Basic Premises

Postmodernism is highly debated even between postmodernists themselves. For an initial explanation of the basic premises of postmodernism, a critic Melford Spiro provides an excellent synopsis of the basic overview. “The postmodernist critique of science consists of two interrelated arguments, epistemological and ideological. Both are based on subjectivity. First, because of the subjectivity of the human object, anthropology, according to the epistemological argument cannot be a science; and in any event the subjectivity of the human subject precludes the possibility of science discovering objective truth. Second, since objectivity is an illusion science according to the ideological argument, subverting those of oppressed groups, females, ethnics, third-world peoples (Spiro 1996).

Modernity Modernity came into being with the renaissance. Modernity implies, “the progressive economic and administrative rationalization and differentiation of the social world,” (Sarup 1993). In essence this term was developed along with the development of the capitalist state. Anthropologists have been working towards studying modern times, but have now gone past that. The action of modernity implies questioning the questioning of past knowledge. 

Postmodernity Logically in keeping with the idea of (post) this term literally means “after modernity. It refers to the incipient or actual dissolution of those social forms associated with modernity (Sarup 1993).

Modernization “This term is often used to refer to the stages of social development which are based upon industrialization. Modernization is a diverse unity of socio-economic changes generated by scientific and technological discoveries and innovations...” (Sarup 1993).

Modernism Modernism is an experiment in finding the inner truth’s of a situation. It can be characterized by self-consciousness and reflexiveness. This is very closely related to Postmodernism (Sarup 1993).

Postmodernism (For more information see Comments Section)

“There is a sense in which if one sees modernism as the culture of modernity, postmodernism is the culture of postmodernity” (Sarup 1993). 

“Modern, overloaded individuals, desperately trying to maintain rootedness and integrity...ultimately are pushed to the point where there is little reason not to believe that all value-orientations are equally well-founded. Therefore, increasingly, choice becomes meaningless. According to Baudrillard (1984: 38-9), we must now come to terms with the second revolution, “that of the Twentieth Century, of postmodernity, which is the immense process of the destruction of meaning equal to the earlier destruction of appearances. Whoever lives by meaning dies by meaning (Ashley 1990).

According to the Encyclopedia of Cultural Anthropology (1996), post-modernism is defined as an eclectic movement, originating in aesthetics- architecture and philosophy. Postmodernism espouses a systematic skepticism of grounded theoretical perspective. Applied to anthropology, this skepticism has focused from the observation of a particular society to the observation of the (ANT) observer.

Postmodernity concentrates on the tensions of difference and similarity erupting from these globalization processes: circulation via people, cross-cultural interaction, interaction of local and global knowledge. Postmodernism manifests historical perspective of modernism and modernity.

Postmodernists are suspicious of authoritative definitions and singular narratives of any trajectory of events.” (ECA p. 993). Post-modern attacks of ethnography are based on the belief that there is no true objectivity. Scientific method is not possible. 

Postmodernists have been divided into two very broad camps, Skeptics and Affirmatives. 
Skeptical Postmodernists- They are extremely critical of the modern subject. They consider the subject to be a “linguistic convention” (Rosenau 1992:43). They also reject any understanding of time because for them the modern understanding of time is oppressive in that it controls and measures individuals. They reject Theory because theories are abundant, and no theory is considered more correct that any other. They feel that “Theory conceals, distorts, and obfuscates, it is alienated, disparated, dissonant, it means to exclude, order, and control rival powers” (Rosenau 1992: 81).
Affirmative Postmodernists- Affirmatives also reject Theory by denying claims of truth. They do not, however, feel that Theory needs to be abolished but merely transformed. Affirmative are less rigid than skeptics. They support movements organized around peace, environment, and feminism (Rosenau 1993: 42).

Here are some differences between modern and postmodern thought.

Contrast of Modern and Postmodern Thinking
Reasoning From foundation upwards Multiple factors of multiple levels of reasoning. Web-oriented.
Science Universal Optimism Realism of Limitations
Part/Whole Parts compromise the whole The whole is more than the parts
God Acts by violating "natural" laws" or by "immanence" in everything that is Top-Down causation 
Language Referential Meaning in social context through usage


Points of Reaction

By nature of definition postmodern means in its Latin origin “modo” which means “just now”. Postmodern then literally means “after just know” Appignanesi and Garratt 1995). Points of reaction from within postmodernism are associated with other “posts”: postcolonialism and poststructuralism.


