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Peter Wagner: "Other societies may teach Europeans that more effort and more creativity are necessary to address the new global situation"

"For the research I have been doing and what I want to do in the future, it is important for me to have a setting in which, first of all, sociology is more open-minded than in other places, in particular at the University of Barcelona, compared to other universities in general"

"For the research I have been doing and what I want to do in the future, it is important for me to have a setting in which, first of all, sociology is more open-minded than in other places, in particular at the University of Barcelona, compared to other universities in general"

"We need a new debate about the relation between sociology, in the middle perhaps, and economic individualist thinking on one side and political and institutional thinking on the other"

"We need a new debate about the relation between sociology, in the middle perhaps, and economic individualist thinking on one side and political and institutional thinking on the other"

17/01/2011

Peter Wagner has chosen the University of Barcelona as the setting in which to continue his research, where he will be based in the Department of Sociological Theory, Philosophy of Law and Methodology of the Social Sciences, part of the Faculty of Economics and Business. Wagner is an ICREA researcher and director of the TRAMOD project at the UB, for which he has received a prestigious Advanced Grant from the European Research Council. His work focuses on comparative historical and political sociology, social and political theory and the sociology of the social sciences, areas in which he has achieved broad international recognition. In social and political theory, his approach to modernity – which is his most cited work – combines institutional analysis with an interpretative focus on the self-understanding of modern societies. In recent work he has analysed the process of European integration through the study of institutional transformations in European societies over the last two hundred years and changes in European self-awareness. A synthesis of this work has been published as "Modernity as experience and interpretation: a new sociology of modernity" (Cambridge, Polity, 2008).

Why did you decide to come to Barcelona, and specifically to the UB, to continue your sociology research?

 
When I first heard about ICREA I thought it was a very good instrument of scientific policy, but at that point I wasn’t thinking of my own situation. But at a later point I thought that perhaps this would be a way of coming to Barcelona, and that is how it worked out. With regard to the University of Barcelona in particular, I knew some colleagues here whose work I liked and with whom I had had some contact before. Also, for the research I have been doing and what I want to do in the future, it is important for me to have a setting in which, first of all, sociology is more open-minded than in other places, in particular at the University of Barcelona, compared to other universities in general, in Catalonia, Spain or Europe. This means a sociology that is open to basic theoretical questions and that is open to historical matters. This is not always the case any longer. Sociology has become a bit too professional in many places, which means that it has become less open to other aspects. But here I think it is the case. That is one reason. And the other reason, which maybe applies more broadly to Barcelona and also to Spain, is that my ongoing research is a kind of global sociology, which looks at European societies in comparison with non-European societies, and to do this I need a context which is a bit cosmopolitan. For instance, I will be studying Latin-American countries, and to be here in Barcelona is very good for that – much better than other places in Europe.
 
I arrived in the summer, so everything is new at the moment, but for now the experiences are very positive. I have come here with a research project, which will involve the hiring of other researchers, the development of cooperative research, which has some spatial and structural requirements, and we are still in the process of building this up.  But things are going fairly smoothly, so I’m very happy.
 
What stage is your research project at?
 
We are in the initial phase. The project started in July, and it is a relatively large and important project that will run over five years and involve some ten or twelve researchers, so much of the time until now has been spent with finding the postdoctoral and doctoral researchers who will be working on the project. They are joining us more or less now – one is already there, another one will start next month, another in January – so it is the building-up phase at the moment, the phase before the actual research really starts. We are at the very beginning.
 
Much of your project is concerned with the study of South Africa and Brazil. Why these two societies in particular?
 
