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Individuals and Modernity

Individuals and Modernity

Author: Zach Lamb

Examine the role of theĀ individual in modern society.

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Source: Intro Music by Mark Hannan; Public Domain

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Hello. Welcome to Sociological Studies. I hope you're having a great day. We're going to discuss the transition to a modern society, to modernity, in this lesson. Sociologists throughout the history of the discipline have been interested in this transition from traditional forms of social organization to modern society, which is characterized by capitalism, by free markets, by individualism, by bureaucratic social organization, and by a weakening of community and family ties.

The transition to modernity created a mass society, or a society in which the growth of bureaucracy and the quest for material wealth has weakened traditional forms of solidarity and changed the nature of our social relationships. So mass society is characterized by bureaucracy. Remember bureaucracy from another tutorial called "Bureaucracy"-- It's a very impersonal way of dealing with each other.

Max Weber theorized bureaucracy and said we were going to be living in an iron cage, basically meaning an impersonal, cold, calculated bureaucratic iron cage, where we're not engaging each other emotionally and intensely, but we're going through the bureaucracy to engage each other. We're living in this bureaucratic shell that can be very stifling. And this, to some extent, might characterize our society today. As you've learned, then, going through the course, our personalities are influenced by the society we inhabit and by the social relationships that we have.

Each period, then, or each form of social organization, whether that be traditional or modern mass society, has its own associated social character. A social character is a typical pattern of personality and behavior common to members of a society at a historical point in time. So our social character today is different than it was hundreds or even 50 years ago. Looking at just one category-- say, gender-- we can see huge changes in patterns of behavior and personality over the last century.

And the social character today, then, is certainly different than it was in the traditional era, before the Industrial Revolution and the beginnings of capitalism. Capitalism radically changed us as people and radically changed our social character. We had to be transformed into a laboring society. So social character, then, is inextricably linked up with the institutions of society, and we are products of the society and the times we're living in. That's what this course has shown you, if nothing else.

One way to conceptualize changes in social character with the transition to modernity from traditional society is inner-directedness versus other-directedness. Inner-directedness is a social character that ordains in premodern, traditional societies. Inner-directedness is inherently conservative and resistant to change.

People are focused steadfastly on the maintenance of tradition and time-honored ways of doing things. Everyone, then, is repeating the traditional patterns of behavior. They are inner directed. There is little change in society. Then you know your place when you're born, and you have little pretense for social mobility. And in fact, there are very few institutional channels even to promote social mobility in inner-directed societies.

Other-directedness, on the other hand, is the social character that ordains in modern societies. So we're no longer bound to tradition and to time-honored ways of doing things. Our society now, relative to traditional premodern societies, is incredibly flexible. We can and often do experiment with different personalities, identities, and potential selves-- careers.

Our societies are continuously in motion, then, and socialization occurs in this context. We become much more other-directed, or directed at winning the approval of others and making good self-presentations and impressions in the eyes of others-- in the eyes of ever-shifting groups of others-- as we move about society. So this other-directedness, then, is a social character that is outwardly focused on being popular, well-liked, and fashionable.

Finally, I'd like to finish with a discussion of post-modernity. Post-modernity is the stage of social development in which we have moved beyond modernity and a society that is characterized by industrial production to a post-industrial society. So if we had modernity because we had the Industrial Revolution-- ushered in capitalism and modern society-- well, some scholars argue that we're in a postmodern period, ushered in by computer technology and the information revolution, such that we're now living in a post-industrial society.

Think about all the jobs in society right now. There are not a lot of them that are industrial production. They're all post-industrial. We've seen a rise of low-wage service sector jobs. So might this cause an entirely new social character, an entirely new social formation? Some scholars answer yes. We want to be seen and treated in a socially differentiated fashion in post modernity.

So before, in the modern period, there's all kinds of mass production. We all just consumed mass-produced items. But now all of a sudden, no, this isn't the case. We have unique identities. We have a focus on culture. We have a focus on cultural politics. All of our basic needs have been met. We're not starved materially. We've satisfied that, so then we can just focus on these other, lighter things, like culture and cultural movements and equality.

So this is a luxury in wealthy, advanced capitalist societies. It's foolish to talk about post-modernity with respect to African societies. It doesn't make any sense at all. But it might make sense in the context of an advanced capitalist post-industrial society. This has been an introduction to individuals and modernity, and touched on the transition to post-modernity. Have a great rest of your day.

Terms to Know

A social character in which people are grounded in tradition and steadfastly conform to time-honored ways of doing things.


A society where bureaucracy and the quest for material success have weakened traditional forms of social solidarity.


A social character in which people have an outward focus on making good impressions and being well-liked.


A stage society enters after modernity in which we move beyond modern social institutions.

Social Character

The typical patterns of personalities and behaviors in society at a particular historical point in time.