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Allowing the Other to Speak: the Relevance of

Postmodernism to Political Analysis


by Fran Amery, Centre of West African Studies, University of Birmingham [1]

ABSTRACT
Political analysts often dismiss postmodernism, claiming that it is self-contradictory or simply
irrelevant to the social sciences. While claims about the self-contradictory nature of
postmodernism have some grounding, the latter assertion is more difficult to justify. In this
article, I consider the main contributions of postmodernism to the discipline of political science
and why these contributions are still highly relevant. The postmodern critique of positivism has
important implications for all analysts working within a ‘scientific’ framework. Moreover,
postmodernism’s exposal of the hidden values and assumptions underlying much political
thought, including the development of a methodology for interrogating these values and
assumptions, has value both to critical analysts and to members of disempowered social groups.
KEYWORDS: Postmodernism, social sciences, political science, critical theory, deconstruction,
positivism.

INTRODUCTION
Terry Eagleton aptly sums up postmodernism as ‘a style of thought which is suspicious of
classical notions of truth, reason, identity and objectivity, of single frameworks, grand narratives
or ultimate grounds of explanation’ (Eagleton, 1996: vii). However, there is no one unified
theory of postmodernism. Rather, it should be regarded as a mode of interrogation that seeks to
problematise the epistemological assumptions and notions of ‘ rationality’ which characterise
much of social science.
While postmodernism has been highly influential in areas such as literary criticism and the study
of international relations, it has not made a huge impact on the discipline of political science
(Hay, 2002: 234). In fact, many authors have dismissed postmodernism as irrelevant, despite the
serious challenges it poses (Lee, 1999: 739). This criticism is not entirely unjustified.
Postmodern scepticism can be used to legitimate political and social inaction. Moreover, the call
for the end of grand narratives and of claims about truth and progress rests on a contradiction. As
Hay expresses it, postmodernists advance ‘the metanarrative to end all metanarratives’ (2002:
247). Nevertheless, postmodernism should not be ignored. It has questioned the notions of
progress and emancipation, attacked the philosophical position of traditional political science,
denied the possibility of objective research and emphasised the socially-constructed nature of
reality (Vasquez, 1999: 215-24). These are important contributions to a critical approach to
political science. Whatever one’s opinion of the postmodern project, its challenges to orthodoxy
should not simply be dismissed.
The critique of positivism is one of these contributions. While most sociologists are not
explicitly positivist, their work often embodies positivistic tenets, such as the belief that it is
possible to reflect the world without relying upon presuppositions and assumptions (Agger,
1991: 106). Postmodern social theorists have attacked this tendency and argued that claims to
objectivity are misleading and dangerous. Their work has exposed some of the assumptions and
bias underlying supposedly objective studies. Postmodern critiques also highlight what is
excluded from or marginalised in traditional political theory (women, ethnic minorities, etc.) and
as such ‘allow the other to speak’ (McQuillan, 2002: 6). This makes postmodernism a potent tool
for feminists and others wishing to empower their own social groups.
The method of deconstruction is a final significant contribution to political science. While it is
often associated more with post-structuralism than postmodernism, the two approaches overlap
and cannot easily be separated (Agger, 1991: 111-12). Deconstruction is certainly in line with
postmodernism’s suspicion of claims of truth and objectivity, and its emphasis on discourse
supports the postmodern view of the socially constructed nature of reality. It aims to
problematise the fundamental premises and assumptions of a text by undermining
generalisations, dichotomies and binaries (Rosenau, 1991: 121), and thus aids postmodernism’s
emphasis on what theory marginalises or ignores.