Postcolonialism has been defined as:
1. A description of institutional conditions in formerly colonial societies.
2. An abstract condition of the global condition after the colonial period.
3. A description of discourses informed by psychological and epistemological orientations.
Such writings as Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism (1993) discuss discourse analysis and postcolonial theory as tools for rethinking forms of knowledge and the social identities of colonial systems. As a result these tools can be applied to the recognition of modernism and modernity as part of may be called the colonial project of domination. 

Debates on Postcolonialism are unresolved, yet issues raised in Said’s book Orientalism (1978) critique Western descriptions which produce essential representations of Non-Euro-American others, because colonialism as a discourse is based on the ability of Western to enter, examine another culture, produce knowledge, and use that power against those countries. These issues of Postcolonialism are relevant to present day anthropological study.


In reaction to the abstraction of cultural data characteristic of model building, cultural relativists argue that model building hindered understanding of thought and action. From this claim arose poststructuralist concepts such as the work of Pierre Bourdieu (1972). The author asserts that structural models should not be replaced but enriched. Post structuralist like Bourdieu are concerned with reflexivity and the search for logical practice. By doing so accounts of the participants behavior and meanings are not objectified by the observer. (For definition of reflexivity, see key concepts)

Leading Figures

Jean-Francois Lyotard “The Postmodern would be that which in the modern invokes the unpresentable in presentation itself, that which refuses the consolation of correct forms, refuses the consensus of taste permitting a common experience of nostalgia for the impossible, and inquires into new presentations--not to take pleasure in them, but to better produce the feeling that there is something unpresentable.” Lyotard attacks many of the modern age traditions, such as the "Grand" Narrative or what Lyotard termed the Meta(master) narrative (Lyotard 1984). In contrast to the ethnographies written by anthropologists in the first half of the 20th Century, Lyotard is stating that an all encompasing account of a culture cannot be done.

Jean Baudrillard (19 - ) Baudrillard is a sociologist that began his work researching the, “Marxist critique of capitalism (Sarup 1993: 161). During this phase of his work he argues that, “consumer objects constitute a system of signs that differentiate the population,” (Sarup 1993: 162). To Baudrillard an individual seeks order within a society from objects. After sometime, however, Baudrillard felt that Marxists tenets were not effectively evaluating commodities so he turned to postmodernism. Rosenau labels Baudrillard as a skeptic postmodernist for statements like, “everything has already happened....nothing new can occur, “ or “there is no real world” (Rosenau 1992: 64, 110). Baudrillard breaks down modernity and postmodernity in an effort to explain the world as a set of models. He identifies early modernity as the period between the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution, modernity as the period at the start of the Industrial Revolution, and postmodernity as the period of mass media (cinema and photography). Baudrillard states that we live in a world of images but only simulations. Baudrillard implies that many people fail to understand this concept that, “we have now moved into an epoch...where truth is entirely a product of consensus values, and where ‘science’ itself is just the name we attach to certain modes of explanation,” (Norris 1990: 169).

Jacques Derrida (1930-) Derrida is identified as a poststructuralist and a skeptical postmodernist. In much of his writing he is concerned with the deconstruction of texts and the relationship of meaning between texts (ECA 1996: 1270). He states, “a text employs its own strategems against it producing a force of dislocation that spreads itself through an entire system.” (Rosenau 1993: 120). Derrida attacks Western philosophy in its understanding of reason. He sees reason as dominated by, “a metaphysics of presence.” Derrida agrees with structuralisms insight, that meaning is not inherent in signs, but he proposes that it is incorrect to infer that anything reasoned can be used as a stable and timeless model (Appignanesi 1995: 77). “He tries to problematize the grounds of reason, truth, and knowledge...he questions the highest point by demanding reasoning for reasoning itself,” (Norris 1990: 199).

Michel Foucault (1926- 1984) Foucault was a French philosopher who attempted to show that basic ideas about how people think of permanent truths of human nature and society change throughout the course of history. While challenging the influences of Marx and Freud, Foucault postulated that everyday practices enabled people to define their identities and systemize knowledge. Foucault’s study of power and its shifting patterns is a fundamental concept of postmodernism. Foucault is considered a postmodern theorist because his work upsets the conventional understanding of history as a chronology of inevitable facts and replaces it with underlayers of suppressed and unconscious knowledge in and throughout history. These underlayers are the codes and assumptions of order, the structures of exclusion that legitimate the epistemes, by which societies achieve identities (Appignanesi 1995: 83, 

