Social Research Glossary


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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.


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core definition

Postmodernism is a term used in literature, art, architecture, philosophy, sociology, fiction, and cultural and literary criticism that refers to approaches that (a) move beyond modernism and (b) are essentially anti-rationalist and sceptical, espousing subjectivism and relativism.

explanatory context


analytical review

Storey (2005, p. 269) in New Keywords writes:

Postmodern was first coined by the English painter JohnWatkins Chapman in around 1870 to describe what he called ‘‘postmodern painting’’; a style of painting which was supposedly more avant-garde than French impressionism (Best and Kellner, 1991). The term was then used to describe ‘‘postmodern men’’ (1917), ‘‘postmodernism’’ (1930s; Hassan, 1987), the ‘‘post-modern house’’ (1949), the ‘‘post-Modern age’’ (1946), the ‘‘Post-Modern World’’ (1957; Best and Kellner, 1991), the ‘‘postmodern-period’’ (1959), the ‘‘postmodern mind’’ (1961; Best and Kellner, 1991), ‘‘post-Modernist literature’’ (1965), ‘‘post-Modernists’’ (1966).

Contemporary understandings of ‘‘postmodernism’’ suggest different things depending on context and discourse. The term also signifies differently depending on whether it is used to refer to cultural texts, an historical period, or a mode of cultural theory. Therefore, perhaps the best way to understand the shifting meanings of the term is to distinguish between the overlapping terms which postmodernism embodies: postmodernity, postmodern culture, and postmodern theory.

‘‘Postmodernity’’ is commonly used as an historical term to indicate the period after modernity, which began with the Enlightenment and ended in the 1960s (Jameson, 1984) or the 1970s (Harvey, 1990). What these accounts have in common is an insistence that the cultural and social changes which have produced postmodernity are inextricably linked to changes in capitalism: from a primary focus on production to consumption (D. Bell, 1976); an historical shift in the West from societies based on the production of things to one based on the production of information and ‘‘simulations’’ (Baudrillard, 1983); from modern ‘‘organized’’ capitalism to postmodern ‘‘disorganized’’ capitalism (Lash and Urry, 1987); from Fordist to post-Fordist modes of production (Harvey, 1990); from national to global, bringing about the advent of ‘‘time-space compression,’’ generated by the speeding up of both travel and telecommunications.

Another influential usage of ‘‘postmodernism’’ is to be found in cultural histories which seek to site postmodernism’s birth in the cultural changes first noticed in the UK and US in the 1960s. According to this narrative, postmodernism first emerges as an avant-garde rejection of the certainties and social exclusivities of modernism. Susan Sontag (1966) described this rejection as the ‘‘new sensibility.’’ Sontag coined the term to describe what she called the abandonment of ‘‘the Matthew Arnold notion of culture’’ as ‘‘the best that has been thought and known’’ (Arnold, 1971 [1869]: 56), claiming that the Arnoldian idea of culture was ‘‘historically and humanly obsolescent,’’ and adding that ‘‘the distinction between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture seems less and less meaningful’’ (1966: 302). It is this aspect of postmodernism which is most commonly intended (either positively or negatively) when the term is used in contemporary accounts of cultural production. For example, in architecture ‘‘postmodernism’’ signifies a new vernacular style, which mixes high and low, contemporary and historical – what is often referred to as ‘‘double coding’’ (Jenks, 1991). A similar form of eclecticism is also said to be a feature of postmodern fashions of dress (E. Wilson, 1998). In discussions of pop music culture, ‘‘postmodern’’ is most often used to identify the mixing of popular and art music (classical violinist Nigel Kennedy’s album of songs by Jimi Hendrix; Luciano Pavarotti recording with U2; the commercial success of Laurie Anderson’s performance piece ‘‘O Superman’’; the aesthetic seriousness of Bob Dylan and the Beatles).

The academic circulation of the term can be dated to the publication of Jean-Franc¸ois Lyotard’s The postmodern condition (1984). In this influential account the postmodern condition is presented as a crisis in the status of knowledge in Western societies. This finds expression ‘‘as incredulity towards metanarratives’’ (p. xxiv), producing in turn ‘‘the obsolescence of the metanarrative apparatus of legitimation,’’ the supposed contemporary collapse or widespread rejection of all overarching and totalizing frameworks (‘‘metanarratives’’), which seek to tell universalist stories about the world in which we live.

Again mainly in academic circles, but sometimes more broadly, ‘‘postmodernism’’ is also used to describe a more general condition of contemporary society and its cultural production. Jean Baudrillard (1983), for example, claims that hyperrealism is the characteristic mode of postmodernity. In the realm of the hyperreal, the distinction between simulation and the ‘‘real’’ supposedly implodes; reality and simulation are experienced as without difference. Perhaps it is the case that people no longer mark the distinction between real and imaginary with quite the same degree of rigor as they may have done in the past, but it is difficult to find evidence to support the claim that people can no longer tell the difference. Nevertheless, Baudrillard is probably the bestknown theorist of postmodernism, achieving almost cult status in some areas of cultural life.

