A pint of Giddens  


Social disorientation (risk) that accompanies so called post-modern times is due to new circumstances we don’t understand and that are beyond our control (3). Modernity is marked by discontinuity from traditional order. Current times have seen intensification of interconnection (over last 300-400 yrs!!!!), and acceleration of the pace of change. Against evolutionist thinking (even in those like Marxism that note discontinuity) Giddens’s is a project that - whilst similar to Lyotard's deconstruction of the grand narrative – retains a confidence in discerning episodes of historical transition.

Thus the emergence of sociology in the form of a Marx, stripped as a theorist of alienation/ exploitation/ power, Durkheim and Weber, optimistic and pessimistic theorists of industrial society, war, totalitarianism all operating within the institutional parameters of modernity. Durkheim and Weber are used to criticise idea that modernity is ‘capitalistic’, Durkheim because it governed by industrialism, and Weber because it is institutional/ bureaucratic. Giddens cluttered point is ‘modernity is multidimensional on the level of institutions.’ (12)


The book moves to talk of time/ space distan( c)iation and disembedding. The separation of time and place, due to ‘empty time’ (mechanical clocks, date time) and the ‘lifting out’ (uprooting) of the local both correspond to growth of different types of movement and institution away from traditional order. Money is one such social form that allows 'disembeddedness' to occur. A man need not be in the same place as his possessions, which can circulate independently from him, money is a ‘symbolic token’ (Keynes, Simmel, Marx used). Money, a central aspect of modernity, involves relations of trust. Trust is a major aspect of social life which does not require definite knowledge, such as trust in the architect that house won’t fall down &c. Risk is a complementary development representing a replacement of the concept of fate (cosmological) with human created contingencies, trust is connected with events that can not be anticipated, we respond to risk with trust and confidence. Here Giddens talks un-problematically of the individual and his/ her choice of actions. Trust is a necessary feature of disembedded societies that are not transparent. (33-34)

Stuff now on reflexivity, situatedness of human behaviour in modernity in the very system of social reproduction. Tradition is no longer repeated unless it can be qualified by the new, the past holds no power to discipline the reflexive processes of the present – this disqualifies knowledge from certitude. Practices of social science are  ‘more deeply implicated’ in modernity as their knowledge fashions its institutions reflexively. Yet make no mistake Giddens is not referring here to the techniques of authority and order, he is marking the bizarre point that the economic transformations associated with capital could only come about by people understanding!!! the concepts of ‘capital’ ‘market’ ‘investment’ and so on! “Modern economic activity would not be as it is were it not for the fact that all members of the population have mastered these concepts…”(41) This is a ridiculous idea and deserves little comment, except to point out that this is a typical academic replacement of the concept with reality, and then the adjustment of reality to fit the concept – it shows further the completely the manner that sociology tends to de-politicise capitalism and view it in completely technocratic, functionalist and institutional ways. This book is appalling twaddle really, but onward:

Not only does our knowledge of its concept drive modernity forward, ‘Modernity is itself deeply and intrinsically sociological’ (43)

The following pages show how entwined sociological knowledge is involved in social practices like marriage but and even though Giddens acknowledges that this occurs in circumstances where there are power differentials and sectional interests, he seems on the whole to see sociology in terms of a neutral domain of enquiry, which is subsequently manipulated though this manipulation does not in anyway mould the objectives and intentions of the science. Because there is no transcendental rationalist basis to social values, they are open to question and revision; a total knowledge is not possible because we can not necessarily forsee (hence an implicit attack on predictive social science) the outcomes of our intervention. And finally, the point is “not that there is no stable social world to know, but that knowledge of that world contributes to its unstable or mutable character.” (45)

As an aesthetic movement postmodernism differs from post-modernity – the latter represents a qualitatively new social order not yet arisen. Giddens rejects that post-moderntiy signals the end of systematic knowledge of society. Nietsche and Heidegger are the points of reference for an anti-foundationalist critique of the Enlightenment (47). But post-modernity is problematic, because it appears itself to be a narrative, so the author prefers to understand pomo as modernity’s coming to understand itself. The critique of truth claims of the enlightenment (which replaced divine law with the certainty of reason and experience) opens up the enigmatic and reflexive nature of modernity itself. Rather than being superseded, modernity has been radicalised, through globalisation its institutions have spread. This radicalisation is partly due to the critique of its own foundations in the past, evolutionism and certainty and confidence in reason. (summary p 53-4)

