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Keywords:

  • Reflexive modernization;
  • postmodernity;
  • individualization;
  • globalization;
  • boundary transcendence;
  • decision-making

Abstract

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. 1. Basic theoretical assumptions
  4. 2. Programme of empirical research
  5. 3. Structural break: the continuity of basic principles and discontinuity of basic institutions
  6. 4. Reconstructing first modernity
  7. 5. Manifestations of the new
  8. 6. Wasn’t and isn’t all modernization reflexive? What is new about the theory of reflexive modernization?
  9. Bibliography

In this article we are reformulating the theory of reflexive modernization as an empirical research programme and summarize some of the most recent findings which have been produced by a research consortium in Munich (integrating four universities, funded by the German Research Society (DFG)). On this basis we reject the idea that Western societies at the beginning of the twenty-first century move from the modern to the post-modern. We argue that there has been no clear break with the basic principles of modernity but rather a transformation of basic institutions of modernity such as the nation-state and the nuclear family. We would suggest, therefore, that what we are witnessing is a second modernity. Finally, we reform the theory of reflexive modernization in reaction to three uttered objections.

All around the world, society is undergoing radical change – radical in the sense that it poses a challenge to Enlightenment-based modernity and opens up a space in which people choose new and unexpected forms of the social and the political. Sociological debates since the 1990s have sought to grasp and conceptualize this reconfiguration. Some authors, who lay great stress on the openness of the human project amid new contingencies, complexities and uncertainties, operate with the term ‘post-modernity’ (Bauman, Lyotard, Harvey, Haraway). However, we reject the idea that so far this is a move from the modern to the postmodern. On theoretical as well as on empirical grounds our conclusion is that all Western societies are still ‘modern’ societies: there has been no movement beyond the realm of the modern to its opposite, because there has been no clear break with the basic principles of modernity but rather a transformation of basic institutions of modernity (for example, the nation-state and the nuclear family). We would suggest, therefore, that what we are witnessing is a second modernity.

We use the term ‘first modernity’ to describe the modernity based on nation-state societies, where social relations, networks and communities are essentially understood in a territorial sense. The collective patterns of life, progress and controllability, full employment and exploitation of nature that were typical of this first modernity have now been undermined by certain interlinked processes: globalization, individualization, the gender revolution, underemployment and global risks (such as the ecological crisis, the crash of global financial markets and the threat of transnational terrorist attacks). The real theoretical and political challenge of second modernity is the fact that society must respond to all these challenges simultaneously.

When these processes are considered more carefully, the thing they all have in common emerges more clearly: they are all unforeseen consequences, not of the crisis but of the victory of the first, simple, linear, industrial modernization based on the nation-state (the focus of classical sociology). This is what we mean when we speak of ‘reflexive modernization’: radicalized modernization consumes the foundations of first modernity and transforms its institutions and its frame of reference, often in a way that is neither desired nor anticipated. Or, in terms of systems theory: the unforeseen consequences of functional differentiation can no longer be controlled by further functional differentiation. In fact, the very idea of controllability, certainty or security – so fundamental to first modernity – collapses.

The aim of this article is to elaborate some of the major basic assumptions and empirical implications of this theory of the self-transforming modern society and to scrutinize them from an empirical standpoint. This will be done in six sections. In the first section we shall offer a more precise account of the basic theoretical assumptions of the theory before outlining our programme of empirical research in the second. In the third section we shall demonstrate some of the distinctions between first and second modernity. Having reconstructed the main features of first modernity in the fourth section, we shall then elaborate the manifestations of the new, second modernity, in order, in the sixth and final section, to reform the theory of reflexive modernization accordingly.

1. Basic theoretical assumptions

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. 1. Basic theoretical assumptions
  4. 2. Programme of empirical research
  5. 3. Structural break: the continuity of basic principles and discontinuity of basic institutions
  6. 4. Reconstructing first modernity
  7. 5. Manifestations of the new
  8. 6. Wasn’t and isn’t all modernization reflexive? What is new about the theory of reflexive modernization?
  9. Bibliography

These basic assumptions include, first, the claim that there is a break between first and second, or reflexive, modernity. The term ‘first modernity’, far from constituting a denial of the different phases and developmental thrusts of modernization since the early modern era, instead encapsulates the claim that the transition to second modernity marks the end point of a specific logic of development, a logic which, from the middle of the ninetheenth century onwards, became more and more established in Europe and North America and culminated in the nation-state order of industrial society in the 1960s. This ‘high modernity’ of industrial society was – as we have mentioned – characterized by a configuration of institutions that mutually confirmed and supported one another, such as the nation-state, the Fordist company, the nuclear family, the system of industrial relations, the welfare state and unquestioned science. The foundation of this institutional structure was a logic of order and action that is only now plainly coming into view, as it comes to an end. This logic drew a strict boundary between categories of human beings, things and activities and made distinctions between modes of activity and ways of life, something which made it possible to assign areas of authority and responsibility unambiguously. This logic of non-ambiguity and strict differentiation is increasingly coming up against its own limitations at the present time. It is increasingly resistant to rational justification and, in some spheres, is completely ineffectual.

The logic of institutional action that held sway during first modernity worked according to the ‘either/or’ principle – either us or them, the organization or the market, family or not family, work or leisure, facts or values, war or peace. In the circumstances of reflexive modernity, by contrast, the either/or principle seems increasingly to be eclipsed or indeed replaced by the ‘both/and’ principle. Instead of there being either knowledge or not knowledge, nature or society, the organization or the market, there is instead both knowledge and not knowledge, nature and society, organization and the market, war and peace. As the boundaries and distinctions between categories become blurred, the institutions of first modernity that are based on them and depend on them for their existence, begin to encounter problems with regard to decision making. How are decisions to be made if, for example, it is no longer clear whether climate change is a man-made or a natural phenomenon? How do authorities deal with migrants who belong to several societies and cultures at the same time? Where are the boundaries of ‘patchwork families’ to be drawn? What is apparent here is that as categorical boundaries become less clear and their rationalization more difficult, so it becomes increasingly necessary to decide on one or several new ways of drawing boundaries. In doing so, however, it is no longer possible to fall back on the tried and tested, usually scientific resources of rationalization, as these themselves have become ambiguous and uncertain. The pluralism of the newly discovered solutions is clearly a result of these kinds of pragmatic negotiation processes, in the course of which complex, plural demarcations come to take the place of unambiguous dualities, standard forms and distinctions.

How do these structural changes come about? The second basic assumption in the theory of reflexive modernization is that it is the process of modernization itself that calls the institutional order of first modernity into question, steals its clarity and forces it to make decisions. In other words, the crises of second modernity are triggered by processes of enforced modernization, which then take hold of modernization's own foundations. The ‘protective zones’ generated by first modernity to shield it against the dynamic of modernization are currently losing their unquestioned taken-for-grantedness. They are experienced as being contingent and open to influence, and are increasingly being forced to provide rationales for their existence. This also applies to the very legitimatory sources of modernity themselves – and to science in particular. The latter may be producing more and more knowledge, but it is also producing an ever greater lack of knowledge, uncertainty and insufficient clarity. The rationalization process ultimately encompasses the model of hegemonic scientific rationality as well, which in many spheres is only of limited use for the task of making solid, unambiguous decisions.

At a recent conference, Jürgen Habermas addressed himself in detail to the theory and empirical investigation of reflexive modernization, in the process outlining a proposal for how they may be lent greater precision and developed further. He distinguished between two variants, namely that of a radical and that of an internal discontinuity between first and second modernity. Social change can only be considered radical ‘when the application of modern principles undermines these principles themselves’ (Habermas 2005).1 In contrast to this, Habermas – like us – argues for the recognition of a certain internal discontinuity, which makes it perfectly possible to describe the new empirical situation of reflexive modernization by (using the distinction offered by Beck himself) as a transformation of basic institutions in which the basic principles of modernity continue to operate successfully’. Habermas concludes from this that these principles should now be formulated in turn at a sufficiently abstract level within sociology and social theory. He makes the following proposal: ‘Modern societies are characterized by the accelerated mobilization of social change that is moving not only towards exhausting all quasi-natural reserves of an unreflected, lived ethos and of customary practices, but also towards internalizing all natural resources – in other words, the ecological environment and the organic substrate of socialized individuals (including the generative mechanism whereby parental sets of chromosomes randomly combine); that is to say, it is incorporating such resources completely into the cycle of the self-reproduction of society. This dynamic of change has been placed on a self-regulating, permanent footing in the first place by the interlinking of the capitalist economy with institutionalized science and the development of productive forces. From a sociological point of view, the distinctive feature of modern societies is the way in which the cumulative intermeshing of the rationalization of the life world with the functional differentiation of social subsystems is stabilized. In this context I shall purposely leave the mechanisms of growing systemic complexity to one side and concentrate solely on principles. These find expression in the reorientation of modes of life

  • • 
    towards a self-critical appropriation of traditions
  • • 
    towards the generation of egalitarian forms of solidarity and
  • • 
    towards the acquisition of expertise in the independent shaping of one's life. (Habermas 2005: 1 ff.)

