Postmodernism Postmodernism Definition
  • The term “postmodernity” came into use in 1950s and 1960s when it was used to refer to architecture and literary criticism. Lyotard, in 1984, provided a comprehensive overview of postmodern thought in his book, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge.

Database of Postmodern Thinkers

Postmodernism (

Names to know when studying postmodernism

Constructivist Theories

Second-Order Change

Postmodernism in the Arts

Postmodernism in Religion

The Postmodern World is composed of three processes: the breakdown of old ways of thinking, a broader worldview, and new types of beliefs about social truth.

* Postmodern Assumptions

  • 1. There is no foundation from which truth can be derived : foundationlessness- there is no absolute truth
  • 2. Knowledge consists of fragments of information and understanding, not necessarily a sound system of truths and statements : fragmentariness
  • 3. Knowledge is developed by the use of cognitive beliefs built within the local environment; there is no single official reality : Constructivism- our interpretation of the world is based on our past unique experiences and, therefore, what I see will be different from what you see
  • 4. The utility and practicality of knowledge and experience is valued over theories and scientific-derived knowledge : Neopragmatism- we base future behaviors on what has worked in the past, not necessarily what science says will work

focuses on discovering general laws of human behaviors
focuses on pragmatic and effective ways of practicing
derives knowledge from science & research, although the results of this methodology are impersonal
develops knowledge from discourse that is accumulated using actual client/therapist interactions
there is a logic and order to the universe
the world consists of chaotic fragments of information
seeks universal, fundamental truths
embraces diversity in knowledge and recognizes that truth seems to rely heavily on perspective, which results from social interactions
human behavior can be predicted based on research and formal-computational studies, while also suggesting these methods promote value-neutral, or biased free, results
human behavior is contextually dependent & cannot be predicted; serves only as a guide for future experience
Modern/Postmodern Distinctions according to Held (1995):

general laws and truths may be attained by way of reason, science, and technology
rejects general laws and truths
determinancy of meaning in any text or event
indeterminancy/plurality of meaning in texts or events
individual has real ontological status/existence
denies the individual's real ontological status/existence

Modern, Postmodern and Poststructural Epistemology: An Introduction
by Michael Morar
December 3, 2017

Positivist (modern worldview) tenets minimize the need to reflect the world without introducing presuppositions or theoretical underpinnings (Agger, 1991). A modern worldview, is described as a dimension of cultural expression in the form of cultural norms as traditional (Stephenson, 1968) emphasizing what “ought” to be (Kant, 1956), and have little reason to position themselves as they reside within the “taken for granted.” Postmodernism, its collaborator (social constructionism) and its offspring (poststructural, critical, feminist theory, etc.), call into question modern assumptions (Prawat, 1996).

Within the context of philosophy, culture and psychology, it is difficult to discuss poststructuralism without first discussing postmodernism. The terms postmodern and poststructural are often used interchangeably (Tarragona, 2008). It is difficult to offer a clear definition of postmodernism without violating its most commonly cited attributes, to include critique of clarity and category assignments (Smoliak & Strong, 2017).

Postmodernism can be described as a philosophical movement, historical period, or theory. For these purposes, postmodernism will be described as a philosophical and cultural movement, “as a reaction to or a critique of prior intellectual and cultural movements” rather than “yet another theory” (Smoliak & Strong, 2017). Dickerson (2010) introduces a description of postmodernism in reference to “multiplicity: multiple views, multiple possibilities, and multiple lives.” (p.1) Yet postmodern multiplicity rejects totalizing identities and any attempts to explain persons in relation to patterned behavior (Agger, 1991).

Postmodernism is a response to modernism and poststructuralism is a response to structuralism, inviting critique into their “binary oppositions” (Agger, 1991). Postmodernism literally names and constitutes its own paradox identity (Hutcheson, 2003). The paradoxical-binary-structure complicates the plurality of its own existence. In attempts to resolve this and other paradoxical problems associated with postmodern and poststructural critique, Bruno Latour (2013) postulates in the title of his book that “We Have Never Been Modern.” This is Latour’s response to his own critique of modernism and postmodernism, searching for hybridizations outside of binary thinking.

Poststructural Feminism
Feminism and Poststructuralism are highly contested terms that have not produced a comfortable synthesis in which to situate poststructural feminism without contradictions (St. Pierre, 2000). Some hybrid versions continue to-become, are reconfigured, but not secured, located within multiple systems of meaning (p.477). Most poststructural feminists are content with not striving for or obtaining a comfortable synthesis.

