Modernity, Postmodernity, and Family and Consumer Sciences


Edith E. Baldwin

Dr. Baldwin lives in Aireys Inlet, Victoria, Australia.

Today there are so many "voices" screeching about Reason. Why is there a rage against Reason? What precisely is being attacked, criticized, and damned? Why is it that when "reason" and "rationality" are mentioned, they evoke images of domination, oppression, patriarchy, sterility, violence, totality, totalitarianism, and even terror? These questions are especially poignant and perplexing when we realize that not so long ago the call to "reason" elicited associations with autonomy, freedom, justice, equality, happiness, and peace. (Bernstein, 1991, pp. 32-33)

The mode of rationality dominating the period in history known as modernity strongly influenced the profession of home economics as it emerged and developed (Brown, 1985, 1993). In recent decades postmodern challenges to the invasion of social, cultural, and personal life by instrumental, strategic, and systems rationality have arisen not only in the field of home economics/family and consumer sciences but in philosophy, the social and physical sciences, politics, and the arts.

So widespread has been the debate that postmodernity has become a household word (Lash, 1990). The term has been discussed in newspaper editorials, television programs, and popular magazines. Numerous books and articles in academic journals have been devoted to the idea of postmodernity and the questions it raises. We have not only postmodern thinking expressed in the various disciplines but the postmodern family (Stacey, 1996), postmodern education (Doll, 1993; Elkind, 1997;  McLaren, 1991; Mourad, 1997), and a "postmodern perspective on home economics history" (Richards, 2000). Although some writers simply accept postmodernity as inevitable or as "the way things are," others are critical of what are considered to be postmodern trends, values, and ideas; e.g., in discussing the concept of theory, Brown and Baldwin (1995) argue for dialectical theory rather than the adoption of a postmodern approach that would unreflectively accept various (and sometimes conflicting) theories to generate knowledge for the field.

The modernity/postmodernity debate raises some thought-provoking questions for family and consumer sciences. This paper will sketch ideas relating to modernity and postmodernity to highlight their significance for family and consumer sciences. An attempt will be made to show how (a) on one hand, modernity's conceptions of rationality and progress in human affairs led to serious problems for the field and how (b) on the other hand, adherence to postmodern concepts including the fundamental idea of difference would reinforce misunderstandings and inadequacies. It will then be argued that (c) family and consumer sciences could go forward with greater strength through acceptance of the contemporary notion of modernity as an unfinished project.

Modernity and Its Ambiguity

The term modern was first employed in the late fifth century to distinguish between the official Christian present and the pagan Roman past (Habermas, 1997). Since then, it has been used a number of times to mark a shift from an old to a new era. It was the Age of Reason in the second half of the eighteenth century with the idea of progress elaborated by Kant, Turgot, Condorcet, and others that gave rise to modernity. The French Revolution in 1789--revolution based on reason--both expressed and gave momentum to this new consciousness, and the Industrial Revolution provided its material substance (Kumar, 1995). This modern world, this new social order, was characterized by a new dynamism, a rejection of earlier traditions, a belief in progress, and the potential of human reason to promote freedom. Increasing rationality would enhance social understanding, order and control, justice, moral progress, and human happiness.

Modernity stimulated a continual revolution of ideas and institutions and the continual creation of new things. The causes and consequences of modernity are cultural and social; but as Lyon (1999, p. 28) points out, the driving force is "capitalism with its constant quest for new raw materials, new sources of labor power . . . new technologies . . . and new applications that might attract new consumers." From the outset modernity promised to change the world in the name of Reason and each innovation spawned another.

Modernity's Achievements

The achievements of modernity are amazing when we consider how the world has been irreversibly transformed. Our mental imagery of modernity is strongly influenced by the technological and cultural fruits of industrial civilization, so evident in great modern cities such as New York and Chicago, e.g., modern architecture; systems of transportation and communication; new technology in medical institutions; representations of modern culture in theatres, cinemas, and art galleries (Lyon, 1999). By the 1970s the concept of modernity had become closely associated with the United States. Although countless achievements of modernity surround us in everyday life, to grasp something of the controversy accompanying their evolution, we turn very briefly to the work of major theorists.

