AskDefine | Define modernity

Dictionary Definition

modernity n : the quality of being current or of the present; "a shopping mall would instill a spirit of modernity into this village" [syn: modernness, modernism, contemporaneity, contemporaneousness]

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. the quality of being modern or contemporary.
    He was impressed by the architecture's modernity.
  2. modern times.
    The organization survived from ancient times to modernity.

Related terms


Extensive Definition

Modernity is a term that refers to the modern era. It is distinct from modernism, which, in different contexts, refers to cultural and intellectual movements of the period c. 1630-1940. The term "modern" can refer to many different things. Colloquially, it can refer in a general manner to the 20th century. For historians, the Early Modern Period refers to the period roughly from 1500 to 1800, with the Modern era beginning sometime during the 18th century. In this schema, industrialization during the 19th century marks the first phase of modernity, while the 20th century marks the second. Some schools of thought hold that modernity ended in the late 20th century, replaced by post-modernism, while others would extend modernity to cover the developments denoted by post-modernism and into the present.

Related Terminology

Modern can mean all of post-medieval European history, in the context of dividing history into three large epochs: ancient history, the Middle Ages, and modern times. In the context of contemporary history, politics and other subjects, it is also applied specifically to the period beginning somewhere between 1870 and 1910, through the present, and even more specifically to the early 20th century, though the late modern times would be marked by the late 18th century (Industrial, American, and French Revolutions).
"Modernity" is a different term from modern times; it is derived from Modernism, a movement in art based on the consciousness that through the mechanical age of industrialism, humankind has evolved into something very new - what that would be, would have to be explored by art, and all previous concepts questioned. Darwin's Origin of Species and Lyell's Principles of Geology revolutionized the perception of time and race, and that of "mankind" in particular.

Modern as post-medieval

One common use of the term is to describe the condition of Western History since the mid-1400s, or roughly the European development of moveable type and the printing press.
In this context the "modern" society is said to develop over many periods, and to be influenced by important events which represent breaks in the continuity:
Particular ways of periodizing modernity include:
Important events in the development of modernity in this context include
It is usually suggested that some or most of these events led to the more complete realization of "modern" society in Europe.

Change to Modernity in different Fields

Sociological thought

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)