Four institutional sectors of modernity are outlined; capitalism is a sub system of industrialism and is treated in relative autonomy from it, capitalist society is part of the nation state that has centralised military power, exercises control over its dominions and is accompanied by a surveillance system that predominantly controls information. (Foucault, Clausewitz &c). Again although Giddens plays lip service to radical critiques of the power structures of these institutions, his concern is to build a general framework  - for instance it is noted that capital depends on the property-less wage- labourer, but none of the other other institutional parameters are configured in respect to this fact, the reasons for the development of ‘total war’ &c are never laid out. Both surveillance and war are connected to industrialism, but only in the sense that the technical developments and its organisation of space provide grounds for them to occur. Giddens is not interested in developing this any further. (61)

Inherently globalising, modernity implicates the affairs of the local with the global or other localities, this interconnection complicates the role of nation state, whole areas can be affected by changes outside of them, and beyond their control. International relations is criticised because by treating the sovereign state as actor it fails to identify agency that cross cuts them. Like Giddens, Wallersteins world system approach problematises this idea of society as a bounded space. The world system is economically based rather than primarily political and has more than one centre and is divided into the core, the semi-periphery and the periphery in shifting location (68). Here capital is seen as the driving force that undermines national boundaries. Giddens typically seeks to question this overemphasis on economic dynamics by reasserting the importance of political power in governing territoriality and its monopoly on violence; “No matter how great their economic power, industrial corporations are not military organisations…and they cannot establish themselves as political/ legal entities which rule a given territorial area” (71) Not supporting this remarkably naïve judgment (think of the Ogoni situation in Nigeria, or Berlusconi in Italy), Giddens proceeds to say that political control has its own autonomy, and dynamics between sovereign states reflexively determine the strength and effect of sovereign power. With all its talk of industrialisation of war, sophistication of weaponry and the truly global institutions, as well as people thinking globally, Giddens offers us a now familiar conclusion. The development of the means of communication allowed for the possibility of globalisation – globality would not have been possible without the ‘pooling of knowledge’ in the ‘news’! Ma in che mondo vivi?  


Distinguished from traditional communities where a stranger is seen as a whole person in his strangeness, Giddens draws on Goffman to talk of modern societies where the ‘background noise’ of ‘social rhythms’ and trust lies in slight recognition of other agents but not fully fledged encounters between them – i.e. passing people in the street – this is termed ‘civil inattention’- clearly these less direct encounters involve varying and situation specific degrees of trust. Giddens is more interested in the abstract systems of trustworthiness that for him are intrinsic to modernity. This involves the reflexive and open relations between expert systems, their representatives and lay-people – these inescapable encounters mediated by their ‘access points’ in the real human operatives behind them, represent forms of assurance (Giddens’s favoured example is the air stewardess) and business as usual mentality in circumstances where there is risk. These mechanisms are part of the ‘re-embedding’ processes of social life, and characteristically involve a non-transparent expert knowledge base where various information is withheld from public consumption – important is the physical contact between participants in these mechanisms. A distinction is drawn between faceless and face-work commitments. Trust is necessitated by ignorance (one reason why information is withheld) but involvement with abstract systems is routinized and often unconscious. ( -92)

