Sociology of Globalization v. Global Sociology

Over at Social Science Space, Daniel Nehring reports his experience with academic neo-colonialism:

“For there to be some sort of global sociology, in terms of general agreement about some fundamental aspects of social life, or in terms of a well-articulated network of sociologies that are culturally or nationally specific in some way, there would need to a recognition of socio-culturally disparate forms of knowledge and institutional settings in which such knowledge is generated as equally significant and worthy of further articulation. Many sociologists today share such a recognition, and they work together across cultural and institutional boundaries. However, assertions that university X in place Y outside the metropole surely can’t be a serious institution runs counter to such recognition. Efforts by metropolitan universities to set up lucrative colonies in the global periphery, thus propagating ‘superior’ metropolitan models of higher education, run counter to such recognition. Assertions by super-elite experts that there is one universally valid model of doing science run counter to such recognition (and, by the by, to social research about science since at least the times of Thomas Kuhn).

All these counter-trends are bundled by the commercialisation of academic life in the metropole. Universities in countries like the USA and the UK are run according to the logic of the market. The businesspeople or business-minded academics increasingly in charge of universities have created an academic marketplace in which universities compete with each other for student-customers, research funding, and talented scholars. Crucially, this academic marketplace tends to operate according to the logic of self-interested competition and not to the logic of cooperation and other-interested exchange that could sustain a global sociology of the sort I outlined above. Image is crucial. Universities are brands that must seek to outclass and outmanoeuvre other brands in global university rankings and customer satisfaction surveys. Sociologists are entrepreneurs who must polish their esteem indicators, publish in the highest-ranking journals, get the best scores in teaching satisfaction surveys, and get the largest research grants. Within this system, there just seem to be few incentives for a truly global, truly plurivocal sociology.”

This is the heart of the issue that Raewyn Connell discussed in Southern Theory and she did not really have an answer to this.

There is no doubt that there are multiple hierarchies in higher education both vertically (in the US, for instance, the hierarchy of institutions from community colleges to elite universities) and horizontally (geographically) with a dominance from the universities of the core (and sometimes, their satellites in the semi-periphery) at the expenses of universities that are remote from it. There are also major institutional and organizational factors hindering global cooperation between universities (who pays for what? Who gets credit for work done? Etc.). The same goes for publications, peer reviewed journals and the major publishing houses out of the university systems.

Ultimately, this is not a problem for sociology only but our discipline is more hurt by it because we should be global by definition, but we still operate under national / state / local systems and the incentives/ rewards systems do not foster outside-of-the-institution cooperation no more than they promote and facilitate interdisciplinarity. All these different systemic constraints have deepened under the managerial regime that now prevails in higher education (the much discussed administrative bloat where MBAs with no experience in education decide to run universities like businesses).

At the same time, the prevalence of core discourse on globalization is another issue that sociology faces. If I say “sociologist of globalization”, what names come to mind? Saskia Sassen? Wallerstein? Bauman? Sennett? Where is the sociology of globalization from the semi-periphery and the periphery? Do an search for titles on sociology of globalization and these names (along with a few others, like David Held) will come up. And for those of us interested in the topic, where would we find the sociology of globalization from the South? Our university libraries give us access to databases of publications but there is very little outside of the core, English-speaking publishing world. I have supplied articles to global colleagues (or future global colleagues) from the South from the databases I have access to, but the direction is the same: from the core to the periphery. The reverse flow, I would venture, would be much lower.

And that is the core of the issue, isn’t it? We cannot have a sociology of globalization without a truly global sociology. If the voices from the sociological South remain unheard, we are reproducing the neocolonial mechanisms of domination that many of us find problematic in other areas of social life.

So what are the solutions? Let me pitch again the importance of social media for voices from the South: blogging, twittering and using any other low-price of entry platforms that sociologists from the South can find to be heard. Now, this does not challenge the institutional hierarchies where the peer-reviewed article sits at the top of the academic prestige ladder (with the rewards that accompany such publications, such as tenure and promotions), and the books published by elite presses. That is most definitely a persistent problem for which there is no current solution even for would-be sociologists from the core (get tenured first, then get bloggin’… or start blogging but don’t tell until you get tenure). There hierarchies of hiring, promoting, publishing and funding (see this on how capital follows capital in funding and solidly in the core despite efforts to diversify) are among the solids that remain in the liquid era (as Bauman would have it). It is not like that there are no younger academics who are ready to shake the system in that direction but the power in higher education, contrary to popular belief, does not lie with faculty but with administrations.

