International Sociological Association (ISA) World Forum, Day 3: Manuel Castells: Sociology and Society in the 21st Century

Manuel Castells’s talk was presented as one of the main events of the entire conference and several hundred people were attending. Castells defined sociology as the scientific study of society. He argued that the status of sociology in society is at an all-time low. One of the reasons would be that sociologists would have engaged in ideology and politics and would have therefore abandoned their duties as analysts. He argued for a distance between analysis (is) and morals (ought). Objective knowledge would be needed in sociology. Therefore it should be rooted scientifically. This means that Castells argues that it is possible and desirable to focus on empirical social research and to deny that sociology is always (to certain degress consciously and unconsciously) shaped by political interests. Immanuel Wallerstein in contrast has argued that sociology always has an intellectual, a moral, and a political dimension, and that it is honest not to deny that all three are always present. Castells believes in the possibility of a neutral and value-free sociology. In my opinion this is never the case. So for example also the choice of a central model or concept – such as Castells’s network society – tells us something about political values that shape a scholar’s work.

Castells argued that sociology should study processes of the constitution, organization, and change of the new society. He claimed that the network society is a new society.

Castells identified seven axes of change of the network society: 1. Digital communication networks (ICTs) as new technological paradigm. 2. Globalization as social systems that work in real time on a planetary scale. 3. The culture of real virtuality. 4. The network state. 5. The crisis of paternalism and patriarchy that has resulted in new lifestyles. 6. Resistance identities and project identities as results of the loss of basic securities. 7. The emergence of global ecological consciousness. One can ask some questions about this analysis: Why are there exactly seven axes? On which theoretical foundations and categories of society are they based? What is the underlying model of societal change? How are the seven axes connected? Why isn’t there a logic that establishes connections and a certain unity of these seven dimensions?  What about economic issues? Isn’t the economy a central axis of society? Aren’t global war, class divisions, neoliberalism, poverty, unequal income distribution, and surveillance also important?

Castells’s argued that three independent variables shaped the emergence of the network society accidently: 1. The crisis of capitalism and state socialism. 2. The technological revolution. 3. The influence of counterculture on software engineers. To assume that causes are fully independent, means to engage in ontological dualism. It cannot account for the connections of phenomena and show how they are adequately grounded. Dualism violates a fundamental logical and philosophical theorem: the law of ground. Technologies do not diffuse accidentally, but because there are societal situations in which there are concrete needs for these technologies. In stratified societies, such as the modern one, these diffusion processes are connected to economic interests and power and therefore to Castells first variable. Also culture is not independent of economy and politics. 1960s counterculture did not emerge in a vacuum, but in response and in interaction with certain conditions of the economic and political system.

Castells said that if society changes, sociology would have to change, it would have to change its tools in order to analyze society. The network society would be non-linear, but the tools used by contemporary sociology mainly linear. He therefore suggested three modifications of sociology: 1. The usage of complexity mathematics, non-linear dynamics, and mathematical modelling. A hardening of sociology would be needed. Sociologists according to Castells should stop using 19th century philosophy in the 21st century. A hardening of sociological education would mean that sociologists “would have at least to do some work”. Aren’t theory construction and social philosophy also hard  and complex academic work? 2. Open-source sociology: networked, co-operative forms of production in which ideas and data are shared and co-produced. 3. Applied sociology: Sociologists should engage in qualitatively, rigorous, relevant empirical research, not in politics and social movements, which should be aspects of citizenship, but not of sociology.

Castells calls for a natural science model of the social sciences. It seems to be no coincidence that he calls for a focus on the productive of “objective knowledge”, which is also the title of one of the most successful book by Karl Popper.

Open source sociology can be a good approach for advancing co-operation and new forms of dissemination and publication. But in a neoliberal world that is dominated by heavy competition also between academics, open source sociology could well result in an increase of gaps between influential and less influential academics if the first manage to make use of open source data and knowledge for publishing papers in high-reputation journals, by which they gain even more reputation. So just like in open source software, there should have to be a requirement that new knowledge that makes use of open source academic knowledge must be published in academic open source platforms. The availability of such platforms would not solve the problems that the academic world is facing today due to the colonization by economic logic. In my opinion, open source sociology would only work in a decolonized world, otherwise it could increase academic inequality based on the Matthew effect, as was shown by Robert Merton in the 1960s. One of the connected problems is that the academic system is today based on status competition and the individual accumulation of academic capital. There is a lack of co-operation and openness. Open access online journals and archives are today in most cases not acknowledged as important academic publications (e.g. they are hardly covered by the Social Science Citation Index, Sociological Abstracts, or Scopus). For open source sociology to work, we not only have to change academia, but society at large.

