In what way is post-modernity effecting people’s sense of community, identity and belonging?

In what way is post-modernity effecting people’s sense of community, identity and belonging?


The nature and impact of modernity upon our traditional sense of community, Identity and belonging is often at the forefront of contemporary sociological debate. Existing content for the discussions and debates on globalisation and questions of identity will often refer one might suggest sceptically, to a “crisis of modernity” (Hooker, R. 1996 1) in the sense that it presents us with an issue. Signifying that our time-honoured collective goals have been severed or replaced, leaving us with new orthodoxies which presented us with a world with no real direction, spiralling dangerously out of control. In what Anthony Giddens once described as a “run away world” he stated that “we are being propelled into a global order that no one fully understands but which is making its effects felt upon all of us”. (Cochrance, A. and Pain, K., 2004, 6).

In this essay I would like to address the question of what impact modernity has upon our sense of Identity, community and belonging, by firstly outlining the development of these themes from pre modern to contemporary society. I would also hope to highlight the importance of recognising the complexity of identity and the difficulty faced in defining this and other such terms within modern sociological thought. In addition that if we were to perceive Modernity in its simplest definition as being for good or ill, a sense that modern life is somehow no longer connected with that of the past (through the filter of social movements, cultural shifts etc) that it is of equal importance to discuss how our sense of community, identity and belonging has altered in contemporary society?

Within the structure of pre modern societies it is interesting to observe the relationship of elements such as class and social standing when defining a person’s role within the community. In that an individual’s position was not established through the attributes they displayed through any particular talent or aptitude, but more so established via the class and social structure they inherited. In turn the person was not so much defined by their individuality but more so by the role and class they inherited. Religion and hierarchical rule ensured that there existed an almost unquestionable understanding of identity through role. “An individuals relation to the objective conditions of his labour is mediated by his being a member of a community”(Sayer, D. 1991, 17)

In his book on social mobility Anthony Heath highlights the ideas and analogy of Plato in discussing the ideal society. Giving reference to the determining of social standing as being that all where ordained by god to their position within the community and speaking in reference to metals he describes the standing order as that of the workers (iron and bronze) and of the leaders and the assistants (silver and gold). He states that “Gods first and most important commandment to the rulers, therefore is that they must scrutinize the mixture of metals to their children’s characters. If one of their own children has iron or bronze in its make up, they must harden themselves and assign him to his appropriate level among farming or working people. Conversely a child from the latter origins with gold or silver in his nature must be promoted accordingly to become a ruler or an assistant. For the Oracle has prophesised that the state will be destroyed if it ever comes to have rulers of iron and bronze” (Heath, A 1981, 12). If one could utilise such rationality and philosophical formation of thought to highlight the religious overtones present within pre modern thinking, it is perhaps not an inconceivable notion to suggest that the anchoring of our roles within the community existed with an almost unquestionable sense that we were born with a sense of purpose ordained by God. That these roles where seemingly incontestable by the use of terms such as divine selection (particularly when adorning the monarchy as the head of state etc), and thus one may argue that our sense of community was not so much established for individuals but enforced by an underlying logic of prophecy or significance based on religious understanding and meaning. It should perhaps be unsurprising then to find that the advent of organised religion played a significant role within pre modern society, establishing a banner under which the idea of community was able to unify in a sense of shared belief. Or put differently and perhaps less sceptically one may suggest that the establishment of community pillared mainly by the parish ensured a sense of belonging and certainty of one’s own place in the social world with which they lived, giving a sense of serving one’s community via the roles which they inhabit.

And so it is apparent for the most part that individualism was seemingly deemed unnecessary within the traditional values of pre modern society, rather you were simply filling a role for the sake of the greater good of the community. Some social theorists, for example Emile Durkheim, would perhaps have perceived this as a representation of what he called ‘mechanical solidarity [whereby]…the individual…does not belong to himself; he is literally a thing at the disposal of society’ (Sayer, D. 1991, 18). Whilst ‘mechanical solidarity’ gave a sense of belonging linking the individual to the community within which they lived, this also presents us with a flawed perspective that as individuals we were not to be differentiated. Because, if we have a shared sense of knowing ones identity through definition of role there exists little room for diversity.