So far these theses are common place. Yet when talking of ontological security, Giddens makes the most curious about turn. Suddenly the need for identity and coherence are qualities valid for pre-modern as well as modern societies. What follows is pretty much trash but here goes. Persons may feel dislocation of the self, indeed philosophers cannot either give certainty about the category of and the constancy of the self, schizophrenia etc are conditions of high sensitivity to the impossibly of gaining certainty about what one is, besides some ambivalent and equivocal sense of presence, of ‘being there’. In locating this lack of certainty in the world, in the fear of the real possibility of nuclear war, or paranoia about other people, Giddens needs to explain why normality does not become a whole bunch of screaming freaks. This is because trust mechanisms have been instantiated in childhood by our mothers. He now characterizes the normal mechanisms of the development of this infant relation, suggesting that aberrations occur in the face of hostile environments. He quotes Erik Erikson, of the object-relations school of psycho-analysis, where he outlines an idea of basic trust that holds the subject together against a sense of loss and dividedness of identity nurtured in a child by his parents. Trust thus develops because of absence; this absence is placated by habit that prevents existential crisis. Hence when these mechanisms are uprooted the self becomes dislocated. Or something like that. This really is hogwash because it reaffirms the idea that there are properly normal and abnormal responses to mechanisms of social inclusion. By explaining the disjunction from the self in terms of an aberration or discontinuity of habit, Giddens gives away the fact that he is implicitly viewing what the social in terms of the law, or in terms of the general as Deleuze seems to argue in Difference and Repetition. As such sameness is a more fundamental ontological category than difference, no matter how much he talks of ontological insecurity. So for Giddens trust is the abstract system of societies foundations, (of its being normal) whilst angst and dread are the condition that break down of mechanisms that support trust would provoke. So trust works as some sort of social contract and existential angst the Hobbesian state of nature. (- 100)

Having ripped apart his own construction of the fundamental difference between the modern and pre-modern, Giddens moves on to try to salvage the distinction from the never fully worked out implication of his ‘psychology of trust which are universal, or near universal’ (100). So in the whole history of mankind up to say 1700 J ‘four localised contexts of trust’ predominate. Kinship, local community, religious cosmologies (Freud), tradition (Levi Strauss)*.   With the typical default of Giddens sociological grey matter set on the imagination that society is developed in response to more fundamental conflicts, these pre-modern and local modes of communication give harmony, place, stability and meaning in a world still governed by the ravages of nature and scarcity. This environment of risk is different in modernity where uncertainty and insecurity are heightened by being taken out of local contexts. The impregnation of the global into the local, and industrialisation change the face of risk, in modernity it is based on man made dangers even though the direct danger of violence seems to have been ‘pacified’ whereas in earlier societies civil war was the norm not the exception. (here no evidence to support what is an unnecessary postulate). Giddens now has the problem of showing why his banalities and platitudes about pre-modern society are so distinct from modernity. He suggests it’s a matter of awareness of risk (why this is could not equally apply to pre-modern societies is unclear) and estimation of potential dangers, forgetting now that his whole previous theses have concerned the unpredictability of modern life, he ends with the ambiguous ‘fortuna tends to return”! (-111)

*“Levi- Strauss’s notion of ‘reversible time’ is central to understanding the temporality of traditional beliefs and activities. Reversible time is the temporality of repetition and is governed by the logic of repetition – the past is a means of organising the future.” (105)  


Giddens, somewhat misleadingly, calls anything that has the least degree of sophistication about it ‘abstract system’. Flying on plane (how tiresome this analogy is getting) involves abstract systems as much as monetary exchange. So abstract system is the general world of technology and mediations that Giddens lumps together here. We depend on these systems for ontological security, they are bound up with intimacy and create psychological vulnerability – the reflexivity of modernity implies the construction of the self. What is so mistaken in the pages that follow is that Giddens a-historical ontology of the self has surreptitiously become extreme. The basic intimacy of trust twixt child and mother is now completely accepted, it might be more secure in pre-modern times and modern times might subvert it quicker by non-personal systems, but Giddens has no problem in assuming that the fundamental parameters of sociation can not be breached. So no matter how different traditional societies were, in this respect their fundamental identity is retained. (Now draws on Tonnies’s distinction of Gemeinschaft (community) with Gesellschaft (society)). Further drawing on both conservative positions and people like Habermas and Horkheimer, Giddens characterises modernity in terms of the break down of the intimate personal contexts of trust, into the predominance of public institutions to which personal relations are a mere adjunct. Discussing friendship the unsubstantiated banalities about pre-modern life (yes that is the whole gamut of all human history folks) continue, as well as noting new forms of community e.g. urban life, alongside abstract systems, a system of what we might call recognition/ acknowledgement goes on in respect to unknown strangers, we accept them and do not bring into question that someone unfamiliar to us is necessarily a threat. The point is that impersonal abstract system structure our everyday social practices which transforms the personal. Self enquiry develops through interaction with the other - through erotic encounter, mutual discovery and love (‘romantic love incorporates a cluster of values scarcely ever realisable in their totality’) (122). BLAH. But this quest for self-identity is based upon the powerlessness people feel and yet there is no authentic withdrawal from the social (Lasch) as all points of retreat whether religion, well being and health are bound up with the abstract societal systems. Giddens spins self identity as an ‘opening out’, ‘mutuality of self-disclosure’ and ‘positive appropriation of circumstances in which globalised influences impinge upon everyday life.’ (124)