Early Critics of Modernity

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Weber was pessimistic about the application of rationalization to the social as well as the natural world. The rational approach underpinning science (i.e., empirical science) was systematically infusing every area of society--not only undermining tradition but developing a calculating attitude toward life. Evidence could be found not only in the science laboratory but in the capitalist's ledger and in the rules and hierarchy of bureaucratic organization emphasizing efficiency and productivity. He saw dissolution of ethical and personal relations. Weber warned, "[s]cience in the name of 'intellectual integrity,' has come forward with the claim of representing the only possible form of a reasoned view of the world" (1970, p. 355); yet technical rationality produced an "iron cage" of domination that threatened unity, freedom, and meaning. Scientific rationality was unable to teach anything about the meaning of the world, of human existence; and the continual pursuit of innovation associated with modernity merely created restlessness and discontent.

For Marx, paradoxes were clearly evident, e.g., material progress accompanied by spiritual impoverishment, development of scientific knowledge yet mass ignorance, and conquest of nature but exploitation of workers (Kumar, 1995). Although Marx welcomed modernity, he was opposed to capitalism that brought constant technological change, a quest for market dominance, and with it increasing globalization of a system designed to create profit for some through exploitation of others. He saw, in these tendencies, a wedge being driven between capitalist and worker and between workers themselves as they competed for jobs. Workers were exploited and alienated by capitalism.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, Durkheim was concerned about the emergence of anomie and loss of direction (Lyon, 1999). As workers migrated from villages and farms to industrial cities they experienced not only subdivision of labor and responsibilities but the destruction of traditional ties of family and neighborhood. This new mobility uprooted tradition so that rules once governing life in the village community were replaced by new rules relating to factory life and bureaucratic organization. Questions of authority and identity were raised as tasks once performed by the family or church were taken over by schools, youth clubs, welfare groups, and so on. Durkheim feared that isolation of the individual and dissolution of social norms would lead to a sense of uncertainly and loss of direction. Moreover, with the collapse of the moral order, pathological anomie might evolve to the point of suicide (Lyon).

To some, the great modern cities brought the problem of social fragmentation. In 1848 Engels noted the isolation of the individual and the disintegration of society in the great city of London where it appeared that each individual pursued his own aims according to his private principles (Lyon, 1999). Whereas rationality supposedly liberated individuals from the authority of tradition, they now found themselves dominated by the bureaucratic, machine-like sociopolitical system that was evolving. With no control over the broader social structures and practices that affected everyday life, people withdrew into a private, self-seeking individualism. In the nineteenth century, de Tocqueville made the point that although individualism may protect from certain social orders it confines people to solitude; in embracing individualism people withdraw from the public sphere, which offers opportunity for the collective control of life (Bellah, Madsen, Sullivan, Swidler, & Tipton, 1985). 

Despite appearances, ambiguities and ambivalence plagued modernity from the beginning; and for many, the Enlightenment promise of freedom through the development of rationality resulted in disenchantment. Unintended effects of modernization became evident, and a cultural reaction against it was established by the end of the nineteenth century. By the late twentieth century heated theoretical debate was creating a decisive split between those who would still come to terms with modernity and those who pronounced a shift to postmodernity.

Postmodern Debate

Originating largely in the cultural sphere, the postmodern debate gained momentum in the 1960s through the work of such theorists as Foucault, Derrida, Lyotard, and Baudrillard (Best & Kellner, 1997). Experiencing the advent of new social movements opposing the Vietnam War, racism, sexism, and imperialism, they believed that a decisive break with the past had occurred--that a revolution in morals, politics, and perceptions was leading to a new era in history. Opposing holistic views of the world, they characterized society in terms of fragmentation, pluralism, and individualism and promoted a "politics of difference." By the 1970s postmodern theorists were pointing to a variety of major social and cultural changes as indications of the arrival of a new era, e.g., rapid growth of new technology and globalization in addition to new social movements.