Political thought

Many contemporary political theorists agree that the first modern political thinker was Niccolò Machiavelli, who lived in the city-state of Florence, Italy, in the early 16th century. He is especially famed for his literary works, including his seminal Discourses on Livy, on the governance of republics and the cultivation of republican virtue, and his famous The Prince, on the efficient administration of monarchies.
  1. A positive attitude towards change and attempts to make progress in technology, economics and military power, despite the dangers involved in revolutionary change.
  2. A positive attitude towards experimentation with new forms of government, including democracy or that of a republic, combined with a realistic attitude towards extant institutions, such as that of monarchies, assessing their strengths and weaknesses based on their record of accomplishments and failures.
  3. A positive attitude towards larger states, despite holding that small communities were superior in most respects.
  4. A realistic view towards the problems of the day, including the willingness to not idealize the present, but to state things as they were, not as they should be, perhaps best illustrated by Machiavelli's famous statement in The Prince that, for a sovereign, " is much safer to be feared than to be loved when one of the two must be lacking" (The Prince, chapter 17).
What is particularly interesting is the clarity with which Machiavelli makes his argument for this revolutionary approach, versus that of the classical political philosophers, such as Aristotle, whom Machiavelli held in high regard. He believed that this change in thinking is necessary because of the unpleasant necessities of the times in which he lived, including those of religious strife, general war, invasion by outsiders, the rise of large, imperial powers, and technological innovation, including the development of gunpowder-based weaponry. Machiavelli surmised that, given these conditions, all political communities must take into account and minimize not only their traditional, internal, and parochial challenges, but also new, emergent, asymmetric threats, including those posed by large imperialist states, dangerous, disruptive, and/or game-changing technological innovations, arms races, and those challenges caused by external intervention. Thus, the controversial political theorist Leo Strauss held that this first type of modernism emerged out the fears of elites, rather than the desire for progress, and concerned itself with changing society from within before change was forced on society from outside. However, this elite-led process of internal change of traditional society in response to external threats had a few unintended consequences.
The first signs of modernity certainly appeared in Machiavelli's lifetime, which was also the time of Martin Luther, Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, the Borgia popes, Amerigo Vespucci, Leonardo da Vinci, and the reigns of Henry VII of England and also Henry VIII. Machiavelli's political writings are surprisingly open in their criticism of the traditional division of power which existed in Europe, especially Italy, between the Roman Catholic Church and secular government, which was still centered around both the city-state and the Holy Roman Emperor, and are startling. His writings are startling in their encouragement to all parties to try to take control - including the Church, the Empire or even democratic reformists such as those found in his home, Florence and in Switzerland. Indeed, most commentators argue that Machiavelli harbored a marked preference for republics, as evidenced by his favorable treatment of them in the Discourses.
But, far from creating peace, the transition from feudal institutions to modern institutions was marked by a series of revolutions and military conflicts, beginning with the Thirty Years' War, which resulted in the utter destruction of much of Germany, Dutch independence, the rise of France as a great power, the decline of Spain, the rise of the Hapsburg empire in central Europe, the emergence of historical figures such as Gustavus Adolphus, Cardinal Richelieu, and General Wallenstein. The Peace of Westphalia (1648) established the modern international system of independent nation-states, ending feudalism in international relations. After a first revolution which temporarily ended the monarchy in Britain and Ireland, creating a "Commonwealth" the English "Glorious" Revolution (1688) marked the final days of feudalism in Great Britain, establishing Parliamentary sovereignty and the beginning of modern constitutional monarchy. The French Revolution of 1789 overthrew the Ancien Régime in France, and as a result of the Napoleonic Wars, served to introduce political modernity in much of Western Europe.
Later, the American and French Revolutions led to the formation of some of the first republics to be founded on explicitly modern political theories, modelled on the earlier, but short-lived Republic of Corsica (Saul 1992, 55–61). Leaders such as the Emperor Napoleon introduced new codes of law in Europe based on merit and achievement, rather than on a class system rooted in Feudalism. The modern political system of Liberalism (derived from the word "liberty" which means "freedom") empowered members of the disenfranchised Third Estate. In many nations, the power of elected bodies and leaders supplanted traditional rule by hereditary monarchs. Growing attachment to one's nation, culture and language produced new and powerful forces of nationalism, resulting in numerous nationalistic movements, which often had an impact in artistic and literary currents, or in setting the basis for recognition of new cultural, linguistic or even political status. This was smartly used by the emergent bourgeois to establish stable conditions for the formation of market economies, and their achievement of more comfortable and preeminent positions in society, as in Italian and German unification, and the Central and Southern American revolutions, caused by the bankruptcy of their parent states, and the subsequent collapse of their colonial empires. The bourgeoisie used their new and stronger positions to take the places of the nobility as a ruling class, either through revolution, as in Revolutionary France, or through gradual political reform, as in Great Britain. Where reform ending feudalism was stifled, such as in Czarist Russia, the situation would perhaps appear stable, for a time, but had the potential to—and often did—explode. Often, cases of unfulfilled desires of nationhood resulted in conflict with other nationalistic claims, such as in the case of Basque country in Spain, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the case of the Kurds and Armenians in Turkey, or the various and periodic wars and bloodlettings in the Balkans, which are still troubled with irredentist claims and counterclaims to this day.
The desire for equal rights, conditions, benefits, and outcomes for common workers within these increasingly industrialized societies led to the development of new ideologies such as Communism, Socialism or Anarchism. Various social movements sprung up around these ideologies, aspiring to see the working class control the means of production for the collective benefit of all. Repressive measures to force these workers back into their "place" led to protests, riots, and ultimately revolts and revolutions, which were hoped to lead to the creation of a free and democratic classless society, in theory. This was evidenced by events such as the Paris commune in 1871 in addition to the October Revolution in Russia, in 1917, which resulted in the execution of the Tsar and the royal family and the creation of the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic. This first communist state appeared to be run by the workers, until the devastation of the Russian Civil War caused its leaders to turn to increasingly repressive measures, and any hopes of popular democracy were finally crushed by Stalin, who turned the USSR into a bureaucratized, totalitarian regime, which continued until it collapsed of its own dead weight in 1991.
Extreme nationalism ultimately contributed to the rise of ideologies like fascism, militarism and Nazism, whose core concept of legitimacy was not based on popular consent, but projected a facade of being based on romanticized concepts of nationhood, ethnic superiority, and racial superiority. However, these claims to legitimacy have always been exposed as, in the end, really being based on their demagogic leaders' hubristic will to power. The rise of Hitler resulting in the Nazi seizure of power in Germany, combined with the machinations of fellow fascists in Fascist Italy, led by Mussolini, and the schemes of Militarist Japan, led to the Second World War, which was the bloodiest conflict in all of human history, leading to the deaths of tens of millions, including the outright genocide—the Holocaust—of at least 6 million people of the Jewish faith, by Hitler and the Nazis, solely because they were Jewish. Eventually, Imperial Japan, Fascist Italy, and Nazi Germany were eventually defeated by the combined efforts and forces of the United Nations, also known as the Allies, led by Great Britain, the USSR, and the United States of America, ending the Second World War.
In the present day, most societies subscribe to the modern ideologies of democracy, human rights, liberty, equality, and fraternity, which have become widespread standards expected by most people from governments. The first new republic of modernity, the United States of America initially granted the vote to all white, male citizens; eventually extending it to all citizens, allowing everyone a theoretically equal voice in politics. The US also developed a Constitution that created a system of checks and balances between the three branches of government, the legislative branch, the judicial branch, and the executive branch, and also separated power between government at the national level and government at the state (equivalent to province) level. Many individuals in the US and other democratic societies often aspire to material wealth, social approval and economically rewarding education.

