Poststructuralism, Postmodernity and Risk Society;
A new quest for knowledge, self & truth in a New World
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“Nous sommes dans un univers ou il y a de plus en plus d’information et de moins en moins de sens.”
Jean Baudrillard

“We have become so open-minded that our brains have fallen out”
Richard Rorty

“Der moderne Mensch stellt, biologisch, eine Widerspruch der Werte dar, er sitzt zwischen zwei Stuehlen, er sagt in einem Atem Ja und Nein.”
Friedrich Nietzsche


We are living in a New World. A world where everything is constructed and little is real and even what appears to be real seems to be subject to discourse and can therefore be constructed. This New World and its logic does not only fundamentally change the way we perceive what is around us, but inherently changes the way we perceive ourselves. In the following I will explore on the construction of knowledge, self and truth in a postmodern society by drawing together theories from different perspectives which can be and are (J. Carter, 1998) seen as part of what I call the New World we live in. In a very non-postmodernist fashion I will begin my argumentation by introducing Michel Foucault’s poststructuralist theory of knowledge and power and will then connect it to ideas of knowledge, self and truth in postmodernism as well as Beck’s Risk Society. The focus of this essay will lie on two interconnecting levels. The first one being the exploration of poststructuralist and postmodern thinking and the second being an elaboration of it’s impact on and chances for social work and social policy. I do not attempt to separate the two levels, but will rather try to wave them together. In conclusion we can state that this New World is very much a world where people need to be more flexible and open and that we need to develop an appropriate way of thinking so as to prevent people from feeling like Baudrillard or Rorty.

When we are trying to provide a poststructuralist and postmodern analysis of social work and social policy, I think we are first and foremost concerned with notions of knowledge, self and truth. Since the French poststructuralist Michel Foucault it seems to be clear that knowledge never goes without power. For him knowledge is always connected to a notion of power and in his example it is the knowledge of the professional, which givers him/her power over the mental health patient. The (constructed) knowledge of the professional makes is possible for him/her to label the person as a mental health patient and hence the professional has the ability to influence the person’s identity, giving him a certain power, which implies several possible outcomes. For example has he/she has the power to ‘declare’ the patient sane or he/she can confine the patient to a mental health institution for a certain amount of time and so on.

The important aspect and underlying logic is that knowledge implies power of one person over another and that even more importantly the discourse leading to this knowledge is seen by Foucault as being one of meaning rather than truth. (Zima What Foucault means by this is that knowledge is constructed in a discourse and can therefore not be universally valid as it emerges out of power and discourse analyses, which are specific to a certain epoch. This in turn implies that we can not speak of a truth, but rather have to think in terms of meaning, which has its specific and unique connotations and is directly linked to language. Or as Foucault himself said: “Die Rolle, die frueher die Geschichte gespielt hat, faellt jetzt der Sprache zu.” Therefore ‘truth in the sense of Plato, Kant and Hegel does not exist anymore and is mere pretence’ (G. Deleuze in Zima, 1997, p. 120) or allocated truth, which is relative in time and space.

This new sense of truth and knowledge has many implications for social work and policy, one of them being that we need not only to understand the power we as professionals have in defining terms such as deviance, mental health and others, but we also need to understand that our truths about the social world are fluid, ever changing and subject to construction. Beck (1986) suggests that we are living in a reflexive modernity, where even social science provides solutions while it at the same time creates problems. The increase in professional knowledge has for example led to the (re)discovery of such risk issues as child abuse, domestic violence and drug abuse. Not only does us our knowledge even in Beck’s Risk society give us power over people and their identity, but we are moreover dealing with the risks that our discourses themselves created. However the intention is not to argue that without the discourse of professionals these risks would not exist, but rather would I like to stress the simple fact that we as professionals take part in the creation of knowledge and power and that we should at every stage of our practice be aware of this. Taking the argument further, when social workers claim to strive against inequalities manifested by a societal discourse, they could and probably do again create them by being selective in our discourses in which we seem to ‘favour’ some issues and social groups and therefore exclude others.

We can examine this by having a look the social issues emphasised in Australia and Switzerland. In Australia great focus is placed upon the issue of mental health, whereas in Switzerland a great deal of social work and policy revolves around drug use and abuse. And this clearly implies that discourses do not rely on an inclusive logic, but rather are exposed to influences outside their immediate control. Such influences incorporate factors such as culture, geography, values, believes and the media and these factors can lead to inequality created by the social work profession itself. Or how else can we explain that drug users in Switzerland receive more attention than those in Australia?

