This article was first published as an independent chapter in the book Dispatches from a Time Between Worlds: Crisis and emergence in metamodernity, from 2021, an anthology edited by Jonathan Rowson and Layman Pascal. The following text has been slightly edited to fit the format of an online article.
Before we begin, it is important to mention that “Metamodern sociology” can mean two quite different things, viewed from opposite but mirroring positions:
- First meaning: The descriptive sociology of metamodern society – its emergence, social logic, structures, causes, consequences, dynamics, central processes, culture and lived experience. This line of inquiry expands into sociological descriptions of “metamodernity” as a certain societal condition, and into “metamodernism” as a social, political, cultural and academic movement. In other words: This is sociology applied to metamodernism; sociology in any qualitative or quantitative form with metamodernity and/or metamodernism as its object of study, “the sociology of metamodernism”, if you like. As such, it can be categorized alongside other “hyphen sociologies” like the sociology of poverty, the sociology of religion, the sociology of death – and so forth.
- Second meaning: The discipline of sociology itself, as understood, practiced and developed from sensibilities pertaining to the culture and philosophy of metamodernism. This guides us towards the question: What does society look like from a metamodern lens? How does a metamodern sensibility (in terms of ethics, ontology, spirituality, aesthetics, epistemology and political goals) shape the discipline of sociology, if, indeed, such a disciplinary delineation is still deemed appropriate to the metamodern observer? Such questions can be answered only through developments of sociology proper, i.e. the proposition and argumentation for novel theory, meta-theory, methods, methodology, and the topics and rationales for research questions within sociology.
The two meanings are, unsurprisingly, intertwined. Hence, they should also be discussed together, reflecting upon each other. Yet, they must be clearly distinguished as separate issues, and only then be carefully braided as two streams.
In the following, the focus will primarily be upon the latter of the two – sociology as viewed from a metamodern understanding – but it ends with briefly revisiting the topic of how metamodern society can be studied, a few suggestions primarily for aspiring scholars of this uncharted field.
A guiding light in both angles of approach, however, is that there is indeed something that can meaningfully be called metamodern (a descriptive), metamodernity (a state of affairs in society, a certain configuration) and metamodernism (a certain sensibility, movement or project). This is and remains the working hypothesis of metamodern sociology.
At the heart of it all is a simple developmental model: the idea that societal development occurs through a number of profound, qualitative shifts: from modern society, to a postmodern deconstructive critique of the latter, to a metamodern synthesis of these two, the later taking deliberate steps to reshape modern society and its prevailing social logic, drawing upon, but not limiting itself to, the postmodern critique. After the postmodern deconstruction, follows the metamodern reconstruction. Or, rather, reconstruction is the endpoint of deconstruction; the former follows from the latter.
That is, ultimately, what metamodernism is about; it takes modern society itself as its object, picks it apart with a postmodern sensibility, and then begins to put the parts together in new ways, into new relations, human and posthuman (including other fundamental categories such as technology, the biosphere and non-human animals). Modernity flows from the dynamics of pre-modern society (traditional, or what I have termed postfaustian, which in turn builds upon earlier stages[i]); postmodernism can only emerge from the backdrop of modern society; metamodernity (or: metamodern society) emerges as people can conceptually and socially step outside of the “modern world” and view it as an object that can be reshaped from the inside-out, in synthesis with the multiple anti-theses produced by postmodern critique.
A few words about this progression, from the modern, to the postmodern, to the metamodern, would be in order. There is, in my mind, a widespread misunderstanding of how this is to be approached – the fallacy of periodization, a description of historical epochs that are taken to have certain properties: a modern period, a postmodern period, and a metamodern period.
Adorno famously wrote that “Modernity is a qualitative, not a chronological, category”.[ii] This comment incisively captures the crux of the matter: Viewed from a sociological vantage point, there is little meaning in historical periods and years. Historiography, in the words of Wilhelm Windelband, is ideally an entirely ideographic enterprise, i.e. it describes chains of events qua events, and it focuses on the particularity of facts and emergences located specifically within space, time and sequence. Sociology is located within the social sciences, and as such it always strives towards at least some generalizability, i.e. it is ultimately what Windelband would have called a nomothetic endeavor, a study of regularities of the social universe. Periodization can never be truly ideographic nor nomothetic. Obviously, modernity did not “occur” during certain year, nor did it end and postmodernity begin at another year. As the 19th century classical sociologists struggled to grasp it, modernity is a certain pattern of widely interconnected phenomena, certain abstracted qualities that seem to describe deep-rooted properties of a society in its entirety; the explanatory relations between said properties.
Much confusion has come from this fallacy, and, as a result, the exploration of the modern, postmodern and metamodern quickly reaches an analytical impasse in many, or even most, of its students. Vermeulen and van der Akker have suggested that metamodernism is a period shaped by certain events, but they cannot provide any full description or explanation for as to which pattern connects these events.[iii] Correspondingly, contemporary sociologists have been reluctant to describe the present period as “postmodern” and have suggested terms such as “late modern” (Giddens)[iv], “liquid modernity” (Bauman), “second modernity” (Beck) and so on – perhaps, a wise caution. In my view, these sociologists notice the fact that, yes, there are indeed new trends and social logics cropping up in society, but that the prevailing social logic is fundamentally still guided by what may be described as modernity.
The simple reason for this confusion, I believe, is that the question is incorrectly posed. The answer to the question of “when is modernity/postmodernity/metamodernity?” always depends upon the more fundamental question of what each of these is. The answer to that question, in turn, depends less upon certain historical events, and more upon how these three categories are defined; firstly, as different sequences of unfolding logics or dialectics, the latter following from the dynamics of the former; secondly, as different aspects or dimensions of each (I will describe six such different aspects shortly).
The idea of “the metamodern” is thus a heuristic tool; it does not presuppose exactly what “metamodern” is or means, but it stipulates that such a phenomenon can be explored and that the concept’s predictive value can increase as the descriptive, deductive, analytical and interpretive concepts are developed and refined.
