School that originated in French and U.S. American philosophy in the late 1970's, and had a profound influence on various branches of art and esthetics (architecture, cinema, literature etc.). In France, postmodernism entered the social sciences particularly through the work of post-structuralist authors such as Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, and represented a reaction against the long hegemony that structuralism, and later, neo-marxism had exerted in French thinking. In the United States, postmodernism was instrumental in the formation of so-called Cultural Studies, and also influenced anthropology heavily. In anthropology, it was closely associated with the "linguistic (and literary) turn" in the discipline. The American tradition focused in particular on problems of anthropological texts (a common source of inspiration was the Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin), and reflexivity in fieldwork (see for example Rabinow). American postmodernism is often associated with the cultural relativism of Boas and the hermeneutic approach championed by Geertz. Another common inspiration (in the U.S. and elsewhere) was the German philosopher of language, Ludwig Wittgenstein.
Postmodernism is often described as an orientation within the philosophy of science, which denies the possibility of acquiring "true" knowledge about the world. What we "know" about society is our own "construction", which we must "deconstruct". The "great narratives" (development, science, freedom, romanticism, truth) are heroic myths that give legitimacy to the existing social order. In anthropology, such thoughts have in particular influenced our understanding of reflexivity and our critique of Western hegemonic ideas.
The definition of postmodernism is elastic. A theoretician such as Fredrik Barth has, for example, claimed that his "process-analytical" approach (a form of methodological individualism) was an early form of postmodernism.
Postmodernism has at least two meanings: (a) as a descriptive label for a specific historical era, characterized by fragmentation of dominant Western myths and collage-like assemblages of meaning (in this sense, postmodernism is related to such terms as "late capitalism" and "post-industrial society"), and (b) as a term for the above-mentioned academic and artistic schools, which consider fragmentation and collage as esthetic or intellectual ideals. It is thus possible to agree that a postmodern historical era has arrived, without subscribing to postmodernism as a model of academic inquiry.
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