The basic question I’m interested in is whether, under our current, global conditions, societies still have the possibility to develop their own way of living together, or whether everything becomes more similar, whether we all live in market-based and democratic societies which are all very similar, as many of my colleagues think. Personally I think that this is not the case. I believe that we still have different societies and we make different decisions about how to live together. To investigate this in earlier work, I have looked at European societies and the US in comparison, but I wanted to broaden beyond the West, so to speak, and I wanted in particular to look at those societies where one can see ongoing work and debate about what is specific to them, what their own experiences are and how they can develop their own understanding of this. This is the case of post-apartheid South Africa: the idea of a new way of living together, between the white- and the black-African population, and the forming of a new society after the oppression of apartheid. And Brazil is somewhat similar in the sense that it is a society which has long been ruled by a small elite of industrialists and land owners, yet in recent years public participation has broadened very quickly, there is a very lively concept of citizenship and citizenship practices are emerging, and there is also something particular in the self-understanding of Brazilians about their society. These are two cases linked to the idea that there is a plurality of ways of organizing modern society.
 
In your research you discuss the concept of "collective creativity". How would you apply this in the case of Europe? Do you think we have the "collective creativity" to meet the challenges we are facing, and how do we compare with societies on other continents?
 
I will start by commenting on this specific term, which is important for my work for reasons of contrast. In many of the social sciences one now tends to think more of individuals rather than collectivities, and more in terms of rationality than creativity; rational choice in economics, but also in sociology and other sciences. I think that this is a very limited view of the social world and of the human being, so even though we may have become more individual, and maybe – or maybe not – more rational as well, creative imagination and the desire to do things collectively remain important. That’s why this term in general is important, and that’s why I want to look at collectivities, like some large societies, and the creative development of their own solutions to their own problems. In Europe, I think that nations have generally always been the most important collectivity, but the past century has seen the building of Europe in the new global context; in the post-Second World War context, first of all, and now in the context of socialism and globalization, which Europeans have tried to develop creatively, finding collective solutions to their problems. This is a process I have studied before, which has many shortcomings, but which in many respects has been interesting and relevant in the global context. It may be true that the relative success of this process in Europe has only been achieved because European societies overall are relatively rich in the world context and also relatively well established as democracies, and that they can only carry out this development because of these general conditions. However, I do not believe that this is entirely the case. First of all – and I think that Brazil and South Africa are perhaps good examples – these are perhaps not the most important conditions for developing one’s own self-understanding; it is possible that other elements are more important, in particular the context of historical problems and the strong collective will to address these problems, which may be stronger at the moment in Brazil or South Africa than it is in Europe. Secondly, it may also be true that Europe and Europeans are currently too convinced by their own institutions and their historical solutions, so they think that they can just continue to live in the same way and perhaps adapt them a bit. This may be too little in the current global context, and other societies may also teach Europeans that more effort and more creativity are necessary to address the new global situation.
 
What are the principal challenges in sociology today?
 
Among the social sciences, sociology has often been the discipline that has worked with what we might call ‘collective concepts’ like society, class, nation and state. These are the concepts that have been central to sociology, and many of them are now being critically discussed, as we talk about the decline of national identities and the decline of the working class or of class-consciousness in general, which is all true empirically. However, one of the major problems for sociology is how to deal with this situation without resorting to individualism and rationalism as we have done in economics, and without simply falling back on an understanding of the state and institutions. Sociologists have to look anew at what is specific to them – the relations between human begins, social relations and social configurations, which are neither imperialistic and rationalistic nor just institutional and legal. We need a new debate about the relation between sociology, in the middle perhaps, and economic individualist thinking on one side and political and institutional thinking on the other. This is very difficult in the context of globalization, but it is necessary to develop new tools of this type. What I’m trying to do with regard to the self-understanding of different societies in the world is also an attempt to develop the kind of sociology that remains interested in collectivity, without thinking that nations, states and classes are coherent and there forever, but rather to seeing them as places in which communication takes place. That is my own answer to what I think is the future challenge of sociology. I do not think that everyone should look at it the way I do, but sociology should understand that it is at an important moment in its own history and that it must find its own answers, which are neither those of economics nor those of political science.
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