Theory and Society

, Volume 40, Issue 3, pp 247–272 | Cite as

Culture in the transitions to modernity: seven pillars of a new research agenda

  • Isaac Ariail Reed
  • Julia Adams


How did cultural dynamics help bring about the societies we now recognize as modern? This article constructs seven distinct models for how structures of signification and social meaning participated in the transitions to modernity in the West and, in some of the models, across the globe. Our models address: (1) the spread, via imitation, of modern institutions around the world (memetic replication); (2) the construal, by socio-cultural forces and by state organizations, of the modern citizen-subject (social subjectification); (3) the continual search for new meanings to replace traditional religious meaning-systems (compensatory reenchantment); (4) repeated attempts, in modern revolutions, to remake society completely, according to a utopian vision (ideological totalization); (5) the cultural origins and social consequences of scientific and humanistic worldviews (epistemic rift); (6) the gendered politics of state formation (patriarchal supercession); (7) the invention and production of race in the colonial encounter (racial recognition). We explicate the models in reverse chronological order, because in our synthesis, we argue that the original modern break results from a dynamic combination of racial recognition, patriarchal supercession, and epistemic rift; these changes set the stage for the four other processes we theorize. In addition to our synthesis, we also consider, from a more neutral perspective, the kinds of causal arguments upon which these models tend to rely, and thus explicate the analytical undergirding for the application of any of these models to empirical research on transitions to modernity. Throughout the article, we consider how these models might, and might not, mesh with other families of explanation, such as the politico-economic.


Theory Race Colonialism State-making Gender Culture 



Drafts of this article benefitted from comments received at the Comparative Research Workshop and the June 2009 Transitions to Modernity mini-conference, both at Yale University; the "Comparing Past and Present" miniconference of the ASA Section on Comparative-Historical Sociology, held in August 2009 at the University of California-Berkeley, and an invited session of the Section on the Sociology of Culture at the 2007 American Sociological Association meetings. The authors are especially grateful to the Theory & Society Editors and reviewers, Jennifer Bair, Rick Biernacki, Stephanie Mollborn, Amy Wilkins, and Nick Wilson for their constructive criticism.


