Giddens’ book is an attempt at describing the current age we live in. The previous era he calls modernity, and he believes the current age is one in which the consequences of this previous era “are becoming more radicalized and universalized than before.” As such, in order to understand our current world we must first understand the characteristics of modernity and what its consequences are.
Modernity, according to Giddens, is characterized by people being able to think on a global scale. This involves being able to think of time as separate from space, and the ability to think about social systems in various contexts across both time and space, meaning throughout history and across the globe. Giddens calls this kind of thinking “disembedding.”
Pre-modern societies, Giddens argues, thought of time only in relation to space. The changing of time of day or of seasons was determined by referencing “socio-spatial markers” or “identified by regular natural occurrences.” The early Egyptian calendar, for example, was based on the reliable annual flooding and draining of the Nile River. This kind of time telling is only useful in one particular area. According to Giddens it was “the invention of the mechanical clock and its diffusion to virtually all members of the population” that allowed for precise and uniform measurement of time on a global scale, though “Even in latter part of the nineteenth century, different areas within a single state usually had different “times.””
Another important characteristic of modernity is disembedding. Disembedding can be seen in symbolic tokens, such as money, and expert systems, which are things requiring a great deal of professional expertise to create but can be used by anyone. Though a layperson does not fully understand how these expert systems work, people in a modern society have faith, or trust, that plane they get on will not crash, or even that the building they live in will not collapse.
This book is aimed at sociologists, and makes assumptions of the reader, such as when Giddens writes that “The idea that human history is marked by certain “discontinuities” and does not have a smoothly developing form is of course a familiar one.” Giddens criticizes sociology, saying that “the continuing impact of classical social theory in sociology… inhibit a satisfactory analysis of modern institutions,” and illustrates his ideas through criticism of classical sociological ideas, specifically the ideas of Marx, Durkheim, and Weber. A brief description of their theories are given, but having a prior knowledge of these writers and their theories would be helpful to fully understand this book.