Habermas then sets out in detail these principles of reflexivity, egalitarianism and subjectivity, which are located at a different level than social structures. They need to be related to the observer perspective of the social scientist and kept free of essentialist connotations. We shall not be pursuing these theoretical perspectives in this essay, but turn instead to their empirical implications.

2. Programme of empirical research

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. 1. Basic theoretical assumptions
  4. 2. Programme of empirical research
  5. 3. Structural break: the continuity of basic principles and discontinuity of basic institutions
  6. 4. Reconstructing first modernity
  7. 5. Manifestations of the new
  8. 6. Wasn’t and isn’t all modernization reflexive? What is new about the theory of reflexive modernization?
  9. Bibliography

The meta-change of modern societies, which has only been roughly outlined here, occurs in different ways in nearly every social sphere. The theory of reflexive modernization, translated into a programme of empirical research, makes it possible to compare different phenomena of the structural transcending of boundaries and to investigate whether they reveal any similar patterns or trends. This empirical investigation has been carried out since 1999 in a research consortium funded by the German Research Society (DFG),2 involving four universities located in the Munich/Augsburg area. About sixteen empirical research projects are distributed across three fields of inquiry: a) knowledge, science and technology, b) individuals, life situations/lifestyles, work, and c) economics, politics and history. The results of these different endeavours have revealed remarkably consistent patterns of meta-change across very heterogeneous spheres of action and systems. For example, in the sphere of science and technology it has become clear that the elimination of boundaries from institutionalized nature–society distinctions and the elimination of the difference between scientific and non-scientific knowledge is leading to situations marked by crisis. Science is itself developing into a source of uncertainty, lack of knowledge and categorical ambiguity (Böschen and Wehling 2004). This means that those institutions that are still under obligation to make decisions have necessarily to make them in a pragmatic way, using political procedures and normative criteria (Böschen and Schulz-Schaeffer 2003).

The projects located within this field of inquiry address such different issues as the recognition of experiential knowledge and tacit knowledge in professional and technological contexts (Böhle, Pfeiffer and Sevsay-Tegethoff 2004), the problems that attend science assessment (Böschen and Wehling 2004), the legal consequences of biomedicine (May 2005) and the philosophical elucidation of ethical dilemmas (Sellmaier 2005).

The second field of inquiry (individuals, groups, work) has brought to light the different manifestations of a social structure in the process of becoming more fluid and individualized (Beck and Beck-Gernsheim 2001). Under conditions of reflexive modernization, research subjects are no longer able to take pre-given standard biographies, or the model of lifelong normal work, or the pattern of the stable nuclear family as their point of orientation. At the same time, however, rather than the various processes of increasing flexibility and boundary transcendence leading to an anomic breakdown of groups and communities, individuals themselves are finding ways of linking conventional and new patterns of family ties and of locating themselves in communities of choice and working relationships. Here, too, it is a matter of new forms of boundary management, in which people set boundaries in a flexible and pragmatic way with regard to the family, friendship networks, working hours and individualization within couple relationships; this is a task they have to attend to over and over again (Keupp, Ahbe and Gmür 2002; Bonß, Kesselring and Vogl 2005; Wimbauer 2003).

The third empirical field dealt with in the research consortium (economics, politics and history) is concerned with processes of boundary transcendence related to corporations and nation-states and their consequences. Here, too, it has been found that the boundaries of transnational political regimes, for example, which can be understood as a political reaction to processes of denationalization, are precarious and contingent. Different criteria of inclusion compete with one another in this and have to be resolved (Beck and Grande 2004). However, globalization and denationalization not only lead to nation-state politics playing a reduced role, they also lead to a change in the structure of conflicts within nation-states (Grande and Kriesi 2004). Other research projects refer to the transnationalization of historical memory (Levy and Sznaider 2002; Beck, Levy and Sznaider 2004) and to the emergence of a ‘world risk society’ (Beck 1999). Last but not least, the transcendence of boundaries around national spaces makes it clear that society in second modernity can no longer be conceptualized using the concepts and categories of the nation-state, but that a new perspective of ‘methodological cosmopolitanism’ must be developed for this task (Beck 2004).

It is not only the nation-state but also the Fordist company that is affected by changes in its standard form. Processes of ‘internal marketization’ in particular constitute an important factor here, whereby the insulation of the market economy from the production economy is increasingly being done away with (Kratzer 2003). This has consequences not only with regard to individuals’ ever more arduous attempts at separating work from life, but also for the system of industrial relations, which is under threat due to the declining role of the trade unions (Heidling et al. 2004). A ‘post-Fordist transitional regime’ of economics and work is becoming apparent in which four features come together: (1) the limited feasibility of establishing the ‘boundless company’, the ‘virtual workforce’, ‘flexible people’; (2) abrupt change in models of rationality; (3) institutionalized links between globalization, individualization and informatization; and (4) a change in legitimation towards cultural neoliberalism (Kratzer et al. 2004).

The cross-section these empirical studies draw through Western societies in transition to second modernity brings a surprisingly uniform picture to light: the institutions that are initially forced to cling to the old order are finding it hard to deal with the new fluid and hybrid forms, pluralizations and ambiguities that now exist. They encounter severe difficulties when it comes to taking action and making decisions, and they increasingly face problems in terms of attributing responsibility – whether it be in world politics or in couple relationships.

We can initially identify (and empirically demonstrate) two varieties of institutional response to this challenge. On the one hand, institutions and individuals can try – despite ‘knowing better’, as it were – to affirm the old ‘either/or’ logic in a pro-active way. One might call this the fundamentalism of nation-state-centred modernity. This can be demonstrated just as much in the USA's global politics of peace-through-war as it can in the barely less explosive issue in family politics of who does the washing up. What they can also do, however, is develop complex reflexive solutions that do greater justice to the new uncertainties and ambiguities that permeate macro and micro spheres alike. This applies both to new models of partnership as well as to attempts at reforming and strengthening international law, the UN and other international institutions. What this is ultimately about is conflicting ideas over values and approaches within the project of modernity, in the face of modernity's self-generated transformation and endangerment.

The one common factor shared by these different modes of response to the institutional crisis facing the foundations of modernity is an acceptance of the need to make decisions and draw new and different boundaries. In other words, the breakdown of the either/or logic of first modernity cannot be accepted in silence, because ultimately it paralyses institutional action and decision-making. In addition to the breaching of boundaries in intellectual and practical spheres, in national and international politics, law, science, work and the economy, the defining feature of the present era is a recognition of the imperative to decide. However, decisions can no longer be taken based on the old system of categorization or on the old (usually scientific) certainties. They require new rationales and procedures that no longer depend on certain knowledge or unambiguous, standardized notions of order. The demands of decision-making and of legitimation are interlinked; each reinforces the other even as it calls the other into question. The aim of this essay is to explore the way in which this occurs.

3. Structural break: the continuity of basic principles and discontinuity of basic institutions

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. 1. Basic theoretical assumptions
  4. 2. Programme of empirical research
  5. 3. Structural break: the continuity of basic principles and discontinuity of basic institutions
  6. 4. Reconstructing first modernity
  7. 5. Manifestations of the new
  8. 6. Wasn’t and isn’t all modernization reflexive? What is new about the theory of reflexive modernization?
  9. Bibliography

None the less, the transition from first to second modernity by no means signifies a complete break in the process of modernization. Unlike postmodernity, second modernity maintains that there is an overlapping of continuity and discontinuity that needs to be defined both theoretically and empirically. In order to do this, it is helpful to interpret and refine the distinction between first and second modernity by using the distinction between basic principles and basic institutions. Second modernity shares certain basic principles or lasting imperatives with first modernity (such as the principle according to which decisions can and must be backed up by rational reasons), which, when fulfilled to the optimum extent, constitute the dynamic element of modernization. By basic institutions we mean the institutional responses to the fundamental imperatives of these basic principles in particular historical contexts, each response being associated with a particular phase of modernity. Thus, for example, a distinction needs to be made between the basic principle of statehood and the basic institution of the nation-state, which is subject to change. While institutional responses, once found, possess a considerable degree of inertia, they are none the less rendered null and void by the ongoing imperatives of modernization, which remove the foundations of their rationales and decision-making. It can therefore be expected that the continuity of modernity will be guaranteed by the basic principles, while the transition to reflexive modernity will be brought about by the discontinuous transformation of basic institutions.

