Ian Woodward

Interview with Associate Professor Ian Woodward on Cosmopolitanism: Uses of the Idea

The GSA was lucky to be able to talk to Associate Professor Woodward about his book (co-authored with Zlatko Skrbis) Cosmopolitanism: Uses of the Idea published in 2013 by Sage. 

Associate Professor Ian Woodward

This is an excellent book (co-authored with Zlatko Skrbis) that suggests a grounded approach to studying cosmopolitanism and proposes more sustained research on the way in which cosmopolitanism is at work in unique ways in everyday contexts. As you explain in the introduction, the book follows a trajectory from the abstract to the concrete and mundane expressions and experiences of cosmopolitanism. Why did you choose to approach the subject in this way?

 The concept of cosmopolitanism has such a long history, is amenable to widespread and diverse applications within the social sciences and humanities, and the field is currently still in a phase of expansion. These factors create the need for a discussion which is equally wide-ranging in its coverage. Moreover, we felt that the progression from general to specific, macro to micro, or from structures to practices, is a logical way to organise the content. We don’t wish to separate or binarise these elements of social life, but felt that this model allowed us most efficient coverage of the diverse contents entailed in the cosmopolitan approach.

It is suggested that supranational institutions, in this case the EU, are valuable for two reasons: by providing political, economic and (perhaps most significantly) legal frameworks beyond the nation-state, and because they engender cosmopolitan identities at least among bureaucrats and politicians working within Brussels. But they are also erecting new boundaries, creating a ‘Europeanness’ separate from the rest of the world. How are these two positions reconciled – one suggesting that the EU is in the process of opening up, the other suggesting closure?

My collaborator Zlatko Skrbis would probably interject that the question itself mistakenly presupposes that European and cosmopolitan projects have an end-point. I think he is right. The dilemma you describe is evidence of the incompleteness of the cosmopolitan project and its inherent contradictions. There is no need to forcefully strive for reconciliation between these opposites; we simply need to learn how to simultaneously embrace multiple forms of belonging and various layers of openness and closure.

A very valuable part of the argument in this book focuses on the importance of encountering difference in producing cosmopolitan sentiment. The words diversity (‘embracing of diversity’) and difference (‘accepting of difference’) are employed interchangeably in this regard. As has been pointed out by Bhabha and Hylland Eriksen (among others) these two terms have very different implications in practice with diversity being addressed as a watered-down, institutionalized discourse. Would you disagree with this assessment?

This focus on everyday encounters is something that I am working on now, via a grant from the Australian Research Council (with Zlatko Skrbis as co-investigator). Working in a range of social and geographical locations around Australia, we explore the mundane but important ways people identify, experience and respond to cultural difference in their communities. What I have noticed through all the interviews is that diversity – in the Australian context understood broadly as a synonym for mutliculturalism – is indeed something many people claim to enjoy, find pleasure or stimulation from, and often locate as an easily-accepted point of national and community identification, for example ‘Australia/my town is culturally diverse’. Difference is often something more problematic for people to consider, involving a reconciliation of perspectives, a shift in subjectivities, and an acknowledgement that pervasive differences within historically and locally shaped settings might lead to hybridised cultures.

The discussion of ordinary cosmopolitanism is very insightful. There is however a point at which it leans heavily on understanding cosmopolitanism through practices of consumption. Is there a risk in attributing too large of a role to practices that could be seen as faddish and fleeting, or simply of fetishizing consumption ?

The role of consumption practices in affording various types of self and social transformation is obviously an area that fascinates me. I think you’re right to suggest that sometimes these practices are faddish, related to episodic and opportunistic engagements, or fetishistic. What is more, to rest a theory of cosmopolitanism on everyday practices of consumption is clearly limiting and probably unwise. Cosmopolitanism is clearly much more than forms of consumption, as the innovations and applications across multiple fields of research from areas diverse as media studies, urban studies, museum studies, political theory, and youth studies show. More critically, though, I think there is also a need amongst some cosmopolitan theorists who tend to frame their thinking primarily through political concepts, for example, to open up their intellectual imaginations to allow cultural practices such as consumption to have cosmopolitan consequences. This is important as many ordinary forms of cosmopolitanism are broadly based in the category of everyday consumption practices. Just a note here, also, that we need to perhaps stop talking about ‘consumption’ as a generic, black-box category, and explore the range of practices bundled within that huge field, including things like appropriation, transformation, immersion, and objectification. Once we do this, then more precision is introduced into the discussion that might be enlightening. That said, I’m not advocating a blind endorsement of these practices and their potential for engendering cosmopolitan change — it is precisely the way in which some consumption practices are shallow, self-serving or based around forms that emphasise difference as merely something to be mastered, or as status to be acquired, that we can see some of the limits and contradictions of such practices.

