From Reflexive to Fractured Modernity: Macro Social Theory in the Crisis Era

Tuesday, 17 July 2018: 18:30
Oral Presentation
Will LEGGETT, University of Birmingham, United Kingdom
Since the 1990s macro social theory has been dominated by theories of reflexive modernity. Associated particularly with the works of Beck and Giddens, reflexive modernization offered a reconfigured account of the modern project amidst rapid social transformation. The theory highlighted the centrality of economic and cultural globalisation; de-traditionalising pressures upon various dimensions of what was labelled simple modernity; and increasing individualisation. It was optimistic about the prospects for modernity, with Giddens developing a related, widely adopted Third Way political programme. However, twenty years on from Giddens’ Third Way and following the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, attention is now on spiralling inequality and related conflict; a global migration crisis; and the emergence of new populist and authoritarian movements. Some fear we are witnessing threats to progressive modernity and Enlightenment itself. Resisting the temptation to condemn reflexive modernity as a zombie category, this paper offers a recuperative critique under the sign of ‘fractured modernity’. First, rather than linear de-traditionalisation, threats of re-traditionalisation need accounting for, in spheres such as civil rights and gender relations. Second are extensive forms of pathological individualisation, including an alleged narcissism epidemic and global mental health crisis. Third, whereas previously agential and institutional reflexivity was posited as given, reflexivity itself is in fact contingent and under threat. Thus, behavioural economic and neuroscientific disciplines, and their deployment by corporate actors, challenge the reflexive capacities of individuals. At the same time, widespread institutional failures (finance, politics), coupled with explicit ‘post-truth’ assaults on expertise, problematize reflexive institutional learning. An account of fractured modernity does not abandon the insights of reflexive modernization. But in updating them, it recognises that key features of modernity are not a functional fait accompli. Instead, they are precarious and politically contested, with a continuing role for macro social theory in understanding and shaping them.