Chris Rumford

Interview with Professor Chris Rumford on The Globalization of Strangeness

Professor Chris Rumford

Professor Chris Rumford

A good place to start would be on your division between the condition of strangeness and the figure of the stranger. If strangeness is a generalized condition does the figure of the stranger continue to have sociological significance?

Yes it does. The relationship between the figure of the stranger and the condition of strangeness is central to the book. I wanted to write about the stranger, thereby contributing to a strand of sociological research that stretches back to Simmel, but I also wanted to update our understanding of the stranger and place it within a global context. Strangeness is a generalized condition, one outcome of globalization, and we cannot understand the stranger without also understanding strangeness.

Let me explain what I mean by ‘strangeness’.  To start with it is important to recognize that because of globalization the relationship between society and the stranger has changed. Strangers used to stand out from the crowd because of obvious differences marking them out as not ‘one of us’. Conventional stranger figures are migrants, foreigners, and outsiders. But we no longer live in societies in which it is easy to distinguish the stranger. Ethnicity and other cultural markers of difference no longer necessarily signify someone who does not belong. Strangeness exists when those who are physically close are socially and culturally distant. Next door neighbours may be the nearest strangers. At the same time we might find common purpose with those far away (via the internet, for example). Strangeness exists when we are no longer confident that we know who ‘we’ are, and when we realize that we are all strangers to someone. In short, strangeness exists when what used to be an experience restricted to the stranger is now an everyday experience for each of us.

Under such conditions strangers are not always those who we might expect to be strangers  – those who ‘come today and stay tomorrow’ in Simmel’s terms. When I looked at contemporary figures of the stranger I was struck by how nobody is truly different anymore, the cultural mix in our big cities means that we hardly notice new arrivals that are ‘not like us’. This routinization of ‘otherness’ is another outcome of globalization.  More importantly perhaps contemporary strangers are not always migrants, foreigners, and outsiders. In fact, when you look at the strangers in our contemporary society they can be people who are physically distant but at the same time embedded in society. For example, call centre workers, or an even better example, classroom assistants who conduct one-to-one tutorials with British school children from their homes in India. These are figures not normally associated with the stranger, but in my view they are exactly the sort of strangers that emerge from the social condition of strangeness.

One way in which we experience strangeness is in the problems of group boundedness.  As you suggest, “we find it difficult to say who belongs to ‘our’ group and who comes from outside”. This is a challenging comment but one which would appear to have relevance to many recent events including the bombing in Boston in which two young men, immigrants but recognized widely as members of the local community, planned a horrific attack. The 2011 Utoya massacre in Norway could be another example of ‘strangeness from the inside’. Are events such as these unique to our social condition under globalization?

The examples you give are very good ones. In the book I look at the case of the 7/7 bombers and the phenomenon of ‘homegrown terrorists’ as an example of how contemporary strangers emerge from within society, rather than come from outside. Possibly the most disturbing things about the 7/7 bombers (apart from the attacks themselves) was the way in which they appeared well-embedded in society up to the point of the attacks. The fact that they played cricket in their local park on the eve of the attacks was picked up an as index of how ‘normal’ their lives were. I think the term ‘homegrown’ is very misleading and in this case it led people to overlook the transnational interconnectedness of the bombers.

In my research for the book I was struck by how many people we think of as strangers do not fall into the category of the ‘come today, stay tomorrow’ strangers who stand out because of their obvious difference. To my mind, the contemporary stranger is best characterized as a ‘here today, gone tomorrow figure’ who emerges briefly only to disappear again, homegrown terrorists being a good case in point. One of the best examples of contemporary strangerhood is the tragic case of the 22 Chinese cocklepickers who died in Morecombe Bay in 2004 when they were engulfed by the rising tide. As ‘migrants, foreigners and outsiders’ they fit perfectly with conventional notions of the stranger. But they were not strangers in one important sense: until the point where they died (and the media got hold of their story) they were largely invisible to society. Few people in the UK were aware that they even existed; no one saw them ‘come today, and stay tomorrow’. To me this is very much a story of our time, and it tells us a great deal about contemporary strangerhood.

What does the global condition of strangeness mean for the development of solidarity both within and across societies?

For many commentators strangeness is only experienced by those conventionally labeled as strangers (migrants, foreigners, and outsiders). I argue that not only have we become strangers to each other but we have become also strangers to ourselves. In other words, our sense of ‘we-ness’ is diminished. For example, we may not identify with things done in our name e.g. abuse of Iraqi civilians by British soldiers, or the UK government’s back-tracking on human rights commitments.  This loss of ‘we-ness’ can be quite disorientating.