But, let’s say Nathan Jurgenson has his way, we would still need specific mechanisms to promote the voices from the South. If we develop social media for a truly global sociology, those cannot be dominated by voices from the core from a few “stars”. It has to be different. As I said earlier, no sociology of globalization without a truly global sociology.

Book Review – Evil

In Evil, sociologist Michel Wieviorka aims to claim “evil” as a territory for sociological investigation. It is not hard to see why sociologists have stayed away from the topic. It is thorny one. And after all, Durkheim taught us all long ago to avoid just adopting common sense categorizations and running with them without examining their social construction as social fact. So, since evil is a common sense concept par excellence, and a rather multi-form and vague one, one can easily see why sociologists have stayed away from the concept as a whole. But it is true that by doing so, we have abandoned that territory to philosophy, religious studies and *gasp* even psychology.

But, I am one of those sociologists who think we should drag our muddy sociological boots (sociology is muddy par excellence, that is its greatness) where people think they don’t belong, so, naturally, I grabbed the book hoping for, at least, some conceptual clarity and investigative pathways into the topic. Alas, I was deeply disappointed for a variety of reasons.

First of all, the book feels a bit disjointed and that is because the book is not really a book, it is a collection of sections extracted from another book (Nine Lessons of Sociology). Evil is a collection of the chapters in Nine Lessons that were on negative topics, leaving aside the chapters on positive topics. So, Evil ends up being rather short (133 pages of text), divided on five chapters (evil as sociological topic, violence, terrorism, racism, and pathways to research on evil). In addition, the translation feels a bit clunky and to word-for-word, French to English. It makes for a weird read. I don’t know if it is a Polity issue but I noted the same translation problem with Florence Aubenas’s The Night Cleaner. So, that does not help.

Then, when discussing evil, one can immediately see the problem with the collection of chapters. Chapters 1 and 5 are more straight “why we should have a sociology of evil” and “how we should do it”. They have problems of their own that I will discuss below but they make sense. The real thematic difficulty comes with chapter 2, 3 and 4. So, is this what evil is? Violence, racism and terrorism? That’s it? That list seems a bit arbitrary to me. I can think of a lot of other examples of evil. And again, evil has a major definitional issue as sociological concept.

So let me get into the substance of the book a bit more.

Again, the starting point is that, for Wieviorka, there should be a sociology of evil and this is the right time to develop it as the traditional sociological dichotomies have been successfully challenged (body / mind, nature / culture, individual / collective, and the all-time sociological favorite, structure / agency) especially if we enter the concept of evil through its unavoidable link to suffering, and suffering itself is a social phenomenon. Indeed, suffering is at the heart of the human rights regime which demands recognition of suffering in different forms, but suffering is also at the heart of what we tend to call identity politics and the ethnicization of society (the increasing definition of self through an ethnic identity) and part of the historical narrative that accompanies such ethnicization (that includes the identity of victim if not directly, at least historically and generationally). But right off the bat, Wieviorka operates a subtle shift: from evil to violence. I would argue that that is not the same concept. The two are separate. To reduce evil to violence, then one does not need the concept of evil. We already have extensive work on the sociology of violence (and quite a bit from Wieviorka himself). So what does bringing evil to the sociological table add? Hard to tell. Take this, for instance:

“Yesterday, the socialization of children, or migrants, involved learning the national historical narrative; today, migrants and their children contribute to changing this narrative, forcing the nation to recognize  the less glorious pages of its past, its areas of darkness and practices of violence and brutality. From this point on, evil becomes an object for the social sciences: they have to give a convincing account, on one hand, of the past and the present of the groups who mobilize on the basis of an identity as victims; and, on the other, of the impact of their demands on community life. How was violence organized in the past, or how is it organized in the present; and how do the processes of negation of the Other, of destruction and self-destruction, of harm to one’s physical and moral integrity, function?