Nancy Scheper-Hughes (1944-) She is a professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. In her work "Primacy of the Ethical" Scheper-Hughes argues that, "If we cannot begin to think about social institutions and practices in moral or ethical terms, then anthropology strikes me as quite weak and useless." (1995: 410). She feels that ethnographies can be used as tools for critical reflection and human liberation because she feels that "ethics" make culture possible. Since culture is preceded by ethics, therefore ethics cannot be culturally bound as argued by anthropologists in the past. These philosophies are evident in her other works such as, "Death Without Weeping." The crux of her post-modern perspective is that, "Anthropologists, no less than any other professionals, should be held accountable for how we have used and how we have failed to use anthropology as a critical tool at crucial historical moments. It is the act of "witnessing" that lends our word its moral, at times almost theological, character." (1995: 419)

Key Works
Foucault, Michel (1970) The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. New York: Pantheon.
Lyotard, Jean-Francois (1984) The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Marcus, George E. and Michael M. J. Fischer (1986) Anthropology as Cultural Critique. An Experimental Moment in the Human Sciences. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Norris, Christopher (1979) Deconstruction: Theory and Practice. New York: Routledge.
Tyler, Stephen (1986) Post-Modern Ethnography: From Document of the Occult To Occult Document. In Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography, ed. James Clifford and George E. Marcus. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Vattimo, Gianni (1988) The End of Modernity: Nihilism and Hermeneutics. In Post-Modern Critique. London: Polity.

Principal Concepts

Realism “ the platonic doctrine that universals or abstract have being independently of mind” (Gellner 1980: 60). 

“Realism is a mode of writing that seeks to represent the reality of the whole world or form of life. Realist ethnographies are written to allude to a whole by means of parts or foci of analytical attention which can constantly evoke a social and cultural totality. (Marcus and Fischer 1986, p.23).

Self-Reflexivity Reflexivity can be defined as “The scientific observers objectification of structure as well as strategy was seen as placing the actors in a framework not of their own making but one produced by the observer, “ (ECA 1996: 1270). Self-Reflexivity leads to a consciousness of the process of knowledge creation (ECA 1996: 995). It emphasizes the point of theoretical and practical questioning changing the ethnographers view of themselves and their work. There is an increased awareness of the collection of data and the limitation of methodological systems. This idea becomes inherent in the postmodernists study of the culture of the anthropologist/ethnographer.

Relativism Gellner writes to the relativistic-functionalist view of thought that goes back to the Enlightment: "The (unresolved) dilemma, which the thought of the Enlightenment faced, was between a relativistic-functionalist view of thought, and the absolutist claims of enlightened Reason. Viewing man as part of nature...requires to see cognitive and evaluative activities as part of nature too, and hence varying from organism to organism and context to context.(This is the relativistic-functionalistic view) (Clifford & Marcus (eds), 1986, p.147). Anthropological theory of the 1960's may be best understood as the heir of relativism. Relativism is critical of interpretative anthropology and insists on fundamental respect among human societies. Contenporary interpretative anthropology is the essence of relativism as a mode of inquiry about communication in and between cultures (Marcus & Fischer, 1986, p.32).


In several sources it is indicated that one of the essential elements of Postmodernism is that it is an attack against theory and methodology. In a sense proponents claim to relinquish all attempts to create new knowledge in a systematic fashion, but instead an “anti-rules” fashion (Rosenau p.117). However, there are two methodologies characteristic of Postmodernism. These methodologies are interdependent in that Interpretation is inherent in Deconstruction. “Post-modern methodology is post-positivist or anti-positivist. As substitutes for the scientific method the affirmatives look to feelings and personal experience.....the skeptical post modernists most of the substitutes for method because they argue we can never really know anything,” (Rosenau 1993, p.117). 

Deconstruction Deconstruction emphasizes negative critical capacity. Deconstruction involves demystifying a text to reveal internal arbitrary hierarchies and presuppositions. By examining the margins of a text, the effort of deconstruction examines what it represses, what it does not say, and its incongruities. It does not solely unmask error, but redefines the text by undoing and reversing polar opposites. Deconstruction does not resolve inconsistencies, but rather exposes hierarchies involved for distillation of information .