Ulrich Beck makes an interesting point when he says, ‘People suddenly experience themselves living in a very strange world and being confronted with all kind of strangeness. They don’t recognize anymore the city they are living in, maybe even the street because of all kind of globalizations happening into those areas’. Strangeness is a form of social disorientation resulting from an experience of globalization, particularly the loss of familiar reference points, social signposting, and an awareness that community is not built from the building blocks of physical contiguity. Under such conditions, social solidarity is difficult, but by no means impossible.

Recognition of common strangeness may form the basis for a new form of community solidarity, connecting people across vast distances and creating neighbours where previously only strangers existed. For this to happen people must realise that they have to work hard to create community, rather than expect it to occur ‘naturally’. Solidarity and community can take unexpected forms. Consider the virtual community represented by the online marketplace eBay, whose success is often attributed to the allegiance of its customers. In the words of eBay’s CEO, ‘loyalty is the primary ingredient in eBay’s secret sauce’. When we study the stranger we are also exploring the ways in which society coheres and examining the forms of association and solidarity that may exist, in a context in which we can no longer assume that community is proximate and nested within the social structure of national societies

A key tenet of your thinking has it that the cosmopolitan stranger is ‘here today, gone tomorrow’. How much might this be linked to the role of the media in affecting social memory?

Contemporary figures of the stranger, I argue, occupy an indeterminate place in society, but not in the sense that they are neither friend nor enemy, neither us nor them, but because they emerge – rapidly, in many instances, and for only a brief duration – into a social world to whose citizens they remain totally anonymous. Their strangeness inheres in their brief eruption from routinized existence, an emergence which often causes consternation, anxiety or even fear in the rest of the population. They don’t arrive as such; they burst forth from their embedded existence, either because they have drawn attention to themselves through some public act or because the media casts the spotlight on them for a brief period. The role of the media is key, as you suggest. Although I don’t develop the idea in the book it seems to me that the transience of the cosmopolitan stranger can be likened to the rise and fall of celebrities, and of course this phenomenon has a strong media dimension. Celebrities, like cosmopolitan strangers, are ‘here today, gone tomorrow’.

The cosmopolitan stranger being ‘everywhere, at home’ is an intriguing idea. Would you consider hacker collectives or a figure like Julian Assange to be an example of the cosmopolitan stranger through their use of ‘strangerhood as a resource’ and their virtual mobility?

In the literature, the cosmopolitan is a figure considered to be at home everywhere – in other words, a ‘citizen of the world’. For me this assumes a greater degree of world openness than actually exists. One of my arguments about globalization is that global expectations often outstrip global connectivity and that as a result globalization can weigh heavily on individuals, constraining choice. This frames my understanding of cosmopolitanism which is all about making connections under the often difficult conditions that globalization creates.  For some commentators cosmopolitanism is about ‘frequent flyers’ and untrammeled mobility. For me it is about more down-to-earth concerns. The cosmopolitan stranger has the capability to connect globally without leaving home; heightened mobility, does not necessarily equate to corporeal mobility.

The cosmopolitan stranger is more likely to be found at home than in public engagement; paradoxically, by being at home he or she is best able to engage with others. Taking advantage of the possibility of enhanced mobility and being able to connect with distant others can only be achieved by someone who eschews regular social contact and does not seek conventional forms of community involvement.

In the book I argue that cosmopolitan strangers possess several key attributes: they connect people with distant others; they betoken new forms of social solidarity; they are not easily captured by existing communities; they are ‘here today, gone tomorrow’; they find utility in strangerhood. According to these criteria hacker collectives would qualify. I discovered that some of the best examples of cosmopolitan strangers are collective actors: flash mobs, ‘communities of disaster’, and the like. I found it more difficult to identify individuals as cosmopolitan strangers (although it was relatively easy to find representations of cosmopolitan strangers in contemporary film – I wrote a chapter which interprets films such as ‘Fight Club’ and ‘Children of Men’ through the lens of the cosmopolitan stranger).

The cosmopolitan stranger promotes networks of solidarity but does not necessarily belong to the resultant community.  For this and other reasons hinted at above I believe that Julian Assange could well be an excellent example of the cosmopolitan stranger, and deserves to sit alongside the real-life superheroes, flash mobs, and public artists that I discuss in the book.

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(Interview by Alistair Brisbourne)