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Reflexive modernization

| 1 June 2001

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Within sociology the concept of reflexive modernization has emerged as a key point of reference in a series of controversies, some particular to the field, others with import far beyond it. Modernization is a familiar concept to scholars of political economy. Reflexivity refers in a broad way to the emergence of new and critical forms of consciousness; both of groups and individuals. Introduced first by Ulrich Beck and developed by Anthony Giddens and others, the co-joining of these concepts is used in two senses: both as an organizing concept capturing a moment in modernity’s development, and as a diagnosis of the material conditions of late capitalism.

In terms of the first — reflexive modernization as an historical moment — the key argument is that *modernization has turned bad, producing more social risks than goods. As these risks become increasingly obvious (acid rain, ozone depletion, nuclear waste, and so on) new forms of social critique emerge (ecologism, anti-scientism, critiques of technology and progress, etc.), in turn transforming the basis of capital production and giving rise to new forms of individuality and collective identity. Rather than viewing these developments as indicative of either a structural crisis or a social revolution, theorists of reflexive modernization point to new forms of social learning emerging within modernity. In doing so they place their analysis of modernity and modernization between two extremes: that of Habermas, Marx and the utopians, on the one hand, and Adorno, Weber and the nouveaux philosophes on the other. Reflexive modernization is the process by which the hazards of modern systems of life and production are dealt with through a radicalization of modernity itself (reflexivity). Not so much a postmodern age as the modernization of the principles of industrial society.

In terms of the second use of the term—reflexive modernization as a diagnosis of late capitalism—the essence of the argument concerns the shift from rigid production systems to flexible, ‘disorganized’ ones (from Fordism to post-Fordism). ‘Knowledge’ becomes ever more important as advances in communications and transportation shrink the size of the planet, speeding up production and bringing both the competitor and the consumer closer to the producer. In Economies of Signs and Space, Scott Lash and John Urry go furthest in analyzing the implications for political economy of this move to knowledge-based industry. Focussing on the complex interplay of a series of transformations commonly grouped under the banner of ‘globalization’ (including, the internationalization of finance, the dissolution of the corporate-liberal synthesis, *deindustrialization and the absolute and relative decline of the working class), Lash and Urry put forward the notion of ‘reflexive accumulation’ as the best description of the decoded systems of late capital. To this they add sociological analyses of the commodification of leisure and lifestyle (what they call ‘reflexive consumption’), increasing migration and tourism, the ever-increasing importance of cultural signs and artifacts (fashion, advertising, etc.), as well as changes in family structures and what they call — following Giddens — ‘detraditionalization’, building a powerful sociology of contemporary global change.

See also:

post-Fordism, globalization, time-space compression

Further Reading:

Beck, U. (1992) Risk Society, London: Sage. Seminal treatment of the emergence of a ‘new modernity’; published first in German in 1986.

Beck, U., Giddens, A. and Lash, S. (1994) Reflexive Modernization, Cambridge: Polity Press. A useful text bringing together the three major positions in the debate, with replies and critiques. 

Giddens, A. (1990) The Consequences of Modernity, Cambridge: Polity Press. Places reflexivity in the context of globalization and the emergence of ‘post-traditional’ society.

This entry was first published in R. J. Barry Jones (ed.), Routledge Encyclopaedia of International Political Economy, Vol 3 (London: Routledge, June 2001).

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We negate and we must negate because something in us wants to live and affirm — Friedrich Nietzsche