An example may serve to illustrate this link between continuity and discontinuity. One necessary prerequisite for institutional action in both eras is the distinction that can be drawn in principle between the domain of natural causes and phenomena – where issues of responsibility are absent – and the domain of societal decision-making and responsibility. Whereas in first modernity it was clearly the task of science to provide a rationale for this nature–society difference, this same boundary turns into plural boundaries in second modernity, and the rationale for it likewise. Thus, basic principles are cognitive–normative problems and minimum requirements of the ‘project of modernity’, which represent its ‘driving force’ and thereby keep its developmental dynamic going. Some of these principles have already been mentioned, such as the capacity to provide a rationale for statements, structures and decisions and the principle of statehood. Others include the principle of individual reproduction through gainful employment, the principle of egalitarianism, the principle of functional inclusion and the demarcation of nature from society.

These basic principles of modernity do not lose any of their normative validity; on the contrary, their claim to validity becomes greater in the course of reflexive modernization. It is this dynamic of expansion above all which plays an important role in the categorical transformation of each specific institutional response. This transformation does not occur continuously, but rather in fits and starts. In the Western industrial societies of the postwar period – and not least due to the influence of the Cold War – institutional solutions (basic institutions) had become condensed into an arrangement whose structure seemed to many modernization theorists of the time to be the virtually unsurpassable final stage of social development. It is this formation of mutually complementary basic institutions – a society based on gainful employment, the nation-state, the nuclear family and a gender-specific division of labour, Fordist production, scientific rationality based on control – that we describe here as first modernity and whose self-transformation, in its many and varied aspects, forms the centre of our research interest.

Due to the close link between institutions that depend on one another to exist, it can be assumed that processes of change and transformation in particular parts of the structure will trigger problems in other parts (the side-effects of side-effects), exposing the entire structure of society to the pressure of change. Thus, for example, new technologically induced risks generate problems for politics: in many cases where it is no longer sufficient to prevent risks in the national context alone, global solutions are needed. The continuous advance of radicalized individualization, to name another example, leads not only to the erosion of the nuclear family as a standard way of life, but also exerts an impact on the increasing flexibility of conditions of work and on structures of social co-existence. In other words, these kind of awkward institutional matches and links serve to stabilize the social structure. However, because of the interdependency that exists between its elements, they also make it susceptible to the imperative to adapt, as well as to unintended consequences involving change.

4. Reconstructing first modernity

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. 1. Basic theoretical assumptions
  4. 2. Programme of empirical research
  5. 3. Structural break: the continuity of basic principles and discontinuity of basic institutions
  6. 4. Reconstructing first modernity
  7. 5. Manifestations of the new
  8. 6. Wasn’t and isn’t all modernization reflexive? What is new about the theory of reflexive modernization?
  9. Bibliography

In order to recognize and make sufficient sense of the phenomena of meta-change, we need first to reconstruct the basic institutions and categories of first modernity. This is necessary, if only to stop us falling into the trap of thinking that the phenomena of the new are more novel than they really are by over-stylizing and simplifying the old. Reconstructing the basic institutions of first modernity – and going further than the simplistic and simplifying statements of the sociological textbooks – is a demanding task that can really only be done by carrying out detailed analyses of specific domains of social activity.

None the less, a few general conclusions can be drawn on the basis of our empirical findings that offer a more differentiated view of the standard image of modernity (the one that has been influenced above all by the classical sociologists and by structural functionalism). This image is determined above all by continuing functional differentiation and the increasing inclusion of members of society in the functional subsystems (Schimank 1996). Fundamental structural change at this level, it is claimed, refers to a reduction in differentiation through the erosion of boundaries between autonomous subsystems. However, hardly any empirical evidence of such a process exists. Rather, it is forced functional differentiation that leads to problems in other function systems, albeit at a ‘lower’ structural level, one that has thus far been paid too little attention in sociological theory.

The institutional order of first modernity, function systems apart, is characterized by a complex pattern of boundary demarcations, standard forms and distinctions. It distinguished between different forms of community, activities and modes of knowledge according to the ‘either/or’ principle, thus separating them permanently and unambiguously. The world of first modernity is ordered by a system of dichotomies and dualisms that allocates members of society their place in a categorical order; this order contains only those ambivalences and ambiguities which (according to the prevailing viewpoint) can be overcome in principle time and again through procedures by which order is re-established. This ordering system separates different kinds of rationales, spheres of action and categories from one another and makes it possible to allocate responsibilities, tasks, obligations in respect of providing rationales, and legal claims unambiguously in spatial, temporal, practical and social terms. In first modernity it always seemed possible to decide what was scientific knowledge and what was not, which phenomena were of human and which of natural origin, who belonged to the territorial state society and who didn’t, where the boundaries of companies were to be drawn and where those between the private and public sphere, where national relations stop and international relations begin.

These distinctions are not systemic boundaries, but rather dichotomies that have functions related directly to action. We use the metaphor of the boundary because it enables us to look at very different kinds of empirical phenomena (such as the boundaries between spheres of influence), at categorical distinctions and the difference between different types of knowledge from a common point of view. It is only through looking in this generalized way at the heterogeneous dichotomies and basic distinctions of the national society based on the industrial welfare state (and its corresponding national sociology) that it becomes possible to establish which functions are fulfilled by this institutional logic. Perhaps the most important of these is the allocation of, or exemption from, responsibility. In the one sphere, that where action is taken directly, all the consequences of an action are attributed to the actor and therefore demand a rationale; this applies, for example, to risk, to company organizations and to the public sphere. The other domain is exempt from the obligation to provide rationales and is self-legitimating, as in the case, for example, of danger, the market, the private sphere. Perhaps the most important distinction of this kind is the nature–society difference, which in its many different sub-forms (healthy/sick, life/death, genetically modified/non-modified, anthropogenic/non-anthropogenic) exempts actors from every kind of responsibility and from having to give reasons for their actions. Only through the demarcation of each different sphere of responsibility and by bracketing off any ‘residue’ of reality for which no rationale can be given can modernity's potential for rationalization fully unfold. It is obvious that if these boundaries become blurred or are even dismantled, the outcome will be institutional crises regarding responsibility and decision-making, as we are currently observing in the debate over stem cells, for example, and in the debate over how far international law still provides a basis for decisions about war and peace.

Another important function of institutional boundary-drawing in first modernity, referred to especially by Foucault and Bauman, is its impact on standardization and normalization. According to this ordering logic, certain forms of social life (nuclear family), knowledge (scientific knowledge), work (paid work, regular work), statehood (nation-state, welfare state), subjectivity (criminal responsibility) are marked out as standard forms ahead of all other forms and are recognized both in law and in society. Standardization and normalization rely on clear distinctions between the standard form and forms that deviate from the standard. The dissolution or pluralization of these boundaries is hard to reconcile with the institutional logic of first modernity, as the latter relies on clear criteria (e.g. criminally responsible/not criminally responsible) in order to reach decisions.

However, anyone taking a closer look at this simple, stylized picture of first modernity will be almost bound to raise the standard objection that, even before, the world was never ordered as unambiguously as is claimed. And indeed we did come across a number of cases in the course of our research – not least because we were keeping a sharper lookout for phenomena displaying plurality and ambiguity – where there were deviations from the ‘either/or structures’ of first modernity outlined here. By exploring the plurality of institutional solutions in the present, it is possible to gain a more differentiated view of the past, one that avoids the over-stylizations and simplifications of conventional theories of modernization and of textbook accounts.

An important development in our basic assumptions about first modernity emerges out of this. Alongside the dominant standard and normal forms, there are always other forms of the organization of work, knowledge and modes of social co-existence. Even in first modernity, it was not always possible to make clear, categorical distinctions or to maintain boundary divisions. However, unlike the phenomena of meta-change that we have examined, such ambiguities and deviations from the normal model were not recognized. This is exactly why social recognition of plurality and ambiguity seems to us to be essential for the transition to second modernity – especially when this recognition occurs in institutionalized form.

