Cosmopolitan Sociology

Ulrich Beck & Natan Sznaider. Encyclopedia of Social Theory. Editor: George Ritzer. Volume 1. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Reference, 2005.

Why is There a Need for a Cosmopolitan Social and Political Theory?

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, we have to redefine and reinvent the social sciences and humanities for the global world. This is a double challenge: first, to discover and criticize how sociology, political science, history, and so forth are still prisoners of the nation-state and gave birth to a historically mistaken national imagination. Second, how to transnationally redefine the basic theoretical concepts and units of empirical research, such as politics, society, identity, state, history, class, law, democracy, community, solidarity, justice, mobility, military, and household, in a cosmopolitan perspective. This calls for a paradigm shift. This is also a “Cosmopolitan Manifesto for the Social Sciences,” not only to renew their scientific standing and public claims but also to bring the social sciences back on the public agenda.

The classics of sociology are so thoroughly pervaded with a spatially fixed understanding of culture that it is rarely remarked upon. It is a conception that goes back to sociology’s birth amidst the nineteenth-century formation of nation-states. The territorial conception of culture and society, the idea of culture as “rooted” and “limited,” constituted through the opposition of the “We” and “Them,” was itself a reaction to the enormous changes that were going on as that century turned into the twentieth century. It was a conscious attempt to provide a solution to the uprooting of local cultures that the formation of nation-states necessarily involved. Sociology understood the new symbols and common values, above all, as means of integration into a new unity. The triumph of this national imagination can be seen in the way the nation-state has ceased to appear as a project and a construct and has become instead widely regarded as something natural. The opposition between national and international has become the internalized compass of the social sciences. A cosmopolitan sociology poses a challenge to this idea that binding history and borders tightly together is the only possible means of social and symbolic integration. This also means that sociological perspectives are geared to, and organized in terms of, the nation-state. All the traditional fields of the social sciences (such as the sociology of inequality, of the family, of politics, of mobility and migration, and so on) are still being researched in the nation-state tradition. The concept of “cosmopolitanization,” by contrast, is an explicit attempt to overcome this “methodological nationalism” and produce concepts capable of reflecting a newly transnational world. It consciously develops a new methodology: “methodological cosmopolitanism.”

What Does “Cosmopolitan” Mean in this Perspective?

From a national perspective, “cosmopolitan” or “cosmopolitanism” is viewed pejoratively, as an enemy image. “Cosmopolitan” refers to the “global player,” the “imperial capitalist,” or “middle-class intellectual without local roots” and as such is a loaded concept. It should not be confused with a global sociology trying to homogenize the world. It is a concept with a long tradition, but not in the social sciences. It goes back to ancient Greek thought, trying to express the transcendence of local limitations in thought and practice. Alexander the Great elevated cosmopolitanism to a political principle. Superseded by Christian Universalism, it became one of the basic concepts of the Enlightenment. With the formation of the nation-state, the concept disappeared from public discourse and was used mainly as a pejorative term. This is beginning to change.

Cosmopolitan Moments

As people try to strengthen the philosophical and historical foundations of the theory of cosmopolitanism, more and more thinkers have been drawing on what they regard as a previous golden moment of cosmopolitan thought, namely, the Enlightenment (Bohman and Lutz-Bachmann 1997). However, the Enlightenment’s relationship to cosmopolitanism is not the direction taken by cosmopolitan sociology.

