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The OCR Glossary

Postmodern Theory

Derina R. Holtzhausen

Many scholars associate postmodern theory with a historical era called postmodernity, which represents a certain time frame following modernity or even manifests as late modernity. Postmodernism represents a critique of and resistance to the normative and universal value systems developed during the Enlightenment. The overriding critique of modernism, which is what led to postmodern theory, is that it positions the Western male and Western philosophy as representing “the civilized and universal (European) human being as the incarnation of humanitas” (Erber, 2013, p. 36). Thus, its major focus is the critique of Western power in all its manifestations and the way in which power is used to marginalize the “other”—that is, women, people of color and diverse ethnicities, and people who live outside approved social norms, such as members of sexual minorities. Jeffrey Williams (2014) argues that a new era has dawned beyond postmodernism, called “contemporaneity,” which is associated with intense globalization, “the leveling of cultures,” the decentering of Western culture, and a concern with time (pp. B13–B14), which comes from the speed of contemporary communication methods, erasing notions of time and space and thus contributing to globalization. This entry examines postmodernism as philosophy, reputation as postmodern discourse, and reputation management in postmodernity.

Postmodernism as Philosophy

One can argue that the features of contemporaneity have been thoroughly theorized and anticipated in postmodern theory and that contemporaneity is a continuation of postmodernity rather than a new era. Jeffrey Nealon, for instance, argues that postmodernism has been intensified to evolve into a period called post-postmodernism. But rather than viewing postmodernism as an era, it is more appropriate to follow Michel Foucault (1984) in viewing it as “an attitude, an ethos, a philosophical life” (p. 50). One of the reasons why postmodernity is viewed as passé is because its discourse and the resulting changes in society have already become familiar attributes of our societies. More than a decade ago, Elizabeth Ermarth (2001) wrote that we have already crossed the “threshold of postmodernity” (p. 207). Since her statement, the adoption of postmodern principles, theories, and practices has intensified to the extent that they have become invisible. There is also widespread consensus that the current globalized media environment has profound implications for reputation management. Any reputation that promotes the exclusion of certain groups of people, particularly those who have historically been marginalized, will be illegitimate in postmodernity or to people holding postmodern values.

Reputation as Postmodern Discourse

The concept of discourse is one of the most important foundations of postmodern theorizing. Discourse is all that is written and spoken and all that invites dialogue or conversation. Thus, language, and its role in the creation of meaning, is the building block of discourse. Meaning emerges not only through spoken and written language but also through verbal and nonverbal signs. This is important for reputation building because it implies that reputation is created and maintained through all forms of communication.

The postmodern challenge to building and maintaining an institution’s reputation is the assumption that meaning can be shaped. Discourse is unstable because of its intertextuality, which means that those taking part in a discourse have different points of reference to the meaning of words. This means that discourse always topples forward because it is impossible to determine the origin of the specific meaning. Communication is shaped in the “linguistic in-between” (Ermarth, 2001, p. 211). Meaning also is shaped within the frame of reference of the receiver of the message, which means that each moment of communication shapes meaning and therefore reputation. This can range from something as simple as the ease of navigating a website or the way a security guard treats a customer to more complex issues such as perceptions of transparency and the availability of information.

Reputation Management in Postmodernity

From a postmodern perspective, the notion that reputation can be controlled, managed, and shaped from a single point of authority is fallacious. This perspective also challenges the linear, causal relationship between reputation and the variables that are supposed to measure it, such as quality of products and services, innovation, a fair and ethical workplace, relationship with the environment, leadership, and performance. Postmodern theory argues that a single one of these factors can shape a reputation in a single individual, which leads to the fragmented nature of reputations in postmodernity.

Because meaning cannot be controlled or managed, there are some prerequisites to ensuring a good reputation in an era where everything is temporary and where the day-to-day practices of an institution will determine its reputation, rather than an overall reputational strategy that does not translate into just practice. Following Jean-François Lyotard, the transparency of the organization, the extent to which information is freely available and accessible, and the entity’s contribution to democracy and social justice will determine its reputation.

Two other attributes affect the management of reputation, namely, that it is chaotic because reputations are fragmented and that it will always be political because reputations are not neutral but stand for certain principles. It is therefore inevitable that reputations will be challenged based on their underlying value systems. In postmodernity, reputation is judged on many criteria—how just institutional practices are and the extent to which they improve society, among others.

Another attribute of reputation in postmodernity is that it is pragmatic, because it is situated in everyday practice and is therefore always local and regional. This is true not only for global institutions but also for national and local ones. Reputation is determined by the daily practices of those involved with the institution, not by a brand image or other institutional strategy. For instance, a telecommunications giant might portray itself as innovative and service oriented, but local practices will make customers skeptical if they do not support the institutional strategy. At every level of the institution, reputation will be determined locally and situationally, based on the responsible and moral behavior of its employees. This requires institutional representatives to ensure equal treatment of others, respect cultural plurality, and speak up when everyday injustices in their institutional environment occur.

Erber, P. (2013). Contemporaneity and its discontents. Diacritics, 41(1), 28–48.

Ermarth, E. D. (2001). Beyond history. Rethinking History, 5(2), 195–215.

Foucault, M. (1984). What is enlightenment? In P. Rabinow (Ed.), The Foucault reader (pp. 32–50). New York: Pantheon Books.

Holtzhausen, D. R. (2012). Public relations as activism: Postmodern approaches to theory and practice. New York: Routledge.

Lyotard, J.-F. (1984). The postmodern condition: A report on knowledge (G. Bennington & B. Massumi, Trans.). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Lyotard, J.-F., & Thébaud, J. L. (1985). Just gaming (W. Godzich, Trans.). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Nealon, J. J. (2012). Post-postmodernism or, the cultural logic of just-in-time capitalism. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Rosenau, P. M. (1992). Post-modernism and the social sciences: Insights inroads, and intrusions. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Williams, J. J. (2014, December). The “contemporary” moment: How postmodernism became passé. Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved November 15, 2015, from

See Also

Audiences; Communication Strategy; Critical Theory; Ethics of Reputation Management; Meaning; Messages; Simulacra and Simulations; Strategy; Transparency

See Also

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