  1. Adams, J. (2005). The familial state: ruling families and merchant capitalism in early modern Europe. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.Google Scholar
  2. Adams, J., Clemens, E. S., & Orloff, A. S. (2005). Remaking modernity: politics, history, and sociology. Durham: Duke University Press.Google Scholar
  3. Alatas, S. F. (2006). Alternative Discourses in Asian Social Science: Responses to Eurocentrism. New Dehli: Sage.Google Scholar
  4. Althusser, L. (1971). Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes Towards an Investigation). In Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays (pp. 127–188). New York: Monthly Review Press.Google Scholar
  5. Ankersmit, F. R. (1986). The Dilemma of Contemporary Anglo-Saxon Philosophy of History. History and Theory, 25, 1–27.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Ankersmit, F. R. (1998). Hayden White's Appeal to the Historians. History and Theory, 37, 182–193.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Appleby, J. (1978). Modernization Theory and the Formation of Modern Social Theories in England and America. Comparative Studies in Society and History, 20(2), 259–285.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Becker, C. L. (1932). The heavenly city of the eighteenth-century philosophers. New Haven: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
  9. Blackmore, S. J. (1999). The meme machine. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  10. Brooks, P. (1984). The melodramatic imagination: Balzac, Henry James, melodrama, and the mode of excess. New York: Columbia University Press.Google Scholar
  11. Calhoun, C. (ed.). (1992). Habermas and the Public Sphere. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  12. Chakrabarty, D. (2000). Provincializing Europe: postcolonial thought and historical difference. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  13. Charrad, M. (2001). States and Women's Rights: The Making of Postcolonial Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  14. Clemens, E. S. (2005). Logics of History? Agency, Multiplicity, and Incoherence in the Explanation of Change. In Adams, Clemens, and Orloff (eds.), Remaking Modernity (pp. 493–515). Durham, NC: Duke University Press.Google Scholar
  15. Culler, J. D. (1975). Structuralist poetics: structuralism, linguistics, and the study of literature. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Culler, J. D. (1982). On deconstruction: theory and criticism after structuralism. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.Google Scholar
  17. Davidson, D. (2006). Actions, Reasons, and Causes. In The Essential Davidson (pp. 23–36). New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  18. Dawkins, R. (2006). The selfish gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  19. Durkheim, E. (1915). The elementary forms of the religious life, a study in religious sociology. New York: G. Allen & Unwin.Google Scholar
  20. Eisenstadt, S. N. (1999). Fundamentalism, sectarianism, and revolution: the Jacobin dimension of modernity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  21. Elias, N. (2000). The civilizing process. Wiley-Blackwell.Google Scholar
  22. Fanon, F. (1968). The wretched of the earth. New York: Grove Press. distributed by Random House.Google Scholar
  23. Fanon, F. (1969). Toward the African revolution (political essays). New York: Grove Press.Google Scholar
  24. Fanon, F. (2008). Black skin, white masks. New York: Grove Press.Google Scholar
  25. Foucault, M. (1991). Governmentality. In G. Burchell, C. Gordon and P. Miller (Eds.), The Foucault effect. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  26. Furet, F. (1981). Interpreting the French Revolution. New York: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  27. Geertz, C. (1973). Interpretation of cultures: selected essays. New York: Basic Books.Google Scholar
  28. Gorski, P. (2003). The disciplinary revolution: Calvinism and the rise of the state in early modern Europe. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  29. Habermas, J. (1989). The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. Cambridge: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  30. Hall, J. R. (2000). Cultural meanings and cultural structures in historical explanation. History and Theory, 39, 331–347.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Hall, J. R. (2009). Apocalypse: From Antiquity to the Empire of Modernity. Cambridge: Polity Press.Google Scholar
  32. Heiskala, R. (2003). Society as Semiosis: Neostructuralist Theory of Culture and Society. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang.Google Scholar
  33. Henderson, D. K. (1993). Interpretation and explanation in the human sciences. Albany: State University of New York Press.Google Scholar
  34. Horn, D. (1995). Social bodies: science, reproduction, and Italian modernity. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  35. Hunt, L. A. (1993). The Family Romance of the French Revolution. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  36. Ikegami, E. (1997). The taming of the Samurai: honorific individualism and the making of modern Japan. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  37. Jakobson, R. (1962). Selected writings. Gravenhage: Mouton.Google Scholar
  38. Joas, H. (1996). The Creativity of Action. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  39. Lacan, J. (1977). Écrits: a selection. New York: Norton.Google Scholar
  40. Landes, J. B. (1988). Women and the public sphere in the age of the French Revolution. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.Google Scholar
  41. Latour, B. (1993). We have never been modern. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  42. Lichterman, P., & Potts, C. B. (2008). The Civic Life of American Religion. Stanford: Stanford University Press.Google Scholar
  43. Mennell, S. (2007). The American civilizing process. Malden, MA: Polity Press.Google Scholar
  44. Meyer, J., & Jepperson, R. (2000). The "actors" of modern society: The cultural construction of social agency. Sociological Theory, 18, 100–120.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Meyer, J., & Rowan, B. (1977). Institutionalized organizations: formal structure as myth and ceremony. American Journal of Sociology, 83(2), 340–363.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Meyer, J., Ramirez, F., & Soysal, Y. (1992). World Expansion of mass education, 1870–1980. Sociology of Education, 65, 128–149.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Milosz, C. (1990). The Captive Mind. New York: Vintage.Google Scholar
  48. Moore, B. (1993). The social origins of dictatorship and democracy. Boston: Beacon Press.Google Scholar
  49. Morgan, E. S. (1975). American slavery, American freedom: the ordeal of colonial Virginia. New York: Norton.Google Scholar
  50. Orwell, G. (1950). Shooting an elephant, and other essays. London: Secker and Warburg.Google Scholar
  51. Pateman, C. (1988). The sexual contract. Cambridge [Cambridgeshire]: Polity.Google Scholar
  52. Pincus, S. (2009). 1688: The First Modern Revolution. New Haven: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
  53. Reed, I. (2007). Why Salem Made Sense: Culture, Gender, and the Puritan Persecution of Witchcraft. Cultural Sociology, 1(2), 209–234.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Risjord, M. W. (2000). Woodcutters and witchcraft: rationality and interpretive change in the social sciences. Albany: State University of New York Press.Google Scholar
  55. Rose, N. S. (1999). Governing the Soul: The Shaping of the Private Self. London: Free Association Books.Google Scholar
  56. Rosenfeld, S. A. (2001). A revolution in language: the problem of signs in late eighteenth-century. France. Stanford: Stanford University Press.Google Scholar
  57. Sala-Molins, L. (2006). Dark side of the light: slavery and the French Enlightenment. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.Google Scholar
  58. Saussure, Fd. (1966). Course in general linguistics. New York: McGraw-Hill.Google Scholar
  59. Shapin, S. (1994). A social history of truth: civility and science in seventeenth-century England. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  60. Smedley, A. (2007). Race in North America: origin and evolution of a worldview. Boulder: Westview.Google Scholar
  61. Smith, C. (Ed.). (2003). The Secular Revolution: Power, Interests and Conflict in the Secularization of American Public Life. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  62. Spierenburg, P. (2008). A history of murder. Malden, MA: Polity Press.Google Scholar
  63. Steinmetz, G. (1993). Regulating the social: the welfare state and local politics in imperial Germany. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  64. Steinmetz, G. (2007). The devil's handwriting: precoloniality and the German colonial state in Qingdao, Samoa, and Southwest Africa. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  65. Stinchcombe, A. L. (1968). Constructing social theories. New York: Harcourt.Google Scholar
  66. Swidler, A. (1986). Culture in Action: Symbols and Strategies. American Sociological Review, 51, 273–286.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  67. Swidler, A. (2001). Talk of love: how culture matters. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  68. Tipps, D. C. (1973). Modernization Theory and the Comparative Study of Societies: A Critical Perspective. Comparative Studies in Society and History, 15(2), 199–226.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  69. Todorov, T. (1984). The conquest of America: the question of the other. New York: Harper & Row.Google Scholar
  70. Voegelin, E. (2000). The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, Volume 5: Modernity without Restraint. Columbia: University of Missouri Press.Google Scholar
  71. Walzer, M. (1965). The Revolution of the Saints. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  72. White, H. V. (1973). Metahistory: the historical imagination in nineteenth-century Europe. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.Google Scholar
  73. White, H. V. (1978). Tropics of discourse: essays in cultural criticism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of SociologyUniversity of ColoradoBoulderUSA
  2. 2.Department of SociologyYale UniversityNew HavenUSA

Personalised recommendations