It is no longer possible to declare, as it was until recently, that to try to understand barbarism, violence, cruelty, terrorism or racism is to open the way to evil, which needs quite simply to be fought without making any effort to understand – any effort of that kind being automatically classed as a mark of weakness. In fact, if we do wish to combat evil, it is preferable to know and understand it. There is a need here, a social demand which calls for analytical tools and studies; the social sciences are better qualified to provide these than moral judgments, philosophical considerations or religious a priori.” (9)

See what I mean? It is all conceptually very muddy: evil, violence, barbarism, brutality, cruelty. Is this all the same? How are these things related? Are they all subcategories of evil? Is interpersonal violence the only form of violence and evil to be considered? What of structural violence? These two paragraphs, to me (I could certainly be wrong), perfectly illustrate the constant conceptual shift that Wieviorka operates throughout the book. But are you really discussing evil when you are discussing racism or terrorism or interpersonal violence in general? I think it is all well and good to want to extirpate evil from the clutches of philosophy and religion but for what purpose? What does this concept add to the sociology of violence / racism / terrorism? This constant conceptual drift persists throughout the book. At the same time, if we accept, arguendo, the concept of evil as violence, racism, terrorism, etc., then we accept it as it is socially defined.

“Evil becomes a sociological category and ceases to be a purely religious category when it is treated as a crime, including a crime against humanity, not as a sin; when it can and must be envisaged as a social and historical problem that falls within the scope of human will and justice, and when it ceases to be a theological fact or the manifestation of an instinct.” (11)

But whether evil is treated as sin or crime does not make really any difference because both are socially constructed commonsense categories, the product of processes of structure, history and power. To define evil so does not neutralize the weight of commonsense definition. Evil is still not a social fact in that definition. Shouldn’t the first step in defining evil as an object of sociological investigation to reject the ready-made conceptualizations that societies provide and question these? To state “I hereby declare evil to be a sociological object, so, back off, religion and philosophy” is not enough.

And if that is not confusing enough, then, there is this:

“The closer evil comes to corresponding to the categories and concerns of the social sciences, the more their analytical principles must be applied, in the same way as they are used to study other problems and other social facts. Amongst these principles there is the idea that actors are never either totally unaware or totally aware of the meaning of their action. In other words they are never totally non-responsible; they are of necessity accountable for their actions, or they should be.  In this sense, the advance of the knowledge of evil, thank to the social sciences, goes hand in hand with the idea that the thesis of the banality of evil must be, if not set to one side, at least considered with the utmost caution.” (13)


Again, how does this square the acceptance of commonsense definitions of evil (minus the religious overtones)? And this, basically ends the first chapter with no clear sociological definition of evil. As I mentioned before, this is followed by three thematic chapters on violence, terrorism and racism. So, at this point, we are left with “evil = bad stuff we don’t like” and even that might be questioned: is all violence necessarily bad, let alone evil? Paging Franz Fanon.

But as one reads these three chapters, the real theme of the book becomes more apparent: a rejection of the structural and the social and an aggressive return of the Subject (capitalized in the book), with heavy references to Touraine and Latour. This is the real point of the sociology Wieviorka proposes: a sociology of the Subject, then confronted with evil, either as perpetrators, but, more essentially, as victims. On all three topics, Wieviorka argues that the culture, history and structures have received all the sociological attention but that Subjects, and especially victims (Wieviorka does mention perpetrators but he is much more interested in victims) have been neglected not just as victims but as agents. This allows Wieviorka to develop two typologies, in the case of violence, that he will use on the other topics as well: one for the types of violence based on Subject meaning and the type of Subjects involved in violence.