In accordance with metamodern sensibilities, the concept of metamodernism can itself be viewed as being held with “sincere irony” – a synthesis between the sincere belief in progress (of developmental psychology, stage models of perspectives upon the world, dialectical dynamics that seem to stabilize around certain equilibria), and the ironic distance to any such models and sense of direction, an admission that our models and paradigms are always limited and, ultimately, partly mistaken. But even “the synthesis” can be taken as too literal, too monolithic and uncritically held as a belief. Hence, the metamodern sociologist’s belief in metamodernism is rather a proto-synthesis; a proposed, ironically held heuristic of descriptive and prescriptive models of society and reality.
Metamodernism in six dimensions
With this pragmatically self-depreciating view in mind, the complex we call metamodern-metamodernity-metamodernism can be viewed in six distinct but deeply interrelated ways:
- as a cultural phase that comes after and redeems the cynicism and irony of postmodernism with a “new sincerity” which coexists peacefully with postmodern irony (such as in the work of Vermeulen and van der Akker, comparable to the work of cultural theorists on post-postmodernism, digimidernism, transmodernism, performativism, postconstructivism, enactivism – describing trends within culture at large, pop culture, visual arts, theatre, architecture, literature, music, film and so forth);
- as a developmental stage of society and its institutions, one that emerges and stabilizes after modern society (such as my own work, comparable to Ken Wilber’s integral theory, Jürgen Habermas’s and Günther Dux’s developmental sociologies, ideas about new Kondratiev waves of economic life, like Paul Mason’s “postcapitalism”, economic stage theories like Klaus Schwab’s “fourth industrial revolution”, Manuel Castell’s “network society” and, more indirectly, the holistic sociologies of Roy Bhaskar and Edgar Morin);
- as a meta-meme, i.e. a deep-lying pattern-of-patterns within the realm of meaning-making and symbols, with its own social, economic and technological dynamics, that are likely to emerge together in a coherent, non-arbitrary manner in historical sequence, where the different parts resonate with one another and mutually reinforce each other, particularly around the emergence of a digitized internet society (this is explored in my own upcoming work, The 6 Hidden Patterns of History and it has a precedent in e.g. the work of Jean Gebser);
- as a relatively late and rare stage of personal development – cognitive, emotional, existential and relational (as studied in adult development psychology, where later stages of a more self-transforming mind are studied in different ways by such theorists and researchers as Robert Kegan, Susanne Cook-Greuter, Michael L. Commons, Michael Basseches, Kurt Fischer, Theo Dawson, Terri O’Fallon, Clare Graves, Gerald Young and others, myself included with my work on the “effective value meme” of a person);
- as a certain paradigm, with its own philosophy with accompanying theologies (which includes a family of ideas concerning ontology, epistemology, aesthetics and ethics – such as Karen Barad’s agential realism and onto-epistemology, Quentin Meillassoux’s speculative realism, perspective-participatory views of reality and “entanglement”, belief in potential rather than actuality as the ground of reality, developmental views of emergence, chaos, complexity and cybernetics, multi-perspectivalism, the revisiting of process philosophy in Whitehead and Peirce, critiques of anthropocentrism and humanism, holistic views that put spirituality and studies 1st person phenomenological or experiential perspectives at the center, developmental semiotics and cyber-semiotics, syntheistic theologies, transdisciplinary studies and meta-theories which map out non-arbitrary relations between different injunctions into reality, fractal perspectives of reality and phenomenological experience in which for instance the relation between natural and social sciences are viewed as contained within one another in fractal patterns, relationality as an ontological basis, deconstructive critiques of the naïve experience of the self as a discrete object, transpersonal perspectives that try to go beyond ideas of “the individual” and “the collective”, critiques of linear statistical inference in favor of the study of emergent patterns, a holistic view of information theory, and an embrace of both-and thinking and self-critical embrace of paradox and the brokenness of reality’s self-organization; these abstractly interrelated strands represent different versions of neo-Hegelianism and post-Kantianism, tending towards “non-dual” spirituality and a distancing from Cartesian dualism in its various forms). Obviously, the interconnecting links between all of these philosophical projects are far from evident; rather, I hold, there is a profound structure to the metamodern mind, the contours of which can thus far only be vaguely sketched, and much work remains to be done in terms of formulating the key principles underlying the metamodern philosophy proper, as well as within the sociology of knowledge concerning from which social contexts such ideas emerge;
- as a certain movement or project, emerging primarily in relatively “progressive” countries and segments of “developed” societies, largely from postmodern strata of the population (animated by sentiments of oscillation, superposition (in the quantum sense), or both-and thinking, where you hold two polarities in mind at the same time: such as sincere irony, informed naiveté, magical realism, relative utopia, the crossroads of fact and fiction. This movement – with its intermeshed strands of cultural, aesthetic, political, psychotherapeutic and organizational efforts – is driven by ideals of creating open participatory processes, collective intelligence, inner work and “embodiment”, co-development, and an experimental view of rituals as well as attempts to “re-construct” everyday life and social reality, as well as attempts to bridge and synthesize perspectives of the Left and Right and the different sides of the culture wars, e.g. between traditionalists and progressives. Metamodernists tend to emphasize inner development as a political and sociological issue, deliberation, process and perspective taking as political tools, and focus on the intersection of inner depth and outwards complexity. The demographics of this movement is primarily drawn from what I have termed the Quadruple-H population (Hipsters, Hackers, Hippies and Hermetics – more on these below)).
As the reader may have noticed, periodization is not one of these six categories. Metamodernism is not a period, not an epoch. It is what Sean-Ebjörn Hargens has termed a “multiple ontological object”[v]; it is many realities at once, and no single aspect or angle-of-attack captures it fully or even very meaningfully and usefully. Metamodernism is thus both a cultural phase, and a developmental stage of society, and an abstracted meta-meme, and a stage of personal development (with different complexly intertwined sub-categories thereof), and a philosophical paradigm, and a movement with a certain project for culture and society.
I would like to be direct here: Until scholars, students and other agents of metamodernism learn to distinguish between these six meanings of “metamodern”, there can be very little progress made – analytical or political – towards metamodern understanding and goals in society. Attempts at periodization will remain arbitrary, bordering on nonsensical, unless one specifies which aspect of the metamodern one studies.