This argument can be illustrated by considering the pluralization of the family (cf. Beck and Beck-Gernsheim 2003). As family historians, above all, have convincingly demonstrated, the ‘chaos of family life’ with regard to children and lines of kinship is not a feature that distinguishes second modernity from earlier social epochs; rather, this chaos runs right through history. During feudal times in Europe, for example, the ‘pluralization of forms of family life’ was apparent wherever one looked, with numerous step-families (not least on account of short life expectancies), countless illegitimate children, and so on. In spite of this, it is possible to identify at least one striking feature that distinguishes the chaos of pre-modern family life from that of second modernity. Previously, plurality was marginalized, whereas today it is institutionally normalized and recognized– both in society as well as in law. Evidence of this institutionalized recognition has been accumulating internationally in all aspects of the legal system since the second half of the twentieth century, and especially in divorce law, family law, inheritance law, basic children's rights, and so on. None the less, legal recognition of this unbridled plurality of family forms also compels individuals to confront a host of everyday decisions, such as who gets to inherit (beyond the inheritance to which a person is legally entitled)? Who is (not) invited to which family celebrations? Which set of grandparents should a person take care of in their old age – their biological grandparents, whom they haven’t seen since they were five years old, or their grandparents ‘by marriage’ (what an embarrassing term!), with whom they have shared all the major public holidays and to whom they feel emotionally close? If in-vitro fertilization also becomes established in the future, if it is legally recognized and normalized (in Germany it is still limited to married and cohabiting couples, though this is less and less the case internationally), the boundaries of the family will implode, while the difficulties and dilemmas involved in making decisions will do just the opposite. Who, in cases of conflict, is the ‘mother’ who should be given custody of a child: the ‘mother’ who has donated the eggs, the ‘mother’ who has carried the baby to term, or the ‘mother’ who raises the child? – and so on and so forth. This is just one example of how the recognition and thus the enabling of plurality brings about an exponential increase in the number and difficulty of decisions that need to be made.3

As we have said, contrary to the ‘either/or’ logic of institutional structures, factual ‘disruptions’ of this categorical order occurred time and again, and often continually, in first modernity. None the less, the consensus was that these were indeed ‘deviations’ and ‘disruptions’ that had to be overcome and indeed seemed capable of being eliminated, at least in principle; this would occur by establishing and perfecting the basic institutions of modernity. This standard position of first modernity can already be found in the work of the ‘positivists’– an intellectual movement of the early nineteenth century, founded in France by Henri Saint-Simon and Auguste Comte. The positivists believed that the driving force behind historical change was the growth of scientific knowledge, and that the way to open up new sources of wealth and to establish a new kind of civilization based on rationality and humanity was simply to acquire more and better knowledge. A similar, if ambiguous, type of argument runs through the work of classical sociologists such as Weber and Parsons. Weber, for example, spoke of an ‘endless demystification’ of the world that was irreversible and would lead, not necessarily to better conditions, but certainly to more rational, predictable conditions. Parsons, on the other hand, wrote in a posthumously published essay that the capacity of human beings to cope with uncertainty and ambiguity was systematically increasing during the course of evolution and that in modern societies in particular it was becoming increasing possible to make ‘uncertainty’ disappear, that is, to transform uncertainty into certainty, ambiguity into clarity and chaos into planning (cf. Parsons 1980: 145).

The non-recognition of ambiguity, dissent and plurality is matched by a specific way of dealing with all that deviates from the norm or is ambiguous. A whole set of strategies for re-establishing categorical order are in evidence here, ranging from the ‘purging’ (cf. Bauman 1991; Latour 1993) of mélange phenomena and uncertainties through to non-consideration or exclusion of the Other. Even if these strategies failed to meet with immediate success in every instance and if the deviant and the excluded continued to exist in real life, none the less the creation of clarity and certainty remained as normative ideals – closely linked with notions of scientific-technological rationality (universalism) on the one hand, and with culturally homogenous nationality (nationalism) on the other – over long periods of time (and in many spheres even today).4 The following strategies can be identified as examples of this.

Marginalization

The strategy of marginalization does not involve denying that phenomena which deviate from the norm exist empirically. But they are ultimately interpreted as residual and remainder forms, which sooner or later have to give way to their corresponding normality types. For example, in spite of the continued existence and partial expansion of the trades, the model of the large industrial factory and the ‘system of industrial relations’ was established as the normal model for regulating labour. Similarly, the regulatory models of the nation-state (and of international relations), class conflict (labour and capital), normal forms of work, the nuclear family and the normal biography influenced all those political formations of community and conflict and the ways of life and modes of activity that deviated from them. By virtue of being institutionally sidelined and defined as ‘out-dated’ and ‘deviant’, as ‘belonging to a different era’, these phenomena began to be no longer (capable of being) perceived as such, and as a rule were emptied of normative value and institutionally ignored. Thus, for example, the phenomena of globalization have existed in every age (intercontinental trading routes, conquests, colonialism, slavery, imperial multi-ethnicity). Evidence also exists to show that – as a result of slavery and migration – forms of transnationalization existed early on and continued to do so throughout the entire national era. But in the uncontested dominance of the national perspective, these remain under the shadow of pre-determined irrelevance – unseen, unresearched. This has enormous consequences for empirical social research. ‘Normalizing’ categories of observation, for example, can make it difficult, at the very least, to perceive deviant ‘non-normal’ phenomena, as in the case of the statistical analysis of mass data in the social sciences.

However, there is also evidence of strategies of marginalization in first modernity with regard to the ‘scientization’ of social practices. Non-scientific knowledge, such as that gained through experience, was, and is, frequently seen as being marginal and inferior to scientific knowledge, even if in actual fact it continues to provide an important basis for professional practice.

Temporal deferment

Possibly at least as important as the strategy of marginalization of the deviant is the strategy of deferral of certainty to a future time. Even if it is not yet possible to achieve clear boundary definitions in the present, such as those between life and death, or to establish complete and consensual scientific justifications for certain practices, such as the work of a doctor, these are none the less possible in principle – so the assumption goes – and will follow at some point in the future, thanks to scientific progress. Asserting that a problem will be solved in the future provides a legitimate basis for provisionally accepting the existence of contradictory categorical definitions and boundary demarcations in the present. The strategy of temporal deferment is bound up with the notion that the natural sciences are capable in principle of fathoming the world's mysteries, although they have so far done so only inadequately, and that this makes all non-scientific experiential sources (tacit knowledge, intuitive and experience-based knowledge, local contextual knowledge) obsolete and enables the best possible solutions to be found to existing problems.

What is also ‘postponed’ in this approach is action to remedy the distortions of the scientistic worldview caused by regularly recurring scientific disputes and disagreement among experts. Lack of unanimity among scientists – regarding, say, the human or natural causes of disasters and environmental degradation – is regarded as something that can be overcome by applying better methods and measuring procedures, rather than being put down to the ineluctable normativity of political-scientific discourse or the complexity of the subject concerned.

While in many spheres today it is becoming apparent that uncertainty and insecurity are being either compounded or even generated by scientific-technological developments, the actual uncertainties and insecurities of first modernity were interpreted as transitional phenomena in a process of scientization and rationalization, at the end of which we could expect to achieve total security and cognitive certainty. Many subscribed to the view that given enough time and money, everything can be done securely and safely – a maxim that continues to carry weight in research focused on this theme, even if only a minority of people still go along with it as far as technological and social issues are concerned.

Ontologization

Another strategy aimed at establishing an unquestionable rationalization for basic institutions and categories consists in grounding them in natural facts and anthropological truisms. If social distinctions and ways of forming human communities are derived from natural distinctions and necessities, they are exempted from any further obligation to provide grounds for their existence and are considered as non-contingent anthropological inevitabilities. Thus, repeated attempts have been made to naturalize family forms, the sexual division of labour, educational differences, racial distinctions and demands for ethnic homogenization and thereby put them beyond all doubt.

Since such ontologizations of basic structures and foundational categories contravenes a basic principle of modernity – namely that all structural decisions should be open to critique and subject to rationalization – they have never really been successful over the long term, only for certain periods of time. However, the absolute monopoly on truth enjoyed by the (natural) sciences during first modernity regularly provides both the incentive and opportunity to derive normative statements from ‘human nature’ and thus to lend them special validity. In a certain sense, the distinction between nature and society – and therefore also between facts and values and science and politics – itself constitutes a differentiation that has been grounded ontologically (Latour 1995). While such differentiation may meet the constitutive necessities of every society, it certainly need not be institutionalized to this degree of clarity and precision (cf. Lau and Keller 2001).

Monopolization

A further opportunity to counteract the pluralization of structures and the blurring of boundary demarcations exists in the domain of state activity. Both the state's monopoly on violence and legal regulation make it possible to achieve a degree of standardization and to enable particular forms of social co-existence, political representation and rationalization to claim monopoly status. This applies to the nation-state itself, for example, and to its territorial demarcation over against other states, which in turn gives rise to a range of further categorical, institutional distinctions (native/foreigner, war/peace, police/military etc.).

The formal clarity with which different areas of responsibility are isolated from one another and entitlements and processes of attribution legally institutionalized is considerable, thereby creating certainty when it comes to making decisions. However, what this does presuppose is that the foundations of institutional boundary-drawing are not undermined in actual fact and that the reasons given for them are acknowledged and accepted. It is precisely these preconditions that are called into question in some spheres by various developments (globalization, the growth in scientific uncertainty, individualization, the increasing flexibility of labour) and are forcing the state to formulate appropriate responses, thereby calling into question the entire ‘either/or’ structure of the social architecture.

