Dec 19, 2017 in Sociology

Dynamism of Modernity


Anthony Giddens is one of the most significant theorists in modern sociology and cultural studies. He offers a contemporary interpretation of social transformations, which are associated with different changes that are defined as “modernity”. This term refers to the various social changes, which have been observed in social life of Europe starting from the seventeenth century. These complex changes are now occurring worldwide. Giddens has developed an understanding of the nature of modernity. He identified four analytical distinct factors that produce the dynamism of modernity, such as radical reflexivity, the separation of time and space, disembedding mechanism, and globalization. In the present century, modernity has become a rather popular topic for discussions in regards to the growth of totalitarianism, the degrading of modern industrial work, the alarming development of military power, and the threat of environmental destruction. In Giddens’ scheme, society is not structured; in other words, it does not exist as an obdurate object with an independent existence (McQuail, 2000). Anthony Giddens also explains how modernity changes structuratuions and time-space distanciation radically.

Radical Reflexivity

Giddens sees reflexivity as a variable, rather than a static condition. He argues that modernity creates a level of radical reflexivity. Progress and reflexivity are intrinsically related. It only takes a moment’s reflection to see that a progress demands reflexivity. It is endemic in modernity, because every social unit must constantly evaluate itself in terms of its mission, goals, and practices. However, the hope of progress never materializes. The ideal of progress means that humans never truly arrive. Every step in the progressive march forward is examined in  hope to improve what humans have already achieved. Progress becomes a motivating value and a discursive feature of modernity, rather than a goal that is ever reached.

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Radical reflexivity forms a part of basic understanding of knowledge and rational life. Modern knowledge is equivalent to scientific knowledge. Continual scrutiny and systematic doubt are the parts, which basically make scientific knowledge  (Craib, 2011). Modern organizations are bureaucratic in nature and thus, bound up with rational goal setting, recursive practices, and continual reflexivity. Modern organizations, institutions, and society at large are defined through the continued use of reflexive evaluation. Children in the United States, for example, are systematically trained to be reflexive about knowledge in general.

The Separation of Time and Space

The research asserts that Giddens means by time-space distanciation how humans’ behaviors and actions are patterned and are thus somewhat predictable. Therefore, everything that  happens to time and space in modernity influences the patterns of interaction that make up society. With that in mind, Giddens argues that the separation of time and space is crucial to the dynamic quality of modernity. In order to understand how time and space can be emptied, we should first start examining how humans have related to time and space for the most part of their existence (Cassell, 1993). Prior to modernity, time and space were closely linked to natural settings and cycles. People have always marked time, but it was originally associated with natural places and cycles.  The cycle of the sun marked a day, the cycle of the moon - a month, and the  cycle of the seasons – a year. But the week exists nowhere in nature. It is utterly abstract in terms of nature. Something similar may be said about the mechanical clock. Prior to the invention of the mechanical clock and its widespread use, people regulated their behaviors according to the cycle of the sun.

Thus, in modern societies, time and space have become abstract entities that have been emptied of any natural connections. Further, the concept of space has become stretched out and viewed more rather symbolic than physical one. As the research asserts, modernity is distinguished by the belief in progress. Progress implies change, and the emptying of time and space gives humans the possibility to get freedom from the restraints of local habits and practices (Giddens, 1990). Making time and space abstract has also played a major role in developing of another distinctive feature of modernity, the bureaucratic organization. Human lives are subject to rational organization, because time and space are emptied of natural and social relations. In the current age, modern technology has enabled people to disjoin space and place. Giddens mentions that “advent of modernity increasingly tears space away from place” (1991).

Disembedding Mechanism

The concept of disembedding refers to mechanisms that move social actions from local contexts, taking into consideration social relations, which take place in time and space. For example, Giddens characterizes capitalist enterprise as one of the disembedding mechanisms (Mestrovic, 1998). This concept portrays what is happening in the modern society, but does not explain why. He addresses what he understands by tradition, including its meaning in early modernization and high modernity, which he also calls reflexive modernity. He poses the obvious question: has society not been post-traditional for a long time? His answer is no. Throughout its history, modernity has rebuilt tradition at the same place as it has discovered it. He describes this as the ‘disembedding’ of traditions.

The separation of time and space cuts the connection between social activity and its embedding of contexts of presence. Disembedding mechanisms lift out social relations from local contexts of interaction across indefinite spans of time-space.  According to Giddens, disembedding mechanisms remove social relations from the immediacies of context creating a stretching of the social system.  The classic example of a disembedding mechanism is money as a medium of interchange. Money permits the exchange of anything for anything. Another mechanism is activated by means of systems of technical accomplishment or professional expertise. This accomplishment organizes large areas of material and social environment. Thirdly, Giddens elaborates on the reflexivity of modernity as a source of uncertainty (Giddens, 1991).  


The new era of reflexive modernization overcomes the earlier partial modernization and brings into being a new self that has a relationship with tradition. Reflexive modernization entails the excavation of most traditional contexts of action, a process that is closely linked to both risk and globalization. For Giddens “Few people anywhere in the world can any longer be unaware of the fact that their local activities are influenced, and sometimes even determined, by remote events or agencies” (Giddens, 1990). Similarly, individual actions, for example, purchasing a particular item of clothing, affect the livelihood of someone living on the other side of the world and may contribute to ecological decay. Life becomes increasingly experimental. All humans are caught into everyday experiments, the outcomes of which are open and unknown (Craib, 2011).

Globalization necessarily involves the disembedding of tradition, because in a world, where no one is ‘outside’, the pre-existing traditions cannot avoid contact with the new ones. Traditions may be discursively articulated and defended only through a dialogue and comparison with other options. In modern societies, tradition is compared with its alternatives – for example, gender divisions were once segmented, but now gendering of identities became a subject for debates. Giddens suggests fundamentalism as one of the alternatives, as it protects tradition against radical doubt through the assertion of formulaic truth without regard to consequences.


In the present century, modernity has become a rather popular topic for discussions. Anthony Giddens has developed an understanding of the nature of modernity. He specifically identified four analytical distinct factors that produce the dynamism of modernity, such as radical reflexivity, the separation of time and space, disembedding mechanism, and globalization. Giddens explains how modernity changes structuratuions and time-space distanciation radically.

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