In the 17th century there were no cars, no high-quality medicine and most of the Western population believed that a deity created the world. The invention of aeroplanes and the Internet were incredibly far. It does not necessarily sound like a 'modern' era. And yet, it was in 1650 that the period of modernity, as sociologists define it, started.

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Table of contents

    We will look at this exciting centuries-long period and discuss its main characteristics.

    • We will define modernity in sociology.
    • We will go through its most important developments.
    • Then, we will consider how sociologists of different perspectives think about its end.

    Definition of modernity in sociology

    Firstly, we should understand the definition of the period of modernity. Modernity in sociology refers to the time period or era of humanity that was defined by scientific, technological, and socioeconomic changes that started in Europe around the year 1650 and ended around 1950.

    The French sociologist Jean Baudrillard summarised the development of modern society and a modern world in the following way:

    The Revolution of 1789 established the modern, centralised and democratic, bourgeois State, the nation with its constitutional system, its political and bureaucratic organisation. The continual progress of the sciences and of techniques, the rational division of industrial work, introduce into social life a dimension of permanent change, of destruction of customs and traditional culture. (Baudrillard, 1987, p. 65)

    The period of modernity

    There is relative agreement on the starting point of modernity, which sociologists identify as 1650.

    However, in terms of the end of modernity, sociologists are divided. Some argue that modernity ended around 1950, giving way to post-modernity. Others argue that modern society was replaced by post-modern society only around 1970. And there are sociologists, like Anthony Giddens, who argue that modernity has never ended, it only transformed into what he calls late modernity.

    To understand this debate, we will explore the concept of modernity in detail, including late modernity and postmodernity.

    Characteristics of modernity

    At first glance, we may not think of 'modern' as the best word to describe the period between the 17th and 20th centuries. However, it is important to understand why this is considered to be the period of modernity.

    For this, we can look at the key characteristics of modernity that were responsible for the rise of modern society and civilization as we know it today. Some of the main features are outlined below.

    The rise of science and rational thought

    During this period, the emergence of important scientific discoveries and inventions meant that people increasingly looked to science for answers to the world's problems and phenomena. This signalled a change from previous eras where faith and superstition were the main sources of people's knowledge.

    Despite not having all the answers to important questions, there was a general belief that continuous scientific progress could be the answer to society's problems. Due to this, more countries allocated time, money, and resources toward scientific advances and developments.

    The Enlightenment period, also known as the great 'Age of Reason', saw the domination of intellectual, scientific, and philosophical movements in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries.

    Modernity, early aircraft taking off, StudySmarterFig. 1 - In the period of modernity, people looked to scientific discoveries and inventions for knowledge and solutions.


    The period of modernity saw a greater intellectual and academic shift towards individualism as the basis for knowledge, thought, and action.

    Individualism is the concept that promotes individual freedom of action and thought over those of other individuals and wider society.

    This was a remarkable change from previous eras where individuals' lives, motivations, and actions were largely dictated by external influences of society, such as political and religious institutions. In modernity, there was more personal reflection and exploration of deeper, philosophical questions such as existence and morality.

    Individuals had greater freedom to question their motives, thoughts and actions. This was reflected in the work of key thinkers such as René Descartes.

    Concepts such as human rights held more importance than before in light of individualism.

    However, social structures were rigid and stable and therefore still responsible for shaping people and their behaviours. Individuals were largely seen as products of society, as social structures such as class and gender were still clearly entrenched in society.

    Industrialisation, social class, and the economy

    The rise of industrialisation and capitalism increased labour production, promoted trade, and enforced social divisions in social classes. As a result, individuals were largely defined by their socioeconomic status.

    Generally, individuals were divided into two social classes: those that had ownership of factories, farms, and businesses; and those who sold their time for labour to work in factories, farms, and businesses. Due to the clear social class divide and division of labour, it was common for people to stay in one job for life.

    The Industrial Revolution (1760 to 1840) is an important illustration of the rise of industrialisation.

    Urbanisation and mobility

    The period of modernity saw rapid urbanisation of cities as they grew and became more developed. As a result, more and more people moved to cities and urban areas for better opportunities.

    Modernity, a view of a developed city, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Urbanisation is a key component of modernity.

    The role of the state

    Countries started to see the state play a bigger role, not only in foreign affairs but in everyday governance e.g. through compulsory public education, national health, public housing, and social policies. A central, stable government was an essential feature of a country in the period of modernity.