5. Manifestations of the new

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. 1. Basic theoretical assumptions
  4. 2. Programme of empirical research
  5. 3. Structural break: the continuity of basic principles and discontinuity of basic institutions
  6. 4. Reconstructing first modernity
  7. 5. Manifestations of the new
  8. 6. Wasn’t and isn’t all modernization reflexive? What is new about the theory of reflexive modernization?
  9. Bibliography

The strategies of marginalization, temporal deferment, ontologization and monopolization outlined above were not only significant for first modernity in establishing its claim to rationality, but continue to play a considerable role even today. In spite of this, however, they are becoming less effective and, in the face of growing contingencies and the problem of side-effects, there are justified doubts as to whether the envisaged return to the ideal of clarity can actually succeed. The blurrings and ambiguities present at both individual and institutional levels are increasing to such an extent that it is hard to ignore the possibility that a new structural logic may be emerging beyond the dualities of first modernity.

What is questionable, however – and this is a key problem with the theory of reflexive modernization – is how this new structural logic, given that it does exist, can be described. This is the point on which we have made what is probably the most important differentiation in our initial assumptions, based on the results of our empirical research (cf. Beck, Bonß and Lau 2001). In many cases it has proved to be the case that the old structures (basic institutions) do not simply crumble away without being replaced, as some of our original formulations suggested, in order themselves to be replaced according to the either/or principle. If this were the case, that is, if there were a ‘pure type’ of the new, this itself would still be caught up in the problems of non-ambiguity. In contrast to this, our research to date has shown that the new must itself be conceived of in terms of the both/and principle. This is because it doesn’t appear in ‘pure’ form, but rather in many diverse configurations.

This shift in emphasis, based on empirical observation, has a number of significant consequences. While we had assumed at first that old and new basic institutions existed in a relationship of mutual exclusion, it has since transpired that the pluralism whose existence we had implied at the time is more diverse than we had initially supposed. That which has existed up until now is not simply replaced or dissolved and does not simply appear as a mere residual leftover; instead, it combines with new elements in different forms, so that structures that had seemed to be long out-dated become relevant all over again and may, within a both/and framework, become typical manifestations of reflexive modernity.

As the above named processes of meta-change come into effect, the structural principle of exclusive distinctions seems no longer to be sustainable in many cases, apparently giving way to a principle of inclusive differentiation, that is, plural, ambiguous rules for allocation. This finding has been confirmed in very different fields in the research presented in this essay. None the less, the question that remains unanswered and that needs to be urgently addressed in the course of further research is whether or not the situations brought about in this way are stable. Are we dealing with transitional phenomena leading to a new structural order? Or is there indeed a principle concealed behind the new plural boundaries that deviates fundamentally from the pattern of first modernity? In many cases, the results documented here point in the latter direction. The stability of reflexive-modern solutions depends, of course, on whether they are in a position to solve the institutional problems generated by the blurring of boundaries. After all, institutions (as well as individuals) still have to make decisions with regard to classifications and boundaries, and they have mark out their sphere of responsibility in temporal, spatial and practical terms. If they are unable to do this, they will encounter difficulties, particularly with regard to issues of legitimation, that may create considerable obstacles to coordinated action in the sphere concerned.

Reflexive solutions – as we have already mentioned – can assume different forms. In the areas we have examined, it is possible to identify the following ways of dealing with ambiguity and ambivalence.

Pluralism specific to a particular sphere

In this case, a boundary definition or a standard institutional solution that until now had claimed to be valid for the entire institutional field (e.g. medicine), is replaced by several different ones, albeit these do not apply to the entire field, but are instead related to different sub-fields that are separated off from one another. This enables contradictions to be avoided that would otherwise arise if different criteria were applied to the same situation in which a decision had to be made.

At first sight this solution appears to follow the well-known principle of (functional) differentiation, the classic principle of first modernity in which the different aspects of a problem are allocated to different spheres of action and are each dealt with according to different criteria (values, codes, logics of action). Our case studies, however, deviate from this principle, in as much as they involve fundamental boundary definitions that up until now have been backed up by the claim of scientific objectivity. If, by appeal to practical, functional necessities and situational constraints, they are replaced with a multiplicity of boundary definitions that are simultaneously valid, then these boundary definitions lose their fundamental ‘naturalistic’ character. What is implicitly acknowledged in this is that the definition of specific boundaries within a boundary space that remains diffuse occurs relatively arbitrarily, that is, no longer by recourse to unambiguous scientific results, but according to practical necessities. In principle, then, boundary definitions can be altered again at any time and remain the object of not only scientific but also political dispute.

The example of different definitions of the precise time of death (brain death, heart failure) illustrates clearly that this is not simply a matter of the differentiation of various fields of practice within medicine (transplantation), but one of questioning the right to determine the boundary between life and death (nature/society) unambiguously and uniformly for the entire medical field. While there is indeed evidence that conflict has existed within science in the past as well over the definition of the precise time of death, these were conducted against the background of a generally accepted assumption that it was possible in principle to set a clear boundary and that this was to be done by scientific means.

Plural compromise

This strategy is about combining different principles that fundamentally contradict one another into a single formula based on compromise. Let us take the example of the ruling on abortion in Germany. This came about as a compromise between different positions based on different values and ideological and political interests. Abortion is generally forbidden, save in exceptional circumstances. The issue of whether or not these specific circumstances apply is determined not by experts alone but is also addressed at a practical level by considering the situation of the mother. Since this involves a conflict between different values, the solution lies not in a distributive compromise based on quantitative factors, but in the linking of opposing values in a both/and formula. There is no doubt that this kind of double standard, having once gained acceptance, has some degree of stability, since any change would immediately give rise to new conflicts. Still, the negotiation and interpretation of what constitutes exceptional circumstances may be subject to considerable change, thereby opening up the entire system to debate once again.

These sorts of compromises have been a familiar feature for some time now. In a certain way all forms of double standards that are put into practice follow this logic, albeit up until now they have generally been considered to be illegitimate. Legal compromises such as the one outlined above have also been regarded rather as less-than-ideal solutions. As they and their implied pluralism come to be recognized as a legitimate, desirable way of resolving problems based on conflicting values, they acquire a different functional significance and become intentional both/and forms.

Hierarchically organized pluralism

In this case, as with the previous one, several options are kept open at the same time, although one of them is accorded top priority – it is considered ‘normal’ and is given precedence over the others. The deviant options are acknowledged, however, so they do not have the character of mere remainders or stopgaps. In many cases, this type of pluralism with regard to different sorts of decision-making criteria, forms of activity and varieties of knowledge has always existed. Generally speaking, however, the options that deviated from the norm were either excluded as illegitimate or else were characterized as deviations that needed to be overcome. It is only once they come to be acknowledged as equally valid options or as permanent additions to the norm that the prospect of a plurality of rationalities, activities and forms of cooperation is opened up, even if one of them is still declared to be indispensable.

We found many examples of this both/and form in the fields we studied. It can be demonstrated, for example, that while ‘normal labour relations’ still persist, a large number of other occupational forms have emerged alongside them that are not merely seen as a deviation but have come to be part of the normality of working life. A similar situation applies to activities that lie outside the realm of paid work. These are by no means new, either. What is new, however, is that while they are (still) seen as different from paid work, they are none the less considered to approximate to the classic type of work, so that what emerges is a new heterogeneity and pluralization of understandings of work, akin to Walwei's ‘diversity of forms as a way ahead’ (Walwei and Hoffman 1998). Thus, the norm is extended and simultaneously accorded less importance, even as it continues to exist in its traditional form.

A comparable situation applies to the changing way in which non-scientific knowledge is dealt with: it has long since stopped being marginalized. However, the greater value accorded to experiential knowledge and intuitive knowledge by no means signals the end of the scientization of social practice. Instead, the crucial point is that science is no longer seen as being solely responsible for generating valid and useful knowledge.

Hierarchically ordered pluralism can also be observed in the area of forms of social co-existence. For example, the ‘normal family’ still enjoys the special protection of German basic law, but family forms that deviate from this norm, including same-sex partnerships, are also recognized in legal terms as a ‘functional equivalent’. A comparable pattern can be observed with regard to groupings that are increasingly complemented by post-traditional bonds. Finally, hierarchically organized pluralizations are also manifested in the organization of work, as well as in the strategies of mobility and security adopted by individuals. For example, actual biographies are often reconstructed and perceived as (positively or negatively valued) deviations from what are implied as being normal biographies: the latter are still seen as being a normative point of reference, even if this benchmark is subject to frequent challenge and in some respects contradicts lived realities.