  • Violence based on the loss of meaning (“when the actor comes to express a meaning that has become lost or impossible and resorts to violence because he is unable to construct the confrontational action that would enable him to assert his social demands or cultural or political expectations, because no political process is available for dealing with them.” (19))
  • Violence based on ideology
  • Violence as myth-disintegration
  • Gratuitous violence, violence for its own’s sake
  • Violence as other- and self-destruction (suicide terrorism, martyrdom)
  • Violence as obedience to authority (the Eichmann in Jerusalem defense)

And the types of subjectivity linked to violence (capitalization in the original):

  • The Floating Subject who resorts to violence because of an inability to become a social actor (see the alienated youth from the French suburbs in 2005).
  • The Hyper-Subject resorts to violence through an excess of meaning through meta-political, religious and mythical meaning. This is the violence of zealot and martyr.
  • The Non-Subject exercises violence without involving his subjectivity, as the participants in Milgram’s experiments. It is simply violence as subjection to authority.
  • The Anti-Subject denies the Other the status of Subject through dehumanization, as we see in the dynamics that lead to genocides. It involves gratuitous cruelty and violence.
  • The Survivor Subject, before any violence has taken place, is one who feels threatened for his integrity and existence and acts violently as a survival response to the perceived threat.

One can see that this typology can be useful and how it can lead to certain ideas when it comes to preventing or dealing with different forms of violence (some much less clear and satisfying than others).

  • The Floating subject  provides institutional channels for conflict resolution as well as training of social and political players (bottom-up strategy)
  • The Hyper-Subject  use the “moderates” from the same religious or ideological background to intervene before a hardening of fundamentalisms (top-down strategy)
  • The Non-Subject  delegitimize the authority involved
  • The Anti-Subject  repression and education
  • The Survivor Subject  providing mental models to change the perception

But what does this have to do with evil?

The topic of violence also allows Wieviorka to introduce the second main theme of the book, after the Subject: globalization. The Subject and globalization are the two poles that he considers should guide the sociological investigation of evil. This allows him to evacuate any form of social structure from analysis, albeit not convincingly and not consistently. But the combination of the centrality of the Subject in the context of globalization leads him to the following formulation:

“The arena of violence is widening, while the scope for organizing debate and a framework for conflict to deal with social problems is shrinking, lacking, or vanishing. Conversely that arena becomes smaller when the conditions of institutionalized conflict permit a negotiated solution, even in circumstances of great tensions between actors. Violence is not conflict; rather it is the opposite. Violence is more likely to flare up when an actor can find no-one to deal within his or her attempts to exert social or political pressure, when no channels of institutional negotiation are available.” (27)

Wieviorka argues that this is the case with the decline of the labor movement in the context of globalization as unions have always been a disciplining force for the working class, as well as offering institutionalized ways to resolve conflict. But he should take the next step and recognize that this has been accompanied by a hardening of state repression on labor issues.

When it comes to the victims of violence, Wieviorka argues that there are three types of suffering that need to be addressed:

  • Collective identity (such as the victims of ethnic violence, genocide) where past mass violence was directed at an entire population, culture, etc.
  • Individual participation in modern life: being the descendants of slaves, to have been deprived of property, rights or a sense of belonging to a larger modern collectivity (such as a nation-state through the denial of basic political and civil rights).
  • Personal subjectivity, that is the denial of the ability to become a Subject through dehumanization, demonization, etc. for the direct victims of violence.

Wieviorka uses these typologies in his analysis of the other two topics: global terrorism and racism. And I have to say that there is nothing really new or uniquely insightful in these chapters if one is already well-read on either subjects.

And the last, and longest chapter of the book tries to weave together the two lines of the Subject and globalization at the expense of structure and society, and that is done with pretty broad pronouncements (“This is not the time to fight the enemies of the Subject – they have been defeated, in any event for the time being.” (89)). Here again, this chapter is plagued with conceptual ambiguities relating to the Subject, individualism, and individualization. In the glorification of the Subject, Wieviorka neglects the fact (mentioned by Bauman, Beck and Sennett, among others), that becoming a Subject, in individualized condition, is often not a choice in the global context of liquid society.

But what is most disappointing is the end result of all this throwing out of the structural baby with the societal bath water in the study of evil:

“By agreeing to be not only a sociology of the good, by opening up to this dimension of the anti-Subject, sociology can avoid a form of romanticism whereby the Subject is of necessity an attractive character, sometimes happy but usually unhappy; it leaves theoretical and practical scope for the darkest aspects of the human individual; it provides theoretical tools with which to embark on concrete research into phenomena as significant as racism, violence, or anti-Semitism.” (108)

My handwritten note in the book reads “that’s it?” and that is exactly what thinking. Really, that was the point of flushing structure (in the name of the Subject) and society (in the name of globalization)? To establish that people sometimes do bad things? I would argue that there is as much explanatory potential for violence in ALL forms (interpersonal, structural or symbolic) through the workings of individuals, interpersonal interactions (micro-aggressions), organizational and institutional and structural. To evacuate some of these layers deprives oneself of strong analytical tools. Similarly, as many globalization theorists have demonstrated, it is too early to completely dismiss the nation-state and society. The dynamics of globalization are more multi-layered and more complex than that (from glocalization to grobalization, and other processes).