However it is both apparent and important to recognise that given that the pre-literate archaic social order had survived for the best part of human history, there exists little scope for argument that society was thus defined. None the less, it also becomes difficult to maintain the notion of autonomous identity with subsequent events. It is arguable that the need for change within society was highlighted and advanced by revolutions across the Western world (I.e. the English civil war, the storming of the Bastille etc), and it is perhaps with such events that it becomes possible to entertain the notion that unrest between the classes was present throughout pre modern society and that such uprisings serve to illustrate not only an awareness of self but also that of class formation and unification bred by the underlying, perhaps oppressive nature which surrounded the fabric of the pre modern community.Conceivably the traditional church centred ideals which provide the foundations in the belief structure of pre modern society, if not oppressive to, at the very least could be seen to ignore the notion of individuality or replace the necessity individualism with seemingly incontrovertible but none the less faith led and thus fickle principles*. And it is perhaps with such oppression that there existed a fundamental flaw in that as human beings to ignore our sense of self reflectivity and the complexity of defining one’s own identity is to go against the very nature of that which makes us human as expressed by Sigmund Freud. Freud once argued that “who we are is not given in advance, we are not born with an identity, but it emerges in a number of different forms through a series of identifications which combine and emerge in an infinite number of forms so there is never one fixed coherent Identity but several in play.” (Woodward, K. 2004, 16).

Increased fluctuations with the arrival and advancement of new technologies created surges in the advent of new industries, which in turn forced new developments in the roles of individuals within western society with astonishing rapidity. The industrial revolution and development of urbanisation brought with it a forced change in societal structure and inevitably the understanding and allocation of roles, thus not necessarily voiding status definition but certainly restructuring it within communities and society as a whole. In what some saw as a severing of links from traditional ways of life, the shift from agricultural to industrial production paved the way for capitalism which as the likes of Marx and Webber would contend is irrefutably bound to modernity. In contrast to pre capitalist societies this demonstrates “their distinction from the modern world… and provide the foil against which the novelty of modernity is established”(Sayer, D. 1991, 16).

*Indeed at times the values which found our collective belief structures throughout history have proven to be questionable and thus open to engagement after demonstrating themselves interchangeable in order to suit the purpose of fulfilling political agenda, not to mention during the process of initiating a declaration of war. Both religion and political forms such as that of democracy provide a sense of community and unification established through shared (or perceivably shared) sense of collective morals based on Religious and political affiliation. Such examples are present throughout history from the crusades to the cold war. Some interesting perspectives on the subject include Chapter 5 The authoritarian model, of Understanding Politics: Ideas, Institutions, and Issues By Thomas M. Magstadt (New York: St. Martins, 1984) and the controversial book by Sam Harris entitled Letter to a Christian Nation (New York: Knopf, 2006).

The increase in the range of functions required and made available to the masses caused the greater need to a certain extent, for society to focus upon the skills or talents that each individual possessed regardless of class or social standing. This of course would inevitably impact upon the traditional sense of identity (or lack of) in that roles where no longer ordained, and that we were no longer born into our functions but had in a sense been granted opportunity to develop our sense of worth through attributes to a particular function which may be of higher value than our inherited class via the utilisation of skills and recognition of individual merit. In what Durkheim describes in his theory of organic solidarity “In these situations, social order does not rest on uniformity but rather on individuals pursuing different but complementary functions”(Marsh, I. et al. 2000, 55). Although seemingly decisive in presenting us with clear changes in the composition of community structure, our idea of self and inevitably our sense of belonging, it is vitally important to recognise that the boundaries of class although seemingly becoming more transgressable with acknowledgement to the novelty of modernity, it is extremely difficult to contest such boundaries and hierarchies still remain. That although certainly opportunity for class mobility exists, there are still restrictions presented (I.e. inherited high standing positions, golden handshake or glass ceiling jobs, and even the recent outcry at top university entry requirements excluding those from poorer backgrounds etc), which would restrict or at least to a certain level deter such movement allowing allegations to the presence of a culture of upper class conservatism. With this in mind one could argue that a notion such as that of organic solidarity could potentially be construed as being applicable only to the working classes. None the less, the emergence of the industrial revolution and the connotations for good or ill that became associated with it did present us with the ability to allow for the encouragement of individualism and the pursuit of individual talent to fulfil the requirement of skilled labour.