Clearing the analytical fog
Let us consider a few examples of analytical difficulties of this complex, multidimensional landscape:
- There can be metamodern elements in singular works of arts and culture long before today’s wave of metamodern arts (Salvador Dalí, for instance, is generally termed to be a “modernist” in art history text books, but a quick analysis of his paintings reveals a strong postmodern current with significant metamodern elements);
- there can be minorities of people with metamodern personalities and values in a society that is dominated by modern values and institutions but in which there are also large minorities with pre-modern and postmodern values and corresponding stages of personal development;
- there can be philosophers who work from an underlying metamodern paradigm but fail to see and name that same paradigm (or choose not to, for various reasons);
- there can be metamodernist movements manned and driven by people who do not embody corresponding stages of personal development;
- there can be agents who tap into the social logics pertaining to the metamodern meta-meme, but who do not themselves think and act in accordance with metamodern cultural sensibilities;
- there can be leaders who enact the cultural logic of the metamodern phase in their communication and agency, but who are themselves by no means metamodernists and do not lead metamodern movements (Seth Abramson has made this case for Donald Trump);
- there can be artists who partake in exploring metamodernism as a movement and cultural phase, but whose work is largely devoid of metamodern elements;
- there can be entire societies affected by the social logic of the metamodern meta-meme, but the institutions of which are still modern or even pre-modern…
… and so forth. Hopefully, then, the analytical fog can clear.
Different methods and analytical tools are required to study, understand and enact each of these six dimensions. Metamodern sociology must be one that non-arbitrarily traverses this landscape of six dimensions, selecting and coordinating appropriate theories and methods to understand the different dimensions and their interrelations. For instance, an understanding of the metamodern stage of personal development cannot be understood through further developments of cultural theory; it requires a solid foundation in developmental psychology and adult development. Likewise, developmental psychology alone cannot guide the understanding of how metamodern institutions can be created in society for it to self-organize at a transnational, global level, tackling wicked issues such as climate change and technological disruption. All six paths must be mastered, not by one single person (that is all but impossible), but by the community of students of metamodernism. These students must, in turn, be capable of communicating across these six dimensions and be able to grant recognition and fair, critical appraisal of one another’s work from different angles.
As for periodization, this can only become meaningful retrospectively, once the dimensions of study are specified. If one argues, for instance, that we live today in a cultural phase of metamodernism, and finds examples thereof in arts and popular culture – which are distinct from postmodern sensibilities of critique, irony and deconstruction – then one misses the obvious fact that we do not today live in a society organized around metamodern institutions, i.e. institutions created against the backdrop of a metamodern philosophical paradigm and governed by populations at metamodern stages of personal development. In other words: This one-dimensional analysis misconstrues a late modern society, with postmodern elements, as being “metamodern” and thus cuts the impetus for a truly metamodern movement short.
Likewise, naturally, modernity can be periodized either as a 20th century phenomenon, as stretching back to the beginnings of industrialism, as rooted in the Enlightenment, as emerging during the Scientific Revolution of the 1600s, as appearing in the arts and culture of the Renaissance when perspective entered into painting and the modern Western musical scale was completed in the 1400s, to precocious late medieval thinkers of science and progress like Roger Bacon – or even to forms of proto-modernity in antiquity and the state formation of Qin China. Modernity is a qualitative, not a chronological, category.
The same can be said about postmodernism, the earliest signs of which harken back to the Enlightenment (with Rousseau), clear forms begin to emerge during the 19th century, dominant forms take hold in what is conventionally called “modern” art in the first half of the 20th century, and clearly formulated philosophies of postmodernism (often tied to poststructuralism) which stretch back to at least the 1960s – and then becoming a dominant social logic or phase in the 1990s’ popular culture.
I would like to stop for one more caveat. A distinction should be made between students of metamodernism who stop at the descriptive stage of inquiry, and those (like myself) who combine a descriptive and prescriptive approach. I believe that, if one sees and understands metamodernism in this richer and more multi-dimensional sense, one cannot remain entirely neutral to the developmental path of society; one is morally compelled to act to bring about a metamodern society, reorganizing the limits to the systemic dynamics and life-worlds of modernity. Just as medieval society appears crude, irrational and immoral to the modern mind, so does modern society appear needlessly grim and “un-enlightened” to the metamodern observer. Hence, I should like to underscore that the metamodern sociology of which I propose an outline in this article can and will have a prescriptive and normative element: with sincere irony, with informed naivety, with pragmatic romanticism, it is a moral imperative for metamodern sociology to study society in ways that can offer self-critically held proto-syntheses; visions and plans for a qualitatively different and ethically desirable future society.
It should further be underscored that this moral impetus does not come from a posited “direction of history”, from the idea that metamodernism is a later or future period or epoch; if “progress” is tied to time and arbitrarily delineated epochs rather than to analytical distinctions and categories, one is promptly returned to the teleological fallacy, i.e. in believing that time itself progresses history along a certain pregiven axis of linear development. The moral impetus emerges, instead, from the ethics and sensibilities of the metamodern mind and from an understanding of the advantages, in terms of human and non-human animal thriving and reduced quantities of suffering, conferred by the emergence of metamodern society and its societal properties. Metamodern psychology emerges from modern psychology, transcending and including it; the same is true of a metamodern philosophy and ethics; and the same is true of a metamodern society. Metamodern society is not a utopian vision[vi]; it is simply another social logic that flows developmentally from modernity, taken to its own endpoint, which is postmodernism, taken to its own endpoint, which is metamodernism.
Sociology in an evolutionary context
Let us now revisit sociology as an academic discipline evolving in rhythm with society, so that it may be considered from a distinctly metamodern perspective. In this view, there is modern sociology (but not quite a pre-modern one; it begins there), a postmodern sociology, and then the potential for a revamped form of the discipline – a metamodern sociology.
