From Post-Industrial to Post-Modern Society: New Theories of the Contemporary World

Kumar, Krishan
Blackwell Publishers, Oxford

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Cover of book The second edition of Kumar's book includes a new chapter (Chapter 1) which analyses whether the theories discussed information society (Chapter 3), post-Fordism (Chapter 4) and post-modernity (Chapters 5 and 6) are still valid, ten years later, given that the debate now centres on globalization and alternative modernities.

The information society is distinguished by rapid and constant advances in information and communication systems. The greater availability of information and the opportunities offered by the new technologies change relations in terms of space and time, both of which are compressed by the availability of information everywhere in real time. Moreover the knowledge is a key resource. Kumar's analysis stresses the transition to a home-centred society, where consumption increasingly takes place at home: consider, with regard to entertainment, the opportunities offered by satellite or cable television, by VHS (now by DVD), or other activities like home banking and e-commerce. The move to a home-centred society highlights one of the main features of information technologies: their capacity to dismantle the centralized structures of industrial society. Of great interest is Kumar's observation that the information society is a private or privatized society distinguished by the crisis of public life.

For Kumar, globalization and informatization are closely connected. Emblematic are the three books by Castells entitled The Information Age. The re-definition of time and space are two distinctive features of both. More problematic is the link between Post-Fordism and globalisation. Post-Fordism analyses the changes that have taken place in the capitalist economy since the 1970s, when crisis hit the mass production of standardized goods whose most efficient organizational form was the large company. The aim of organizational change has been to achieve greater flexibility. This has led to the rediscovery of small enterprises able efficiently to produce differentiated goods in small batches. Post-Fordism comprises various theoretical approaches: primarily, analysis of the 'Third Italy', the central and north-eastern regions of Italy with numerous small firms specialized mainly in traditional sectors (textiles, clothing, footwear, etc.). Another theory is that of flexible specialization (Piore and Sabel), which emphasises the opportunities offered by the new technologies to recover crafts-based forms of production as alternatives to large-scale industry. There is then the theory propounded by the English Marxists that goes by the name of 'New Times'. This wide-ranging analysis considers changes not only in the economy but also in politics (for example, the fragmentation of the social classes, the crisis of the mass political parties) and in culture (for example, the rise of individualism). With the advent of globalization, the concept of post-Fordism has been partly set aside. For Kumar it is the victim of its own success: such is the consensus on the changes that have taken place with post-Fordism that almost no reference is now made to the original analyses. This is an aspect that should have been explored more deeply.

Finally, Kumar shifts his attention to culture and analyses the theory of post-modernity. The surprising and interesting feature of these chapters is their ability to move among different disciplinary fields: not only sociology but also art, architecture, philosophy and literature. Put briefly, post-modernity is characterized by the crisis of the great narratives of modernity: trust in history and progress, in reason, in science and industrialization. But for Kumar the concept itself of post-modernity is not clearly defined, and there is no lack of controversy between post-modernists and modernists who stress the continuity of the current time. Globalization has generated debate on alternative modernities and multiple modernities. The question is whether modernity relates to Western society and modernization to Westernization, or whether different modernities have developed in different contexts (Asiatic modernity, etc.). The differences between modernity and post-modernity attenuate, and the post-modern contributes to reflection on modernity and its features and peculiarities.

The great merit of Kumar's book is that it furnishes a quite detailed panorama despite the broadness of its theme of most recent theories on contemporary society. It tends to take the diversity of approaches and their assumptions for granted and does not explore the differences among them and within them. A curious feature of Kumar's book is that, although it considers each of the theories proposed useful in explanation of contemporary society, it does not regard current changes as marking the transition to a new kind of society.

Marco Trentini
University of Bologna