Hellenism might be a good starting point for current cosmopolitan sensibilities (Baldry 1965). Besides claiming it as the first golden age of cosmopolitanism, many of the principles that underlie our current theories and practices of cosmopolitanism derive as much from this period as from the cosmopolitan golden age of the Enlightenment. Historically, there are many things we can learn from this period that are often obscured when we study Enlightenment cosmopolitanism alone. The first thing that is obvious when we look at the Hellenistic period is that the rise and spread of cosmopolitan ideas always had a social and political underpinning. This is often less obvious when we concentrate on the abstract philosophy of the Enlightenment. In the Hellenistic period (as opposed to the Enlightenment), cosmopolitan ideas spread among people at all levels of society. And part of the reason they did so is because philosophy became religion, specifically the syncretistic religions that are still considered one of the prime characteristics of specifically Hellenistic culture. It presents, therefore, the clearest historical example of what actually happens when universalistic philosophy and particularistic local cultures exist side by side for centuries: They mix and produce new forms of both. They produce new forms of rooted cosmopolitanism, and they produce new forms of localism that are open to the world. By “rooted cosmopolitanism,” we mean universal values that are emotionally engaging, that descend from the level of pure abstract philosophy and into the emotions of people’s everyday lives. By becoming symbols of people’s personal identities, cosmopolitan philosophy becomes a political and social force. And by embodying philosophy in rituals, such identities are created, reinforced, and integrated into communities. This is what happened in the transition from Greek philosophy to syncretistic religions.

The most important syncretistic religion to grow out of the Hellenistic period was Christianity, a clear combination of universalistic, Hellenistic Greek philosophy (especially Stoicism and neo-Platonism) and local religious beliefs (most notably Jewish Messianism). Together, they changed the elite ethos of Stoicism into the mass religion of Christianity. But what difference does it make for the spread of cosmopolitan ideas? Calling it a secularized religion rather than an abstracted philosophy emphasizes the centrality of emotional engagement and social integration. And it emphasizes that both are bound up with symbol and ritual, not just with spoken ideas. Symbol and ritual are what make philosophy into personal and social identity. And for a cosmopolitan sociology, this is a central point distinguishing it from abstract cosmopolitan ideas.

Moral Cosmopolitanism

For example, one of the leading modern cosmopolitan ideas today is expressed in the concept of human rights. The text most people think of as the founding text of modern human rights campaigning is Kant’s On Perpetual Peace. But Kant’s idea was that a stable and peaceful political order could be constructed only out of nation-states that made mutually supportive vows of nonintervention. This view was embodied to a large degree in the League of Nations and the original United Nations charter and can be considered in many ways to be the beginning of the idea of modern international law, an essential cosmopolitan idea. But there is no escaping that Kant’s project regards the sovereignty of nation-states as sacrosanct. However, modern cosmopolitan politics begins with the principle that sovereignty is not the highest principle and is not sacrosanct. Rather, the highest principle comprises human dignity and well-being and the duty to prevent suffering wherever it occurs—to not stand by and allow innocent people to be slaughtered.

So, the philosophical origins of a cosmopolitan sociology lie not only in the French and German Enlightenment, whose ideas it reversed, but mainly in the Scottish Enlightenment, specifically in the idea that there are duties imposed by sympathy and benevolence. Scottish Enlightenment thinkers argued that the social conditions that fostered sympathy were the increase in wealth, the increase in interaction, and the increase in equality, and that all of these conditions would be increased as the market spread. In other words, it was argued that market cosmopolitanism and moral cosmopolitanism were mutually supportive.

Market Cosmopolitanism

History has, in fact, borne that argument out. As the market has developed over the last few centuries, our tolerance for cruelty has dramatically changed. The market does injure lots of people. But it also brings them within the circle of sympathy. That is, it seems consistently to excite a politically significant mass of people that this harm can and must be remedied. And, crucially, it provides the means to do something about it. It brings people inside the circle not only of sympathy, but of effective sympathy. And this is one of the key social foundations of cosmopolitanism. By moral cosmopolitanism, we mean the belief that our duty to ameliorate the suffering of individuals is more important than any artificial political barrier that may stand in our way.