Since its programmatic formulation in the 19th century, despite eager and repeated efforts from the onset, sociology has never fully managed to establish itself as a “science” in the sense that its basic theories and tenets can be agreed upon by all practitioners and be taught in textbooks. The textbooks of sociology to this day still all present an array of different and partly competing, partly overlapping, perspectives, methodologies and models. Whereas the natural sciences also depend upon the society of the people who ask the questions and perform the research, they allow for a certain distance to the shared and experienced life-worlds of everyday life. Inquires of social science, in contrast, have a considerably closer tie to the issues and questions pertaining to a certain society in a certain time – to everyday life. Mechanisms for alleviating poverty are only studied in a society in which people feel that this is a realistic and meaningful endeavor; ethnographic studies of honor killings can only crop up in a society in which a significant group views such practices as alien, harmful and immoral; questions of the nature of the relation between states, markets and civil society can only emerge in a context where these categories are viewed as defined objects in the first place – and so forth.
Hence, sociology has largely reflected and partaken in the dominant strands of thought and understanding of society at large – from a distinctly modern sociology, geminating in the 18th century with Montesquieu and Tocqueville, originating in the middle 19th century with Comte, peaking with its programmatic formulation in the “classics” (Marx, Spencer, Weber, Durkheim, Tönnies, Dubois, Martineau – with premonitions of later developments in rogue thinkers like Gabriel Tarde and Georg Simmel), maturing, aging and decaying in the mid-20th century with Talcott Parson’s structural functionalism, and surviving to this day in the form of conventional, quantitative studies of social phenomena – to a distinctly postmodern turn, beginning in the 1960s with social constructionism, “French theory” and poststructuralism, taking over the bastions of conventional academia within social science and humanities in the 1980s and 1990s with various strands of critical theory, discourse analysis, the linguistic turn, radical constructivism (rather than “constructionism”), feminist scholarship, queer theory, postcolonialism and intersectionality.
Between these two bodies of intellectual and social pursuit – modern and postmodern sociology – one can place certain figures and strands that served as portals between the two realms of thought and research; ideas that were proto-postmodern and in that sense “before their time”: Mannheim’s sociology of knowledge, Levi-Strauss’ structuralist anthropology (harkening back to Saussure’s linguistic structuralism of the 1920s, and later radicalized into full-fledged postmodern poststructuralism in the hands of Foucault and other French theorists), the symbolic interactionism that grew from Goffman’s situationist sociology of everyday life and its rituals, Garfinkel’s ethnomethodology (the study of how people in practice implicate a larger social order underlying each everyday interaction) – and, of course, the Frankfurt School and other strands of humanist socialism and psychoanalysis. All of these started bonfires in the project of modern sociology, particularly against the backdrop of the socialist and humanist campus radicalism of 1968 and the 1970s; fires that spread and eventually reached the heart of the discipline, reshaping it in its entirety.
Modern sociology is driven, in some way or form, by a will to understand society “as an object” by means of the scientific method, and thus ultimately to reshape it in accordance with a “rational” will of the observer. This holds true whether it is Marx’s view of stages of economic and societal development, Durkheim’s (pre-)statistical study of “social facts” (such as the suicide rates that reproduce themselves with frightening regularity in different segments of a given society from year to year), or Weber’s attempt to use a qualitative analysis of ideas, values and religion as driving forces and his study of the emergence of a distinctly “modern” state bureaucracy, market and civil society.
All of these observers try to somehow understand what modern society is by using, in some sense, “scientific” approaches. When Comte coined the term “sociology” in 1838 (although it has recently been shown that this was not a first), he imagined it as an entirely positivist science, one that would study society as a natural object like any other, and eventually serve to bring full rationality to all human relations, including the organization of the other (natural) sciences. He thus imagined a developmental model of society in which a scientific modern society was the final stage, and here sociology would take its place as the governing principle, establishing itself as “the queen of the sciences”.
Whereas the other classical modern theorists were not as direct and grandiose in their understanding of sociology (except, perhaps Marx who didn’t directly subscribe to the term “sociology”, but claimed to have discovered the science of how society develops), they were all somehow part of this underlying project. It is true that Weber departed from positivism in favor of a more interpretative sociology, but he still described modern society as rational and driven by a goal-rational order. Durkheim described rites and rituals in religions, and held that even modern people are in some sense religious, and tribal religions in some sense rational (even “irrational” beliefs can be shown to have “rational” underpinnings and functions from a societal perspective) – but Durkheim did subscribe to the “pregiven” ontological reality of social facts that can be studied “objectively” by means of empirical research. In other words, modern sociology was a child of modernity and its roots in the Enlightenment.
Postmodern sociology revolted against the modern project itself. The underlying supposition that a precise and correct understanding of society could bring about societal progress was put into serious question. The French philosopher Derrida’s sophisticated “deconstruction” became a north star of this cultural and academic sentiment: the issue is not to “objectively describe” the social world, but to look to its cracks, its exceptions, its loopholes, its paradoxes, its self-contradictions and underlying meanings. As long as the observer takes the presuppositions of society, which are layered in language itself, for granted, she can never truly study society from “from the outside”, since she will always be caught within the conceptual structures of that same society.
The postmodern mind notes that, yes, the truth may set you free, it may well emancipate individuals and groups in society, but the truth is never a straightforward matter of facts and method. The question is always, and always remains, “whose truth?”. The critical, postmodern, sociologist feels that there is not one path to the truth. The truth is always context dependent, and never free from issues of preconception, the cognitive schemata of the observer. These, in turn, are always dependent upon society itself and its organization, which is always infinitely larger than one’s own perspective thereof. Society and “the social” constitute a stronger and more pervasive force than modern sociology could have believed. Behind every truth claim there is a corresponding claim to power and authority, and truth-seeking and ideas of progress can never be entirely divorced from power relations in society, from specific interests and worldviews. Hence, all of science and all of the applications of social science are dependent upon the social position and perspective of the observer. There is never, in Thomas Nagel’s words, “a view from nowhere”. This echoes, of course, the philosophy of Nietzsche and his notion of “the death of God”, a clear premonition of postmodern philosophy. The proposition that “God is dead” should hence not be understood theologically, but epistemically; as soon as one takes a particular, situated, perspective to be universal and independent of the observer, one has implicitly introduced a “God” into the equation, i.e. a belief in an ultimately umpire of truth claims. But this umpire is, in reality, always out of reach.