Poststructuralism is situated within postmodern philosophy and challenges framework with any kind of structure, internal to the entity in question (Hoffman, 1992; Dickerson, 2010). Poststructuralism is traced back to Foucault (1980) with an emphasis on knowledge and power. Foucault posits that people have power in direct proportion to their ability to participate in social discourse, or more simply, “who has the story telling rights to the story being told?” (Madigan, 2010, p.1). Self-defined poststructuralist and co-founder of narrative therapy, Michael White (1993), utilizes the poststructuralist tool of deconstruction to expose taken for granted realities, situating the problem within a cultural production of meaning, rather than within individuals or relationships, allowing space for meaning-making from a variety of local locations.

Many feminist approaches are situated within a poststructural epistemology (Dickerson, 2010). Narrative therapy and its underpinnings have a history in feminist thinking (Denborough, 2009). In order to address violence against women and children, Michael White was significantly shaped in response to feminist concerns. Early writing of narrative therapy entitled “Some Thoughts on Men’s Way of Being,” (White, 1992) described efforts to challenge men’s dominant culture, responding to women who had experienced abuse while also engaging with men who have committed violence against women (Denborough, 2009, p.100). Whereas poststructuralism would deconstruct categories, to include the gender category of “women,” White and other poststructural feminists, keep the interest of women in mind while maintaining primary focus on the physical and material realities of women’s lives (Tisdell, 1998). Similar to White, Reynolds (2014) is interested in the misuse of power, resulting in violence against women as an ethical stance of accountability, to include working with the men who have committed violence against women.

Agger, B. (1991). Critical theory, poststructuralism, postmodernism: Their sociological relevance. Annual review of sociology, 17(1), 105-131.
Anderson, H. (2009). Collaborative Practice: Performing Spontaneously, Creatively, and Competently, The Blackwell Handbook of Family Psychology (2009) M. Stanton & J. Bray (Eds.). New York: Wiley-Blackwell
Annandale, E., & Hunt, K. (1990). Masculinities, femininity, and sex: An exploration of their relative contribution to explaining gender differences in health. Sociology of Health and Illness, 12, 24–46.
Denborough, D. (2009). Some reflections on the legacies of Michael White: An Australian perspective. The Australian and New Zealand Journal of Family Therapy. doi10.1375/anft.30.2.9
Dickerson, V. (2010). Positioning oneself within an epistemology: Refining our thinking about integrative approaches. Family Process, 49, 349–368.

Foucault, M. (1980). Power/knowledge: Selected interviews and other writings. New York: Pantheon Books.
Hoffman, L. (1992). A reflexive stance for family therapy. In S. McNamee & K.J. Gergen (Eds.),Therapy as social construction (pp. 7–24). London: Sage Publications.
Hutcheon, L. (2003). A poetics of postmodernism: history, theory, fiction. Routledge.
Kant, I. (1956). Critique of Practical Reason. Translated, with an Introduction by Lewis White Beck. Bobbs-Merrill.
Latour, B. (2012). We have never been modern. Harvard University Press.
Madigan, S. (2010). Narrative therapy: Theory and practice. Chicago: American Psychology, Association Press.
Prawat, R. S. (1996). Constructivisms, modern and postmodern. Educational psychologist, 31(34), 215-225.
Sutherland, O., & Strong, T. (2011). Therapeutic collaboration: A conversation analysis of constructionist therapy. Journal of Family Therapy, 33(3), 256-278.
Stephenson, J. (1968). Is Everyone Going Modern? A Critique and a Suggestion for Measuring Modernism. American Journal of Sociology, 74(3), 265-275. Retrieved from
Reynolds, V. (2014) Resisting and transforming rape culture: An activist stance for therapeutic work with men who have used violence. The No To Violence Journal. Spring, 29-49.
Pierre, E. A. (2000). Poststructural feminism in education: An overview. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 13(5), 477-515. doi:10.1080/09518390050156422
Tarragona, M. 2008 Postmodern/poststructural therapy. 21st century psychotherapies, 167-205
Tisdell, E. J. (1998). Poststructural feminist pedagogies: The possibilities and limitations of feminist emancipatory adult learning theory and practice. Adult education quarterly, 48(3), 139-156.
White, M. (1992). Men's culture, the men's movement, and the constitution of men's lives. Dulwich Centre Newsletter, 3&4, 33-53. Reprinted 1996 in C. McLean, M. Carey, & C. White (Eds.), Men's ways of being. New York: Westview Press.
White, M. (1993). Deconstruction and therapy. In S. Gilligan & R.E. Price (Eds.), Therapeutic conversations (pp. 22–61). New York: Norton.

Postmodern assumptions according to Anderson (1990):
All belief systems and ideas about human reality are social constructions.
Different people have different concepts of what the world is like.
Social institutions and the workings of science are human creations.