By the late twentieth century two opposing themes had emerged. First, postmodernism is viewed as continuous with modernity while challenging and seeking to redefine it. From this perspective, there is no break from the past, as certain things have not changed--although there may be signs of discontinuity, signs of continuity are also recognized. Second, there is a complete break from modernism. Here, there is reference to the exhaustion or the disintegration of modernity, or of modernity "digging its own grave" (Smart, 1993).

A Crystallization of the Issues

Recognizing the conceptual complexity of postmodernity, White (1991) identified four issues on which he believed ethical-political reflection should focus: increasing incredulity toward metanarratives (overarching theories), growing awareness of the costs of societal rationalization, the explosion of information technologies, and the emergence of new social movements:

1. Metanarratives or foundational interpretive schemes justifying scientific-technological and political projects came under attack from Lyotard in 1984. Even earlier, in the late 1940s there had been critique of overarching schemes justifying the ideal of the good life stemming from scientific-technological progress. The 1960s and 1970s brought an unprecedented attack from feminists on the metanarratives surrounding male-female relationships. Critiques of liberalism that arose in the 1970s and 1980s raised questions of justice, i.e., of the traditional liberal principle of neutrality or tolerance of all social groups, although suppressing or marginalizing difference. 

2. Foucault, Lyotard, and Habermas (who is not a postmodernist) have reevaluated the costs of societal rationalization. Among other things, attention is drawn to the pervasiveness of technical rationality and to problems associated with growth of the state's welfare activities. There is recognition that no matter how benevolent these activities are meant to be, they often result in the disempowerment of clients. And there is a focus on the role of corporate capitalism in this process.

3. The explosion of new technology is also a subject of critique. Although these technologies are often seen as instruments that empower people, for some they are "the instrument of an emerging Big Brother or a potent new ideological apparatus of corporate capitalism" (White, 1991, p. 9). Both views acknowledge that new technologies have enormous power to structure the ideas and self-identity of individuals and groups, but they do not agree upon who will control the technologies and what purposes they will serve. Although decentralizing advances in technology may well provide opportunities for enhanced individual control over everyday life, much of the information technology will continue to be linked to large institutions thereby enhancing ideological control by dominant groups. It remains to be seen which segments of society are systematically advantaged or disadvantaged. This raises questions of power, ideology, freedom, and justice.

4. New social movements such as the women's movement, the antinuclear movement, ethnic movements, homosexuals, environmentalists, and counterculture groups differ in many ways. But they all have in common intent of "defending and restoring endangered ways of life" (Habermas, 1987, p. 392). They all focus on the struggle to socially construct their own collective identity. Celebration of difference as a value, opposing consensus and intersubjectivity, is a recurring theme. The postmodern world is a pluralistic world in which there are no agreed principles denying the right of any form of life to exist.

Postmodernity as Paradox

Paradoxically, no agreement has been forthcoming on what constitutes the postmodern or whether we are indeed experiencing a postmodern era (Best & Kellner, 1997). Some theorists argue that contemporary societies with their new technologies and social, political, and economic transformations are undergoing such striking change that we are witnessing the emergence of a complex period demanding new theories. Yet, postmodernism rejects coherent theory--it tends to "patch together disparate objects, themes, and ideas, with the intent of breaking up the facade of unity, coherence, and progress that modernity has attempted to present" (Trey, 1998, p. 4). Although postmodern theories could help to throw light on contemporary realities, whether they are adequate to the task is open to question.

Analyses of postmodernity raise ethical questions about contemporary conditions that point to political options. Enormous ethical issues to do with, for example, globalization and the future of the human body confront the contemporary world. However, as O'Neill (1995, p. 1) notes, "We are asked to believe that human beings are now so speciated by gender and race--though we are silent about class--that there can be no universal knowledge, politics, or morality." Although individuals are faced with difficult questions, it is evident that there must be a focus on communicative rationality and communal ethics. Yet, postmodern culture would exclude the possibility of this.

