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Modernity typically denotes "a post-traditional, post-medieval historical period", in particular, one marked by progress from agrarianism via the rise of industrialism, capitalism, secularization, the nation-state, and its constituent forms of surveillance (Barker 2005, 444). Conceptually, modernity is related to the modern era and to modernism, but is a discrete concept. In context, modernity can denote association with cultural and intellectual movements occurred between 1436 and 1789 (for some thinkers until 1895), and extending to the 1970s, or later (Toulmin 1992, 3–5).


Related terms

The term "modern" (Latin modernus from modo “just now”) dates from the fifth century, originally distinguishing the Christian era from the Pagan era, yet the term became linguistic usage only in the seventeenth-century, derived from the Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns — debating: “Is Modern culture superior to Classical (Græco–Roman) culture?” — a literary and artistic quarrel among the Académie française in the early 1690s.

From these usages, modernity denoted the renunciation of the recent past, favouring a new beginning, and a re-interpretation of historical origin. Moreover, the distinction, between "modernity" and "modern" did not arise until the nineteenth century (Delanty 2007). Some schools of thought believe that modernity ended in the late twentieth century, when post-modernity replaced it; yet other schools extend modernity as late modernity and liquid modernity to comprehend the developments denoted by the term “post modernity”.

Defining Modernity



In sociology, the discipline that arose in response to the social problems of "modernity" (Harriss 2000, 325), the term denotes the social processes and discourses consequent to the Age of Enlightenment (18th c.), especially defined by 'rationalization': “The term refers to processual aspects, especially tensions and dynamics. Modernity is thus a particular kind of time consciousness, which defines the present, in its relation to the past, which must be continuously recreated; it is not a historical epoch that can be periodized” (Delanty 2007).

At its simplest, modernity is a shorthand term for modern society, or industrial civilization. Portrayed in more detail, it 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, modernity is vastly more dynamic than any previous type of social order. It is a society — more technically, a complex of institutions — which, unlike any preceding culture, lives in the future, rather than the past. (Giddens 1998, 94)

Modernity describes "the loss of certainty, and the realization that certainty can never be established, once and for all. It is a term that also can simply refer to reflection on the age, and, in particular, to movements within modern society that lead to the emergence of new modes of thought and consciousness" (Delanty 2007). Sociologically, modernity aimed towards "a progressive force promising to liberate humankind from ignorance and irrationality" (Rosenau 1992, 5), yet Theodor Adorno and Zygmunt Bauman proposed that modernity commonly represents departure from the central tenets of the Enlightenment, and towards nefarious processes of alienation, such as commodity fetishism and the Holocaust (Adorno 1973; Bauman 1989).

Consequent to contemporary debate about economic globalization, the comparative analysis of civilisations, and the post-colonial perspective of “alternative modernities”, Shmuel Eisenstadt introduced the concept of “multiple modernities” (2003; see also Delanty 2007). Modernity as a “plural condition” is the central concept of this sociologic approach and perspective, which broadens the definition of “modernity” — from exclusively denoting Western European culture — to a cosmopolitan definition, thereby: "Modernity is not Westernization, and its key processes and dynamics can be found in all societies" (Delanty 2007).


The American Revolution (1775–83) and the French Revolution (1789–99) established republics upon explicitly modern political theory, modelled upon the earlier Republic of Corsica (1755–69) (Saul 1992, 55–61). Liberalism, the modern political system, empowered the disenfranchised Third Estate; elected political power supplanted traditional hereditary monarchy.


In art history, the term "modernity" is distinct from the terms Modern Age and Modernism; it is a discrete "term applied to the cultural condition in which the seemingly absolute necessity of innovation becomes a primary fact of life, work, and thought. . . . Modernity is more than merely the state of being modern, or the opposition between old and new" (Smith 2009).

In the essay “The Painter of Modern Life” (1864), Charles Baudelaire uses the literary, best-known definition: “By modernity I mean the transitory, the fugitive, the contingent” (Baudelaire 1964, 13).

Modernity defined

Of the available conceptual definitions, in sociology, Modernity is "marked and defined by an obsession with 'evidence' ”, visual culture, and personal visibility (Leppert 2004, 19). Generally, the large-scale social integration constituting modernity, involves the:

  • Increased movement of goods, capital, people, and information among formerly discrete populations, and consequent influence beyond the local area.
  • Increased formal social organisation of mobile populaces, development of 'circuits' on which they and their influence travel, and societal standardization conducive to socio-economic mobility.
  • Increased specialization of the segments of society, i.e., division of labor, and area inter-dependency.