I would argue, thus, that postmodernism represents a form of higher secularization vis-à-vis modernity. Modernity makes short notice of the traditional God above the clouds, the God of private revelations of singular prophets. The modern mind commits itself to public revelation by means of a scientific community, verifying or falsifying the factual and explanatory claims of each researcher. It is based upon objectivity-through-mutuality. Postmodernism points out that these verifications and falsifications will always be dependent upon the shared taken-for-granted worldviews, values and interests of the scientific community, which itself is always located within a society that defines the rules and limits of any inquiry. Most questions, of all possible ones, are simply never asked; most interpretations never considered. As such, postmodernism finishes what modernism started; it kills off not only the literal (theological) God but also the implicit (epistemological) God-behind-the-scenes.
Such limits to the scope of inquiry are never arbitrary; they are themselves structured in recognizable manners, usually revealing a power structure of some kind. A simple example from today’s world: Scientific inquiry has long shown a close connection between humanity and the animal realm; yet, serious inquiries into the ethical consequences of this indisputable fact remain a fringe issue in the sciences and in society at large. Animal rights is viewed as a non-respectable and quite secondary issue, despite its enormous consequences in terms of real, ongoing suffering. This is not due to some methodological fault on behalf of science and research, but rather to the weak position that non-human animals have within our society. Unable to organize and to voice their perspective, the questions of animals, a simple “why?” in the face of imprisonment, slavery and industrial violence, are simply almost never raised, and when raised, seldom taken seriously.
Truth, then, is a slave to power. How, then, can the truth break free? The postmodern mind employs critical theory and a deconstructive sociology, to somehow grasp the surrounding culture, the construction of meaning, morality and norms. This is an excavation of the underlying power structures that shape us so fundamentally that it precedes even our ability to ask a question, to make a certain kind of truth claim, even our direct perceptions. And this is revealed by systematically examining the self-contradictions and paradoxes of modern society, its language and meaning-making.
For this reason, the postmodern mind eschews all “grand narratives”, in the words of Lyotard. It is incredulous towards the overarching “liberal” world, and even to its Marxist-Leninist alternative. The direction of development is not pregiven, not ordained; time is not an arrow pointing towards progress. If you believe in one given “background space” within which you place society and your sociological inquiry, then you will always end up reproducing the claim to power inherent in that pregiven background space. There is, rather, a multiplicity of perspectives, each with their respective underlying power claims – and it is by breaking such perspectives against one another, in a “parallax view” (Zizek), that the inconsistencies of each single one is revealed. No one has the truth, not even the physicists. There is no “ground of reality” and no high priest who knows what it is.
Where does this, then, leave the postmodern mind? In a perpetual questioning, an infinity of intellectual and cultural resistance; in ever new variations of critique. Foucault is the emblematic example of this position. He and other intellectuals take on a role corresponding to the priesthood in traditional societies; they chastise us and question us with the fervor that stems from seeing a more ethical and fairer world, one that is always, in practice, impossible.
By no means is the postmodern questioning of the modern world complete. It has produced many cultural victories, from feminism, to anti-racism, to anti-postcolonialism, to revealing the hidden injuries of class – all of which have fueled movements and emancipations. But to this day, animal rights, to name one issue, has remained peripheral and animal slavery largely unquestioned.
And yet it is not a stretch to claim that the postmodern critique has reached an impasse as an academic project. The postmodern intellectuals have retreated into the ivory towers of academia, refining the code and critical methodologies, but decoupling themselves from leadership and creative reorganizations of society’s institutions that are direly needed. A widespread resistance to postmodernism has taken hold in politics, in internet rogue intellectuals, and in the sentiments of society at large. Different forms of neo-reactionary, conservative and identitarian or “alt-right” movements have stolen the momentum and the imagination of a generation of young. These have tired of the cynicism and self-critique of postmodernism and its corresponding sociology, longing for a less bewildering and more self-assertive stance towards life, society and existence. The postmodern stance of perpetual questioning simply does not allow for hope, sincerity and belief, as these are always taken to be new forms of oppression in disguise.
And this is where metamodern sociology enters the picture. It begins from a similar move, one of further secularization. If postmodern sociology always posits that there are power structures controlling our behaviors and knowledge claims, metamodern sociology eschews even this belief. Rather, metamodern sociology begins from the proposition that power structures are only truly surface phenomena, shadows of a deeper and impersonal reality: the reality of complex emergences that crisscross one another. There are hence, ultimately, no power structures to “question” or even simply “remove”. Instead, there are processes that guide the emergence of the perspectives in the world, and this in turn guides behaviors and results.
Because we cannot relate to society without taking a position based upon our perspective, the metamodern mind argues, we should own up to the perspective that we take, and the developmental direction implied by that view. We should then deliberately employ the sociological methods to shape society, its culture, institutions and economy, in this desired direction. This sense of direction is held, again, with sincere irony. We may know full well that our perspectives are limited and our visions partly imaginary, but we choose to take the risk, with informed naivety.
Postmodernism can only ever be a critique of the existing modern society, affecting some patterns here and there. Metamodernism, as a movement and sentiment, seeks to suggest new paths for society altogether: a new overarching equilibrium. This has long been taboo in the social sciences. But it is time that the taboo is broken, and that creative minds use the sociological imagination to suggest concrete futures and make visible new potentials.
In this sense, metamodern sociology marries the progressive impetus of modern sociology and its will to take modernity “as an object” that can be shaped and directed, to the multi-perspectival, deconstructive and “ironic” stance of postmodern sociology. This can, admittedly, be done in more or less fruitful manners. At worst, it is a shotgun wedding, where the worst of both worlds are combined – for instance, an undermining of scientific rigor in the name of relativism and unrealistic suggestions about a future utopia. At best, it is a nimble bifurcation between critique and progress, where new suggestions are carefully scrutinized and evolved. Or better yet, borrowing a term from quantum physics: metamodernism holds the modern idea of progress and the postmodern critique in superposition to one another – depending upon the participant perspective of the observer, each new inquiry can lead either to critique and resistance, or towards a path to deep progress.