In similar fashion, and again mostly in academic circles, ‘‘postmodernism’’ is also used to describe the cultural conditions of late capitalism. In this usage, postmodernism is ‘‘the cultural dominant of the logic of late capitalism’’ (Jameson, 1984: 78). Postmodernism, according to this argument, represents ‘‘the purest form of capital yet to have emerged, a prodigious expansion of capital into hitherto uncommodified areas’’ (p. 78). As a result, ‘‘aesthetic production . . . has become integrated into commodity production generally’’ (p. 56). As a consequence, contemporary culture is claimed to be flat and superficial, marked by nostalgia and pastiche. Moreover, culture is no longer ideological, disguising the economic activities of capitalist society; it is itself an economic activity, perhaps now the most important economic activity of all. In many ways this is a position which originates long before postmodernism became an intellectual concept circulating in academia. It is an argument with its roots in C19 accounts of the imposition of so-called mass culture on duped and manipulated masses. More specifically, it is a mode of analysis which is much influenced by (and little developed beyond) the work of the Frankfurt School.

The term ‘‘postmodernism’’ is also used to describe the media saturation of contemporary Western societies. In particular, it is deployed to draw attention to the fact that old cultural production is no longer simply replaced by the new, but is recycled for circulation together with the new (Collins, 1993). There can be little doubt that this is in part a result of the introduction of cable, satellite, and digital media, with their seemingly unrelenting demand for more and more programs to fill what seems like ever-increasing space in, say, television and radio schedules. Moreover, the promiscuous mixing of the old and new has produced in both audiences and producers what Jim Collins (1993: 250) calls a ‘‘hyperconscious intertextuality,’’ which both informs how audiences make sense of cultural texts (reading for intertextuality) and how cultural texts are made (the deployment of conscious intertextuality): for example, television programs such as Twin Peaks, The Simpsons, and The Sopranos; and films such as Bladerunner, Blue Velvet, and Pulp Fiction. The same postmodern play of quotations is also a feature of many music videos and television commercials. A similar self-reflexive intertextuality can be detected in the postmodern photography of Cindy Sherman and Barbara Kruger. This aspect of postmodernism was first identified in the 1960s to describe the self-reflexive work of writers such as Samuel Beckett, Jorge Luis Borges, and Thomas Pynchon and is used (for mostly the same reasons) to describe the contemporary fiction of writers such as Kathy Acker and Paul Auster (Hutcheon, 1988).

‘‘Postmodernism’’ is sometimes used to describe a specific mode of cultural theory, associated, in particular, with the work of Lyotard, Baudrillard, Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, and Frederic Jameson (Best and Kellner, 1991). Sometimes this is characterized as a theory about the postmodern and sometimes it is the theory itself which is seen as postmodern (or as poststructuralist). xxxx Like ‘‘existentialism’’ in the 1950s and ‘‘structuralism’’ in the 1960s, ‘‘postmodernism’’ (as both theory and practice) has, since the 1980s, crossed from the academy into discourses and practices of everyday life. But, unlike these other intellectual discourses, postmodernism has not yet become, and, moreover, shows little sign of becoming, a fixed and coherent body of work, with a clearly delimited range of ideas and practices; instead, it continues to mean different things depending on discourse and context of use. It may well have been the term’s indeterminacy which both encouraged and facilitated the hoax carried out by New York University professor of physics Alan Sokal, who duped the academic journal Social Text into publishing a spoof article on ‘‘postmodern science’’ (Sokal and Bricmont, 1998). For some cultural commentators (mostly hostile to postmodernism) this was itself a very postmodern event.

The McGraw-Hill (2004) Sociological Theory site Glossary defines 'postmodern sociology' as:

A type of sociology that sees a qualitative change in society from the modern period, although the precise nature of the change differs.

The University of Texas at Austin (undated) discuuses postmodernism as follows:

...while other periods or philosophies are generally characterized by a belief-system or meaningful interpretation of the world, postmodern theories do not provide a particular view of the world, other that there is no one true view or interpretation of the world. In other words, the postmodern period is distinguished from other periods (Renaissance, Enlightenment, Modernism, etc.) in the belief that there is no meaning, that the world is inherently fragmented and heterogeneous, and that any sense making system or belief is mere subjective interpretation - and an interpretation that is conditioned by its social surrounding and the dominant discourse of its time. Postmodern theories, therefore, offer numerous readings aiming at "deconstructing" concepts, belief-systems, or generally held social values and assumptions.


Tate Gallery (undated):

Postmodernism can be seen as a reaction against the ideas and values of modernism, as well as a description of the period that followed modernism's dominance in cultural theory and practice in the early and middle decades of the twentieth century. The term is associated with scepticism, irony and philosophical critiques of the concepts of universal truths and objective reality. The term was first used around 1970. As an art movement postmodernism to some extent defies definition – as there is no one postmodern style or theory on which it is hinged. It embraces many different approaches to art making, and may be said to begin with pop art in the 1960s and to embrace much of what followed including conceptual art, neo-expressionismfeminist art, and the Young British Artists of the 1990s.

associated issues

Postmodernism has an abiguous relationship with ideology.

related areas

See also

Researching the Real World Section



McGraw-Hill, 2004, Sociological Theory: Glossary , available at, accessed 14 May 2013, 'not found' 12 June 2019.

Storey, J ., 2005, 'Postmodernism' in Bennett, T. Grossberg, L and Morris, M. (Eds.) New Keywords: A Revised Vocabulary of Culture and Society, Oxford, Blackwell.

Tate Gallery, nd, 'Postmodernism', available at, accessed 12 June 2019.

University of Texas at Austin, undated, 'Discourse analysis', available at, accessed 15 May 2013, not available 12 June 2019.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2020


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