Science and technology

One of the most important aspects of modernity is the encouragement of advance or progress in useful sciences and arts. Politically, this demanded an end to caution in allowing radical ideas to be made public, which radically changed religion and education in European society.
Revolutions in science and technology have been no less influential than political revolutions in changing the shape of the modern world. The Scientific revolution, beginning with the discoveries of Kepler and Galileo, and culminating with Newton's Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (1687), changed the way in which educated people looked at the natural world.


What is now called technology is the most obvious success of modernity. Mechanical and scientific invention has changed human health and all aspects of human society: economic, religious, social, and theoretical.
For example, modern machines in Britain sped up the manufacture of cloth and iron. The horse and ox were no longer needed as beasts of burden. The newly invented engine powered the car, train, ship, and eventually the plane, revolutionizing the way people travelled. Newly discovered energy sources such as petroleum and nuclear power could power the new machines. Raw goods could be transported in huge quantities over vast distances; products could be manufactured quickly and then marketed all over the world, a situation that Britain, and later the US, Europe and Japan all used to their advantage.
Progress continued as science saw many new scientific discoveries. The telephone, radio, X-rays, microscopes, electricity all contributed to rapid changes in life-styles and societies. Discoveries of antibiotics such as penicillin brought new ways of combating diseases. Surgery and various medications made further progress in medical care, hospitals, and nursing. New theories such as evolution and psychoanalysis changed humanity's "old fashioned" views of itself.


An Industrial Revolution initiated by mechanical automation of the manufacture of cotton cloth and the use of steam engines, commenced in the 18th century in Great Britain, followed in the 19th century by a later series of developments, which saw modern systems of communication and transportation introduced in the form of steamships, railroads and the telegraph. In the late 19th century, a Second Industrial Revolution, prompted by developments in the chemical, petroleum, steel and electrical industries, furthered transformed the modern world.


Warfare was changed with the advent of new varieties of rifle, cannon, gun, machine gun, armor, tank, plane, jet, and missile. Weapons such as the atomic bomb and the hydrogen bomb, known along with chemical weapons and biological weapons as weapons of mass destruction, actually made the devastation of the entire planet possible in minutes. All these are among the markings of the Modern World.


New attitudes towards religion, with the church diminished, and a desire for personal freedoms, induced desires for sexual freedoms, which were ultimately accepted by large sectors of the Western World. Theories of "free love" and uninhibited sexual freedom were advanced only later in the 1960s.
Equality of the sexes in politics and economics, women's liberation movement, gay rights (Oscar Wilde, Virginia Woolf) and the freedom afforded by contraception allowed for greater personal choices in these intimate areas of personal life.

The Arts

Main article: Modern art
The Modern Age, when used in reference to the arts, reflects a tendency extant during the period from around the beginning of the 20th century up through the present day. Modern art may be typified by self-awareness, and by the manipulation of form or medium as an integral part of the work itself. It contrasts pre-modern Western art, which often sought only to represent a form of reality. Key movements in modern art include cubist painting, typified by Pablo Picasso, modernist literature such as that written by James Joyce, Virginia Woolf and Gertrude Stein, and the 'new poetry' headed by Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot.
Modern music saw the beginning of a fusion movement of different styles and cultures. John Coltrane for example fused jazz with Carnatic music to develop his album India. Elvis Presley popularized rock and roll, fusing country-western and blues.


