Postmodernism (cultural turn) meaning after the modern, is a term which emerged as an area of study during the mid-1980’s. It is a term which academics find difficult to define as it is used in a wide range of subjects, such as the social sciences, art, literature, music and film. (Jackson 1991) states that a dictionary once proclaimed ‘this word has no meaning. Use it as often as possible.’
Postmodernism rejects the idea that there is only one way of looking at the world so is a critique of modernist attitudes. Postmodernist researchers believe the social world is disordered and they as researchers should not divide themselves from it.
It is also difficult to say when the era of postmodernism began, therefore attempts to locate its origins often has to involve the movement called ‘modernism’.
I am now going to discuss postmodernism as object, attitude and as a method, and how this has had an impact on Human Geography.
Postmodernism as method
This is how geographers gather data from the world around us and the methods used to carry out the research.
Postmodernist researchers use the methods of sensitivity to difference, giving the sense of otherness, for example black and white people and homosexual and heterosexual people. In doing so, they allow and accept and value the views and opinions of ethnic minorities and marginalised groups into the analysis of their data. Basically these are inclusive and in effect give these groups a voice, whereas previously they were ignored. ‘Feminism and poststructuralism have opened up geography to voices other than those of white, Western, middle-class, heterosexual men’ (England 1994). The article by Kim England focused upon groups of people that have not been studied before.
The article discusses the implications for research highlighted by the post-modern critique of scientific methods. The positivist research methods are criticised and it discusses the reflexivity and positionality of the researcher which are essential for good quality data. ‘Researchers may find that they have to manoeuvre around unexpected circumstances. The result is research where the only inevitability seems to be unreliability and unpredictability’ (England 1994). This is one of the principles of postmodernism which opposes the modernist idea of research being predictable and reliable.
Modernism is governed by universal laws that can be identified (grand theory) meaning data which was predominantly statistical (quantitative) is ordered, regular and predictable. So when testing hypotheses, the outcomes can be predicted and repeatability is possible using empirical methods. Data gathered was factual, value free and very objective, and carried out by middle class males, neopositivists. They believed that everything could be explained by one essential ‘truth’, whereas postmodernism is characterised by scepticism of grand theory, science and progress. Postmodernists believe we should be looking at broader horizons when studying human behaviour and so use multiple, local and partial ‘truths’ as humans are complex and not the same and therefore one essential ‘truth’ will not be the same in all circumstances.
Postmodernism as object
Harlem, New York could be described as a post-modern city. Despite its close proximity to New York, the city of Harlem has been subjected to marginalisation and because of this has been deprived of inward investment. As a consequence, there is much disorder and continuous deterioration in the city due to high crime rates and lack of control. One place I would like to focus upon in Harlem is 125th Street (Zukin 1995) where selling of illegal goods occurs in the street markets. There the employment is informal as the majority of the merchants are immigrants from the Caribbean who come to make a living by trading, although do not possess a licence or permit to do so. The goods they sell are items which are traded on a global level, some of which have been shipped over from their country of origin such as the Caribbean or Africa. These items range from books to fashion and music. They also sell goods such as flags, religious books that represent African culture such as religion of Islam.
As the city is cosmopolitan there is a blurring of the boundaries, there is no clear distinction between what is public and privately owned. There is clearly competition between control of public and private space.
An example of post-modern architecture would be shopping malls and theme parks. In these public spaces there is surveillance and control through the use of CCTV and security. The design of these places, often resemble past times and places for example the Trafford centre in Manchester. They are spaces of flexible or post-Fordist working patterns, meaning that there is some degree of flexibility in for example the amount of hours you want to work and employees now have rights (health and safety at work) etc.
Postmodernism as attitude
As urbanisation has increased over the past thirty years or more, people have had more disposable income which has been spent on the services sector. ‘…a shift away from consumption of goods and into the consumption of services’ (Harvey 1989). The accessibility of fashion in the mass markets enables the increased speed of consumption not only in clothing but also recreational activities, music, cinema, video games, etc.
As improvements in distribution of goods and services and advances in communication and information technology it has been possible to distribute goods faster than ever before. For example, many people now like to do their shopping on the internet because it can save them time by not having to leave the house and queue in the shops, and money as they would not have to use the car or public transport.
The role of women has also changed, they don’t want to be just housewives. Modernists held the hegemonic view that women should stay at home. In the post-modern era many women want a career too then get married and have children later, so there are two sources of income for the family. In some cases the male is not the ‘breadwinner’ and stays at home to look after the children, while the mother goes out to work.
In the article written by Zukin on 125th Street, the different minorities should have been given an equal voice; although she is sympathetic towards the black she does not interview the Jewish and the Korean shopowners. The local government is criticised for not doing enough and the police force are also given a negative view.
Zukin reduces the explanation of the local economy down to business ownership, including shopowners where money simply comes and goes and this is one of the limitations of the article.
There is evidence that postmodernism exists, even though you may not see much of it or even recognise it as you walk through the city for example. In the form of an object (style or epoch) there are examples of new architectural style and planning such as the city centre apartments and the Sport City stadium in Manchester.
The methods researchers use to gather data has also changed. Much of it is now qualitative rather than quantitative. Marginalised groups have been given recognition in the data gathering and analysis, in effect they have been ‘given a voice’, whereas previously they had been ignored.
The attitudes of people have also changed. People use the advances in telecommunications to their advantage. Many people spend their disposable incomes on the services for example on recreational activities such as swimming, or go out clubbing and drinking, etc. The role of women has also changed they tend to also want a career and not just want stay at home and look after the kids.
Postmodernism is difficult to define and even sometimes recognise. It is not always clear whether something is post-modern or not because the word has no clear meaning. It is said that it doesn’t really exist and that ‘contemporary societies display late modernism characterised by an intense individual reflexivity’ (Knox 2000). This basically means that people are aware of the decisions they make in everyday life.
Postmodernism is mainly reality in the developed industrialised nations of the world, especially in the cities. It is not so much something you would have everywhere and because of the nature of postmodernism it is difficult to identify and solve problems as not everyone believes that it is really a new era.
The positive impacts that it has had on geography is that it is a critique of modernism and it moves away from naï¿½ve, totalising theories. It recognises difference, diversity, otherness and exclusion in the way people live.