If modern sociology is about “reality”, the societal facts of the matter, and postmodern sociology is about “perspective”, the differing views of the facts of the matter, then metamodern sociology is about “potentials”, i.e. the larger realm of all possibilities contained within the multiplicity of mutually interacting perspectives. Metamodern sociology thus seeks to reorganize the generative conditions of how all of these perspectives emerge, evolve and interact.
Modern sociology asks: What is society?
Postmodern sociology asks: How is society viewed, by whom, and why?
Metamodern sociology asks: How do these views of society emerge, and how can they be made to emerge in ways that are beneficial from a multiplicity of weighted and compared views?
The generative conditions of perspective in its necessary multiplicity. This is the ultimate object of study for a metamodern sociology. Metamodern sociology thus takes up the task of cataloging, understanding, comparing, and non-arbitrarily evaluating the many perspectives of society, self, and reality. The evaluation of perspectives is, of course, only something that can be done by having some over-arching meta-theory or larger conceptual space within which the perspectives can be placed in relation to one another. Hence, the metamodern divorce from the postmodern is completed: the postmodern mind would not have allowed for the formulation of an over-arching meta-theory, a narrative of narratives, a perspective of perspectives. And yet, this is what each metamodern sociologist must work on: a suggested map of meaning, one that can always evolve and be scrutinized by others – or “co-developed”.
This map-making is, naturally, an enormous task that can never be concluded. But it is only through such a work that one can hope to suggest pathways for society which, for all future, will consist of many competing and contradicting perspectives. Deconstructing and critiquing perspectives of others, or even of oneself, cannot be enough. One must, sooner or later, reveal from which meta-theory one is working, and from there on say how and why the great multiplicity of perspectives can be evolved. This is a synthesis of modern and postmodern sociology; but as the metamodern mind also builds upon and attempts to transcend and include the postmodern perspective, it must always remain a proto-synthesis – i.e. not a synthesis held to describe the actual development of what Hegel called the world-soul, but a “good enough for now, safe enough to try” attempt to act in good faith.
Hence, beyond its intellectual underpinnings, metamodern sociology is also an act of faith – of ironic piety – or even, if you will, of enlightened madness.
Describing metamodern sociology
Let us then examine some properties of metamodern sociology in its current embryonic form. To reveal my own (hopefully) enlightened madness, I would like to stress that these tenets are my own postulates, and that they can and should be challenged and developed.
Developmentalism of perspectives. It is a tenet of metamodern sociology that perspectives are not arbitrarily ordered, but that they emerge in recognizable patterns. A poststructuralist critique of literature has never emerged in a tribal society with no writing; quantum theory has never emerged in a traditional, pre-modern, society. Even if strands of thought can be linked backwards in history (process philosophy back to Heraclitus and so forth), there are indeed specific ideas that build upon one another: multiplication builds upon addition. And these sequences are, in turn, always dependent upon social and material – ultimately, even biological – conditions, with which they interact. Postmodernism did not emerge before modernism, nor could it have. For this reason, metamodern sociology always looks for meaningful and explanatory developmental sequences, putting them into relation to one another on some kind of developmental scale. This developmentalism thus accepts at least some minimal form of stage theories; and these stage theories are not mere phases (childhood, maturity, old age) but indeed stages (addition, multiplication, power functions). Each stage must be, in clearly definable terms, either more complex than the former, or, at a minimum, be derived from the former and qualitatively distinct. For instance, one may study how people, such as police officers, think about an issue like “race and ethnicity”; some will reflect upon these matters in simpler terms, “black people commit more crimes”, others in more nuanced and complex terms “some groups in society are underprivileged and are thus driven into crime more easily”, and some in yet more complex terms “through my work and perspective, I have a role in recreating the crime statistics that keep up the over-policing of some ethnic groups, which breeds exclusion and resentment in these groups”. In the minds of different observers with distinct perspectives, the same phenomenon appears differently, with different conclusions. These three suggested perspectives are not merely outcomes of different personalities, but they build upon one another: there is a developmental sequence – and if more police officers are supported to independently being able to think in accordance with the more complex perspective, this is likely to be more aligned with their dealings with the complexities of society and criminal justice. To eschew all developmental sequences of such perspectives is to flatten the view, as it were, projecting a three-dimensional object on a two-dimensional surface. This is what the metamodern sociologist calls “developmental blindness”. Unfortunately, postmodern sociology is more or less developmentally blind, which explains a large part of its impotence to create workable pathways for culture and society to take.
Meta-theory and map-making. It is another unfortunate limitation to contemporary sociology that students are not taught comprehensive maps of the theoretical landscape of sociological theories, so that choice of theory and perspective can be selected non-arbitrarily, with well-argued motivations. There is a severe lack of meta-theory. Rather, the choice of theory, and indeed, the entirety of academic careers, are based upon which theories happen to “speak to” the individual scholar, often being defined by earlier work on the particular topic of study. Sociologists become “interactionists”, “constructivist feminists”, “Marxists”, “middle-range theory institutionalists” and so forth, depending upon whim and chance, often unable to communicate meaningfully across these sub-disciplinary boundaries. This is an enormous waste of potential, as the meta-theoretical space is sub-optimized. To be fair, prominent sociologists like Jeffrey Alexander and Georg Ritzer have indeed presented meta-theoretical maps of the territory, but these have not taken a central place in the education of sociologists, and a researcher is generally not expected to give convincing reasons for his or her position within a larger meta-theoretical map. Neither do a few courses on the “philosophy of social science” grant students a comprehensive map, as these also simply enumerate a host of competing positions. Metamodern sociology is different: It begins and ends in meta-theory, always naming the underlying meta-theory, one’s own theoretical position within it, and always returning to the meta-theoretical map once the theoretical and empirical dive is concluded, feeding something back to this fundamental “ground-level” of social science. A good place to start is Ken Wilber’s comprehensive work on “integral theory”, which includes several important meta-theoretical maps – but it is a telling sign that one must look to relatively esoteric writers beyond the discipline, like Wilber, to find good material for such mappings. In short, the emergence of the many perspectives in sociology and its large body of theories is not arbitrary; it covers different aspects of injunctions into the nature of society. If there is any one thing that particularly prevents sociology as an academic discipline from becoming a proper “science”, it is this lack of meta-theoretical maps – all the perspectives and injunctions end up beings “smashed together” in a grand, confusing hotchpotch. By going to the source, to the map-making of the sociological territory, one can begin to restore order to this cosmos, and thus specify which truth claims are relevant as basic tenets of each form of injunction, ridding the landscape of redundant and contradictory theories. Metamodern sociology must thus work from a more highly abstracted and complex level, zooming in on different phenomena from different theoretical perspectives, all the time explicating why and how each zoom is made. Naturally, one’s meta-theoretical map – if you will, one’s underlying paradigm made explicit – will also shape one’s view of what society is and how it functions.