The partisan use of the term "worldwide" gives tremendous emotional appeal, and is used in various countries not only by persons from professional historians to self-taught curmudgeons but by political groups which want to impose their view of reality upon their countrymen and even the whole world. The easiest way to do this is to establish a benchmark year and leave the particulars to specialists.
England: The Glorious Revolution of 1688 established a king selected by parliament, ending the troubles in that country in the seventeenth century. This was primarily done by the faction called the Whigs, who used the term "modern" for generations thereafter to gain credit. Later generations and political parties did not consider this a sufficient change to merit the term.
France: Although the French still glory in the magnificence of King Louis XIV, the end of his reign in 1715 is considered by them as a handy spot from which to tout the next phase of French glory, the Enlightenment, which they call « l'Age des lumières ». In other words, what happened in Britain does not concern them. After the French Revolution of 1789, they declared that the modern age had been surpassed by the contemporary age.
Russia: It took some time for the European socialists to conceive that the next great revolution would start someplace other than in France. But the Russians have always compared themselves to the French. After the October revolution, the Communist party of the Soviet Union declared that the "modern age" began with Peter the Great and the "contemporary age" began with this Bolshevik revolution. Japan: The Japanese call the dynasties previous to the Tokugawa dynasty as medieval, and the Meiji Restoration of 1866-1869 is considered equivalent to the French Revolution of 1789, but haven't assimilated a form of the word modern for Tokugawa.
As for the Third World, the obvious benchmarks are colonization by European imperial powers during the "New Imperialism" and the subsequent decolonization in the twentieth century. But "modern" and "contemporary" are not used for this purpose.
The United States of America: A seemingly natural dividing point as far as Spain and the new world are concerned is the voyage of Columbus in 1492. But the need for such an undertaking was underscored by the taking of Constantinople by the Ottoman Empire of the Turks in 1453, so historians once took this as their benchmark.

Defining characteristics of modernity

There have been numerous ways of understanding what modernity is, particularly in the field of sociology. A wide variety of terms are used to describe the society, social life, driving force, symptomatic mentality, or some other defining aspects of modernity. They include: bureaucracy, disenchantment of the world, rationalization, secularization, alienation, commodification, decontextualization, individualism, subjectivism, linear progression, objectivism, universalism, reductionism, chaos, mass society, industrial society, homogenization, unification, hybridization, diversification, democratization, centralization, hierarchical organization, mechanization, totalitarianism, and so on.
Modernity may be considered "marked and defined by an obsession with 'evidence'", visuality, and visibility (Leppert 2004, 19).
Modernity is often characterized by comparing modern societies to premodern or postmodern ones; To an extent, it is reasonable to doubt the very possibility of a descriptive concept that can adequately capture diverse realities of societies of various historical contexts, especially non-European ones, let alone a three-stage model of social evolution from premodernity to postmodernity.
However, in terms of social structure, many of the defining events and characteristics listed above stem from a transition from relatively isolated local communities to a more integrated large-scale society. Understood this way, modernization might be a general, abstract process which can be found in many different parts of histories, rather than a unique event in Europe.
In general, large-scale integration involves:
  • Increased movement of goods, capital, people, and information among formerly separate areas, and increased influence that reaches beyond a local area.
  • Increased formalization of those mobile elements, development of 'circuits' on which those elements and influences travel, and standardization of many aspects of the society in general that is conducive to the mobility.
  • Increased specialization of different segments of society, such as the division of labor, and interdependency among areas.
Seemingly contradictory characteristics ascribed to modernity are often different aspects of this process. For example, unique local culture is invaded and lost by the increased mobility of cultural elements, such as recipes, folktales, and hit songs, resulting in a cultural homogenization across localities, but the repertoire of available recipes and songs increases within an area because of the increased interlocal movement, resulting in a diversification within each locality. (This is manifest especially in large metropolises where there are many mobile elements). Centralized bureaucracy and hierarchical organization of governments and firms grows in scale and power in an unprecedented manner, leading some to lament the stifling, cold, rationalist or totalitarian nature of modern society. Yet individuals, often as replaceable components, may be able to move in those social subsystems, creating a sense of liberty, dynamic competition and individualism for others. This is especially the case when a modern society is compared with premodern societies, in which the family and social class one is born into shapes one's lifecourse to a greater extent.
These social changes are somewhat common to many different levels of social integration, and not limited to what happened to the West European societies in a specific time period. For example, these changes might happen when formerly separate virtual communities merge. Similarly, when two human beings develop a close relationship, communication, convention, and increased division of roles tend to emerge. Another example can be found in ongoing globalization - the increased international flows changing the landscape for many. In other words, while modernity has been characterized in many seemingly contradictory ways, many of those characterizations can be reduced to a relatively simple set of concepts of social change.
At the same time, however, such an understanding of modernity is certainly not satisfactory to many, because it fails to explain the global influence of West European and American societies since the Renaissance. Mere large-scale integration of local communities, seen in the Macedon of Alexander the Great or the Mongolia of the Khans, would not necessarily result in the same magnitude of influence as the West European modernization. What has made Western Europe so special?
There have been two major answers to this question. First, an internal factor is that only in Europe, through the Renaissance humanists and early modern philosophers and scientists, rational thinking came to replace many intellectual activities that had been under heavy influence of convention, superstition, and religion. This line of answer is most frequently associated with Max Weber, a sociologist who is known to have pursued the answer to the above question.
Second, an external factor triggering the later modernity is that colonization, starting as early as the Age of Discovery, created exploitative relations between European countries and their colonies. This view has notably been explored by the world systems theory of Immanuel Wallerstein.
It is also notable that such commonly-observed features of many modern societies as the nuclear family, slavery, gender roles, and nation states do not necessarily fit well with the idea of rational social organization in which components such as people are treated equally. While many of these features have been dissolving, histories seem to suggest those features may not be mere exceptions to the essential characteristics of modernization, but necessary parts of it.