On days 2 and 3, I had the pleasure to listen to two papers that just like my approach deals with new media and the “knowledge society”/”network society” from a Marxian perspective:
Eran Fisher: Digital de-alienation: information technology, work, new spirit of capitalism
Peter Kennedy: A Value Theory of Labour Critique of the Knowledge Economy and the Expansion of Post-Compulsory Education Industry.

Also on day 3, Craig Calhoun and Donatella della Porta discussed the topic of “Prospects for Democracy”. Calhoun argued that US hegemony, global war, surveillance, inequality, the displacement of people, and corporate power limit the prospects for democracy. NGOs would be celebrated as the saviors of democracy by many, but most of them would support business and lack accountability. States would be the primary actors that can pose limits to capital, not NGOs. Therefore Calhoun called for strengthening and rebuilding public institutions. Donatella della Porta other than Calhoun gave a more positive assessment of new social movements (such as the movement for democratic globalization) and NGOs. She argued that many of these actors practice participatory democracy and that such democracy from below has potentials for releasing potentials for transforming society and its institutions towards more participatory structures. This debate was interesting, but lacked a clarification of how the two positions could be combined. In my opinion the problem for Calhoun’s approach is that although he is right that capital can only be limited by policies, there currently are no or hardly parties on the left that are willing to carry out such policies. But in civil society, critical actors can be found. This is what della Porta stresses. But for her approach, the problem is that civil society activists are frequently unwilling to engage in institutionalized political work. Therefore they frequently remain in an non-influential ghetto. Calhoun was right that he renewed Rudi Dutschke’s call for the march through the institutions. But what might first be needed is the creation of an institutionalized wing of critical social movements in the form of political parties.

The session on “Economic Sociology as Critique” with more than 60 participants was one of the most successful parallel sessions at the conference. Andrew Sawyer and Sylvia Walby in their two talks discussed Amartyra Sen’s capabilities approach as potential foundation of critical economic sociology. They argued and opposed relativistic and postmodern interpretations of Sen and suggested that a progressive political interpretation of Sen’s capability approach that can be used as foundation for critical economic sociology can be made. Sawyer argued that such an approach could be connected to Aristotle and early Marx’s notion of the well-rounded individual’s realization of all faculties. Michael Burawoy argued to ground critical economic sociology in the works of Marx and Karl Polanyi. The grounding concept should be commodification and not exploitation and the decisive group that should be addressed as potentially struggling subject should be civil society because it could struggle for human rights. John Helmwood based his type of critical economic sociology on Durkheim and argued for a capitalism of production combined with a socialism of distribution. I doubt that such a system is possible because already Marx had shown that production and distribution are dialectically connected and cannot so easily be separated. I do not understand why Burawoy is so strictly focusing on civil society and counter to Calhoun seems to be rather opposed to the idea of left-wing political parties. He does not see that civil society, as Gramsci stressed, legitimizes domination and under neoliberalism is used as a means for outsourcing social labour that was in former times organized by the state. I disagree with Sawyer’s and Walby’s focus on Sen because his concept of capability is strongly focusing on a subjectivistics, individualistic free choice model of freedom and neglects relational issues of freedom such as class. He is so much preoccupied with stressing that GDP per capita is not the only aspect of freedom, that he leaves out an important socio-economic variable: income inequality. He argues that a poor person can be happier than an ill, old or disabled. But if you are ill, old or disabled and poor, then you surely are worse off than ill, old, disabled rich persons. Sen mentions that life expectancy in China is higher than in South Africa and Brazil, although its GDP per capita is lower. He does not mention that income equality is much higher in the latter two countries, which might drive down life expectancy. Material wealth is a necessary, but not a sufficient condition for freedom. And it is a relational category because today the wealth of some is based on the poverty of the rest. Distribution is a foundational issue of freedom. Sen’s approach is uncritical and neglects class and distribution. In the end, Sen tells us that the poor can be happier than the non-poor, that therefore no alternatives to capitalism are needed, and that everything can stay the same.

I share the idea that basic human faculties should be distinguished. For doing so, one does not need Amartyra Sen. A good point of reference can be Marx’s early writings, in which he identified basic human capacities as human Essence that can only be realized if the class individual is abolished, which means to overcome private property relations. This work was continued by for example Herbert Marcuse and Crawford B. McPherson.

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