Fractal methodology. In a corresponding manner, choice of research methods and methodological considerations must be based upon which injunction into reality is being made, i.e. it must be non-arbitrarily selected against the backdrop of a meta-theoretical map, and how the studied phenomenon is located on the meta-theoretical map. The crux here is to avoid that research is steered primarily by the “sunk costs” of the time and effort it takes to master each research method, qualitative or quantitative, a division that today divides the discipline. It is not realistic that all researchers should be able to master all methods of research, but the methodological development of each scholar should be strategized in relation to their position on the meta-theoretical map and the sociological community as a whole should optimize its distribution of research skills, while investing time and effort in learning a shared language that facilitates bridges between different methodologies and research programs.
Holistic. Bearing in mind that “holistic” already has a meaning within sociology, and that the term is used as a catchphrase in many context, often meaning an acceptance and inclusion of “spiritual” aspects of life, it should still be underscored that metamodern sociology is a holistic endeavor, albeit of another kind. Holism, in this context, should be contrasted with “reductionism”, and it flows from the above point about meta-theory. Much sociological ink has been spilled considering the relation between material (economic, technological conditions) and the culture of society. Reductionism, in its different guises, holds that either a) the economic system, or b) the overarching culture and its inherent meaning-making and implicit power relations, or c) the interactions and rituals of everyday life, or d) the social-psychological process of how humans are socialized and their personalities are formed, constitutes the “most fundamental” aspect of society, to which its other dimensions can ultimately be reduced (hence, “reductionism”, note that this includes cultural reductionism). The metamodern sociologist uses a meta-theoretical map to study how, at a minimum, these four dimensions emerge together; how they interact and define each other. Hence, one cannot arbitrarily seek to explain societal phenomena from any one of these fundamental fields of emergence. Depending on how elaborate one’s meta-theoretical map is (others are possible, not just these four fields), one is obliged to always explain the phenomenon as holistically as possible, not leaving out any dimension, or at least explaining why and how one limits one’s inquiry. In an expanded sense, this holistic perspective should reach into the body, both as a biological-medical entity, and as a lived and felt embodiment of social experience – as well as into the biosphere and ecology.
Transpersonal perspective. This one flows, in turn, from the above tenet. The transpersonal perspective holds that society consists neither of atomized or interacting individuals, nor of societal systems and cultural structures and collectives, nor even of networks of people. Rather, lending from disciplines such as depth psychology and deconstructive critiques of the “individual self” in cognitive science, the metamodern sociologist views humans as multi-layered, open, interacting processes that emerge together – one’s agency cannot clearly be delineated from another, nor from the society within which it unfolds. For instance, you can use a marketing strategy (an artefact found in a book, a societal condition) to affect my purchasing behaviors without my knowledge thereof; where, then, does my agency originate? Neither in the individual nor the collective, neither in you nor in me. This approaches, of course, what Gilles Deleuze called “the dividual”. The transpersonal perspective views behavior, and perspectives, as emergent through and beyond the individual. In this sense, human happiness and suffering are also emergent at the transpersonal level, at the level of depth psychology shaped by society, but also, on higher layers of the conscious mind, actively acting upon that same society. This leads us, clearly, to questions about how our “self” emerges in society and how it evolves over the life-span, inexorably linking metamodern sociology to developmental psychology and the stages of adult development – hence to issues of healing, trauma, and the human body. For instance: How much does unhealed trauma steer the political behavior of members of society?
Complexity and emergence. Norbert Wiener famously wrote an article about complexity; the evolution from mechanics (linear, predictable causation) to chemistry (aggregates of many processes, each of which is unpredictable, but that statistically add up to a predicable whole) to complexity (highly unlikely events, that emerge against all apparent odds through complex interactions, such as the emergence of biological life). Sociology has, naturally, followed a similar path: from Comte’s focus on “forces”, lending from the mechanics of his time, to a statistical science with quantitative method, apparent already in Durkheim but flourishing after the breakthroughs in mathematical statistics in the 1920s, to a search for ways to describe complex emergences in many contemporary sociologists. Metamodern sociology may well employ mechanical and statistical thinking and methods, but its home base must remain firmly based within complexity. A distinction can here be made between “lateral complexity”, which looks at how patterns emerge through the interactions of many smaller units (championed by e.g. the Santa Fe Institute and the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence and cybernetics of different brands), and “hierarchical complexity”, which studies how more complex phenomena, including behavioral and cognitive patterns, emerge from less complex ones (championed by Michael Lamport Commons). This holds an important key in the divorce from the postmodern focus on “power structures”; the metamodern sociologist generally views pathologies in society as not one monolithic structure, but as an emergent pattern of many smaller, often counter-intuitively trivial, occurrences. Further, limitations to extensions of solidarity and oppressive factors in people’s lives, are viewed as pertaining to limitations to hierarchical complexity, i.e. that complex phenomena are somehow treated with a flattened, too simple, perspective. This is a less moralistic and more dispassionately descriptive intuition to build from.