THE PRECURSORS OF POSTMODERNISM


Postmodernism emerged from the existentialist and phenomenologist philosophies of, amongst
others, Nietzsche, Heidegger and Husserl. It is unsurprising, then, that it has many features in
common with social phenomenology and ethnomethodology, which share some of the same
philosophical precursors. While these approaches were more methodologically inclined than
postmodernism, they similarly rejected the Enlightenment attempt to create universal knowledge,
preferring to emphasise subjective meaning and to problematise everyday occurrences (Agger,
1991: 117).
Alfred Schutz was concerned with developing Husserl’s phenomenological philosophy – which
dealt with the study of consciousness from a first-person perspective – in order to supply
philosophical foundations to the social sciences. He criticised the notion that observation could
be theory- and value-neutral, arguing that we do not grasp the meaning of an act through simple
observation:
we first observe the bodily behaviour then place it within a larger context of meaning […] this
context of meaning need not […] be identical with the context of meaning in the mind of the
actor himself (Schutz, 1974: 36).
Schutz went on to argue that the meaning of an action could only be understood within the
context of ‘the formation and structure of those lived experiences’ which led to its occurrence
(1974: 51).
This notion was taken further by the discipline of ethnomethodology, developed by Harold
Garfinkel, which sought to problematise everyday events and to pay them the attention usually
only given by social scientists to extraordinary events (Garfinkel, 1967). Garfinkel’s concern was
to '[make] commonplace scenes visible’ (1967: 36) and to interrogate hidden assumptions: the
‘"seen but unnoticed” background of common understandings’ (1967: 44).
Many of these aspects of phenomenology and ethnomethodology are reflected today in
postmodernist texts: the rejection of universalist theories, the emphasis on subjectivity, and the
focus on uncovering concealed assumptions. However, they have been developed by
postmodernists in order to interrogate language, history and culture and to question the validity
of claims to have discovered a universal ‘truth’.

THE DECLINE OF THE GRAND NARRATIVE


A central feature of postmodern writing is scepticism towards ‘meta-' or ‘grand’ narratives,
including liberalism, Marxism and other attempts to formulate a universal political theory
(Rosenau, 1991: 6). These theories, it is argued, overlook the diversity of the social world and
even repress certain elements of it (Seidman, 1991). Jean-François Lyotard defined the
postmodern as ‘incredulity towards metanarratives’, and claimed that the metanarrative was
‘losing its functors, its great hero, its great dangers, its great voyages, its great goal’ (1984: xxiv).
This scepticism is reflected in the works of authors such as Jacques Derrida, who criticised the
totalising effect of structuralism and queried whether meaning could really only be said to have
importance within the totality of a unified system or narrative (Derrida, 2001). This critique of
metanarratives is fundamental to postmodernists’ rejection of the project of modernity, itself a
grand narrative.
This approach was famously dismissed by Habermas in 1981. Habermas was concerned that
postmodernism’s rejection of modernity undermined the modern project of emancipation by
telling us that ‘the impulse of modernity […] is exhausted’ and that ‘modernism is dominant but
dead’ (1981: 6). Habermas connected the postmodern rejection of grand narratives with
neoconservative attempts to link progressive ideology to extremism, citing Peter Steinfells’
observation that neoconservatives
[draw] the connection between modernism and nihilism […] between government regulation and
totalitarianism, between criticism of arms expenditures and subservience to communism,
between Women’s liberation or homosexual rights and the destruction of the family […]
between the Left generally and terrorism, anti-semitism, and fascism (Steinfells, cited in
Habermas, 1981: 7).
Postmodernism can thus be interpreted as a rejection of progressive politics. In emphasising
diversity, plurality of experiences and the decline of the metanarrative, postmodernism also
rejects the notion that the social sciences can provide universal, solid foundations on which to
ground political theory and action (Hay, 2002: 229). For this reason, Habermas’s dismissal of
postmodernism as a neoconservative project has some justification: without solid foundations or
the notion of a shared reality, it is difficult, if not impossible, to speak meaningfully of
emancipation, reform or even of any normative role for the state. Thus postmodernists, if they
follow antifoundationalism and epistemological scepticism through to their logical conclusions,
must resign themselves to a ‘vow of absolute silence’ (Hay, 2002: 249) and political inaction.
A further criticism of this approach to grand narratives points out that the postmodern critique of
metanarratives is itself a metanarrative, and therefore ‘silenced by the very voice that expresses
it’ (Hay, 2002: 247). Postmodernism’s suspicion of claims to truth is founded on a similar
contradiction. As Habermas ([1976] 1998) has demonstrated, all communication relies on the
concept of truth, even if the speaker knows what they are saying to be untrue. In other words,
claims to truth are a necessary condition of communication and as such, postmodern texts rely on
the very condition of truth they try to deny.
However, scepticism towards metanarratives and truth claims does not have to lead to their
rejection. This element of postmodernism can be of use to critical analysis if reasserted within a
foundationalist epistemology: one which accepts that while grand narratives tend ignore the
diversity of the social world and exclude certain people and experiences, they do not inevitably
do so. Instead of entailing a rejection of the metanarrative, the postmodernist approach may be
seen as a way to interrogate narrative forms of knowledge and to give voices to those who have
been excluded.

