Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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 While the term has gained currency in academia only in the past two decades, evidence of its use prior to that time can be found. For example, C. Wright Mills (1959:166) proclaimed, without further elaboration, that "the Modern Age is being succeeded by a post-modern period." In its brief and highly contested history, postmodernism has had a pronounced impact in certain disciplines, particularly in literature and cultural studies. Postmodernism has filtered into the social sciences, although with less impact than in some other fields of inquiry (Kivisto 1994, Gottdiener 1993).

There are a number of interpretive difficulties that are encountered in coming to terms with the idea of postmodernism. First, postmodernist theorists often disagree with one another about what the precise parameters of postmodernism actually are. Norman Denzin (1991:vii), for example, has contended that the term is "undefinable." Second, postmodernists frequently write in an impenetrable jargon, and, as such, their ideas sometimes appear—like a latter-day gnosticism—to be comprehensible only to those who are initiates into the mysteries associated with such concepts as antifoundationalism, logocentrism, hyperreality, and simulacra. A third reason has something to do with the French intellectual origins of postmodernism, where there is a tendency to accentuate the novelty of claims that are being made and the positions that are being staked out—a phenomenon resulting from the peculiar intellectual fashion-consciousness of the French.

One common thread linking various manifestations of postmodernist theory is a conviction that grand narratives have proved to be intellectually exhausted. Grand narratives, in postmodernist discourse, refer to large panoramic accounts or explanations of current social circumstances and future trends: Marx on the logic of capitalist development, Weber on rationalization, Durkheim on the development of organic solidarity, and Parsons on processes of universalization. However different these theories might be, they share the Enlightenment conviction that we have the ability to make sweeping generalizations about the directions of social change, and with that the capacity to translate knowledge into praxis (Best and Kellner 1991).

Postmodernists cast suspicion on these convictions. Jacques Derrida, for example, sees the construction of grand narratives as the product of "logocentrism," by which he means modes of thinking that refer truth claims to universally truthful propositions. The postmodernist position articulated by Derrida (1976, 1978) calls for a repudiation of logocentrism and the embracing of an antifoundational stance toward truth claims. In its most extreme versions, postmodernism constitutes a profound repudiation of the entire Western philosophical tradition and represents an extreme form of relativism.

Critics have argued that postmodernism is a contemporary form of nihilism, characterized by a loss of meaning and a loss of faith in our ability to translate theory into practice. The Enlightenment belief that a more rational world would lead to a more humane world is abandoned. Given this orientation, critics contend that postmodernism can be seen either as encouraging escapism and political passivism or as promoting an irrationality that can easily lead to reactionary political stances (O'Neill 1995, Callinicos 1989).

In relation to religion, Ernest Gellner (1992) has suggested that postmodernism constitutes one of the three main contestants in shaping collective visions about contemporary social life. The other two are religious fundamentalism and Enlightenment rationalism (which he also refers to as "rational fundamentalism"). In his estimation, while the salutary effect of postmodernist relativism is to force a more critical account of both religion and reason, this is all it can do. It cannot, in the last instance, serve as a substitute for either.

Peter Kivisto


S. Best and D. Kellner, Postmodern Theory (New York: Guilford, 1991)

A. Callinicos, Against Postmodernism (Cambridge: Polity, 1989)

N. Denzin, Images of Postmodern Society (Newbury Park, Calif.: Sage, 1991)

J. Derrida, Of Grammatology (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976)

J. Derrida, Writing and Difference (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978)

K. Flanagan and P. Jupp (eds.), Postmodernity, Sociology and Religion (London: Macmillan, 1996)

E. Gellner, Postmodernism, Reason and Religion (London: Routledge, 1992)

M. Gottdiener, "Ideology, Foundationalism and Sociological Theory," Sociological Quarterly 34(1993):653-671

P. Kivisto, "Toward a Relevant but Antifoundational Sociology," Sociological Quarterly 34(1994):723-728

J. O'Neill, The Poverty of Postmodernism (London: Routledge, 1995).

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