Self-development and participation. Last but not least, the metamodern sociologist must understand that her own inquiry into any matter is an act of participation, which always affects the questions asked, the interpretations made, the findings presented. For this reason, the metamodern inquirer must always return to looking inwards, and to support her own healing and development in terms of theory/perspective, paradigm, stage of cognitive complexity, emotional foundation and motivations for inquiry, and relation to the field of study and society at large. Freud famously suggested that Napoleon conquered Europe to get back at his big brother. Correspondingly, the sociologist can easily spend a lifetime studying male oppression to address the trauma of a poor father and some disappointing boyfriends. More often than we like to believe, each of us is driven by simpler and cruder logics, interests and emotions than we would like to admit – and this will naturally shape any inquiry we undertake in society. Hence, the question becomes how one’s sociological inquiry is embodied within oneself. Naturally, emotions and reactions against perceived faults injustices in society constitute a legitimate source of motivation for sociological inquiry, but it is the task of the critically minded sociologist to scrutinize even one’s own moral outrage – or, for that matter, one’s indifference and boredom – towards societal issues. From a holistic, meta-theoretical and transpersonal view, work must be done where it is due, and sociological analysis does not exempt any observer from issues pertaining to the deeply personal and psychological realm. This leads us, again, to issues of depth psychology, even to forms of self-development and self-exploration that include contemplations, meditation and in some cases responsible use of psychedelics. This is because our sensing and wounded selves always participate in our sociological endeavors.
Key questions about metamodernism and society
Let us turn again to the second meaning of a “metamodern sociology”, namely the sociology about metamodernism. There are, of course, countless imaginable topics of such a field, but some few currently stand out in terms of their obviousness and pertinence.
- Developmental demographics – how are different populations in different societies distributed across the stages of adult development (and in which kinds of adult development?), and how does this affect said societies and their interactions? Which demographics begin to display metamodern values, and which roles do these play in society?
- How do developmental differences of perspective play out in society, and how can arising conflicts be mitigated, narratives translated and mutuality or solidarity across different perspectives be improved? How can metamodern perspective be situated and employed to serve such mediating purposes?
- How do the institutions and culture of society affect and generate different distributions of developmental demographics? How can inner development be supported throughout society – empirically speaking? What problems or obstacles complicate and/or prevent such measures?
- Which different pathways, social settings and cultural practices lead people to partake in metamodern movements and sentiments – and how do these interact? My own suggestion here has been that certain segments of the creative class should be studied: Hipsters, Hackers and Hippies (Triple-H). The first segment constitutes those who work with inner dimensions and subjective states, the second segment with symbols, arts, culture and narratives, the third with technology and information. These three cross-pollinate to create metamodern culture. I have later suggested the addition of a fourth segment (hence, a Quadruple-H population): the Hermetics. This last group work with meaning-creation, inventing symbols and rituals that try to grasp cultural realities that are yet only intuited. They are called Hermetics after the occult Renaissance movement, corresponding to the seeking for larger meaning patterns (believed at the time to be found in an original source identified as Hermes Trismegistus). Each of these groups have their own brands of excesses and pathologies (suggestions – Hippies: new age cults; Hipsters: cultural snobbery and ivory towers; Hackers: techno-utopian tunnel-vision of the Silicon Valley style; Hermetics: slides into anti-scientific occultism and complex flirtations with the far right) – and they have different lines of convergence and conflict. Metamodern movements must become proficient at including and mediating between these strands, while being able to discern pathological and excessive elements. This, I believe is a rich field of study!
- The economy of cultural and informational capital – including the battle for human time and attention. This playing field of the internet economy, and its networked logic, is where metamodernism emerges, thrives and goes awry.
- The mapping out of different utopias (and eutopias, “the good place”), their interrelations and how they connect to the metamodern, and their cultural dynamics in society, and how they relate to attractor points in the development of society, i.e. to new balances and social logics that are likely to grow and manifest in society given its current dynamics.
There are, clearly, central issues about metamodernism of which we still today know very little – and where the work of prescient researchers can make all the difference. Only one such topic is enough to fill the career of a talented social scientist. Seeing that metamodernism is not per se a “good” phenomenon, but a descriptive of certain elements that can be argued to be fruitful or harmful from different perspectives, few things are more important than exploring “the metamodern” from the perspective of rigorous research.
I hope this article can inspire fellow scholars to engage in metamodern sociology and begin the important work of describing the metamodern.
To conclude, sociology and metamodernism both share a key concern: to take modern society “as an object” that can be described, interpreted, related to, and ultimately reshaped; both entities work to see through and go beyond the modern. Hence, the argument can be made, that metamodernism belongs at the heart of the future of the sociological discipline, i.e. a sociology true to its own promises must become metamodern in its perspective – and, conversely, that sociology belongs at the heart of metamodernism. When metamodernism attempts to assert itself as a new self-organizing principle of society, it must be able to “see” modernity as the substrate upon which it operates. This follows, as the reader may have noticed, the pattern of subject-object theory: that with which one was earlier identified and took for granted, one’s “subject”, becomes an “object of awareness” from the new and higher vantage point — higher, of course, according to one’s developmentally informed meta-theory.
Hanzi Freinacht is a political philosopher, historian, and sociologist, author of ‘The Listening Society’, ‘Nordic Ideology’ and ’12 Commandments’ and the upcoming books ‘The 6 Hidden Patterns of History’ and ‘Outcompeting Capitalism’. Much of his time is spent alone in the Swiss Alps. You can follow Hanzi on Facebook, Twitter, and Medium, and you can speed up the process of new metamodern content reaching the world by making a donation to Hanzi here.
[i] Freinacht, Hanzi, 2017: The Listening Society: A Metamodern Guide to Politics, Book One. Wroclaw: Metamoderna.
[ii] “Modernity is a Qualitative, Not a Chronological, Category”, is taken from Theodor
Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life, trans. E.F.N. Jephcott, London
1978, p. 218.
[iii] Vermeulen, Timothy and van der Akker, “Periodising in Metamodernism: Historicity, Affect, and Depth after Postmodernism (Radical Cultural Studies),
[iv] Giddens, A., 1990, in “Classical modernity and late modernity”, p. 38.
[v] Hargens, Sean-Esbjörn, 2010. An Ontology of Climate Change. Journal of Integral Theory and Practice, 5(1), pp. 143–174.
[vi] Freinacht, Hanzi, 2019: Nordic Ideology: A Metamodern Guide to Politics, Book Two. Wroclaw: Metamoderna.