Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Is modernity relative?

Written by: on March 30, 2014

When I get the chance to visit and live in various countries and communities, I always find myself wondering as to whether people in the non-western context experience vastly different effects of modernity.  Charles Taylor’s book called Modern Social Imaginaries, labors to discuss the possibility of the presence of “multiple modernities”.  Taylor notes:

From the beginning, the number one problem of modern social science has been modernity itself: that historically unprecedented amalgam of new practices and institutional forms (science, technology, industrial production, urbanization), of new ways of living (individualism, secularization, instrumental rationality); and of new forms of malaise (alienation, meaninglessness, a sense of impending social dissolution). In our day, the problem needs to be posed from a new angle: Is there a single phenomenon here, or do we need to speak of “multiple modernities,” the plural reflecting the fact that other non-Western cultures have modernized in their own ways and cannot properly be understood if we try to grasp them in a general theory that was designed originally with the Western case in mind?[1]

Taylor’s perspective on the complexity of Western modernity’s formation is helpful. He further explains, “Western modernity on this view is inseparable from a certain kind of social imaginary, and the differences among today’s multiple modernities need to be understood in terms of the divergent social imaginaries involved”[2] Even though Taylor’ work is concerned with the study of Western modernity from a historical view, I still found myself noticing and recalling that I have seen some of the “new practices, “institutional forms” and “new ways of living” from Western modernity in certain communities in Africa.

But I am also prompted to think about which of Taylor’s categories at this point of inquiry comes first? Is this a chicken and the egg issue? In other words, do social imaginaries come before the multiple modernities, or is it the other way round? According to Taylor, “the social imaginary is not a set of ideas; rather, it is what enables, through making sense of, the practices of a society.”[3] This rather broad way of imaging society in Western modernity is distilled to particular characteristic namely, “the market economy, the public sphere, and the self-governing people, among others”[4]

The categories listed above are all part and parcel of an ethical fiber called the “moral order”[5] Taylor further explains, “the modern theory of moral order gradually infiltrates and transforms our social imaginary. In this process, what is originally just an idealization grows into a complex imaginary through being taken up and associated with social practices, in part traditional ones but ones often transformed by contact.”[6]

I suppose human contact is very essential in aiding the necessary processes for the establishment of a moral order in society. But how about the places where the sense of community seem to be breaking down, either due to migration, unemployment, war, disease and economic downturns? It would be difficult for people to feel like they belong to a society if their livelihood, aspiration and expectations are not thriving, for example, the city Detroit. If human beings are critical for the actualization of social imaginaries, then the focus needs to be on encouraging and promoting human flourishing. As the saying goes, location, location, location; in this case it would be human flourishing, human flourishing, human flourishing God’ way!


[1] Charles Taylor, Modern Social Imaginaries (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004), 1.

[2] ibid

[3] Ibid., 2.

[4] ibid

[5] ibid

[6] Ibid., 29

About the Author

Michael Badriaki

Leave a Reply