POSTMODERNISM AS A CRITIQUE OF POSITIVISM


Postmodernism’s critique of positivism is a potentially important contribution to political
analysis. While most political scientists do not label themselves positivists, they often rely
implicitly upon the positivist tenets that experience is the basis of knowledge and it is possible to
reflect the world objectively, without relying upon philosophical and theoretical assumptions
(Giddens, 1977: 29; Agger, 1991: 106). Following Giddens, I use the term ‘positivistic attitude’
to refer to approaches that involve any of these suppositions: that the methods of the natural
sciences may be directly adapted for the social sciences; that the role of the political analyst is
that of an impartial observer of social reality; that the goal of political analysis is to formulate
law-like generalisations; that knowledge and language are purely instrumental (Giddens, 1974:
3-4).
Postmodernism has done much to challenge this positivistic attitude in the social sciences.
Michel Foucault, a key postmodern thinker (although he rejected the label), is noted for his
appraisal of the social sciences. He dismissed social scientists’ claims to objectivity and
neutrality by showing how they conflated moral and legal norms into scientific truth (Simons,
1995: 43-46). For example, Foucault asserted that crime was judged against a scientific
‘knowledge’ of what was normal, and that punishment had come to be legitimated as much by
social science as by the legal system. Deviations from the law came to be seen as offences
against ‘objectively’ known human nature (Simons, 1995: 45).
Specifically, Foucault expanded Nietzschean historic philosophy in order to question beliefs and
aspects of everyday life – such as madness or sexuality – thought to be timeless (Foucault, 1977).
Through this technique of ‘genealogy’ he was able to trace the development of present-day
institutions and ideas and to show that they were grounded in history rather than the ahistorical
notions of Reason and Truth. For example, in his first major work Madness and
Civilization ([1964] 2007), Foucault argues that the modern experience of madness, rather than
being grounded in unchanging scientific fact, has its roots in the ‘Great Confinement’ of the
seventeenth century, when ‘unreasonable’ members of society were placed in asylums.
Jacques Derrida, although he differed from Foucault in important ways, advanced an equally
significant critique of positivism. To Derrida, all discourses, including supposedly scientific
reports, rely on concealed assumptions and cannot be understood without them (Agger, 1991:
112). As with Foucault, these texts also present a certain view of the world as objective truth.
Thus, traditional status-attainment research which defined social mobility in terms of the
occupational status of one’s father was far from neutral: it presented a view of the social world
where only men worked or should work, and in fact misrepresented reality by ignoring women
who worked (Agger, 1991: 113). Derrida pioneered the technique of ‘deconstruction’ in order to
expose the hidden assumptions of texts (Hay, 2002: 231).
These critiques are valuable ways in which to interrogate the positivistic attitude underlying
much of political theory and research. Foucault and Derrida’s contributions to political analysis
have shown that ideas, institutions and language conceal assumptions and presuppositions about
the social world, and provided methods for exposing these assumptions. In uncovering the values
and assumptions underlying supposedly neutral research and political theory, postmodernists
have greatly aided critical analysis of political science; firstly, in revealing that ‘theory is
always for someone and for some purpose’ (Cox, 1981: 128), and secondly, in emphasising the
need for critical self-reflection when conducting social research.
Postmodernist critiques often lead to the conclusion that absolute truths cannot be attained
because all theory and research is based on subjective norms, and all theory and research
presents a view of the world that is far from neutral. As above, however, the conclusion that
claims to truth are always flawed is internally inconsistent. Rather, we should conclude from
these critiques of the positivistic attitude that objective truth is difficult to access – though not
necessarily impossible – and that self-reflection is essential if it is to be obtained.

