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Social Imaginaries

Volume 1, Issue 1, Spring 2015

Peter Wagner
Pages 105-129
DOI: 10.5840/si2015117

Interpreting the Present – a Research Programme

Sociologists have increasingly adopted the insight that ‘modern societies’ undergo major historical transformations; they are not stable or undergoing only smooth social change once their basic institutional structure has been established. There is even some broad agreement that the late twentieth century witnessed the most recent one of those major transformations leading into the present time – variously characterized by adding adjectives such as ‘reflexive’, ‘global’ or simply ‘new’ to modernity. However, neither the dynamics of the recent social transformation nor the characteristic features of the present social constellation have been adequately grasped yet. Rather than assuming a socio-structural or politico-institutional perspective, as they dominate in sociology and political science respectively, this article concentrates on the way in which current social practices are experienced and interpreted by the human beings who enact them as parts of a common world that they inhabit together. It will be suggested that current interpretations are shaped by the experience of the dismantling of ‘organized modernity’ from the 1970s onwards and of the subsequent rise of a view of the world as shaped by parallel processes of ‘globalization’ and ‘individualization’, signalling the erasure of historical time and lived space, during the 1990s and early 2000s. In response to these experiences, we witness today a variety of interconnected attempts at re-interpretation of modernity, aiming at re-constituting spatiality and temporality. The re-constitution of meaningful time concerns most strongly questions of historical injustice, in terms of the present significance of past oppression and exclusion and in terms of the unequal effects of the instrumental transformation of the earth in the techno-industrial trajectory of modernity. The re-constitution of meaningful space focuses on the relation between the political form of a spatially circumscribed democracy and the economic practices of expansionist capitalism as well as on the spatial co-existence of a plurality of ways of world-interpretation.