 This focus on everyday practices is a very important area of inquiry that, as you point out, requires more empirical work. What is meant by the ‘performance, effervescence and manifestation’ of openness across different cultures?

A view that I have come to, partly through my methodological convictions, the research efforts of others, but also partly through the variety of empirical inquiries I have conducted with Zlatko Skrbis and now in conjunction with Zlatko and Indigo Willing whom I work with on a large empirical project I manage, is that everyday practices and attitudes associated with cosmopolitanism – capacities for tolerance, hospitality, curiosity, empathy, conviviality, amongst others – need to be understood contextually, rather than absolutely. There are at least a couple of consequences developing from this point of view. First, it means that we don’t necessarily look for ideal types of cosmopolitan individuals, but for the distribution of cosmopolitan capacities across social groups. Second, we explore the way these practices and attitudes are animated or deployed within particular contexts and settings. Once again, cosmopolitan virtues must make sense locally and contextually. And, further, they manifest, arise and are prompted through particular meaning frames. The key message is that cosmopolitanism as a project is gradual, partial and incomplete. It has moments and spaces where it flourishes, and likewise points of contraction and withdrawal.

During this discussion of everyday practice it is suggested that most people will be ‘ambivalent cosmopolitans’. What does this mean, and what does it say about how difference is addressed in Western society?

This is the idea that cosmopolitan attitudes and practices are not always absolute, but partial and contextual, meaning they can just as easily flourish or be withdrawn in particular settings. This theorisation came to Zlatko and I through previous empirical research, but is also a pattern we can observe in our current inquiries. This led us to label ordinary cosmopolitanism as an ambivalent practice. Expressions of cosmopolitanism were not only context dependent, but were framed by wider discourses and meanings. In the Australian context, we found that discourses about the national economy, perceived threats to one’s personal economic security, perceptions of uncivil public behaviors, and notions about the erosion or pollution of supposedly core principles of national identity and belonging, were likely to dampen people’s enthusiasm for diversity and difference. The advancement of cosmopolitan culture will always be gradual and unfinished.

The book suggests that cosmopolitanism is itself a form of communitarianism, which allies well with the idea that cosmopolitanism may also manifest uniquely according to the cultural context. But how can different types of communitarianism (cosmopolitanism, nationalism, etc) be reconciled within individual identities? Can these be effectively layered?

This is a tough question, and one which is at the core of the cosmopolitan agenda. Self or individual identity clearly can’t be erased, nor its effects underestimated in the consideration of cosmopolitan forms of belonging. Cosmopolitan forms of belonging – those which as you point out have a communitarian basis – must find expression within the hearts, minds and practices of individuals. Through exposure and experience, individuals might start to feel, think and act in cosmopolitan ways which at their core involved the acknowledgement of others. Cosmopolitanism is thus not necessarily experienced as an epiphany, though this might be the case with certain types associated with mobilities, staged, or ecstatic forms of cosmopolitanism. It is best understood as a gradual infiltration of global reflexivity in the everyday consciousness of individuals and thus your suggestion of multiple identity layerings is an effective way to think about such multiple points of belonging.

Like many other social scientists you have found Appaduarai’s notion of ‘scapes’ to be very useful. What is the particular value in the idea of ‘cosmoscapes’ and how should we differentiate cosmoscapes from other zones of (potential) cosmopolitan encounter e.g. borders?

The idea of cosmoscapes once again alerts us to the contextual, space-time dependent realisation of cosmopolitan habits and experiences. It should also remind us that cosmopolitan possibilities are materially, visually and technologically mediated. Here, we can see that cosmopolitanism is not only about having particular dispositions and sets of practices, but that it is assembled and organized, materially as much as symbolically. Border zones might be cosmoscapes but I typically theorized cosmoscapes, using Appadurai, as dense spaces of multiple flows where difference and diversity are apparent and obvious parts of the setting. In these zones, cosmopolitanism makes sense – or can make sense – and is itself made from the interactions of people and things in particular spaces. The spatiality of cosmopolitanism is something that I want to explore further. It certainly features in the current empirical project I am involved in, and also finds application in a forthcoming book I have written for Bloomsbury with Dominik Bartmanski on vinyl records, where vinyl is a partly understood as a type of token of cosmopolitanism urbanism within certain zones of cities and neighborhoods.

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(Interview by Alistair Brisbourne)