THE POLITICAL UNCONSCIOUS


This exposition of the ‘political unconscious’ (Seidman, 1997: 21) underpinning the social
sciences provides a radical way of looking at political theory. Postmodernists have highlighted
how much of political theory and research ignores or relegates certain social groups to the
sidelines, furthering their disempowerment. All theory, they argue, comes from a particular
standpoint, and in the Western world the dominant standpoint has often been that of a white,
heterosexual man (Lorde, 1990: 281). As demonstrated above, these theories have the power to
present their view of the world as scientific truth, and thus legitimate a social and political order
where certain groups are marginalised or oppressed.
Postmodernism condemns the exclusion of these groups and seeks to shift political science’s
focus to them. As it emphasises what a large amount of political thought takes for granted or
even views as ‘common sense’ (e.g. issues of gender, race or sexuality), this approach has a great
deal to offer critical analysis. Thus the postmodernist critique of the status-attainment research
cited above reveals the dominance of a male viewpoint and the marginalised status of women in
political inquiry. By emphasising the gendered assumptions of the studies, postmodernism
allows feminists to protest against the exclusion of women. Similar critiques of colonial thought,
the representation of sexuality, and other topics have allowed the marginalised to speak in the
same way (e.g. Bhabha, 1990; Lorde, 1990; Wittig, 1990).
Again, it is uncertain why this approach is of any use for those who subscribe to a strictly
antifoundationalist viewpoint. If there are no solid foundations on which to ground political
theory, and if there are no universal ‘facts’, then claims about marginalisation or empowerment
are almost meaningless. The very language one uses to talk about these concepts is constituted of
fallible categories and dichotomies. Moreover, there is no ‘valid’ reason why the postmodernist
should contest the dominance of a particular group. As Sayer has noted, ‘it is not clear why a
relativist should bother to argue anything’ (2000: 69).
Nonetheless, this approach has clear utility for those wishing to critique and transform the
existing political order. All critical theory is keen to tackle inequality, and it is clear that political
research and other discourses have a part to play in making unequal power relations seem natural
or ‘ common-sense’. It is possible to confront these discourses within a foundationalist
framework that allows for some truths to be known about the world. In fact, the contradictions
inherent in postmodernism show that this is the only way this task can meaningfully be
undertaken. Critical analysts can learn a lot from postmodernism’s attempt to ‘[allow] the other
to speak’ (McQuillan, 2002: 6).

DECONSTRUCTION, BINARIES AND THE ‘OTHER’