And finally, it is also way too early to cavalierly dismiss the power of collective and social movements in the name of the individual. Globalization is still a very collectively contested terrains for social movements, especially of the alter-globalization kind.

So, by the end of the book, do not really expect to have figured out what a sociological reconceptualization of evil means and implies (if you do, please leave a comment because I would really like to know). It felt like the topic of evil was a bit of a cover up for a more theoretical discussion leading to the promotion of an approach based on the Subject and globalization. But neither topics are convincingly developed to created a shiny new approach to the topic of evil (or any other topic, for that matter). If one is interested in the topic of the individual confronted with globalization (in all its dimensions), one is much better off going back to Bauman, Beck, Sennett or Castells who have done a better job of it.

“The Hour of Global Sociology”

For a certain cranky sociologist who has been at it for almost five years, this reads like vindication:

Intellectually, this may [sic] the hour of global sociology, taken as a scholarship, with its sensitivity to variety and limitations as well as to connectivity, and its refraining from policy pontificating. Half a century ago, I entered university, in Lund, in Sweden, with a view to studying politics and economic, but in the process, I learnt about sociology, as a more scientific approach, which may have reflected local circumstances more than universal truth. Later on, in the Netherlands, I had a chair of political science, and political economy has always been prominent on my mind, although my favourite scholarly writers have mostly been historians, models of erudition-cum-style. Nevertheless, I think sociology offers the best vantage-point from which to comprehend the world as a whole, the past and the contemporary together. It is wide open to different expertise and disciplines, itself pluralistic, driven by an inbound, non-paradigmatic curiosity, and by an ambition of connecting as much evidence, as much human experience, as possible.

Goran Therborn (2011), The World – A Beginner’s Guide, Polity Press, p.x.

I keep telling you people that sociology in general, and global sociology in particular is the !@#$.

Michael Watts on the Oil Complex

Via Africa is a Country, do yourself a favor and watch this lecture of UC Berkeley geographer Michael Watts:

Keep in mind the petro-state as rentier state in the oil complex as state-owned companies make Exxon and others, as Watts say, look like little start-ups. And who says rent-based means corruption, bloated and inefficient operations dedicated to managing surplus.

Global Sociology Blogroll – Brazilian Edition

It has been a while since I was able to dig up a few socblogs from around the world, but thanks to the strong presence of Brazilian sociologists on Twitter, I have a couple:

Which, I guess would translate into “sociological paths

And then,

Which would translate as “informal observatory“, a blog written by Micheline Batista (good luck with the Ph.D thing!).

Both blogs are well worth your time, so update your feeds, bookmarks and Twitter followings.

Global Sociology Blogroll Update – Crisis, What Crisis?

Two English-language blogs have gotten my attention.

First, Michael Burawoy, the Godfather of Public Sociology, now President of the International Sociological Association, has created a blog (well in line with the public sociology project, while his main critic, Matthieu Deflem has created a course on Lady Gaga… compare, contrast… you be the judge):

Then, over at the site of the British Sociological Association, we have the Sociology and The Cuts blog:

And while you’re there, do read and save the post on Bootleg Sociology. It is brilliant and should be turned into a global project.

As always, update your RSS and bookmarks.

And for those of you didn’t get the pun in this post title, it refers to Supertramp’s fourth album.

Global Sociology Blogroll Update – Brazilian Edition

I am always especially happy to find socbloggers outside of the Western hemisphere. So, without further ado…

By Brazilian socblogger Carlos Augusto Magalhães Teixeira. And lookie here, already a good film recommendation.

As always, update your bookmarks and RSS feeds or follow Carlos on Twitter.