Although social pluralism and diversity are recognized, postmodernists claim society is not ordered and integrated according to any principle. Celebrating the collapse of metatheory that provided some sense of the coherence of society, they see no "controlling and directing force to give it shape and meaning. . . . There is simply a more or less random, directionless flux across all sectors of society" (Kumar, 1995, p. 103).

With an unquestioning belief that we are living in a postmodern world, we may be inclined to confuse surface transformations with social reality. For example, Apple (1996) argued that whereas in some cases discussion of the need for educational reforms may have a postmodern ring, many proposals have little that is postmodern about them. He argued "they are often guided by an underlying faith in technical rationality as the basis for solving problems" (p. xi). Moreover, specialization (an outcome of technical rationality) continues to be a powerful force in education.

Modern or Postmodern Assumptions for Family and Consumer Sciences

Modernity and postmodernity are concepts that help us to organize our thinking about complex social realities. They are concepts that can contribute to our understanding of social, cultural, and political conditions impacting family life and the development of our profession. Although the modernity/postmodernity discourse is complicated, controversial, and often heated, it raises important questions for family and consumer sciences: Should we hold to modernity's belief in continued human progress based on the technical rationality of empirical science? Should we join those who rage against reason and rationality? Should we merely celebrate pluralism, or is dialogue across difference desirable and possible?

Should We Hold to the Beliefs of Modernity?

An increasingly powerful scientific-technological worldview has certainly left its mark on the field of family and consumer sciences (Brown, 1993; Brown & Baldwin, 1995). Although earlier aims of home economics were stated as problem oriented, it could be expected that the field would be conceptualized and organized in relation to practical-moral problems of the family. But in 1913 the AHEA published a syllabus of home economics designed according to a job analysis of household tasks. Content was fragmented according to the components of food, clothing, shelter, and household and institution management (Brown, 1985). Although expressing concern for problems of family life, home economists confused household tasks with family problems. Families do not live in compartmentalized lives, but in the interest of scientific understanding and technical efficiency the field continues to be fragmented and categorized according to household tasks. Moreover, the incorporation of fragments of knowledge from the natural sciences, economics, and technology resulted in contradictions, conceptual inadequacies, and ideologies denying any possibility of a coherent framework to guide practice.

Specialization that formed around homemaking tasks continues to exist presumably in the interest of promoting technical expertise. Although we may think that specialization is an inevitable effect of increasing knowledge, philosopher Mary Midgley (1991, p. 9) claims that this is not so; "it is largely a historical accident, helped on the way by various chance features of modern life, notably in the way universities are organized." In effect, specialization ultimately forces people away from wholeness of perspective and common ground, and thus we diverge further and further from each other. As Midgley points out, although humankind needs specialization to some extent, it should not be developed at the expense of opportunity to share fully in the human experience. 

Criticizing public education for its bits and pieces approach characterizing scientific method, Neil Postman (1993) observed that knowledge is broken down into disciplines, courses, and subjects; specializations are allocated to people who are trained in particular areas of knowledge. It is assumed that the parts will add up to a coherent whole and that the whole is merely the sum of its parts. But the result is a "meaningless hodge-podge of subjects" without any conceptualization of what it means to be an educated person, unless it is a person who has "no commitment and no point of view but plenty of marketable skills" (p. 186). There is no "moral, social, or intellectual center" in the curriculum. Moreover, in our technicalized information environment, fragmentation has been exacerbated by the widespread use of computers and computer jargon, which promotes a view of knowledge as simply a pile of loose bits of information.

