Peter Burke (2005) prefers to speak of postmodernity as opposed to postmodernism

Many scholars, including Peter Burke in History and social theory, second edition (2005), have addressed the role that imagination plays in history. Burke’s overview of this topic is wide-ranging and illuminating.

Imagined communities

Several scholars have posited a relationship between imagination and nationalism. Burke discusses, by way of example, Benedict Arnold’s characterization of nation states as imagined communities, a term that resonates with many people.The reference to nationalism brings to mind Michael Mann’s contention (Michael Mann 2005) that most of Europe’s ethnically homogeneous nation states are the outcome of processes of ethnic cleansing and mass killing, as discussed elsewhere at this website.

For Benedict Anderson, “the important factors of these ‘imagined communities,’ as he famously called them, are the decline of religion and the rise of vernacular languages (encouraged by ‘print capitalism’). For Ernest Gellner, on the other hand, the crucial factor is the rise of industrial society, which ‘appears on the surface in the form of nationalism'” (p. 58).

Burke adds that Eric Hobsbawn (1990) distinguished between the nationalism of governments and the nationalism of the people. What ordinary people felt about nationality, the latter argued, did not become politically important until the late nineteenth century.

“More and more scholars,” Burke notes in his overview, “have been recruited to the study of such embodiments of identity as national anthems, national flags and national rituals (such as Bastille Day). The power of memory, of imagination and of symbols in the construction of communities is increasingly emphasized (Hobsbawm and Ranger 1983; Nora 1984-93 [in translation, 1996]) (p. 58).”

Burke also discusses the role of imagination as it relates to ideology. “No longer limited to what Marx called ‘false consciousness,’ ideology has become virtually indistinguishable from the collective imagination” (p. 99). The word ‘imagination’ is listed in the book’s index. The indexing of the term is helpful.

Postmodernism and postmodernity

Burke also discusses ‘postmodernism.’ He comments that the concept ‘postmodern’ is ambiguous. Some use the term in opposition to ‘modern,’ as the description of a completely new epoch in history; others think of it — applying the label of ‘postmodernity’ —  as an intensification or acceleration of modern trends, or a ‘second modernity.’

Burke favours the latter term, postmodernity, as a vaguer term that “does seem appropriate for describing certain new features of historical practice” (p. 177).

With regard to ‘postmodernism,’ Burke argues it would be useful to speak of the twin movements of destablization and decentring. The current blog post focuses on his discussion of destabilization.

‘Destabilization’ refers to “the collapse of the traditional idea of structures, whether they are economic, social, political or cultural. Concepts such as ‘structure’ have been largely replaced by concepts such as ‘flow’ and ‘transformation'” (p. 173).

A sign of this change is the rise of network analysis, which focuses on social relationships centred on a single individual. Such an approach is favoured, for example, by the historical sociologist Michael Mann, “who operates with the idea of networks, especially what he calls ‘multiple overlapping and intersecting socio-spatial networks of power.’ Discussing ancient Greece, for example, he distinguished three such networks: that of the city-state, that of the Greek state system, and finally the ancient idea of humanity” (p. 174).

In a similar approach, “the anthropologist Eric Wolf denied the existence of entities such as tribes, nations or ‘the West,’ so many bounded systems, and preferred to speak of ‘bundles of relationships’ or ‘a totality of interconnected processes'” (p. 174).

Norbert Elias is cited as setting a sociological precedent with regard to a more fluid conceptualization of the idea of structure. Elias advanced a concept of ‘figuration,’ a pattern of social relationships binding people together at a micro level (as at a football match); a medium level (as at an eighteenth-century court); and on a macro level in a nation, “which might be regarded as a network of networks” (p. 174).

Pierre Bourdieu adopted a  similar approach with the notion of ‘fields’ — as in the religious field, the literary field, the economic field, and so on. Such an approach argues that a discourse “‘is never fixed but rather constantly negotiated, constituted and reconstituted’ under pressures from the field” (p. 175).


Another aspect of destabilization is increased interest in ‘constructability.’ The concept goes back a long way; it might be argued, says Burke, that Claude Levi-Strauss was influential in suggesting, in opposition to Marxist theory, “that the really deep structures are not economic or social arrangements but mental categories” (p. 175). However, these days both structuralism and Marxism are often rejected as deterministic; the emphasis instead is on ‘collective creativity,’ in which social facts — such as gender, class, and community — are viewed as culturally ‘constructed.’

In this regard, Michel Foucault’s studies of changing Western views of varied topics have been influential. Burke contextualizes the latter’s work as part of a wider, longer trend that includes phenomenology and Gestalt psychology. The trend also includes Pierre Bourdieu’s work with regard to the flexible concept of ‘habitus,’ defined as a “set of ‘schemes enabling agents to generate an infinity of practices adapted to endlessly changing situations'” (p. 176).

Historians, according to Burke, have not been extensively influenced by deconstruction, poststructuralism, and related developments if the latter concepts are defined in a precise way. Among those who have been influenced are Timothy Mitchell in his study of accepted views of the colonial city.

Aside from some exceptions, however, Burke concludes that “the historical profession is still somewhat suspicious of postmodernism, as it was in 1991, when Lawrence Stone wrote a letter to the well-known journal Past and Present about the threat to history from people who claim that ‘there is nothing besides the text’ or that ‘the real is as imagined as the imaginary'” (p. 177).

On the other hand, if we turn from postmodernism to the vaguer term of postmodernity, notes Burke, the influence on historical practice has been more profound.

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