Robin Cohen

Interview with Emeritus Professor Robin Cohen on Global Sociology

First published twelve years ago a third edition of Global Sociology, co-authored with Paul Kennedy, has recently been published (Nov. 2nd 2012). What are some of the enduring challenges of pursuing a global sociology as opposed to, for example, a sociology of globalization?

This is a helpful distinction. We saw our project as generating a multi-scalar and more complex sociology – covering local, national, regional and global levels. For us ‘national sociologies’ exemplified by such expressions as ‘British society’ or ‘French social history’ missed the lattice-work of relationships and connections that subvert and surmount the various levels of analysis. We were influenced in this view, inter alia, by Castells’s network society, by Giddens’s idea that the nation-state was just one power container among several, and by the sense that the intellectual frontiers between anthropology, sociology and international political economy were both fuzzy and dissolving. Paul Kennedy’s recent work showing how localism remains embedded in global transformations bears empirical testimony to this standpoint. As you imply, this is a different agenda from a ‘sociology of globalization’, which suggests that there is an exogenous phenomenon, called globalization, which can be differently understood by economists, geographers, sociologists or scholars in other disciplines. Of course, there is some convergence between the two exercises, but their different starting points provide distinctive perspectives.

 Since Global Sociology was first published in 2000 there have been many important events from economic crises to violent conflict to widespread political protests. Have any of these events challenged some of your earlier assumptions?

As you say we had to adjust to major shifts. Between the first and second edition (2007), we saw the rise of the anti-globalization movement, 9/11 (and all that implied), the collapse of Enron and the invasion of Iraq. Between the second and third edition (2012) we saw global shifts in power (notably to Brazil, Russia, India and China), the worldwide recession (centred in Europe and the USA), the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ movement’ and the Arab Spring. It’s tempting to mount the Zhou Enlai defense – when asked about the significance of the French revolution the first post-revolutionary Chinese premier purportedly replied ‘It’s too early to tell’. However, just taking two examples, I would stick my head above the parapet and say ‘we nearly got it right’. We understood that Enron was not just the collapse of an important US corporation but signified the start of a wider financial crisis and was a body-blow to neo-liberal ideology. But, writing in 2006/7, we had little sense of quite how deep the recession would be. We thought that the invasion of Iraq was likely to be a disaster, but again we did not spell that out sufficiently.

 Each edition of Global Sociology has included significant updates. For example, the second edition sees the addition of global civil society in place of social movements and INGOs. In the third edition you bring political activism into the same discussion. How have these changes been influenced by recent events?

Thanks for that recognition. We have tried in the successive editions to do a proper job of revision – not just tidying up a few sentences and updating the tables and charts. As you say, the 3rd edition has seriously tried to address the issue of political activism. In the developed countries we have focused on the ‘Occupy’ movement and the movements against austerity measures. In the emergent world we have concentrated on the Arab Spring. In the early half of the twentieth century successful political movements (Bolshevism, Fascism, Peronism, Nazism) were characterized by a tight organizational structure and the top-down manipulation of popular sentiments. Now the renewed salience of social movements depends on bottom-up activism, with all the problems that comes with that. Though we tempered our analysis with all kinds of cautionary observations, perhaps we still are too over-optimistic about peoples’ power. Samuel Johnson said that second marriages are a triumph of hope over experience. Paul and I are seasoned political observers and we should arguably have been even more guarded in assessing the future of movements (like Occupy Wall Street) without organizational structures, effective leaderships and a coherent programme.

How do you situate the specifically political role of activism within global processes?

Let’s start by extending an old definition of politics. Politics is the capacity to coerce or persuade someone to do something they otherwise would not do. By extension, it is also the capacity to prevent somebody doing something to you that they wish to do. In our discussions of political activism we include many observations on the persuasive power of global social movements (on the environment and human rights and in defense of the interests of workers and women). We also talk about the effects of the Arab Spring, particularly the demonstration effect that led to such momentous changes in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia (Syria is unresolved). In these cases popular action created new governments, though they are likely to revert to some old ways. But I would emphasize too that political activism is also about prevention – stopping the rebuilding of nuclear plants in Japan, preventing new ones in Germany, and trying to halt the imposition of austerity measures in Spain, Greece and elsewhere.

Another addition is a discussion of digital media. What impact has the increase in digital and social media had on thinking in terms of global sociology?

Understanding the functions, potential and limitations of digital and social media is crucial for our discussion. When I talked about surmounting and subverting the various levels of our analysis I had the digital media partly in mind. By effecting horizontal linkages without regard to the historical territorialization of power, the new media has created all sorts of effects – destructive ones like the spread of pornography and the commoditization of  everything, but also progressive ones like the spread of discourses about human rights, accountability and democracy.

 Personally, your recent work focuses on migration, culture and creolization. How are these interests brought into the new edition?

I’ve tried not to overdo this – in fact Paul drafted much of the material on migration. Both of us have tried quite hard not to rewrite old books and present them as new material. We try to get out of our comfort zones to understand and synthesize material with which we are not that familiar. Having said that, I would like to persuade more sociologists to address the issue of converging and diverging cultures, whether they use the lenses of hybridity, syncretism, creolization, cosmopolitanism, or in some other way.  As Stuart Hall rightly remarked, the problem for the 21st century is how are we going to rub along with one another?

 Are there any other features of the new edition about which you would like to comment?

I would like to draw attention to Chapter 13, written by Maud Perrier, who has assisted us in different ways. Using her knowledge of family sociology in different countries, she is able to show how intimacy itself becomes globalized. This adds yet another scale to our multi-scalar starting point.

Please see here for further information. 

(interview by Alistair Brisbourne)