Many critics including Brown (1993) argue that the family has been disempowered as a result of technical rationality and strategic action in the public sphere. Public dialogue concerning social norms and goals is replaced by the "steering mechanisms" of money and power (Habermas, 1987). Decision making by a technician is employed in the interest of efficiency and maintenance of existing power structures. The system offers compensation in the form of commodities for the private consumer. As a result, "[l]eisure, family life, sexual relationships and even one's sense of self and development as a human being become targets of commodification, as we are presented with new and more extensive preselected packages of behavioral, psychological and sexual scripts" (White, 1988, p. 115). Social welfare is offered to the less affluent, supposedly expanding social rights. However, the vast increase in regulations in the welfare state results in an extension of law into people's lives, which, combined with the intrusion of expert social workers and administrators, creates a new kind of dependency. And this "affects the way we define and norm areas of life such as family relations, education, old age, as well as physical and mental health and well-being" (White, 1988, p. 113).

The pervasiveness of technical rationality undermines not only the family but professional practice. Thus, a balanced perspective fostering moral-communicative rationality should replace this one-sided modernist worldview. Democratic participation in public dialogue is central to the production of social and cultural life, and ordinary people can be empowered through the process. Dialogue is also essential for the development of an integrative, moral, social, and intellectual center for our field.

Should We Accept the Arguments of Postmodernists?

Toulmin (1990) recalls that during the 1960s and 1970s issues at stake in humanizing modernity were raised in a public debate about the aims of higher education and academic research. The concern on one side was for excellence, while on the other, relevance. People supporting excellence believed that institutions of higher learning should conserve traditional wisdom and techniques while developing new knowledge. They emphasized a focus on the established disciplines for the transmission of knowledge. People supporting relevance argued that it was more important to find ways of using knowledge for the common good--that "universities should attack the problems of humanity" (p. 184). If the established disciplines stood in the way, new interdisciplinary structures should be developed to facilitate this task.

Mourad (1997, p. 132) would develop a postmodern university with disciplines as "networks of particular inquiries that would always be subject to change, dissolution and replacement as different particular inquiries and linkages come into being and end." Inquiry would not be "constrained by the disciplinary plane" but would "move beyond the disciplines entirely toward other forms of knowledge." Postmodern research programs outside the disciplines "would have the goal of creating intellectually compelling pursuits of knowledge that are different from those in the disciplines." A research program would be developed through an open campus forum at which a group of thinkers would come together to pursue "an intellectually compelling idea" (p. 133). The research program would be composed of interested individuals from a diverse group of disciplines; however, the aim would not be to "make diverse disciplinary conceptions commensurable or to synthesize them" (p. 133). Disciplinary differences would be used as "points of departure" in the development of the compelling idea. As Mourad (p. 136) does not see fragmentation of knowledge as "an abnormality that needs to be repaired," and as there seems to be no concern for coherent theory, a question that comes to mind is: Would postmodern research programs merely become a pluralistic hodge-podge of intellectually compelling ideas?

Embracing postmodernism, Richards (2000) draws upon systems theory (which is based on technical rationality) in comparing modernism and postmodernism in relation to the evolution of family and consumer sciences. Yet the employment of systems theory is contradictory to not only the postmodern rejection of theory but to the postmodern rejection of technical rationality. Furthermore, noting that "[p]ostmodern thinkers celebrate language above rational thought" in seeking to understand sociocultural difference (p. 84), this author apparently denies the need for communicative rationality.

Although postmodernists are supportive of pluralism and difference, Burbules and Rice (1991, p. 394) are critical of the postmodernist outlook that "embraces incommensurability across world views, not as an unfortunate failure to establish common meanings and values, but as a desired state." The celebration of difference becomes "an exaggerated critique that any attempt to establish reasonable and consensual discourse across difference inevitably involves the imposition of dominant groups' values, beliefs, and modes of discourse upon others" (p. 401). Although not diminishing the significance of difference, these authors argue that dialogue across difference is not only possible but crucial socially and educationally.

Bernstein (1991, pp. 335-336) also warns against extreme pluralism. Although encouraged by the breaking down of boundaries and the emergence of "new constellations of texts and themes that cut across disciplines," he argues for engaged fallibilistic pluralism. This would mean recognizing our own fallibility and, while committed to our own ideas, listening to others "without denying or suppressing the otherness of the other." Although conflict and disagreement may be inevitable, our response is what matters. What is needed is a dialogical response through which we genuinely seek to achieve mutual understanding as we work together as a community of inquirers.