    Inevitably, the growing role of the state saw an increase in respect for hierarchy and centralised control.

    Examples of modernity

    There are differing opinions on the decline of modernity; namely, whether we are still in a period of modernity, or whether we have moved past it.

    We will look at two examples of modernity that bear the names of 'late modernity' and 'second modernity'. Sociologists debate what their importance is and whether the terms should be used at all.

    Late modernity

    Some sociologists argue that we are in a period of late modernity and reject the notion that we have moved on from modernity altogether.

    A late modernist society is a continuation of modernist developments and changes that have intensified over time. This means that we still retain the primary characteristics of a modernist society, such as the power of institutions and centralised authorities, but they are simply reflected in different ways now.

    Anthony Giddens is a key sociologist and a believer in the idea of late modernity. He argues that the main social structures and forces that existed in modernist society continue to shape current society, but that certain 'issues' are less prominent than before.

    Globalisation and electronic communications, for example, allow us to broaden social interactions and break down geographical barriers in communication. This removes time and distance constraints and blurs the lines between local and global.

    Giddens also acknowledges the gradual decline in tradition and increase in individuality. However, according to him, this does not mean we have moved past modernity - it means we are living in an extension of modernity.

    Second modernity

    German sociologist Ulrich Beck believed that we are in a period of second modernity.

    According to Beck, modernity replaced an agricultural society with an industrial one. Therefore, second modernity has replaced industrial society with an information society, which refers to the interconnection of society using mass telecommunications networks.

    The five challenges Beck identified that mark the transition between first to second modernity are:

    • Multidimensional globalisation

    • Radicalised/intensified individualisation

    • Global environmental crisis

    • Gender revolution

    • The third industrial revolution

    Beck pointed out that second modernity has had incredibly positive impacts on humans, but it also brought its own issues. Environmental threats, global warming, and increased terrorism are only a few of the major problems the world is facing in this era. According to Beck, all of these issues make people insecure and forced to face increasing numbers of risks in their lives.

    Therefore, he argued that people in second modernity live in a risk society.


    Some sociologists believe that we are in an era beyond modernity, called postmodernity.

    Postmodernism refers to the sociological theory and intellectual movement which claims that we can no longer explain the current world using traditional ways of thinking.

    Followers of the theory believe that traditional metanarratives (broad ideas and generalisations about the world) do not fit into contemporary society due to the processes of globalisation, the development of technology, and the rapidly changing world.

    Postmodernists argue that society is now more fragmented than ever, and that our identities are made up of many personalised and complex elements. Therefore, civilization today is too different for us to still be in the era of modernity - we are living in an entirely new age.

    Check out Postmodernism to explore this concept in depth.

    Modernity - Key takeaways

    • Modernity in sociology is the name given to that era of humanity that was defined by scientific, technological, and socioeconomic changes that started in Europe around the year 1650 and ended in around 1950.

    • The period of modernity saw a greater intellectual and academic shift towards individualism. However, social structures still played an important role in shaping individuals.

    • The rise of industrialisation and capitalism in modernity increased labour production, promoted trades, and enforced social divisions in social classes. The period of modernity also saw rapid urbanisation of cities.

    • A central, stable government was a key feature of a country in the period of modernity.

    • Some sociologists such as Anthony Giddens believe we are in the period of late modernity. However, others believe we have moved past modernity and are in a period of postmodernism.


    1. Baudrillard, Jean. (1987). Modernity. CanadianJournal of Political and Social Theory, 11 (3), 63-72.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Modernity

    What does modernity mean?

    Modernity refers to the time period or era of humanity that was defined by scientific, technological, and socioeconomic changes that started in Europe around the year 1650 and ended in around 1950.

    What are the four key characteristics of modernity?

    The four key characteristics of modernity are the rise of science and rational thought, individualism, industrialisation, and urbanisation. However, there are other characteristics such as the increased role of the state as well.

    What is the difference between modernism and modernity?

    Modernity refers to an era or time period in humanity, whereas modernism refers to a social, cultural, and art movement. Modernism occurred within the period of modernity but they are distinct terms.

    What is the importance of modernity?

    The time period of modernity is of significant importance for the development of today's world. Modernity saw a rise in scientific knowledge and solutions, developed cities, and industrialisation amongst other factors.

    What are the three phases of modernity?

    Modernity is the period between 1650 and 1950. Scholars of different fields and perspectives identify different phases of the period.

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