The paradox of modernity

Modernization brought a series of seemingly indisputable benefits to people. Lower infant mortality rate, decreased death from starvation, eradication of some of the fatal diseases, more equal treatment of people with different backgrounds and incomes, and so on. To some, this is an indication of the potential of modernity, perhaps yet to be fully realized. In general, rational, scientific approach to problems and the pursuit of economic wealth seems still to many a reasonable way of understanding good social development.
At the same time, some sociologists hold that modernity also has negative characteristics.
Technological development occurred not only in the medical and agricultural fields, but also in the military. The atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II, and the following nuclear arms race in the post-war era, were considered by some to be negative developments associated with modernity.
Some critics of modernity like Bauman and Arendt consider Stalin's Great Purges and the Holocaust (or Shoah) to be examples of outcomes naturally arrived at under modernity (mass killings with the purpose of "purifying" a nation as a homogenous mass society), and argue that a truly 'rational' organization of society might involve exclusion, or extermination, of non-standard elements, and thus criticize modernity on the grounds that these outcomes would generally be considered abhorrent.
Some critics argue that modernity is not necessarily sustainable. Pollution is perhaps the least controversial of these, but one may include decreasing biodiversity and climate change as results of development. The development of biotechnology and genetic engineering are creating what some consider to be unknown risks.
Other critics emphasize what they believe to be psychological and moral hazards of modern life - alienation, feeling of rootlessness, loss of strong bonds and common values, hedonism, etc. This is often accompanied by a re-evaluation of pre-modern communities.

Modernity and the contemporary society

There is an ongoing debate about the relationship between modernity and present societies. The debate has two dimensions. First, there is an empirical question of whether some of the present societies can be understood as a developmental continuation of modernity (see late modernity), a variation of modernity (see hypermodernity), or as a distinctive type (see postmodernity). Second, there is a judgement of whether modernization has been, and is, desirable for a society. Seemingly new phenomena such as globalization, the end of the Cold War, ethnic conflicts, and the proliferation of information technologies are taken by some as reasons to adopt a new vision to navigate social development. However modernity came with a structure of self-determination which is greatly seen in contemporary societies.


  • Giddens, Anthony. 1998. Conversations with Anthony Giddens: Making Sense of Modernity. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press. ISBN 0804735689 (cloth) ISBN 0804735697 (pbk.)
  • 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
  • Saul, John Ralston. 1992. Voltaire's Bastards: The Dictatorship of Reason in the West. New York: Free Press; Maxwell Macmillan International. ISBN 0029277256

Further reading

  • 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
  • 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)
  • Crouch, Christopher. 2000. "Modernism in Art Design and Architecture", New York: St. Martins Press. ISBN 0312218303 (cloth) ISBN 031221832X (pbk)
  • Jarzombek, Mark. 2000. The Psychologizing of Modernity: Art, Architecture, History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Latour, Bruno. 1993. We Have Never Been Modern, translated by Catherine Porter. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. ISBN 0674948386 (hb) ISBN 0674948394 (pbk.)
  • 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

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