It is perhaps also supportive evidence as to the impact of modernity upon individuals with not only the increase in the use of the word identity rather than role, but also the complexity which lies within our classification of self and indeed the growing interest of sociologists and other experts to do so. Many agree that who we are no longer seems definable by referring to a small set of reference points mainly attached to our roles within the community as it perhaps once did. However it is worth considering that this may not necessarily mean that the tools we use to define ourselves today are completely separate from that of pre modern society, more that perhaps the set has simply grown.

In contemporary society, the factors and social constraints (or structures) which shape who we are and how others will comprehend us have not necessarily disappeared but have significantly altered and become increasingly more complex. Who we are is simply no longer definable by the roles we fulfil and it could be suggested that, in modern times more so than in the past, both individuals and indeed as nation states we will often act self reflectively, contemplating how we perceive ourselves and how we are perceived by others. As individuals one may sometimes feel the need to search for a single descriptive notion as to the person we are. Although some social factors that compromise our ideas of self may get lost in translation when considering our identity we may often seek our answers through our own personal ideals or, (as some social theorists such as Ervine Goffman would suggest in his work on the presentation of self) via the various roles we act out through the different aspects of our lives. For example the role of father and mother, the manager, the friend, all demand different characteristics depending upon the situation. Some may also feel the need to place great emphasis on the material, from the clothes they wear to the house they live in and the cars they drive, as holding great significance in describing their own identity. Although this is not necessarily new, but perhaps more a continuation when we consider the roles of pre modern society (farm worker, father, husband, still demanded similarly different approaches and behaviour). Modernity has certainly shown an impact on the lives of individuals, for example the increase in emphasis placed upon aspects such as materiality, safety and appropriative behavioural guidance (perhaps attributed to increasing diversity of expert knowledge). Whilst one could argue as to the significance of traditional points of reference when distinguishing one’s own identity where by one may often refer to gender, job roles, and our social standing or class etc. It is nonetheless evident that when considering our own identity there begins a vast and complex process of deliberation for which there is perhaps no one true answer. But has the idea that we are less or no longer bound by the more traditional views of the past allowed us to simply choose our identity with positive effect, or has modernity as some would view it lead to a great deal more complexity leaving both ourselves and the society around us without any clear direction.

“Our cognitive maps no longer fit the social landscape around us. We encounter people who’s identities and natures are not clear to us. We may no longer even be sure about ourselves. The future no longer appears as predictable as it seems to have been for earlier generations.” (Jenkins, R. 2004, 11).

Indeed, it is possible to ascertain that the impact of modernity on our individual and collective Identity particularly in a modern multicultural society such as that of the U.K, has arguably given rise to increasingly complex and less orthodox means of self definition, as the traditional views of class, sexuality, nationality and even gender seemingly hold less relevance to individuals in current times, but can the same be said for our actions as a nation stateIf we take for example the idea of citizenship which has seen a great deal of increased focus for many western states particularly in conjunction with the process or ‘the issue’ of immigration, is it that values such as national pride and collective responsibility are now seen as something which can be learned through the process of mediationAnd if so is this an indication that one effect of modernity could be a need for affirmation to values and shared collective ideals which where perhaps one may argue a given in pre modern communities?

Throughout the west in the UK, Canada, or Australia for example, whilst one may reside and work in for a set period of time via the various visas and passes available based on similar points systems which each nation uses to administer entry and rights to live and work within its borders this does not necessarily allow the individuals the same rights and privileges to that of its citizens.