We can now understand what Beck (1986, p.89) means in reference to social work when he states that risks are based on causal interpretation and therefore initially only exist in terms of knowledge about them and they can be changed, magnified, dramatized and/or minimized. And therefore Beck further elaborates that risks are open to social definition and construction by a number of key players including, scientists, politicians, lawyers, social workers, psychologists, the mass media and even the lay person. Beck’s (1986) notion that there is no such thing as an expert on risk has interesting implications for a postmodern analysis of social work and policy. Therefore we can say that after the above mentioned (re)discovery of risks such as domestic violence, child abuse and drug need to be understood in the context that it wasn’t simply the social work expertise, which brought these risks back on the agenda. One could more over argue that the (re)discovery of these risks was strongly related to groups of non-experts starting a discourse about them, which then lead to a heightened awareness amongst professionals.

One of the chances of this new way of thinking and reasoning about social work, social risk, social knowledge and social policy is that it forces us to try and understand and react to an ever changing world without the (false) confidence in absolutes and foundational structures. We need to embrace the ambivalence and multifaceted (temporary) social reality so as to be most adaptable and flexible in our postmodern understanding of social work.

Another postmodern notion emerging out of this is that it rejects binaries. In a postmodern understanding of social work and social policy binaries such as man/woman, white/black, abled/disabled and healthy/sick are of a ‘fabricated nature and have a repressive effect’ (J. R. Gibbins in J. Carter, 1998, p.37). Binaries like those mentioned above have until now (and still do) structured and defined the social.

Let us for example consider the binary of man/women and what has happened after gender was introduced to the discourse. A simple man/women approach to any issue involving the two sexes is necessarily a discourse, which either completely includes or excludes. There is no in-between and the options we are left to argue with are either/or. It’s either man or women, it’s either sick or healthy and it’s either abled or disabled. Therefore binaries are mutually exclusive and a discourse including them is very limiting, which has to affect their ‘proximity’ to reality. The introduction of gender enriched and made the discourse more flexible, through which it could move closer to the multifaceted reality we live in. However gender does not dissolve the terms man/woman, what it does is it links to ends of a spectrum together and so opens up a whole new field of discourse, which lies in-between the terms man/woman. In a postmodernist debate about issues concerning man/woman we can no longer take an either/or approach, but have to include everything that lies in-between. We can think about the psychologist C.G. Jung and his concept of the animus and the anima. In his understanding the man can only find his ‘true’ self if he can successfully include his anima (the female aspects of his ‘personality’) in his animus (the male aspect of the self). (A. Storr, 1983) From Jung we can adopt an even better analogy so as to better understand the complexity, inventiveness and creativity in thinking of postmodernism. According to Jung the ‘psyche operates by means of four functions: thinking, feeling, sensation and intuition’ (A. Storr, 1983, p.18). Every individual now moves between these four functions according to experience and situation. Linking the four functions to Jung’s psychological types of introvert and extrovert we can see that for example a woman can be an introverted thinker and an extroverted feeling type. Moreover are these types not fixed but rather seen as pre-dominant at a specific point in time so that they allow space for change and are open for discourse. (A. Storr, 1983) The self is therefore fluid and ever-changing due to its proneness to outside as well as inside influences. And although Jung can not be seen as a postmodernist, when comparing his psychology to that of Freud we can certainly observe the change in logic between the two and appreciate the flexibility in Jung’s approach.

The purpose that the example of Jung is meant to serve here is to take us a bit closer to a postmodern understanding of the world and to introduce us to it’s logic which can be called one of creativity in thinking. His understanding of the self moves in-between a frame, which is only defined by its cornerstones and even these cornerstones are ever-changes and can maybe even seen as infinite.


In a postmodern analysis of social work and social policy we need to consider all the factors that influence a discourse without preferring on of them or neglecting another. We need to understand that the definition of terminology should not fall victim to inertia and should be open to discourses from every member of a society. Also is it important that we are aware of the power that professionals have not only over their clients’ identity, but also in defining society as a whole including its values and its facts. Finally, postmodernity should not be feared as something unreal (hyperreal) and too complex, rather should it be embraced as a chance to introduce a logic which is vivid, creative, inventive and ever-changing and therefore is able to describe reality closer and better than ever.

Beck. U. (1986). Risikogesellschaft. Auf dem Weg in eine andere Moderne. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp.
Carter, J Ed. (1998). Postmodernity and the Fragmentation of Welfare. Chapter 1. London: Routledge
Giddens, A. (1990). The Consequences of Modernity. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press
Storr, A. (1983). The Essential Jung; Selected Writings. London: Fontana Press.
Zima, P. V. (1997). Moderne/Postmoderne. Chapter 1,2,3. Basel: A. Francke Verlag

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