Critics of modernity continue to emphasize deconstructing boundaries within and among different disciplines, and Crabtree sees the need for dissolution of boundaries between specializations in family and consumer sciences. At the 1996 AAFCS Leadership Conference, she stated,

We have a tremendous wealth of expertise that encompasses a broad spectrum of subject matter areas and specializations. But individual, family, societal, and economic issues are not neatly divided into specializations, and thus, most issues require an integrative, holistic, interdisciplinary focus, which results in synergism and . . . a greater impact . . . . (Saunders, 1999, p. 31)

Vincenti (1997, p. 319) also recognizes the importance of interdisciplinarity and "diverse modes of thinking and interacting" and states "home economics has long espoused interdisciplinary and integrative approaches to inquiry and problem solving."

Brown (1993) points out, however, that home economists have upheld interdisciplinarity as desirable for ninety years. Although there is interest in interdisciplinarity and integration of knowledge from specializations in home economics, "[i]f the claim is made that home economics is in reality interdisciplinary, this claim is false" (p. 251). Some specializations or individual educational or research programs may have elements of interdisciplinarity, but although some professionals may have an interdisciplinary orientation toward knowledge, to its detriment, the field remains fragmented. Brown (1993, p. 271) points out that in the strict sense, interdisciplinarity involves the "integration of knowledge from two or more disciplines to create new patterns of knowledge related to a set of human problems and may create a new interdisciplinary professional field."

Brown would develop a two-level structure for interdisciplinary study. At one level participants would seek solutions to a particular set of problems. Integration would take place in the minds of participants seeking to understand and solve problems. (This process is intersubjective as there is authentic communication among coinquirers intent upon developing a shared reality.) At a more abstract and comprehensive level, interdisciplinary study would be transdisciplinary and a coherent theoretical framework would facilitate this work. Brown (1993, p. 266) is adamant that 

. . . the purpose of home economics and the knowledge relevant to that purpose cannot be clarified and justified except in a larger (transdisciplinary) framework. Only then can there be insight into and rational agreement upon the basic purpose and problems of concern as well as modes of inquiry appropriate. 

Unlike postmodernists, Brown sees modernity as an unfinished project and argues for coherent theory to provide a comprehensive approach to reason and rationality.

Should We Persist with Modernity as an Incomplete Project?

Some theorists deny that postmodernity represents a new era but claim that we are in a new situation providing for a new world view that allows us to look back, reflect upon, and ask certain questions about modernity. Aware of the limits of modernity, these theorists view the postmodern condition as "modernity emancipated from false consciousness" (Kumar, 1995, p. 141). In this sense, a new light is cast upon modernity allowing us to see it as incomplete--to recognize the problems that must be dealt with but also the possibilities for progress in human affairs.

Condemning inadequate conceptions of postmodernists that lead to relativism and elimination of the possibility of social critique, Habermas (1987) emphasizes the moral importance of continuing emancipation that began in the Enlightenment. In other words, the project of modernity should be completed, not abandoned. Recognizing problems stemming from enlightenment rationality, he argues that the problem is not Reason itself but the prevailing one-sided version of it, i.e., the prevalence of instrumental or means-end reason. The domination of the communicatively constructed human lifeworld by instrumental rationality should therefore be a focus of critique.

Habermas fears that feelings of disempowerment resulting from the invasion of instrumental reason into more and more spheres of life may lead to the rise of "tribalism" and "identity politics" (Lyon, 1999). Opposing postmodernist reinforcement of pluralism and difference, Habermas would nurture plurality within speech communities oriented toward shared understanding. Dialogue is needed to bring about the formation of new common meanings and a reconciliation of differences. Barriers to free and open communication must be dismantled so that community and social solidarity may be pursued through moral-practical rationality and communicative interaction. Postmodernists often deny the possibility of this, claiming that such a pursuit threatens to eliminate differences or to promote domination of one particular perspective over others. However, as Habermas and many others including Freire (1984) and Gadamer (1982) have argued, it is possible to avoid this threat while working toward intersubjectivity and common understanding. We must cope with our differences, and if we are committed to a democratic form of life we must make discussions about issues affecting our well-being more inclusive, not less so.