Once plurality is acknowledged in this way, however, a number of problems arise as a result. For example, which biographical patterns are considered to be socially unacceptable once the normal biography no longer exists as such? And where, for example, do the boundaries of recognized non-scientific knowledge in medicine lie, once it is recognized as being a useful and even necessary addition to scientific knowledge? Can esoteric knowledge be included here as well as intuitive and experiential knowledge? What criteria are available (or can be developed) for assessing the different options? How does the normative ideal impact on such post-norm issues? For all these reasons, then, it is likely that ‘hierarchically organized plurality’, as a type, will bring about a certain degree of instability, as it may establish a variety of strategic, inter-professional competitiveness that could lead to change.

Unstructured plurality

The problems alluded to above become more serious once the alternative versions are genuinely given equal status. This type of both/and solution fits with postmodern ideas about the fundamental equality of heterogeneous patterns of organization, forms of social co-existence and norm systems (‘anything goes’). Selection is ultimately made on the basis of idiosyncratic or ethnocentric criteria.

In the areas we studied we were unable to discover a pure form of this type, which is usually described in terms of ‘anomie’ in the sociology of first modernity.5 The following may be seen as the main reasons for this. Firstly, in the context of a completely unstructured plurality of options, it is no longer possible to make decisions based on a rationale. It is not only institutional decision-makers who are faced with almost intractable problems because of this: individuals too are overwhelmed as they ponder a multitude of possibilities, without any criteria by which to judge them. At least with hierarchically structured heterogeneity, described above, there is a ‘first port of call’ (which makes this solution much more practicable), a norm which, even if it has broken down, still provides some orientation for decision-making. Secondly, and linked to this, the problem of demarcation towards the outside emerges here in an exaggerated form. The dualisms of nature/society, work/non-work, knowledge/non-knowledge, market/hierarchy, family/non-family, national/international, us/them, which structured the different fields of first modernity, have now imploded, as it were, and have left behind a disordered multitude of different forms. This diversity without criteria not only prevents unambiguous decisions from being made, it also makes it hard to define ‘what doesn’t belong’. For example, with the levelling off of the difference between paid work and other activities and the establishment of an ‘extended concept of work’, all manner of forms of activity can be captured by the concept of work (grief work, reproductive work, relationship work etc.); and once the concept of first modernity's ‘normal family’ has been watered down, it becomes possible to introduce an astonishingly wide range of different kinds of relationship into the debate within the category of ‘family’.

The intermeshing of alternatives

In the case of this phenomenon, those forms of knowledge, social co-existence and organization etc. that had previously been excluded or marginalized are blended together with previously dominant forms in a combination of old and new, norm and deviation. Both variants are still recognizable as such, only now they are no longer alternatives to be chosen between, but individual elements of a single solution. Unlike the ‘plural compromise’ type outlined above, here it is more a case of a relationship of reciprocal complementarity rather than one in which contradictory elements are reconciled. This principle can be illustrated using the example of the integration of non-scientific with scientific knowledge. In some of the cases we studied, experiential knowledge is no longer regarded as a subordinate form of knowledge, but is instead acknowledged as being irreplaceable and indispensable – albeit only if it can be objectified, that is, if it is compatible with scientific procedures and forms of representation. Thus, the integration of such knowledge occurs selectively, according to scientific criteria. Concurrently with this, new boundaries are drawn to exclude that variety of experiential knowledge that cannot be objectified using scientific methods.

The combination of both forms of knowledge leaves neither unchanged: experience-based knowledge is linked back to the principles of scientific methodology, while scientific procedures have to open themselves up to the special logic of subjective experience. Clearly it is also possible to conceive of other forms of such a hybridizing combination of alternatives that had previously been separated strictly from one another. For example, some company operations display a range of different combinations between hierarchical control and market-based elements. Or again, certain elements of the old nation-state are just as much integrated into the new transnational political regimes as are new actors from civil society and new political arenas. In this instance, too, the old basic institutions such as nation-states can no longer be the same if they are combined with other institutional forms to create new institutional arrangements. Just how complex the structure of these intermeshing forms can be is apparent in this example. The integration of two different institutional patterns cannot be achieved all at once, but must instead be seen as a longer term process in which many different mutual adaptations need to take place and where failure is always a possibility.

Boundary dissolution and synthesis

The complete elimination of boundaries and distinctions and the synthesis of two institutional variants that had previously been rigorously differentiated represent a very far-reaching response to ambiguity and contradictoriness. In the case of synthesis, something that is genuinely new emerges from different forms of knowledge, social co-existence and activity, and this new thing cannot be explained purely on the basis of the elements brought together.

The figure of total boundary dissolution has been introduced into the debate by writers such as Bruno Latour and Donna Harraway not only to describe mélange phenomena, but also as a normative proposal. According to Latour (1995), it is not until quasi-objects, which eliminate the distinction between subject and object, have been recognized that it becomes possible to regulate and monitor them. A range of counter-arguments can be brought to bear against this ‘ontological monism’, both in its descriptive and its normative form (cf. Lau and Keller 2001). For our purpose here, one sociological objection is of particular significance: the total dissolution of categorical basic distinctions, such as the difference between nature and society in their different respective manifestations, is not possible for the simple reason that it would no longer be possible to attribute responsibility. People would have to be made responsible for every phenomenon in the world or for none at all. In other words, even if one shares the position of ontological monism, the division of the world into spheres of human responsibility would still remain a societal necessity. The need to draw boundaries – however fictitious they may be – in order to make any decisions at all, is Latour's sociological blind spot.6

On the other hand, we share the view put forward by Latour and others that the process by which boundaries become unclear constitutes the empirical starting point for a transformation of the very nature of modernity. In the fields we have examined, it is relatively rare to find a total dissolution of boundaries, that is, of distinctions posited fictitiously and decisionistically. Such a scenario occurs when – due to new technologies – scientific procedures are fundamentally no longer capable of confirming where a given boundary lies. In this case, it is not that experts disagree, but rather that consensus exists on the fact that no differences can be detected using measuring techniques. This already seems to be the case in many instances of doping in professional sport, and can be expected to become the norm once gene-based doping techniques have been introduced, which is an entirely plausible prospect. Our assumption is that when a boundary such as this dissolves, it causes considerable institutional turmoil and calls for an appropriate response. In the case of professional sport, for example, allowing participants to take performance-enhancing drugs could lead to an entirely new understanding of sporting competition. Similar phenomena could occur in certain spheres of genetically modified food (absence of proof) or once stem cell therapy has been approved.

In the sphere of social demarcations, it is unlikely that boundaries will dissolve completely, since distinctions in this sphere have always had the status of social constructions. However, a range of phenomena here can be interpreted as a kind of synthesis, involving the emergence of a qualitatively new form within the boundary zones of classically modern distinctions. This may be the case, for example, in the sphere of transnational political regimes or in the boundary zone between market and company (organizational networks) (Mayntz 1992). This is where new forms of co-operation arise, which work according to their own logic of action and come to decisions in a way that is different from their ‘predecessor alternatives’.

However, it is not only the real features of such syntheses that are decisive, but rather the question as to whether they are actually recognized as new phenomena. This is because it is only then – if they are recognized as such – that institutions, as well as other actors, can respond to the new pattern of order; only then is it possible to create a demarcation over against other forms.

Sequentialization

This refers to a pendulum-style shifting of boundaries. First one and then another boundary definition is given preference over successive periods of time. In explanations of human intelligence, for example, biological factors will be given priority in some phases, while in others the circumstances of socialization will be given more credence as an explanation. Such shifts that occur on the basis of ‘fashion’ cannot strictly be characterized as reflexive-modern – except, that is, when they are consciously chosen as such, as in different phases of a person's biography. Thus, in contrast to notions of ‘maturation’ which dominated first modernity, we observe normal biographical phases (with their corresponding orientation towards security) being repeatedly interrupted by phases dedicated to quite a different way of living, considered to be no less legitimate.

This sequentialization seems – not in every case, but at least in some – to point to a new, reflexive pattern. The situation is quite different in the case of theories of intelligence, however, which manifest fluctuations that depend on the prevailing intellectual climate; these fluctuations are only possible because the (nature–society) demarcation is relatively unimportant for making concrete decisions in the education system and can therefore remain latent. This is doubtless also the case with cyclical shifts in emphasis in other fields of culture. It would be worth examining whether other ‘pendulum swings’, such as the cyclical change between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ management models, can be viewed as a sequential both/and pattern in the sense of reflexive modernization.

Reflexive decisionism

One way of dealing with ambiguity, lack of clarity and eroding boundaries is to maintain the old boundary demarcation in the full knowledge that it can no longer be rationalized using scientific arguments and maintain the same claim to non-ambiguity as before. This re-establishment of taboos around boundary change can be presented as a normative move, by drawing attention to the resulting unforeseeable and untenable consequences of boundaries shifts or dissolutions (the ‘slippery slope’ argument). Some suggest, for example, that the existing boundary which defines the point at which life begins should be upheld, despite disagreement amongst experts, because the next, more liberal boundary definition is much more difficult to maintain. Such positions can be referred to as being reflexively decisionistic – unlike ideological or religious grounds – when there can be no more recourse to the naturalness or factuality of the distinction, only to the functional properties of the boundaries per se.