One of the main parallels between the Hellenistic and Enlightenment moments of cosmopolitanism is that the spread of cosmopolitanism among the population depended on the growth of trade and communication. As Marx once said, the market puts people into contact with innumerable unknown others—and to this we would add, who then become known others through the newly incited movement for reform, which would not have taken place (and would have had no “purchase” to affect things if they did take place) so long as such ill treatment remained outside the market. And for cosmopolitanism to spread widely among the world’s population and become the basis of political mobilization, it needs to be embodied in symbols and rituals so that it can become the basis of personal identity. This last point is important because this is finally the ultimate political foundation of cosmopolitanism: the feeling of individuals that they are doing something wrong by ignoring suffering. Properly mobilized, this is what creates the new political facts that enable cosmopolitan political action.

New Cosmopolitanism

And this is why a new cosmopolitanism is in the air: Through criticism, the concept has been rediscovered and reinvented. Over the last years or so, there has been a sharp increase in the literature that attempts to relate the discourse on globalization (in cultural and political terms) to a redefinition of cosmopolitanism for the global age.

Thus, cosmopolitanism relates to a premodern ambivalence toward a dual identity and a dual loyalty. Every human being is rooted by birth in two worlds, two communities: in the cosmos (that is, nature) and in the polis (that is, the city-state).

To be more precise: Individuals are rooted in one cosmos but in different cities, territories, ethnicities, hierarchies, nations, religions, and so on at the same time. This creates not exclusivity, but an inclusive plural membership. Being part of the cosmos means that all men and women are equal by nature yet part of different states organized into territorial units (polis). “Cosmopolitanism” ignores an “either/or” principle and embodies a “this or that” principle. These are ancient hybrid, or mélange, scale–flow concepts. Thus, cosmopolitanism generates a logic of nonexclusive oppositions, making “patriots” of two worlds that are at the same time equal and different.

Toward a Cosmopolitan Social Science

What makes cosmopolitanism so interesting for the social and political theory of modern societies is its thinking and living in terms of inclusive oppositions. Nature is associated with society; the object is part of subjectivity; otherness of the other is included in one’s own self-identity and self-definition; and the logic of exclusive oppositions is rejected. Nature is no longer separated from national or international society; either as a subject or object, “We” are not opposed to “Them.” The opposition between war and peace has been overthrown by the one between war and “heroism.” This has clearly methodological consequences. We argue, therefore, that in the social sciences, “methodological cosmopolitanism” is opposed to “methodological nationalism,” rejecting the state-centered perspective and sociological (lack of) imagination. It attempts to overcome the naive universalism of early Western sociology. Methodological cosmopolitanism implies becoming sensitive and open to the many universalisms, the conflicting contextual universalisms, for example, of the postcolonial experience, critique and imagination. Methodological cosmopolitanism also means including other (“native”) sociologies, the sociologies of and about African, Asian, and South American experiences of “entangled modernities” (Therborn 2003). “Entangled modernities” replace the dualism of the modern and the traditional, pointing to and again creating the image of a deterritorialized mélange of conflicting contextual modernities in their economic, cultural, and political dimensions.

All of our existing political categories presume the nation-state as the ultimate political reality, and this methodological nationalism is clearly at work in our conviction that the way to clarify any mixture is to segregate out which nation is the influencer and which one is the influencee. The world is generating a growing number of such mixed cases, which make less sense according to the “either/or” logic of nationality than to the “this-as-well-as-that” logic of transnationality. Our intellectual frames of reference are so deeply ingrained that this transnational way of thinking has been comparatively undeveloped. A cosmopolitan sociology is an antidote to ethnocentrism and nationalism. It should not be mistaken for multicultural euphoria. On the contrary, cosmopolitanism starts from the hard-won insight that there is an invariable connection between ethnocentrism and the hatred of foreigners, and tries to advance beyond this sort of “common sense.” For a similar reason, cosmopolitanism is an advance over the concept of “hybridization” because it avoids the dangers inherent in using biological metaphors for human difference.