Indeed for those who wish to attain such privileges they face a degree of uncertainty as they must jump through a series of hoops in order to demonstrate their suitability and indeed ability to become citizens. In 2005 the UK Government of the time introduced a citizenship test which Immigration Minister Tony McNulty once described as ‘not a test of someone’s ability to be British or a test of their “Britishness”. It is a test of their preparedness to become citizens, in keeping with their language requirement as well’. (McNulty cited, in Watson, 2008, 1).

And whilst a great deal of focus is and has been placed upon the role of the English language within British culture, one must also look at the role of language in defining and expressing a certain sense of identity and belonging. In particular it may serve to highlight devolution and the role of Welsh language which has in recent years seen an increase in use and could potentially serve to demonstrate an expression of national identity through language.

None the less, there exists scope that an ability and willingness to learn the language is not purely for the benefit of the state and its people alone, but also for that of the individual wishing to become a citizen and so debatably, does not necessarily serve to indicate an expression of required national allegiance from the state nor willingness to become ‘British’ from the individual if put in context as a standalone prerequisite of the citizenship process. Indeed with immigration to another country of different language to that of the individual’s mother tongue, an inability to speak that language would place anyone at a distinct disadvantage when conducting most aspects of daily life. However the level of skills required with regards to integration are debateable. Indeed within the UK some see the Citizenship process and in particular the citizenship test as a part of that process as something which would present a challenge even to those that have lived there throughout the entirety of their lives and perhaps could be seen as imposing a hypocritical and unfair standard.

When we consider what constitutes citizenship it can often represent links to very inclusive and/or restrictive elements of our social identity.

It is evident that states have often seen or felt the need to put in place regimes and systems to establish migratory control and which indicates distinct lines between its citizens and those of other states.

The apartheid system of South Africa for example was an attempt by the British government to restrict and monitor racial movements and allowed significantly more privileges and freedom to those with a certain colour skin or ethnic background (Redman, 2008). At the same time the state was able to benefit from the cheap labour of those seeking work in the hope of being granted citizenship and gaining a “ticket” to the same privileges some were born with (Redman, 2008).

Whilst such methods of monitoring populations have been adjusted significantly in modern society states have continued to stress the requirement for certain standards of individuals wishing to become subjects. As Eleonore Kofman describes of EU countries “states are demanding affirmation of belonging and loyalty leading to greater emphasis on obligations in the practice of citizenship”(Kofman, 2005, pg 444).

Both Australia and the UK have installed a very similar skills or tier system and whilst the increase in demand for both skilled and unskilled labour has allowed many to come over to both countries in order to reside and work, this has also (like many other nations) allowed the governments to deal with the complex issue of requiring migrant workers whilst maintaining a selective process.

On one hand for certain individuals who have what are considered highly beneficial skills (Doctors of medicine for example) the process to citizenship is perhaps much easier than it is for those who are within other skills groups (ie: care workers, cleaners) who may face a very uncertain and restricted citizenship (Parrenas 2001, in Kofman 2005 pg 458 ).

This could ask of the citizenship process the importance and relevance to the emphasis it places on such values , as if it is indeed necessary for all to accept and to be integrated into the same culture in order to absorb the values of the nation. Should the process not remain the same for all, regardless of occupational advantages?

When attending Citizenship ceremonies some may share feelings of pride and happiness, perhaps to some even reliefBut what is striking is that although some feel a real change within themselves, describing feeling more “British” or “feeling absorbed into Australian culture” for others there seems to be a sense of liberation as if they have finally gained freedom having been “granted their papers” (Watson, 2008). In some respects the citizenship process can achieve its apparent goal of making some feel welcomed and part of their new home, to others perhaps it is a reward for the many sacrifices made in order to gain a ‘ticket’. If the process of integration is required, and the person is willing to make those changes then, whether planting the Australian tree, or passing a test to show your knowledge of your new countries culture, should the feelings not be the same for everyone who becomes a Citizen?

Despite slight differences between the bureaucratic and ceremonious procedures between the UK and Australia, one could take the stance that whilst the citizenship process may superficially mediate the person in the sense that they will have to demonstrate a willingness and capability of conforming to state values, it still remains the choice of the individual as to whether they fully assimilate those values as part of their own identity.