Although postmodernists embrace fragmentation, superficiality, and difference, Habermas argues for unity, depth, and mutual understanding. He claims that his theories are not to be confused with the foundational, totalizing metanarratives criticized by postmodernists, rather, his concepts of communicative rationality and discourse ethics are grounded in the "network of . . . interactively shaped, historically situated reason" contained in the everyday practices of communication (Habermas, 1985, p. 196). Habermas' theories would not repress particular interests and needs but further the conceptualization of them.

Implications for Professional Practice

Although agreeing that there is a need for interdisciplinarity in home economics/family and consumer sciences, Brown (1993, p. 262) would disagree with the postmodern dismissal of coherent theory. Pointing out that the field has become "fragmented, piecemeal, and lacking coherence as a conglomerate of specialties in search of a conceptual framework," Brown insists that "radical transformation of the organization of knowledge could mean an improved profession--with specializations--addressing a real set of human problems." What if we were to embrace this perspective?

Researchers in higher education would be involved in the development of a coherent theoretical framework that would provide for (a) critique of the existing society in light of the needs of individuals and families, and (b) critique of professional practices within family and consumer sciences in light of the needs of individuals and families. As dialectical theorizing is an essential element of true interdisciplinarity, dialectical theory that can transcend the disciplines would provide the conceptual framework. Critical theory is such a theory (Brown & Baldwin, 1995). Drawing upon empirical, interpretive, and critical science, it dissolves artificial academic divisions and creates new forms of discourse, critique, and practice. It has two related components: (a) an explanatory diagnostic component that identifies the roots of problems in the sociopolitical sphere, and (b) a theory of action to transform conditions in the interest of human well-being.

Teachers would respond by replacing the traditional, banking form of education with critical pedagogy. A critical approach would focus on practical-moral problems of the family, i.e., on questions of what ought to be done with respect to specific problems. Critical theory would throw light on the roots of problems in social conditions. Faculty from various specializations would contribute to the dialogue. Practical reasoning would be employed, i.e., an informal, dialogical process that moves participants toward agreement on meanings and norms and consensus on action to be taken in each concrete case. 

Extension professionals would base their practice on the methods of social critique and dialogical problem-solving experienced in higher education. They would work directly with families and groups confronted by crisis situations, e.g., a group of teenagers confronted by peer pressure, a group of parents unable to meet work and family commitments in a social environment indifferent to their needs, or a community group concerned about homeless families. The critical practitioner would work with people to uncover the roots of a particular problem and to decide upon what should be done to bring about needed change.


Postmodernity is a concept that helps us to interpret a set of phenomena relating to contemporary Western society. Different interpretations have led to conflicting views, even as to whether or not we are experiencing a radical break from the modern. If we are living in new times we are also encountering old problems that we should seek to resolve. Postmodernists focus on issue-specific critique and are clearer in stating what they are against rather than what they are for. Unwilling to commit themselves to a coherent political-moral theory, they are unable to argue for any way out of the crisis situations that they perceive in society.

If we understand the important lines of continuity between the modern and the postmodern, we avoid making exaggerated claims of discontinuity and rupture. Upholding the view of modernity as an unfinished project we could embrace a defensible conception of rationality rather than merely raging against reason. Critical theory overcomes the problem of one-sidedness of rationality that emerged during modernity. Employment of this critical-dialectical theory would allow us to understand social problems stemming from pervasive ideas of modernity (especially those responsible for the permeation of the human lifeworld by technical rationality) and to give rationally and morally justifiable direction to future change within and beyond our profession.


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Note: The author wishes to express appreciation to Iowa State University for making available excellent resources for research during Summer, 2000.