See also


  • Adem, Seifudein. 2004. "Decolonizing Modernity: Ibn-Khaldun and Modern Historiography". In Islam: Past, Present and Future, International Seminar on Islamic Thought Proceedings, edited by Ahmad Sunawari Long, Jaffary Awang, and Kamaruddin Salleh, 570–87. Salangor Darul Ehsan, Malaysia: Department of Theology and Philosophy, Faculty of Islamic Studies, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia.
  • Adorno, Theodor W. 1973. Negative Dialectics, translated by E.B. Ashton. London: Routledge. (Originally published as Negative Dialektik, Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 1966)
  • Barker, Chris. 2005. Cultural Studies: Theory and Practice. London: Sage. ISBN 0-7619-4156-8
  • Baudelaire, Charles. 1964. The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays, edited and translated by Jonathan Mayne. London: Phaidon Press.
  • Bauman, Zygmunt. 1989. Modernity and the Holocaust. Cambridge: Polity Press.; Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press. ISBN 0745606857 (Polity, cloth) ,ISBN 0745609309 (Polity, 1991 pbk), ISBN 0801487196 (Cornell, cloth), ISBN 080142397X (Cornell, pbk)
  • Delanty, Gerard. 2007. "Modernity." Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology, edited by George Ritzer. 11 vols. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishing. ISBN 1405124334
  • Eisenstadt, Shmuel Noah. 2003. Comparative Civilizations and Multiple Modernities, 2 vols. Leiden and Boston: Brill.
  • Giddens, Anthony. 1998. Conversations with Anthony Giddens: Making Sense of Modernity. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press. ISBN 0804735689 (cloth) ISBN 0804735697 (pbk.)
  • Harriss, John. 2000. "The Second Great Transformation? Capitalism at the End of the Twentieth Century". In Poverty and Development into the 21st Century, revised edition, edited by Tim Allen and Alan Thomas, 325–42. Oxford and New York: Open University in association with Oxford University Press. ISBN 0198776268
  • Leppert, Richard. 2004. "The Social Discipline of Listening". In Aural Cultures, edited by Jim Drobnick, 19-35. Toronto: YYZ Books; Banff: Walter Phillips Gallery Editions. ISBN 0920397808
  • Norris, Christopher. 1995. "Modernism". In The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, edited by Ted Honderich, 583. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780198661320
  • Rosenau, Pauline Marie. 1992. Post-modernism and the Social Sciences: Insights, Inroads, and Intrusions. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0691086192 (cloth) ISBN 0691023476 (pbk)
  • Saul, John Ralston. 1992. Voltaire's Bastards: The Dictatorship of Reason in the West. New York: Free Press; Maxwell Macmillan International. ISBN 0029277256
  • Smith, Terry. “Modernity”. Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online. (Subscription access, accessed September 21, 2009).
  • Toulmin, Stephen Edelston. 1990. Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity. New York: Free Press. ISBN 0029326311 Paperback reprint 1992, Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-80838-6

Further reading

  • Arendt, Hannah. 1958. "The Origins Of Totalitarianism" Cleavland: World Publishing Co. ISBN 0805242252
  • Berman, Marshall. 1982. "All That Is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity." New York: Simon and Schuster. ISBN 067124602X Reprinted 1988, New York: Viking Penguin ISBN 0140109625
  • Buci-Glucksmann, Christine. 1994. Baroque Reason: The Aesthetics of Modernity. Thousand Oaks, Calif: Sage Publications. ISBN 080398975X (cloth) ISBN 0803989768 (pbk)
  • Carroll, Michael Thomas. 2000. Popular Modernity in America: Experience, Technology, Mythohistory. SUNY Series in Postmodern Culture. Albany: State University of New York Press. ISBN 0791447138 (hc) ISBN 0791447146 (pbk)
  • Corchia, Luca. 2008. "Il concetto di modernità in Jürgen Habermas. Un indice ragionato". The Lab's Quarterly/Il Trimestrale del Laboratorio 2:396ff. ISSN 2035-5548.
  • Crouch, Christopher. 2000. "Modernism in Art Design and Architecture", New York: St. Martins Press. ISBN 0312218303 (cloth) ISBN 031221832X (pbk)
  • Eisenstadt, Shmuel Noah. 2003. Comparative Civilizations and Multiple Modernities, 2 vols. Leiden and Boston: Brill.
  • Gaonkar, Dilip Parameshwar (ed.). 2001. Alternative Modernities. A Millennial Quartet Book. Durham: Duke University Press. ISBN 0822327031 (cloth); ISBN 0822327147 (pbk)
  • Giddens, Anthony. 1990. The Consequences of Modernity. Stanford: Stanford University Press. ISBN 0804717621 (cloth); ISBN 0804718911 (pbk); Cambridge, UK: Polity Press in association with Basil Blackwell, Oxford. ISBN 0745607934
  • Jarzombek, Mark. 2000. The Psychologizing of Modernity: Art, Architecture, History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Kolakowsi, Leszek. 1990. Modernity on Endless Trial. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0226450457
  • Latour, Bruno. 1993. We Have Never Been Modern, translated by Catherine Porter. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. ISBN 0674948386 (hb) ISBN 0674948394 (pbk.)
  • Perreau-Saussine, Emile. 2005. "Les libéraux face aux révolutions: 1688, 1789, 1917, 1933". Commentaire no. 109 (Spring): 181–93. [1]PDF (457 KB)

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