Rosenau’s Guidelines for Deconstruction Characteristics:
Find and exception to a generalization in a text and push it to the limit so that this generalization appears absurd. Use the exception to undermine the principle.
Interpret the arguments in a text being deconstructed in their most extreme form.
Avoid absolute statements and cultivate intellectual excitement by making statements that are both startling and sensational.
Deny the legitimacy of dichotomies because there are always a few exceptions.
Nothing is to be accepted, nothing is to be rejected. It is extremely difficult to criticize a deconstructive argument if no clear viewpoint is expressed.
Write so as to permit the greatest number of interpretations possible.....Obscurity may “protect from serious scrutiny” (Ellis 1989: 148). The idea is “to create a text without finality or completion, one with which the reader can never be finished” (Wellberg, 1985: 234).
Employ new and unusual terminology in order that “familiar positions may not seem too familiar and otherwise obviously scholarship may not seem so obviously relevant”(Ellis 1989: 142).
“Never consent to a change of terminology and always insist that the wording of the deconstructive argument is sacrosanct.” More familiar formulations undermine any sense that the deconstructive position is unique (Ellis 1989: 145). (Rosenau 1993, p.121)

Intuitive Interpretation “Postmodern interpretation is introspective and anti-objectivist which is a form of individualized understanding. It is more a vision than data observation. In Anthropology interpretation gravitates toward narrative and centers on listening to and talking with the other, “(Rosenau 1993, p.119). For postmodernists there are an endless number of interpretations. Foucault argues that everything is interpretation (Dreyfus and Rabinow 1983: 106). “There is no final meaning for any particular sign, no notion of unitary sense of text, no interpretation can be regarded as superior to any other (Latour 1988: 182-3). Anti-positivist defend the notion that every interpretation is false. “Interpretative anthropology is a covering label for a diverse set of reflections upon the practice of ethnography and the concept of culture,” (Marcus and Fisher 1986: 60)


Demystification Perhaps the greatest accomplishments of postmodernism is the focus upon epistemological and ideological motivations in the social sciences. 

Critical Examination of Ethnographic Explanation Re-examination of the nature of ethnography leads to a questioning of ethnography itself as a mode of cultural analysis. Postmodernism adamantly insists that anthropologists must consider the role of their own culture in the explanation of cultures being studied. Post modernist theory has led to a heightened sensitivity within anthropology to the collection of data.


Roy D’Andrade (1931-) D’Andrade in the article Moral Models in Anthropology critiques postmodernist’s definition of objectivity and subjectivity by looking at the concept behind moral models. He argues that these moral models are purely subjective. That although value free objectivity is impossible, it is the goal of the anthropologist to get as close as possible. He argues that there must be a separation between moral and objective models because, “they are counterproductive in discovering how the world works.” (D’Andrade 1995: 402). From there he takes issue with the postmodernist attack of objectivity. He states that objectivity is in no way dehumanizing nor is objectivity impossible. He states, “Science works not because it produces unbiased accounts but because its accounts are objective enough to be proved or disproved no matter what anyone wants to be true.” (D’Andrade 1995: 404).

Rosenau gives her interpretation of seven contradictions in Postmodernism, they are: 1. Anti-theory which is essentially a theoretical stand.
2. Postmodernism stresses the irrational, instruments of reason are freely employed within the perspective.
3. Postmodern prescription to focus on the marginal is a evaluative emphasis.
4. Postmodernist stress intertextuality but often treat text in isolation.
5. By rejecting modern criteria for assessing theory, Postmodernist cannot argue that there are no valid criteria for judging.
6. Postmodernist criticize the inconsistency of modernism, but refuse to be held in consistency norms themselves.
7. Postmodernist contradict themselves by relinquishing truth claims in their own writing. (Rosenau 1993)

Melford Spiro argues that postmodern anthropologists can not dismiss the scientific method, if anthropology turns away from the scientific method then anthropology will become the study of meanings not the discovering of causes which shape what it is to be human. Spiro further states that “the causal account of culture refers to ecological niches, modes of production, subsistence techniques, and so forth, just as a causal account of mind refers to the firing of neurons, the secretions of hormones, the action of neurotransmitters... .” 

Spiro specifically addresses six interrelated propositions from John Searle’s 1993 work, “Rationality and Realism “, in which Searle repudiated the epistemological and metaphysical postulates of the “Western Rationalist Tradition”:

1. Reality exists independently of human representations. If this is true then, contrary to postmodernism, this postulate supports the existence of “mind-independent external reality” which is called “metaphysical realism”.
2. Language communicates meanings but also reference to objects and situations in the world which exist independently of language. Contrary of postmodernism, this postulate supports the concept of language to have communicative and referential functions.
3. Statements are true or false depending on whether the objects and situations to which they refer correspond to a greater or lesser degree of the statements. This “correspondence theory” of truth is to some extent the theory of truth for postmodernists, but this concept is rejected by many postmodernists as “essentialist”. “Essentialist is a sharp contrast from the “coherence or narrative” theory.
4. Knowledge is objective. This signifies that the truth of knowledge claim is independent of the motive, culture, or gender of the person who makes the claim. Knowledge depends on empirical support.
5. Logic and rationality provide a set of procedures and methods, which contrary to postmodernism, enables a researcher to assess competing knowledge claims through proof, validity, and reason.