"Matters of description cannot be separated from issues of power. As perspectives are developed and integrated into society, so are the social arrangements of society altered." (Focault as cited in Gergen, 1992)

Postmodern assumptions according to Morris (2000):

1. "...postmodern thinkers regard all knowledge as historically situated and culturally inflected, so that we stand deprived of an outside, wholly objective, God's-eye view of the Truth" (pg. 7).
2. "...experience for postmodern thinkers is always mediated by organized discourses that amount to systems of representation" (pg. 8).
3. "...discourses and social codes assume material form in stories, so that narratives provide a complex lens into the cultures and discourses that produce them" (pg. 8).

According to B. S. Held (1995), in Back to Reality: A Critique of Postmodern Theory in Psychotherapy ----

Postmodernists have adopted a fundamental antirealism by purporting that 1.) there is no one, true reality and, thus, the seach for true knowledge is in vain; 2.) what the client believes to be their reality is, indeed, fiction; 3.) if a postmodern therapist uses a theory to guide the therapy process then they are, nonetheless, acting against the postmodern belief that there is a true way to guide therapy and view clients and their problems; 4.) if we are to adopt a true (*tongue-in-cheek*) postmodern theory in our practice, we must be deceiving ourselves of the reality in which we are situated with our clients.

If we are to believe that what we tell clients is only a possibility of what might be true for their particular case, we cannot be so tentative about the theory which guides our practice because then we are deceiving the client about how change occurs since there is only a possibility of it occurring that way. Fundamental antirealists, antisystematic postmodernists, would posit that we are tentative about our knowledge and it is limited; this, though, might compromise client's hope about the problem dissolving due to our tentativeness. Is this a problem, then, for postmodernists?

So, are therapists experts or are the clients?
Postmodern therapists act according to the belief that clients are the experts about their own lives and therapists are experts about the therapy process. But is this, then, not contrary to antirealism belief that we cannot know anything to be true of the therapy process because it is all a social construction according to the therapist’s own beliefs and those philosophers from which he/she gained knowledge? And, how are clients experts about their lives if they, too, cannot obtain true reality? To be an expert about something, there must be a basis for knowledge and how to attain it; yet, according to postmodernism, there is no such thing.

Thus, if there is no reality, as postmodernists would say, then :
1. there is no such thing as expertise because how can you be an expert about something when there is not a true "something" out there, which means
2. there is no systematic way in which to understand problems, resolutions, clients, therapy process, etc. because we do not know the real way, which means
3. therapy is not a discipline because a discipline is only such when it is governed by a system of rules and laws which requires expertise of some sort.

C. Mee, Jr. (1993) posits a metarealism which acknowledges that there are limits to reality and this acknowledgement highlights to us that we might not be 100% correct about a possible cause or solution to a problem. However, just because we are not sure about the consequences does not mean that we should discard the belief that we know anything at all!

Postmodernism as a metanarrative

* Implications of Postmodernism for Therapists

All that we know is embedded in language. Language can serve to promote social agendas. (If this is true, then we know that we know what? All we know is fiction, according to true postmodernists.) . . . . "The postmodern world is characterized by a continual change of perspectives, with no underlying common frame of reference. Language and knowledge do not copy reality. Rather, language constitutes reality.” (from S. Kvale (1995). In Postmodern psychology: A contradiction in terms?)

Change is inevitable and is always occurring (Or, at least, that's our reality)

Clients are the experts of their lived experiences; therapists are experts about the therapy process -- this is not true because if a client is an expert about his life then that means he knows a true reality and this rises against postmodern antirealism belief

Clients are inevitably involved within a larger system of beliefs and other individuals and groups; both of which provide an environment of co-influence.

For postmodern therapists, our role is to attack language and understand what is behind that language. This deconstruction may cause bewilderment and hopelessness. However, our role then is to try to reconstruct and contribute to global problems and neopragmatic truths.

So, is the world really a stage?


Anderson, W. T. (1990). Welcome to the postmodern world. In Reality isn't what it used to be (pp. 3-28). San Francisco: Harper.

Gergen, K. J. (1992). Toward a postmodern psychology. In S. Kvale (Ed.), Psychology and postmodernism: Inquiries in social construction
(pp. 17-30). London, England: Sage Publications, Inc.

Held, B. S. (1995). Back to Reality: A critique of postmodern theory in psychotherapy. New York: W. W. Norton.

Morris, D. B. (2000). How to speak postmodern: Medicine, illness, and cultural change. Hastings Center Report, 30, 7-16.

Polkinghorne, D. E. (1992). Postmodern epistemology of practice. In S. Kvale (Ed.), Psychology and postmodernism: Inquiries in social
construction (pp. 146-165). London, England: Sage Publications, Inc.