Department of Anthropology College of Arts and Sciences The University of Alabama




Basic Premises

Key Works


Sources and Bibliography

Points of Reaction

Principal Concepts


Relevant Web Sites

Leading Figures




Basic Premises

Postmodernism is highly debated even among postmodernists themselves. For an initial characterization of its basic premises, consider anthropological critic Melford Spiro's excellent synopsis of the basic tenets of postmodernism:

“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, subverts 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 emerged in the context of the development of the capitalist state. Anthropologists have been working towards studying modern times, but have now gone past that. The fundamental act of modernity is to question the foundations of past knowledge.

Postmodernity Logically postmodernism 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 truths 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).

Ryan Bishop, in a concise article in the Encyclopedia of Cultural Anthropology (1996), defines post-modernism as an eclectic movement, originating in aesthetics, architecture and philosophy. Postmodernism espouses a systematic skepticism of grounded theoretical perspectives. Applied to anthropology, this skepticism has shifted focus from the observation of a particular society to the observation of the (anthropological) observer.

Postmodernity concentrates on the tensions of difference and similarity erupting from processes of globalization: the the accelerating circulation of people, the increasingly dense and frequent cross-cultural interactions, and the unavoidable intersections of local and global knowledge.

"Postmodernists are suspicious of authoritative definitions and singular narratives of any trajectory of events.” (Bishop 1996: 993). Post-modern attacks on ethnography are based on the belief that there is no true objectivity. The authentic implementation of the scientific method is impossible.

According to Rosenau, postmodernists can be divided into two very broad camps, Skeptics and Affirmatives.

Here are some proposed 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 comprise 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

"Modernity" takes its Latin origin from “modo,” which means “just now”. The Postmodern,, then literally means “after just now” 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 representation of the global situation after the colonial period.
3. A description of discourses informed by psychological and epistemological orientations.

Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism (1993) represents discourse analysis and postcolonial theory as tools for rethinking forms of knowledge and the social identities of postcolonial systems. An important feature of postcolonialist thought is its assertion that modernism and modernity are part of the colonial project of domination.

Debates about Postcolonialism are unresolved, yet issues raised in Said’s Orientalism (1978), a critique of Western descriptions of Non-Euro-American Others, suggest that colonialism as a discourse is based on the ability of Westerners to examine other societies in order to produce knowledge and use it as a form of power deployed against the very subjects of inquiry. As should be readily apparent, the issues of postcolonialism are uncomfortably relevant to contemporary anthropological investigations.


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 developed in the work of Pierre Bourdieu (1972). He 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 states that an all encompasing account of a culture cannot be accomplished.

Jean Baudrillard Baudrillard is a sociologist who began his career exploring the Marxist critique of capitalism (Sarup 1993: 161). During this phase of his work he argued that, “consumer objects constitute a system of signs that differentiate the population” (Sarup 1993: 162). Eventually, however, Baudrillard felt that Marxist tenets did not effectively evaluate commodities, so he turned to postmodernism. Rosenau labels Baudrillard as a skeptical postmodernist because ofstatements 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 images that are 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. Much of his writing is concerned with the deconstruction of texts and probing the relationship of meaning between texts (Bishop 1996: 1270). He observes that “a text employs its own strategems against it, producing a force of dislocation that spreads itself through an entire system.” (Rosenau 1993: 120). Derrida directly attacks Western philosophy's understanding of reason. He sees reason as dominated by “a metaphysics of presence.” Derrida agrees with structuralism's 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 what most people think of as the permanent truths of human nature and society actually 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 one of the foundations of postmodernism. Foucault is considered a postmodern theorist precisely because his work upsets the conventional understanding of history as a chronology of inevitable facts. Alternatively, he depicts history as 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 advocates that ethnographies 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 postmodern 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

Principal Concepts

Realism “ the platonic doctrine that universals or abstractions 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 observer's 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, “ (Bishop 1996: 1270). Self-Reflexivity leads to a consciousness of the process of knowledge creation (Bishop 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 underlies the postmodernist affinity for studying the culture of anthropology and ethnography.

Relativism Gellner writes about 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 (us) to see cognitive and evaluative activities as part of nature too, and hence varying from organism to organism and context to context. (Clifford & Marcus (eds), 1986, p.147). Anthropological theory of the 1960's may be best understood as the heir of relativism. Contenporary interpretative anthropology is the essence of relativism as a mode of inquiry about communication in and between cultures (Marcus & Fischer, 1986, p.32).


One of the essential elements of Postmodernism is that it constitutes an attack against theory and methodology. In a sense proponents claim to relinquish all attempts to create new knowledge in a systematic fashion, but substitutes an “anti-rules” fashion of discourse(Rosenau p.117). Despite this claim, 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 the distillation of information .

Rosenau’s Guidelines for Deconstruction Analysis:

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-positivists 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 uncovering and criticizing the epistemological and ideological motivations in the social sciences.

Critical Examination of Ethnographic Explanation The unrelenting re-examination of the nature of ethnography inevitably 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 the "other" cultures being studied. Postmodernist theory has led to a heightened sensitivity within anthropology to the collection of data.


Roy D’Andrade (1931-) In the article "Moral Models in Anthropology," D'Andrade critiques postmodernism's definition of objectivity and subjectivity by examining the moral nature of their models. He argues that these moral models are purely subjective. D'Andrade argues that despite the fact that utterly value-free objectivity is impossible, it is the goal of the anthropologist to get as close as possible to that ideal. 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 on 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 (1993)identifies seven contradictions in Postmodernism:

1. Its anti-theoretical position is essentially a theoretical stand.
2. While Postmodernism stresses the irrational, instruments of reason are freely employed to advance its perspective.
3. The Postmodern prescription to focus on the marginal is itself an evaluative emphasis of precisely the sort that it otherwise attacks.
4. Postmodernism stress intertextuality but often treats text in isolation.
5. By adamently rejecting modern criteria for assessing theory, Postmodernists cannot argue that there are no valid criteria for judgement.
6. Postmodernism criticizes the inconsistency of modernism, but refuses to be held to norms of consistency itself.
7. Postmodernists contradict themselves by relinquishing truth claims in their own writings.

Melford Spiro argues that postmodern anthropologists do not convincingly 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 critically addresses six interrelated propositions from John Searle’s 1993 work, “Rationality and Realism":

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 refers to objects and situations in the world which exist independently of language. Contrary to postmodernism, this postulate supports the concept of language as 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 to 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.”
4. Knowledge is objective. This signifies that the truth of a 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.

Spiro specifically assaults the assumption that the disciplines that study humanity, like anthropology, cannot be "scientific" because subjectivity renders observers incapable of discovering 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.” (Bishop 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 Postmodern 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



matery, logos
exhaustion, silence
art object, finished word
process, performance
creation, totalization
genre, boundary
text, intertext
against interpretation
lisible (readerly)
grande histoire
petite histoire
master code
genital, phallic
origin, cause
God the Father
The Holy Ghost

(SOURCE: 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


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