6. Objective and intersubjective criteria judge the merit of statements, theories, interpretations, and all accounts. According to this postulate, Creationism is as true as Darwinism...

All these postulates are based on the assumption that human sciences cannot be a science, and because of subjectivity it is impossible to discover truth. Spiro agrees with postmodernists that the social sciences require very different techniques for the study of humanity than do the natural sciences, but “while insight and empathy are critical in the study of mind and culture...intellectual responsibility requires objective (scientific methods) in the social sciences. Without objective procedures ethnography is empirically dubious and intellectually irresponsible (Spiro 1996).” 

“The Postmodernist genre of ethnography has been criticized for fostering a self-indulgent subjectivity, and for exaggerating the esoteric and unique aspects of a culture at the expense of more prosiac but significant questions.” (ECA 1996: 58)

Christopher Norris believes that Lyotard, Foucault, and Baudrillard are too caught up in the idea of the primacy of moral judgments (Norris p.50). Also in reaction to the Post-modern movement Marshall Sahlins addresses several post-modern issues which includes the definition of power. "The current Foucauldian-Gramscian-Nietzschean obsession with power is the lastest incarnation of anthropology's incurable functionalism...Now 'power' is the intellectual black hole into which all kinds of cultural contents get sucked, if before it was social solidarity or material advantage." (Sahlins, 1993, p.15).

Schematic Differences between Modernism and Postmodernism

Modernism                     Postmodernism
romanticism/symbolism paraphysics/Dadaism
purpose play
design chance 
hierarchy anarchy
matery, logos exhaustion, silence
art object, finished word process, performance
distance participation
creation, totalization deconstruction
synthesis antithesis 
presence absence
centering dispersal 
genre, boundary text, intertext
semantics rhetoric
paradigm syntagm
hypotaxis parataxis
metaphor metonymy
selection combination
depth surface
interpretation against interpretation
reading misreading
signified signifier
lisible (readerly) scriptible
narrative anti-narrative
grande histoire petite histoire
master code idiolect
symptom desire
type mutant
genital, phallic polymorphous
paranoia schizophrenia
origin, cause difference-difference
God the Father The Holy Ghost 
Metaphysics irony
determinacy indeterminacy
transcendence immanence

(Hassan "The Culture of Postmodernism" Theory, Culture, and Society, V 2 1985, 123-4.)

For more information on the foundational theories of Postmodernism, Phenomenology, Existentialism, and Marxism, you may wish to reference such philosophers as Heidegger, Hegel, Marx, and Kant. This information may be accessed easily from the this Web site, http://www.connect/net/ron

Ashley, David (1990) Habermas and the Project of Modernity. In Theories of Modernity and Postmodernity. Bryan Turner (ed). London: SAGE
Appignanesi, Richard and Chris Garratt (1995) Introducing Postmodernism. New York: Totem Books.
Brown, Richard Harvey (1995) Postmodern Representations. Chicago: University of Illinois Press
Clifford, James and George E. Marcus (eds) (1986) Writing Culture. The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. Berkeley: University of California Press.
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Norris, Christopher (1990) What’s Wrong with Postmodernism. England: Harvester Wheatsheaf.
Sahlins, Marshall (1993) Waiting for Foucault. Cambridge: Prickly Pear Press.
Said, Edward (1978) Orientalism. New York: Routledge.
Sarup, Madan (1993) An Introductory Guide to Post-Structuralism and Postmodernism. Atlanta: University of Georgia Press.
Scheper-Hughes, Nancy (1995) The Primacy of the Ethical. In Current Anthropology. V 36(3): p.409-420.
Spiro, Melford E. (1992) Cultural Relativism and the Future of Anthropology. In George E. Marcus (ed) Rereading Cultural Anthropology. Durham: Duke University Press.
Spiro, Melford E. (1996) Postmodernist Anthropology, Subjectivity, and Science. A Modernist Critique. In Comparative Studies in Society and History. V. p.759-780.
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