Written by Dr. Hannes Nel, MBL; D. Com; D. Phil
Modernism evolved over a period of approximately 400 years from a philosophy based on the interpretation of the mythical to a paradigm based on logic. Generally speaking, it is a movement towards articulating traditional beliefs and practices with modern ideas and needs.
Initially, modernism was associated with the church and art. However, the concept developed into a full-fledged paradigm through a process of logical growth. Currently, science and reason are said to be critical considerations for achieving accuracy, objectivity, and reliability in the process of knowledge creation. Reason is said to transcend and exist independently of our existential, historical and cultural environments. Some researchers regard modernism as the paradigm of all true knowledge.
Modernism favours structure, hierarchy, order and centralised control. It is believed that planning leads to order, authority is vested in a superior, centralised control is an effective management approach and planning should be done vertically from top to bottom. Consequently, modernist management is largely bureaucratic, prescriptive, procedural and structured.
In terms of research, modernism would imply investigating stages of development. Modernism belongs to the group of technicist paradigms, which favour quantitative research approaches. Important values, therefore, include the scientific method; the authority of the expert; the singularity of meaning; truth and objectivity.
Modernism is used when prediction is hoped to be achieved by analysing reasoning about information that is independent of the environment. The modernist view of time is linear, with events happening one after the other, with no other purpose than to keep progressing in a particular direction. Consequently, statistical analysis and graphical representation of trends are regarded as valuable tools for analysing data.
Modernism follows a realist ontology by accepting facts independent of the human mind. To achieve this the information that is collected and analysed needs to be objective, accurate, valid and authentic in terms of academic meaning, value, and content. The fact that knowledge increases over time supports certainty, order, organisation, prediction, rationality, linearity and progress. Even though a realist ontology, modernism is mostly optimistic about the future.
Research making use of modernism always has as an objective proving facts by making use of accurate statistics, homogeneous epistemological and moral principles and unyielding norms.
Existing theory is considered in the search for truth and coming to valid conclusions based on the available information about a phenomenon or event. Acquired knowledge is regarded as universal and true so that reason can help us overcome all conflicts and challenges.
Modernism mostly relates to research on human beings; consequently, social research methods are often used even if in combination with a quantitative research approach. Modernism can also be associated with modern societies and developed states (as opposed to pre-modern societies). It often includes campaigns to promote human emancipation, equality, redress and social progress. The family is seen as the central unit of social order and is therefore also often the focus of research using a modernistic philosophy.
During the past approximately seventy years a series of epistemological developments followed from modernism, starting with empiricism, which claims that all knowledge is derived from sense experience. Empiricism further evolved into scientific empiricism or modern science with the development of modernist methodology.
Feminism, like most other paradigms, can be approached in a modernistic manner. It is believed that women who are oppressed by patriarchy can achieve independence and regain their “authentic selves” through reason.
Ethnography, critical theory and critical race theory can also be associated with modernism if quantitative research methods are used or a combination of quantitative and qualitative methods.
In modernistic terms language is transparent, meaning that a one-to-one relationship exists between what is written or said, and the concept that is investigated. This differs from, actually opposes, the post-modern ontology that meaning in language cannot transport meaning from one person to another without being interpreted first.
It is also in opposition with the interpretive paradigms (constructivism, relativism, ethnomethodology, hermeneutics, symbolic interactionism, interpretivism and phenomenology) because they are regarded as anti-realist, meaning that they use subjective data and research methods.
A belief of modernism that clashes with critical race theory and colonialism is that all cultures will embrace the truth because it is universal. Mass culture, mass consumption and mass marketing form part of the modernistic system. Homogeneity is regarded as a strength.
 N.K. Denzin and Y.S. Lincoln, 2018: 827.