Institutionalized Cosmopolitanism

The first modern world was a national world. There was a clear division between inner and outer, between domestic and foreign. In that world, the nation-state was the principle of order. Politics was national politics; culture was national culture; and labor, class formation, and class conflict were all primarily features of the nation-state. International politics was a multiplication of nation-states, each defining each other’s borders and mirroring each other’s essential categories. National and international were two sides of an interdependent whole. It was as impossible to conceive of a nation-state in isolation as to imagine an inner without an outer. Rooted cosmopolitanism, on the other hand, is defined against the two extremes of being at home everywhere and being at home nowhere. It means to be engaged in the local and the global at the same time. It is opposed to ethnocentrism but also to universalism, whether from the Left or the Right. When it comes to the critique of imperialism, rooted cosmopolitanism points out that in a postcolonial world, there is no pure, precolonized nation to go back to.

A cosmopolitan sociology means, therefore, that issues of global concern are becoming part of the everyday local experiences and the “moral lifeworlds” of the people. This paradigm change has already been announced by different people in different fields in the social sciences (Appadurai 1990; Archibugi and Held 1995; Beck 2000, 2002; Cheah and Robbins 1998; Vertovec and Cohen 2002). Thus, a cosmopolitan sociology imposes fundamental questions of redefinition, reinvention, and reorganization. These challenges are related to two fundamental processes: globalization and individualization. Globalization is mostly related to space and often defined in terms of “time-space compression” and/or “deterritorialization.” But the other side of the coin, individualization, also means the cosmopolitanization of time and collective memory. The experience of a cosmopolitan crisis (world risk society) implies, as well, that more and more people all over the world are reflecting on a shared collective future, which might even contradict nation-based memories of the past. Cosmopolitan sentiment or a cosmopolitan common sense has to be distinguished from institutionalized cosmopolitanism through legal institutions such as the International Criminal Court, the human rights regime codified in conventions and courts and multilateral agreements. The European Union and its “cosmopolitan entrepreneurs,” the European Commission, Court, and Parliament appear to provide some answers not only to the horrors of the twentieth century but also to the increasing loss of state sovereignty.

The Holocaust, or rather the collective memories that have sprung from it during the last six decades, is a paradigmatic case for the political and cultural salience of cosmopolitan sentiments (Levy and Sznaider 2002). A “cosmopolitan state” not only separating nation and state but also acting transnationally seems to be the next stage in an institutionalized cosmopolitanism (Beck 2002). Cosmopolitan states connect self-determination with responsibility for those who are not part of the nation-state. And this becomes institutionalized through the human rights regime, which will find a way to civilize a global risk society. And it should not be confused with a “false cosmopolitanism” or global unilateralism, which means nothing but the pursuit of national interest in the name of cosmopolitan values. Another side of “institutionalized cosmopolitanism” is through individualism or internalized cosmopolitanism. Issues of global concerns are becoming part of one’s moral lifeworld, no matter if people are for or against them. The cosmopolitan horizon becomes institutionalized in our own subjective lives. A cosmopolitan sociology, therefore, brings the subject back into the social sciences after system theory and poststructuralist theories have tried to construct a social science without subjects.

Cosmopolitanism and Universalism

Cosmopolitanism diverges from universalism in that it assumes that there is not one language of cosmopolitanism, but many languages, tongues, and grammars. Cosmopolitanism means also disputing about its consequences. This paradigmatic reconstruction of social science from a national to a cosmopolitan perspective can be understood and explained as a “positive problem shift” (Lakatos 1970). Previously, the national cosmos could be decomposed into a clear distinction between inside and outside. Between the two, the nation-state governed, and order was established. Thus, there is a strong and hidden relationship between universalism and nationalism. In the inner space of the nation-state, the central themes of sociology, such as work, politics, law, social inequality, justice, and cultural identity, were negotiated against the background of the action. And even here, the national/international distinction always represented a permanent self-affirming prophecy. Against the background of a cosmopolitan social science, it becomes suddenly obvious that it is neither possible to distinguish clearly between the national and the international nor, in a similar way, to contrast homogenous units. National spaces have become denationalized, so that the national is no longer national, just as the international is no longer international. And therefore, the universalism of social and political theory collapses as well.