The desire to hold on to the nation-state, the family, class or a normal biography may also spring from such a motivation. One need only recall the debates taking place over the future of the nation-state, to name just one example. Even in Europe, people are still holding on to the fiction of a nation-state that continues to exist unchanged or one that will possibly be reactivated in the future, despite the absence of a national currency and despite the nation's reduced legal and economic powers. The reason given is that only the nation-state can guarantee basic rights, democracy and social security. Whether the insistance on particular ‘boundary taboos’ will succeed in the long term is hard to predict, as it depends on the interests that would be adversely or positively affected by a boundary shift, and on their potential to assert themselves strategically.

The varieties of ‘both/and’ outlined here are generalizations arrived at inductively from empirical studies. They indicate the full range of destabilizing impacts affecting what were once clear rules of classification in national societies based on the industrialized welfare state, while some also represent a response to this destabilization. However, the great complexity of these institutional responses needs – and indeed ought – to be explored further in the future. The struggles and debates over new boundaries, new reflexive rules of categorization and new forms of social co-existence need to be understood as a field involving strategies whose results are uncertain – global political strategies, interest-based strategies, scientific/academic strategies and, in some instances, individual strategies. In order to make an overall assessment of the meta-transformation of modernity, it will be particularly important to look into the problems that result from the erosion of basic institutions and rules of categorization, and their impact on those spheres not directly affected. What are the impacts of a politics of boundary construction on forms of post-national memory and forgiveness? To what extent does economic globalization work its way through to new structures of inequality and new polarized interests within and between national societies? How will these be dealt with politically? Can we really assume – as talk of a ‘world risk society’ suggests – that global risks will inevitably bring about a shared global situation? If not, how might their unequal distribution, the way they are perceived in society and their dynamic for political conflict be differentiated?

For example, what effects does the pluralization of natural demarcations in the sphere of medicine have on the family, individual subject constitution and the legal system? Or again, what effect does the pluralization of forms of work have on individual career patterns and the system of industrial relations? And what does this, along with the transition towards communities of choice, mean for forms of social co-existence and for people's strategies in terms of personal security?

Questions such as these can be formulated in relation to every sphere, although it can be assumed – and this is hinted at in the results themselves – that problems of attribution and ambiguity in an institutional field will lead to destabilization in other fields which had so far been dependent on the ‘supply’ of standard forms of the social and clear categorical distinctions. These kinds of interlinked uncertainties over boundaries (side-effects of side-effects) are also present within those institutional fields in which several previously compatible basic differences had been established. If this global, overarching context of ambiguity between different domains could be proven empirically, then reflexive modernization would no longer merely be the sum total of many individual developments, but would indeed represent a coherent transformation, in the social theoretical sense, of the very nature of modern society.

6. Wasn’t and isn’t all modernization reflexive? What is new about the theory of reflexive modernization?

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. 1. Basic theoretical assumptions
  4. 2. Programme of empirical research
  5. 3. Structural break: the continuity of basic principles and discontinuity of basic institutions
  6. 4. Reconstructing first modernity
  7. 5. Manifestations of the new
  8. 6. Wasn’t and isn’t all modernization reflexive? What is new about the theory of reflexive modernization?
  9. Bibliography

The argument presented above is intended to demonstrate that, in the first instance, ‘reflexive modernization’ is another word for intellectual curiosity about the nature of reality, a curiosity that seeks to reinvigorate and refocus traditional sociological sensibilities in relation to historic breaks and transformations, enabling them to operate with appropriate categories and methods. In order to do this, it needs to reach beyond the rigid concepts of constructivism and weave in between the immovable categories that circumscribe the same old forms of change. Thus, the kind of research programme we envisage is one which will stimulate and satisfy researchers’ hunger for reality by throwing open the windows and doors of social and systems theories that are oblivious to experience and that make the sociological gaze into an inward-looking one. The foregoing argument provides a basis for articulating and reformulating the theory of reflexive modernization more precisely in response to three objections (cf. Keller 2003; Urry 2003; Latour 2003; Münch 2002):

  • 1
    What is currently being passed off as new under the rubric of ‘meta-change’ is already the key topic of classic sociological thought. The founding figures of sociology always addressed the ambiguities associated with the development of modern society as a central theme. Every classical sociologist, in his own way, analyses at least one key principle of modernization that drives the latter forwards and creates cohesion; at the same time, however, there is another principle closely linked to this one, which threatens the social order, or breaks it up, or calls it into question. Alexis de Toqueville, for example, recognizes and underlines the liberating power of the idea of equality, but simultaneously warns that it may dilute and dissolve the intermediary institutions that facilitate equality and freedom. Emile Durkheim, the theoretician and empiricist who early on uncovered the connection between functional differentiation and individualization, sees in this same connection the source of ‘anomies’ that threaten the process of modernization to its very foundations. Max Weber famously described the victory of modernization as a triumph of bureaucratic organization, yet also saw this as the greatest threat to freedom and individuality. Georg Simmel, perhaps the most ‘second modern’ classical sociologist, pointed to the way in which social circles are at once individualized and globalized by the expansion of market relations; and when this happens – according to Simmel – the elements of expansion and the element of threat to individuality become intermeshed. Finally, it was Michel Foucault who demonstrated how discourses and institutions of emancipation complete and perfect power. Thus the key concepts used by the theory of reflexive modernization to explain itself – ambiguity, side-effect, crisis etc. – are put to very diverse and fruitful use at every turn: nothing new there, then, in the world of sociological thought!
  • 2
    But even if one were to concede that certain ideas of classical sociology become radicalized in the theory of reflexive modernization, the issue of ‘fluid structures’ has been developed and thought through in terms of social theory in the various strands of postmodernism, becoming an extensive topic of empirical social research internationally. In this respect, the distinction between postmodernity and second modernity amounts to a semantic sleight of hand, based not so much on any serious pursuit of knowledge but rather on a neurotic desire to make one's mark.
  • 3
    The proposed distinction between first and second modernity is ultimately based on a two-fold error, in which differences are over-emphasized and commonalities underestimated. In order to disguise this fact, a simplified image of first modernity is created in order to serve as a contrast to second modernity. The absence of ambiguity, crisis and side-effects, which are said to characterize second modernity, is alleged to be characteristic of this image. And yet this clearly contradicts historical reality and research.

The above mentioned three objections may sound plausible at first sight, yet they are partly based on misunderstandings and can easily be responded to by reformulating the theory of reflexive modernization:

(1) The culture-critical fears imagined by the classical sociologists have become today's reality. After 100 years of radical modernization, the different dimensions of risk have not only come to pass, they are changing and threatening the very foundations of modernization as we know it – or, to be more precise, the basic institutions of first modernity: the core ideas of the nation-state, the nuclear family, class conflict, international relations, the welfare state, nation-state democracy and scientific knowledge. The way the theory of reflexive modernization describes the present and prospective future of social reality differs quite clearly from the descriptions offered by the classical sociologists. While the latter see breakdowns, crises and ambiguities as occasional instances of intensification, the theory of reflexive modernization attributes these basic difficulties to the functioning of the system. Whereas the sociologies and sociologists of the first modernity see potential complications of the modernization process as exceptions and relegate them to the periphery, the ‘crisis’ addressed by the theory of reflexive modernization has systemic origins; it is a ‘crisis’ in perpetuity, and as such is no longer a crisis, because it invalidates the very concept of crisis: after all, it is the triumphs of first modernity that bring about ‘meta-change’.

This change in change, this transformation of the frame of reference of social change, also changes the meaning of the different theoretical components of reflexive modernization – risk society, forced individualization, multi-dimensional globalization. What the early sociologists and large parts of current sociology understood as ‘decay’, ‘anomie’ and ‘crisis’ within the frame of reference of first modernity is the dominant normality in the theoretical perspective of reflexive modernization, a normality that is recognized, practised and institutionalized as such and which changes its meaning in this process. What appears as ‘decay’ and de-structuration in the unquestioningly accepted frame of reference of first modernity (and in this respect is bracketed off and marginalized), is conceptualized and analysed as a moment of potential re-structuration and re-conceptualization in the theoretical perspective of reflexive modernization.

