Funding institutions:

Seventh Framework Programme (FP7)

European Research Council (ERC)


Institució Catalana de Recerca i Estudis Avançats (ICREA)

Centre d’Estudis sobre Cultura, Política i Societat (CECUPS)


White, Sand and Ochre 1960-1 by William Scott 1913-1989


The “Trajectories of modernity” (TRAMOD) project aims at advancing the comparative analysis of contemporary societies and polities with a particular emphasis on the existing plurality of societal self-understandings and related institutional structures in the current global context. It analyzes these self-understandings against the background of the historical trajectories of those societies. The analysis of the existing multiple forms of modernity is the major challenge to current social and political theory and comparative-historical and political sociology. It requires a conceptual and empirical analysis of that which is common to different forms of modernity and that which varies between them.

The specific objectives are:

  •  (a) to complement the prevalent institutional analysis of modern societies with an interpretative approach that focuses on societal self-understandings, and to elaborate an understanding of how novel interpretations emerge and how they contribute to reshaping institutions;
  • (b) to disentangle the overly complex concept of modernity into components that are empirically analyzable in terms of both commonalities shared by all modern societies and differences that are due to the variety of possible interpretations of modernity – in a first step, these components are defined as the political, economic and epistemic problématiques of modernity respectively, or in other words, as the answers societies give to the questions: what are the rules that enable people to live together; how will their material needs best be satisfied; what are the knowledge bases on which social action can rest;
  • (c) to analyze selected non-European societies – in sub-Saharan Africa and South America – in terms of their specific articulations of these components of modernity and their historical transformations;
  • (d) to confront analyses of European modernity with the new analyses of non-European modernities with a view to laying empirically rich foundations for a global sociology of trajectories of modernity.

TRAMOD has made major steps towards accomplishing its core objectives. Maybe most fundamentally, it embarked on an extensive retrieval of historical and conceptual debates that aim at revising prevalent views of the past half millennium of human history, in the West often joined together as the periods of early modernity and modernity. In particular, TRAMOD

  • (a) established points of intersection with recent “world-history” that aims to overcome the historiographies centered on Europe and nations in Europe;
  • (b) related its work to the philosophy of modernity, and specifically the political philosophy of modernity, broadening the historical and conceptual range of modern self-understandings to include periods before 1750 and regions of the world outside of its northwestern quarter;
  • (c) critically engaged with post-colonial scholarship, in the broadest sense of the term, and the recent debate about “theories from the South” that challenge the dominant “Northern” approach to socio-historical analysis; and
  • (d) integrated historical and sociological research on “Southern” and “Northern” societies in such a way that interconnections between world-regions and entanglements of interpretative and institutional practices become visible.

As a sum of these developments, TRAMOD is at the point of elaborating a “world-sociology of modernity” that

  • (a) works with a suitably enlarged concept of modernity that is able to grasp a wider set of issues in a more balanced way than hitherto;
  • (b) gives adequate space to human agency in social change by developing and applying a concept of “societal self-understanding” that refers to ongoing communicative exchange between members of a society rather than any self-propelled logic of development;
  • (c) addresses historical transformations of modernity from a global rather than “Northern” perspective; and
  • (d) employs its tools towards comparatively analyzing the similarities and differences between self-understandings of modernity in different societies and regions.

TRAMOD research concentrates on various “worksites”, as follows: With regard to the political problématique of modernity, TRAMOD provides a comprehensive retrieval of political concepts that are crucial for modern self-understandings: autonomy, freedom, citizenship, democracy, republic, sovereignty, state. It has situated conceptual elaboration and change in its historical contexts; has widened the understanding of political modernity beyond its usual spatial and temporal limitations; and has opened the view to the inherent tensions within the political self-understanding of modernity. Relating the project’s focus on self-understandings to the concept of political imagination, furthermore, the research has made temporality central to the idea of political modernity, exploring both the inevitability of considering the past interactions between members of a polity and the normative claims on the future as necessarily informing political action.

The research on the economic problématique of modernity took as its starting-point the insight that early ideas of market society, rather than endorsing the functional superiority of market self-regulation, were a response to a key problem of classical political thought: that free interaction can not occur between human beings who are tied by relations of dependence. Commerce was supposed to make human beings equal and free by replacing unilateral dependence by reciprocal interdependence. TRAMOD research has traced both conceptually and institutionally the history of capitalism, including colonial economic domination, and of the welfare state as remedial action in this light.

Furthermore, the problématiques of modernity have been studied in the particular expressions they find in southern Africa and South America, focussing on modern self-understandings as well as critical and self-critical attitudes to modernity over the past two centuries. In contrast to prevailing ideas about modernity diffusing from its European (or: Northern) origins across the world, this research demonstrates the parallel and entangled elaborations of modern forms of social life in considerable variety. For the contemporary period, a series of comparative case analyses, focussing on key problems of contemporary society, underpins the finding of both persistent variety and deep connectedness of modern forms of socio-political organization.