Skip to main content


The Dark Side of Modernity

Jeffrey C. Alexander

ISBN: 978-0-745-64822-4 February 2013 Polity 200 Pages



In this book, one of the world’s leading social theorists presents a critical, alarmed, but also nuanced understanding of the post-traditional world we inhabit today. Jeffrey Alexander writes about modernity as historical time and social condition, but also as ideology and utopia. The idea of modernity embodies the Enlightenment’s noble hopes for progress and rationality, but its reality brings great suffering and exposes the destructive impulses that continue to motivate humankind.

Alexander examines how twentieth-century theorists struggled to comprehend the Janus-faced character of modernity, which looks backward and forward at the same time. Weber linked the triumph of worldly asceticism to liberating autonomy but also ruthless domination, describing flights from rationalization as systemic and dangerous. Simmel pointed to the otherness haunting modernity, even as he normalized the stranger. Eisenstadt celebrated Axial Age transcendence, but acknowledged its increasing capacity for barbarity. Parsons heralded American community, but ignored modernity’s fragmentations.

Rather than seeking to resolve modernity’s contradictions, Alexander argues that social theory should accept its Janus-faced character. It is a dangerous delusion to think that modernity can eliminate evil. Civil inclusion and anti-civil exclusion are intertwined. Alexander enumerates dangerous frictions endemic to modernity, but he also suggests new lines of social amelioration and emotional repair.

Preface and Acknowledgements
Chapter 1: Social Theory between Progress and Apocalypse
Chapter 2: Autonomy and Domination: Weber’s Cage
Chapter 3: Barbarism and Modernity: Eisenstadt’s Regret
Chapter 4: Integration and Justice: Parsons’ Utopia
Chapter 5: Despising Others: Simmel’s Stranger
Chapter 6: Meaning Evil
Chapter 7: De-civilizing the Civil Sphere
Chapter 8: Psychotherapy as Central Institution
Chapter 9: The Frictions of Modernity and their Possible Repair

"Jeffery Alexander’s The dark side of modernity (2013) is an eclectic collection of essays written over 25 years and spanning from discussions on a few key theorists – including Weber, Simmel, Eisenstadt, and Parsons – to engagements with some of the central themes of modernity... its greatest contribution is that it allows us to reconsider some of the founding debates of our discipline."
Information, Communication & Society

"Alexander greatly contributes to social theory by demonstrating the two sides of the coin of modernity in his explanation to diverse approaches and various thinkers in the field."
Review of Social Studies

"This book offers a highly engaging and insightful overview of modernity"
Political Studies Review

"No major figure in American social theory has reached so far beyond regional traditions to reinvent the language by which we interpret culture, politics, and the dilemmas of modernity. The Dark Side of Modernity collects superb essays representative of Jeff Alexander's special gift for clear expression, unflinching criticism, and creative thinking."
Charles Lemert, Center for Comparative Research, Sociology, Yale University

"Modernity has had its critics from the beginning, but social science in general and sociology in particular have mainly supported the idea that it is a 'good thing.' Few were willing to look squarely at the dark side of modernity, Weber being a partial exception. Jeffrey Alexander has looked unflinchingly at the dark side, not holding it to be the only truth about modernity, but an inescapable aspect of it. His new book is indispensable for anyone who wants to look at modernity whole."
Robert Bellah, University of California, Berkeley and coauthor of Habits of the Heart

  • This is a new book by one of the world’s leading sociologists and social theorists
  • The book explores the Janus-faced character of modernity: on the one hand, the idea of modernity embodies the Enlightenment’s noble hopes for progress and rationality, but on the other hand its reality brings great suffering and destruction
  • Alexander examines how some of the great social thinkers of the 20th century sought to comprehend this Janus-faced character of modernity - thinkers like Weber, Simmel, Parsons and Eisenstadt
  • Alexander argues that social theory should not try to resolve the contradictions of modernity but should accept them as part and parcel of the modern condition. It is a dangerous illusion to think that modernity can eliminate evil. Moreover, structures of repair are generated by the very cultural and institutional structures that have created modernity's strains
  • This new book by a leading social theorist will appeal to graduate students and academics in sociology, politics, media and cultural studies