The theory of second modernity opens the way for a productive critique of the theories of first modernity, indeed it necessitates such critique. The critique goes as follows. The sociology of first modernity is based on a system of dualisms and boundary demarcations that are self-stabilizing and self-reproducing; in other words, the decision has already been made analytically that these dualisms and boundary demarcations are exempted a priori, as it were, from the dynamic of self-demystification entailed by processes of modernization. The social structure objectivism of first modernity that constrains and denies contingency marginalizes the same within given categories. This is demonstrated especially clearly in the systems theory of Niklas Luhmann (1997). This is based – much like the political theory of Carl Schmitt – on a theoretically decisionistic and therefore quasi-ontological binarism.7 It perfects the either/or logic of the social and therefore makes one blind to the very delicate but identifiable, special forms of both/and realities that can be observed (more or less constantly) in the dynamic of reflexive modernization at every level of the social and political sphere. The contrast could hardly be more radical: the universalistic perspective maintains that politics lacks contingency, while the cosmopolitan perspective expects the unexpected – the globalization of the contingency of ‘both/and’. The theory of reflexive modernization represents a rejection of totalizing concepts of society and of the self-referential formation and reproduction of systems (or rather, the formation of relevant concepts and theories). Ultimately this theoretical contradiction has to be decided on historical and empirical grounds. Strangely – and also typically – enough, Luhmann's abstract worlds resist exactly this kind of empirical reference (not to mention the wicked word ‘control’).

Luhmann's systems theory brackets off an important empirical level of society, namely, that of the institutional order ‘beneath’ functional sub-systems. It is precisely on this level that the decisive processes of transformation take place from the perspective of the theory of reflexive modernization. These cannot be seen or even empirically researched by systems theory, for which hardly anything of social relevance exists between functional subsystems and organizations. It is not surprising, therefore, that systems theory has considerable difficulty in describing a variety of fundamental transformation within modernity that leaves the principle of functional differentiation untouched and yet still changes the institutional logic of modern societies in a fundamental way.

(2) The theorists and theories of postmodernity are highly astute in uncovering and describing the processes by which structures become fluid and unbounded; however, they fail to recognize the compulsion that arises out of this, namely to have to make decisions none the less and to fix ever more fluid boundaries for oneself, without the benefit of foundations and without the reassurance provided by roles and routines. This deficit provides the starting point for the theory of reflexive modernization. The question posed theoretically and empirically at this point is, how do boundaries become fluid, how do they duplicate themselves? How do they lose their character of pre-givenness and become capable of being chosen, of being shifted, and by whom? When this occurs, boundaries also lose their collective and objective character and are transformed into plural boundary demarcations which, as boundary constructions, are transparent and therefore give rise to a whole range of boundary conflicts. What does ‘sovereignty’ mean, for example, in a post-national world where, in the face of global risks, even national security problems can no longer be solved nationally? Postmodernity (which, it must be said, is linked very closely and systematically with the departure from modernity) puts forward the diagnosis – even if it is not always expressed in these terms – that boundaries and distinctions in general are done away with. Sociologically speaking, this is plain nonsense, because it conceals precisely the relationship that occupies the centre of the theory of reflexive modernization: the more boundaries are eliminated and the more distinctions are ‘unmade’, the more demarcation and delimitation occurs. It does so, however, in a less final, more helpless, more provisional, and morally and legally more plural form; internal boundaries simultaneously become more flexible and open up the logic of ‘both/and’.

Thus, the postmodern imagination, which has its origins in the critique of knowledge and science, is incapable of uncovering and thinking through the sociological consequences of its diagnosis for social institutions and actors. By losing their pre-given boundaries and the ‘legitimate’ boundary constructions derived from these, institutions ranging from the smallest to the largest – from the private household through to global politics – enter a state of acute turmoil. This turmoil can be handled in at least two ways: either an attempt is made to renew the domination of the old boundaries, be it in decisionistic or fundamentalist manner; or else institutions embark on a learning process, in the course of which reflexive procedures are developed and implemented for dealing with uncertainty and insecurity and ambiguity. Just what will emerge from this process is an open question (hopefully!), although the issue will be decided not least on the extent to which both/and logic is discovered and conceived of in terms of expansion and not in terms of a loss of practical options.

(3) It is indeed the case that the conceptual scheme, or conceptual metaphor, of the ‘new era’ brings with it a temptation to over-exaggerate the degree of internal coherence present within each era, as well as the contrast between eras. This is a tendency we have now corrected. The both/and metaphor is the vehicle for this, as it enables us – following the lessons of historical research – to understand historical change more precisely. For example, it makes no sense and leads to an endless series of misunderstandings to construct a false opposition between the national and the transnational. The transnational must indeed be understood as integral to the redefinition of the national, although even this entails an ‘epistemological break’ in sociological terms and in research practice. Transnational studies need to overcome the reified standpoint of ‘methodological nationalism’, according to which social relations that extend beyond the formal legal borders of nation-states are somehow ‘extra-social’ or sociologically ‘irrelevant’. Transnational studies that remove the distinction between national and international and simultaneously conceptualize and research the national and the transnational on the basis of the both/and principle, have to break with the basic assumption that the nation-state society actually forms a totality and that relations between different nation-states and national societies are ruled out analytically when it comes to researching what is ‘actually real’– the class structure and political dynamics of national societies.

In this sense, transnationality also stands in contradiction to Wallerstein's world systems theory and to the global sociology of John W. Meyer and his research group. Transnational research should neither be confused with a variety of global theory and research that retains the national-international antinomy and projects it onto the global level (Wallerstein 1990), nor with a theory of distribution of global norms (Meyer 2000) that ultimately universalize the ‘one best American way’. To elucidate this point, let us take the emergence of transnational ways of life mediated through the mass media as an example (Robins and Aksoy 2001, 2003). These new forms make it perfectly clear that the national context has not been eliminated. However, the foundations and boundary demarcations of mass media industries and cultures have simultaneously undergone dramatic change, giving rise to all kinds of transnational connections, transformations and confrontations. As a consequence, cultural ties, loyalties and identities come to transcend national boundaries and to circumvent nation-state control. Individuals and groups who choose transnational TV channels and consume transnational programmes live both here and there. How, though, can sociologists conceptualize Turkish and German speaking transmigrants who, while they may live in Berlin, are living out their expectations, ambitions and cultural disruptions elsewhere as well, namely in transnational networks? In methodological nationalism, German-Turkish both/and ways of life and identities are located and analysed within one or the other national frame of reference and thereby robbed of their ‘both/and’ character. Thus, they are described in terms of being ‘uprooted’, ‘un-integrated’, ‘lacking a homeland’, ‘living between two cultures’– all of which are attributes of lack and negativity that presuppose the mono-national unitary perspective. What this fails to recognize is difference, including the challenges and the richness involved in being positioned transnationally. The national perspective, in line with its strategy of marginalization, suggests that this is the exception. But it is precisely this which is empirically dubious, since what we are dealing with are different forms of internal transnationalization of zones of action and experience, in which the exception is increasingly becoming the rule. But even the set of concepts in which these both/and ways of life are captured and researched today –‘diaspora cultures’, ‘hybridity’, ‘creolization’– are conceived as exceptions to the rule; they presuppose the norm of the territorially limited either/or society and identity. This is one decisive reason why issues such as the advancing transnationalization of attitudes, networks, ways of acting and ways of seeing the world are absent in the research fields of large parts of sociology.

Notes
  • 1

    On this, see below.

  • 2

    German Research Programme (SFB 536) Reflexive Modernization, financed by the German Research Society (DFG) with an annual sum of approximately 2.4 million Euro until 2009 inclusive; for more information see Beck and Bonß 2001, Beck and Lau 2004.

  • 3

    This feature of the ‘acknowledgement’ of plurality thus points to different levels and processes of acknowledgement, thus immediately raising the question: how and by whom does such acknowledgement occur? And how can we test this empirically and operationally, beyond the criteria set out here?

  • 4

    The failure of these institutionalized strategies of normalization, their cognitive analysis and delegitimation, can be held responsible in large part (alongside the forms of meta-change outlined above) for the recognition of reflexive-pluralistic solutions.

  • 5

    It is obvious that postmodern ambivalence is most likely to be found in art or in other intellectual spheres, as these are exempted from decision making.

  • 6

    During discussions with Bruno Latour at a workshop held in autumn 2000, there was a marked rapprochement between his and our position (cf. Latour 2003).

  • 7

    In Carl Schmitt's work this coding is introduced somewhat coincidentally, in an experimental way: ‘We assume that in the realm of morality the ultimate distinctions are good and bad; in that of aesthetics, beautiful and ugly; in that of economics, useful and harmful or, for example, worthwhile and not worthwhile’ (Schmitt 1963: 26).

Bibliography

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. 1. Basic theoretical assumptions
  4. 2. Programme of empirical research
  5. 3. Structural break: the continuity of basic principles and discontinuity of basic institutions
  6. 4. Reconstructing first modernity
  7. 5. Manifestations of the new
  8. 6. Wasn’t and isn’t all modernization reflexive? What is new about the theory of reflexive modernization?
  9. Bibliography
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