Charting now different types of risk, the favourite examples of nuclear disaster or nuclear war, impossibility of working out the probability of modern risks (can not be verified through experiment). He introduces Beck’s idea that such large scale and global risks reduce the difference of the other, as all will suffer alike.

“in respect of the balance of security and danger which modernity introduces into our lives, there are no longer ‘others’ – no one can be completely outside” (148)

More on how experts manage knowledge of risks. The examples of nuclear war show how bizarre this generalisation of risk is – very little attention is played to the political processes and conflicts that necessitated the emergence of these weapons and no attention is paid to the actual determinations that might make the use of them arise – the matter is treated as if it were above and beyond our control and as if it were a matter of fate. Giddens conjures up this sense of dread, the apocalypse, total annihilation that is the dark side of the new regimes of trust. This is basically Hobbesian reasoning laced with ever more primordial ontologies of human sensibility. Three ‘lay’ responses are given to these risks; pessimism, faith in providential reason, or the optimism of social movements. (137)  

Modernity is described as a juggernaut, relentlessly driving forward partly but never completely steered by humanity. But then it is no singular machine but a mass of differentiated counter-acting parts. We can not seize control over it, its very passage is one of insecurity, risk and displacement and reembedding. Moreover in opposition to Weber’s iron cage of bureaucracy, Durkheim is invoked to note the emergence of new places of ‘smallness and informality’, forging of new ties etc. Against Habermas’s idea that a preexisting life world is colonised, because abstract systems interact in ‘dialectical interplay’ with everyday life, elements of expert systems are appropriated and vice-versa. Furthermore, most of us are not experts in respect to most systems of modern social life. Then follows a comparison between Giddens’s ‘Radicalised Modernity’ and theories of Post-Modernity’. See here.


The reason why we cannot ride this juggernaut are attributed to operator failure and design faults in typical technocratic treatment, but most important for Giddens are unintended consequences and circularity of knowledge. From explaining the deficiencies of the system in terms of the complications of its design (hence conferring human intentionality and choice to the legitimation of the system) Giddens moves on to say we can never control social life properly – even more paradoxically  - on of the main reasons for this is inequality of power and differences in values. But we should still try to steer the juggernaut through positive models of counterfactual and future orientated though in Utopian Realism. Here follows some typical abuse and appropriation of Marx, a sociologism of modelling the ‘good society’ and some general twaddle about life politics, emancipation, self- actualisation and self identity. But the oppressed are not of the same cloth, Marx’s master slave teleology! does not apply – outcomes are open ended – move away from class based/ labour movement in industrialist and captialistic versions of modernity. Giddens says we can separate the struggle for democratic rights from these movements for “surveillance is a site of struggle in its own right” (160)

“The outlook of Utopian Realism recognizes the inevitability of power and does not see its use as inherently noxious. Power, in its broadest sense, is a means of getting things done” (162)

The underdog provides the moral vehicle for ‘getting things done’ but ‘realising the goals involved often depends on the intervention of the privileged’ (162). This section continues endlessly speculating on the necessary post-capitalistic and post scarcity nature of post-modern society and what the plural institutional contours would look like. But really this is just musing on the same themes as before.


Giddens asks himself a question he would have done well to start with. Is modernity western? In its origins then yes, but in its globalising tendencies then no. But as a reflexive reason that questions its own foundations it detaches itself from all other cultures. Postmodernity is only the apparent dissolution and fragmentation - globalising is a countervailing tendency that issues forth this instability. (177) This is in the nature of modernity's future orientation.

Anthony Giddens: The consequences of modernity, Polity 1990 - summarised by an exasperated EE.