These approaches have their benefits, as I have shown. But they do not constitute a distinct
method of inquiry, only an attitude. The deconstructivist methodology, although it is more
closely associated with post-structuralism than postmodernism in general, offers a way to
interrogate the hidden values and assumptions underlying political discourse and theory.
Deconstruction is a mode of inquiry used by some postmodernists which draws on Jacques
Derrida’s analytical techniques (Hay, 2002: 231). It is not a ‘method’ in the strict sense of having
a fixed set of rules and practices (McQuillan, 2002: 3). In line with the aforementioned principles
of postmodernism, deconstruction seeks to uncover the concealed assumptions of a text and
emphasise what has been excluded or ignored. It does so by questioning binary oppositions,
denying the legitimacy of dichotomies, and by pushing generalisations until they seem absurd
(Rosenau, 1991: 121).
Non-postmodernists such as Jürgen Habermas have argued that deconstruction is simply
destructive, making no positive methodological contribution to the social sciences (Rosenau,
1991: 123). Of course, it is unclear why deconstruction would have any use within
postmodernism’s ontological and epistemological framework. As above, there is a contradiction:
if deconstruction can ‘reveal’ something, this implies that there is something there to reveal
(Rosenau, 1991: 122). However, as many have pointed out, deconstruction is not simply
destruction (Murphy, 1988: 608; Sayer, 2002: 67; Norris, 2002: 135). Instead, it should be
viewed as re-evaluation. Problematising the fundamental premises of a text does not always lead
to rejecting them; and when it does, a new alternative may be constructed.
Deconstruction questions the binaries which structure texts (civilised/savage, man/woman,
justice/injustice, etc.). These binaries, deconstructivists argue, are intrinsically political and
involve the privileging of one concept over another – civilised over savage, man over woman,
justice over injustice – and thus repress and marginalise the ‘other’. By unpicking these binary
oppositions, deconstruction seeks to empower these others (Hay, 2002: 233).
This methodology has made an extraordinary contribution to political science, even if it has
largely been ignored or dismissed. As Bernstein has observed in his commentary on Derrida,
Few contemporary thinkers have been so alert and perceptive about the temptations and dangers
of violently crushing or silencing differences, otherness or alterity – in ‘others’ or even the
‘other’ in ourselves. Few writers have written with such nuanced understanding about the
suffering, mourning other’ (Bernstein, 1992: 184).
The attention deconstruction pays to the ‘other’ is of vast importance. Any critic wishing to
challenge inequality would do well to study how this inequality is constructed and maintained
through language and discourse. Deconstruction offers a way in which to challenge inequality
and to question the concealed values and assumptions which legitimate it.
Nevertheless, deconstruction has come under fire from theorists who would normally be
sympathetic to critiques of inequality. Edward Said, Terry Eagleton and others have criticised the
approach for having failed to subvert the power relations it attacks (Readings, 2002: 396). They
argue that it privileges discourse and texts at the expense of the real world, and ask why the work
deconstruction has done on texts has not been translated into political action (Readings, 2002:
390). Gayatri Spivak has noted that ‘if one wanted to found a political project on deconstruction,
it would be something like wishy-washy pluralism on the one hand, or a kind of irresponsible
hedonism on the other’ (Spivak, 2002: 397-98).
These criticisms are difficult to dismiss. Deconstruction does not offer any solid basis for
constructing a political theory or political programme. However, this should not imply that it has
no practical use. As I have already noted, deconstruction’s re-evaluation of a text’s fundamental
premises does not always mean rejection of them. Furthermore, there is little reason why
deconstruction should not simply be a precursor to reconstruction. In forcing a rethink of the
political, deconstruction allows the weaknesses of certain binaries and assumptions to be known,
and thus allows stronger, more reliable political theory to be constructed.

CONCLUSION
Postmodernism is, on the whole, problematic. Its ontology of difference and epistemological
scepticism can legitimate political inaction, because without the existence of a shared reality, it is
hard to speak meaningfully of any sort of collective action or policy aimed at change or
emancipation. What is more, postmodernism’s insistence on the lack of validity of truth claims
or metanarratives is a contradiction. The critique of the metanarrative is itself a metanarrative;
the critique of notions of ‘truth’ is itself a claim to truth. In short, postmodernism’s
antifoundationalism and scepticism make it inconsistent and unreliable. This does not mean that
postmodernism has not made any useful contributions to political science as a discipline,
however. While its input has largely been ignored or dismissed, it has the potential to greatly aid
critical theory and analysis.
Postmodernism’s first great contribution to the discipline has been its appraisal of positivism.
Postmodern theorists have exposed the hidden values, assumptions and generalisations
underpinning supposedly objective, value-free research. Theorists such as Derrida and Foucault
have shown social and political theory and research to be founded upon subjective principles,
and that this research in turn helps to legitimate the existing political order. As such,
postmodernist work is a valuable resource for those wishing to critique and challenge power
relations in society. Postmodernism has also brought attention to the ‘other’: those who are
marginalised, ignored or repressed. By emphasising what political theory and discourse excludes
or relegates to the sidelines, the postmodern approach shows how unequal power relations are
created and provides a way of tackling them. This is an especially important contribution for
feminists, minority groups and anyone desiring to confront social exclusion and marginalisation.
Finally, the postmodern method of deconstruction has an important role to play in critique. While
it does not offer a sound basis for political action, it can aid political theory by forcing a rethink
of what the ‘political’ is and by uncovering the hidden values and assumptions mentioned above.
To conclude, it may be said that while postmodernism may not have had a huge impact on the
discipline of political science, it has certainly made some positive contributions. These
contributions should not simply be dismissed because of the flaws inherent in the postmodern
perspective. Rather, they have much to offer critical political analysis, and postmodernism can
teach critical theorists a great deal.

Notes
[1]Fran Amery is a third year Anthropology and Political Science student at the University of
Birmingham. Following graduation she plans to undertake a PhD in Political Science.

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