 'Modernism', available at, accessed 10 June 2019.

Tate Gallery, nd, 'Modernism', available at, accessed 10 June 2019.

Victoria and Albert Museum, 2013, 'Modernism', available at, accessed 14 March 2013, still available 22 December 2016 (copyright 2016).

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2020


A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z Home