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Peter Wagner

ISBN: 978-0-745-65290-0 February 2012 Polity 160 Pages


We live in a modern age, but what does ‘modern’ mean and how can a reflection on ‘modernity’ help us to understand the world today? These are the questions that Peter Wagner sets out to answer in this concise and accessible book.

Wagner begins by returning to the question of modernity's Western origins and its claims to open up a new and better era in the history of humanity. Modernity's claims and expectations have become more prevalent and widely shared, but in the course of their realization and diffusion they have also been radically transformed. In an acute and engaging analysis, Wagner examines the following key issues among others:

- Modernity was based on the hope for freedom and reason, but it created the institutions of contemporary capitalism and democracy. How does the freedom of the citizen relate to the freedom of the buyer and seller today? And what does disaffection with capitalism and democracy entail for the sustainability of modernity?

- Rather than a single model of modernity, there is now a plurality of forms of modern socio-political organisation. What does this entail for our idea of progress and our hope that the future world can be better than the present one?

- All nuance and broadening notwithstanding, our concept of modernity is in some way inextricably tied to the history of Europe and the West. How can we compare different forms of modernity in a 'symmetric', non-biased or non-Eurocentric way? How can we develop a world-sociology of modernity?
Part I
Re-theorizing modernity
Chapter 1
Retrieving modernity's past, understanding modernity's present
Chapter 2
Changing views of modernity:
from convergence and stability to plurality and transformations
Chapter 3
Successive modernities:
crisis, criticism and the idea of progress
Chapter 4
Disentangling the concept of modernity:
time, action and problems to be solved
Part II
Analyzing contemporary modernity
Chapter 5
The link between capitalism and democracy reconsidered
Chapter 6
European and non-European trajectories of modernity compared
Chapter 7
Violence and justice in global modernity:
reflections on South Africa with world-sociological intent
Chapter 8
Towards a world-sociology of modernity
‘Modernity as an organizing theoretical-interpretative device has had an untidy and unruly history. No one recognizes this better than Peter Wagner, and no one has done more to unpack, analyse, tame, and repack its meanings and its claims. Modernity extends his previous work significantly, and consolidates his position as simultaneously the most creative and the most sensible of writers of our time on the topic. He is especially to be congratulated for referring to historical and comparative actualities.'
Neil Smelser, University of California, Berkeley

‘Peter Wagner's work is simply indispensable to those who wish to conceptualize modernity in a truly global way that challenges the Eurocentrism built into all classical writings on the subject. Wagner is a high theorist but his openness to questions of historical diversity remains exemplary.'
Dipesh Chakrabarty, The University of Chicago

‘Peter Wagner's developing "world sociology of modernity", outlined in this splendid book, is a major advance in his and our thinking about modernity around the world. The book is also an excellent and very readable summary of the current state of the field.'
William Outhwaite, Newcastle University

  • This is a brief, authoritative and accessible introduction to the idea of modernity, written by a leading social theorist.
  • Wagner shows that modernity was based on ideas of freedom, reason and progress, but he examines the extent to which these ideas have been, and can be, realized in the modern world.
  • He shows that our concept of modernity is inextricably tied to the history of the West and asks whether this places limits on attempts to compare societies and to develop a world sociology of modernity.
  • This book will appeal to undergraduates, graduates and scholars in sociology, politics, cultural studies and related subjects.