Anthony Elliott’s classic text Contemporary Social Theory: An Introduction lavished me with a readable and stimulating exposure to social theory developments over the past century of thought. What it does so well is help provide an explanation for events and trends that incite so much fear and unsettledness in our culture today. Knowing why traditional marriage has been abandoned, or how an individual could possibly choose suicide-by-police, or why we hate Walmart so fervently are all explained in the pages of this tome. It also leads us in understanding why Mad Men’s protagonist, Don Draper, drank Old-Fashioneds, and why the ice began to melt in his drink.
Zygmunt Bauman, a Pole from the University of Leeds, is one such thinker that Elliott explores. In ground-breaking works such as Liquid Modernity (2000), Bauman sees modernity as proto-fascist and oppressive; it is the culmination of the Enlightenment where reason dominates and eventually orders the world. Today, global capitalism is the current natural order for “heavy” modernity and we witness the inequities and injustices of a permanent underclass and vast involuntary migrations while others reap the reward of financial benefit as their portfolios thrive. Elliott explains,
“Modernity as ‘heavy’ assumes a dominant role with the development of industrialization and the intensification of modernization throughout the West. Vast machinery, huge factories, massive workforces: economic success defined in terms of size, and symbolic power defined in terms of volume, are central to the contours of heavy modernity.”
However, global realities have abruptly shifted in the Information Age. Bauman has increasingly objected to the term postmodernism, preferring rather the term “liquid modernity” as he views postmodernism as merely an extension of modernity. Like a solid ice cube melts in a drink, so too heavy modernity is melting into liquid modernity. It’s still the same substance – modernity – but it has transformed its appearance.
In this new, liquid landscape, rigid barriers and social norms melt. In an interview with Mark Haugaard in Journal of Power, Bauman proposes:
“Today culture consists of offers, not norms….[C]ulture lives by seduction, not normative regulation; PR, not policing; creating new needs/desires/ wants, not coercion.
It sounds just like a soundbite from Don Draper.
One way we see change occurring during this transition is highlighted by Malaysian sociologist, Raymond Lee, who comments on Bauman’s thesis:
“[He] describes such a world as offering exhilarating experiences: ‘In such a world, little is predetermined, even less irrevocable … For the possibilities to remain infinite, none may be allowed to petrify into everlasting reality.’ It is in this unendingly fluid world that the individual is transformed into a consummate consumer.”
Lee, however, suggests Bauman may have blind spots. He envisions an unexpected eventuality for liquidity.
“The possibility of re-embedding in liquidity suggests that melting solids may re-solidify when structural reconfigurations occasioned by liquidity itself present new problems and challenges.”
I think this is a wise caution for anyone taking advantage of this liquid moment. Even in nature we see the warming and cooling cycles on an annual basis. What melts, can also freeze again.
As I research into generational transitions in faith-based philanthropy, I am all-too-aware that these cultural forces will force heavy philanthropy to become more liquid. Even the traditional vehicle for heavy philanthropy, a family foundation, sounds clunky and awkwardly obsolete today. In its place we find the emergence of crowdfunding, DAFs (Donor-Advised Funds), impact investing, and giving circles. The Millennials who will lead their family philanthropy into the future embrace a liquid environment, seeking and consuming experiences, and their giving will reflect that. Traditional philanthropy must change.
Last evening, I had dinner with two Millennials who I’m working with to design a new round of grants. Last year, as a pilot project, we ran the Spark Initiative – small investments into the work of Canadian Christian Millennials who are social entrepreneurs doing initiatives that benefit marginalized groups. This year the initiative will once again be undertaken with the leadership of an evangelical denomination – imagine, a denomination investing into social enterprise without regard to the denominational background of the social innovator! And it’s not just funding, but three weekend retreats and monthly mentoring from qualified business leaders. The unique feature I’m introducing now is that not just the beneficiaries of the grants are required to be Millennials, the donors need to be also. Millennial donors will match themselves to a social innovator, and together they will join with the innovators on the retreats and receive mentoring (by me) over the coming year. I’m trying to bury the us/them divide and to encourage us to be a learning community together.
Lee quotes a study by Peggy Levitt which suggests an anchor amid these monumental cultural shifts.
“Levitt’s study demonstrates the necessity of locating liquid processes, such as the reorganizing and building of global religious networks, within the solidity of religious structures and differences in the world.”
Surprisingly, she sees that the church could be a solution.
This movement to liquid philanthropy minimizes barriers between donor and beneficiary, assumes all are on a journey of learning, moves away from one donor controlling the agenda to a diffusion of power among many, and discovers potential partnerships in achieving shared goals in multiple, unexpected places. Anchor this into a religious context such as a local church or a denomination (with a very long chain), and new generations can explore faith and express it in concrete ways that benefit the local community. Alas, Don Draper didn’t have this anchor; he ended up with a watery Old-Fashioned and moved to California.
 Elliott, Anthony. Contemporary Social Theory: An Introduction. (New York: Routledge, 2009), 296.
 Elliott, 260.
 Bauman, Zygmunt, and Mark Haugaard. “Liquid Modernity and Power: A Dialogue with Zygmunt Bauman.” Journal of Power 1, no. 2 (August 1, 2008): 125. Accessed on November 15, 2017, https://doi.org/10.1080/17540290802227536.
 Lee, Raymond L.M. “Modernity, Solidity and Agency: Liquidity Reconsidered.” Sociology 45, no. 4 (August 1, 2011): 653. Accessed on November 15, 2017, https://doi.org/10.1177/0038038511406582.
 Levitt, Peggy. God Needs No Passport: Immigrants and the Changing American Religious Landscape. New York: New Press, 2007.