Cosmopolitanism and solidarity

Confronting upheavals in the global economy, the prominence of global political conflicts, the global risks created by environmental damage, and the new connections forged through global media and migrations, many recognize the need for renewal of social solidarity. How do we imagine cohabitation and ideally cooperation on large-scales, at long distances, and with deep differences? This question is pressed on us by our embeddedness in impersonal systems like the global economy, the prominence of global political conflicts, the global risks created by environmental damage, and the connections forged through global media and migrations. This project addresses the basic question of how that solidarity can be achieved – and in what ways it is limited or resisted – on scales larger than directly interpersonal relations yet more specific than abstract universal categories like the human.

The focus of the project is on the problem of being "good strangers", that is, of finding appropriate ways to cohabit and cooperate that are not entirely dependent on interpersonal relationships (as in friendship, family, and local community) or common culture (whether national, religious, or other). It is a problem Durkheim made famous, though his account of functional integration within the nation-state did not fully resolve it. Appeals to abstract, universal principles such as human rights do not by themselves provide an adequate framework for understanding the effort to forge relationships across lines of difference. An adequate cosmopolitan perspective cannot be based simply on the notion of equivalence among human individuals, nor on universal application of concrete norms. It must take deeper account of difference and of solidarities between the scales of families and friends and humanity as a whole. Both sociological analysis and normative improvements depend on grasping the nature of connections and transformations at these intermediate scales. Solidarities are multiple and overlapping: nations, religions, ethnicities, professions, and more. Connections are also created through media, markets, migration, social movements, life in neighborhoods, employment in giant corporations, shared reliance on natural resources like rivers, and shared exposure to environmental degradation. Analysis of the dynamics of connections, of what responsibilities follow from them, and of what makes them more peaceful and productive or conflictual and destructive is a vital complement to study of immediately interpersonal solidarities on the one hand and universal norms on the other. Connections do not all follow the logic of “nesting” or matching populations to territories – as local, national, and global scales stereotypically do. Many are cross-cutting, as for example humanitarian interventions, religious missions, migrations, and business ventures are all organized across the lines of more stable, longer-term solidarities. Cities are not simply one intermediate scale, but also sites for dynamic relations among people in different cross-cutting solidarities. Conventional comparison of nation-states misses much; it is crucial also to attend to circulations, more or less porous edges as well as borders, linkages, mutual influences, and contexts. Above all, both sociological and normative analysis must focus on transformations not assumed steady states. Relations across lines of difference are never just translations of cultural content; they always open the possibility of transformation of the participants. The making and remaking of connections changes the connected parties (whether these are individuals or formal organizations or solidarities at various scales).

This research focuses on three sites of connection and transformation in order to explore broader dynamics:

  • First, cities are concrete settings for relations (and resistances) across many lines of difference. The dynamics of urban social integration are distinct from those of nation-states, and shaped by processes at larger scales from European integration to global migration. Research under this chair will address not only social patterns like the use of public space but the ways in which the urban infrastructure or “built environment” shapes these.
  • Second, public spheres are not simply dependent on prior solidarity but are themselves forms of solidarity integrating communication among and recognition of diverse groups and perspectives. The relationship among urban, national, and transnational publics is crucial. Research under this chair will contribute to debates about the extent (and limits) of the European public sphere and its relationship to more global as well as national public communication. 
  • Third, longstanding forms of solidarity like nations and religions are not simply “inheritances” that either remain fixed or suffer decline in an era of globalization. They are continually reshaped in contemporary practical engagements. Cosmopolitan or global society should not be conceptualized as overcoming or transcending them. They may be transformed from inside as well as out, not least by social movements and public debates that seek to change nations or religions for the better.

The stakes of this inquiry concern both internal solidarity (e.g., in European nation-states) and external relations (e.g., as both nation-states and the EU relate to global connections and transformations). Obviously, therefore, it will be set against a background of attention to markets (both licit and illicit), media, even military action though these are not its primary focus. The focus is on taking social connections and their transformations seriously. This demands attention to multiple scales of solidarity (and resistance) and to power and inequality, not merely personal ethical orientations. Finally, then, the issue of cosmopolitanism as I pose it concerns not just seeing the world as a global whole, whether linked by humanist universalism or the idea of a single risk community. It addresses, rather, the politics implicit in all world-making: the possibility of collective choices as to how larger scale connections will be achieved. In this regard I ask to what extent are current patterns of transformation evacuating or destroying the potential for effective public discourse and action, or conversely, how can this potential be renewed, both in nations, in cross-cutting transitional relations, and on multiple other scales.

Mis à jour le
30 September 2013

Scientific officer


Conversation with Graig Calhoun

Craig Calhoun, Professor of the Social Sciences at New York University, is the scientific officer of the chaire Cosmopolitanism and solidarity