Have we perhaps as a direct outcome of modernity become more conscious to the notion each and every aspect of our identities even down to our sense of nationality can change, that there are in fact no longer any written laws or natural rules for who we are?

Perhaps the encouragement of individuality has to a certain extent left us in a world with not necessarily a lack of direction, but perhaps a less defined sense of belonging. For we have also allowed for seemingly rapid alterations to societal norms or rules which are deemed collectively as no longer fit for use. In my personal opinion to completely dismiss modernity as a problem which has destroyed communities and our sense of collective goals would be a futile statement to make. For example one argument for the positive impact of modernity is that it has undoubtedly allowed us to increase the diversity of the communities in which we live. We no longer have to be ruled by views and opinions or even laws handed down from one generation to another, should they no longer be agreeable.

In the west, particularly during the 1960’s the advent of new social movements one could argue, indicated the continued collective need or want to challenge traditional (what some might call oppressive) constraints and allow for a more tolerant and equal society with a richer cultural tapestry. Campaigns for equality in the civil rights for many social groups deemed to be different (such as the black or gay and lesbian communities) served to illustrate that societal norms of the past where no longer acceptable and that people were willing to overcome adversity and demand changes in the way that individuals where perceived by society. It is important to recognise that with the advent and further advancement of technology and global industry, we have seen an influx in the amount of information we are exposed to each day both as individuals and (thanks to ever increasing developments in the field of communications technology) as a collective. With the digital age we have come to witness various revolutions via many different platforms as people utilise the technology and enhance the skills available to them, and have grown aware of issues which were once not part of what an individual would deem their community.

Theories such as globalisation are seemingly indicating further break downs in what would once have been considered certainties such as nationality, citizenship and cultural relevance or belonging. In this instance one could stress that an obvious concern with the impact of modernity upon identity, community and our sense of belonging, is that we continue to replace old certainties with new orthodoxies leaving a very abstract society. The impact of modernity upon individuals and communities within society has undoubtedly placed greater emphasis on the encouragement of free thought. With a greater realisation of identity and thus a greater emphasis placed on the need for individuality upon one’s self, it is unsurprising that the social tapestry which makes up the communities of modern day has become increasingly uncertain. However it is perhaps interesting to note that in addressing the classification of identity, society as a whole appears to override the notion of individuality almost taking a pre modern view of classification based on external inherited factors (however this in turn now takes into account modern movements of choice). For example much anti discrimination legislation (ie, the UK Human Rights Act 1998) focuses on factors such as race, age, religion, gender and sexual orientation, thus in turn narrowing the concept of what is diverse in the social sphere. Whilst the modern concept of identity and community expands and grows it could be argued that what is seen to be expressive forms of individuality the requirement for monitoring and classifying ourselves as a collective finds more traditional roots and groundings. Whether this is an expression for the need to replace the certainties and establish or emphasise shared collective values as a form of unification, which as some would deem had been forever lost as ties with pre modern civilisation where severed remains and will continue to be a topic of debate.

Reference List

Cochrane, A. and Pain, K. (2004) ‘A Globalizing Society’. In Held, D. (ed.) A Globalizing WorldCulture Economics, Politics, London:Routledge/The Open University

Hooker, R. (1996) (Accessed 4th January 2010)

Jenkins, R. (2004) Social Identity, 2nd Edition, London:Routledge

Marsh, I. et al. (2000) Sociology: Making Sense of Society, Essex:Pearson Education

Sayer, D. (1991) Capitalism and Modernity: An Excursus on Marx and Weber, London:Routledge

Woodward, K. (2004) ‘Questions of Identity’. In Woodward, K. (ed.) Questioning Identity: Gender, Class, Ethnicity, London:Routledge/The Open University

Heath, A. (1981) social mobility, Fontana Paperbacks

McNulty, T. in Watson (2008) Citizenship, in McFall, L., Redman, P., Watson, S., and Carter, S., (eds) DVD: Passports: registering the individual, Milton Keynes, The Open University.

Kofman, E., (2005), ‘Citizenship, Migration and the Reassertion of National Identity’, Citizen Studies, 9:5, 453-467