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Summer Institute

Concept Statement | Provisional Programme



Over the last decade, in the slipstream of the social study of globalization, "modernity" - often defined in opposition to the supposedly unilineal and eurocentric concept of "modernization" - has become a highly fashionable notion in various branches of the social sciences. More and more social science publishers decide that their lists are incomplete without titles mentioning "modernity". At the same time, some think the pendulum of academic fashion ought to swing back to the argument that, like "modernization", "modernity" signifies a eurocentric metanarrative that, in its global sweep, leaves insufficient room for local differences. Reasoning in between, scholars debate the question whether modernity is singular or multiple, whether it still signifies a temporal break, or is being "spatialized", whether it is a mere ideological construct or a substantive social development, and whether "we" - whoever that may be - have, or have never been, modern. In the meantime, many of our graduate students struggle with the concept: what do I do with "modernity" in my thesis?

It is disconcerting to see how quickly late twentieth century intellectual developments adopt, discard, or trivialize notions that were launched not so long ago with great enthusiasm and sense of direction. Like "globalization" and "postmodernity", the term "modernity" seems to be caught in the cross-fire of critique and the proliferation of its use to such an extent that it threatens to evaporate its former promise of providing a critical distance towards classical social science's visions of "modernization" and "development". We would like to re-emphaszie this critical potential by urging that social scientific approaches focus more intently on the genealogies of modernity.

A "genealogical" study of a social construct implies, firstly, that one does away with the assumption that one should or could pinpoint its "origin", a singular departure that determines the essence and goal of the development of this social construct. Secondly, this decentering of the unilineal trajectory of this social construct should also question the effects of power, social organisation and morality that these assumptions of "development" highlight as central. Applying this to the uses (or misuses) of the notion of "modernity", it becomes immediately apparent that "modernization" and "modernity" (whether referring to actual social practices governed by these terms, or to the attempt to impose a discourse of unilineal development to social practice) cannot be easily disentangled.

The theorists of social and political modernization of the 1950s and 1960s, for instance, used both terms more or less interchangeably, often constituting "modernity" as the end point of a modernization process (in a sometimes neat fit with Talcott Parsons' famous - or notorious - sets of "pattern variables"). This implied a flattening out - an Americanization - of the often more historically sophisticated trajectory of social development sketched by Max Weber. Recently, German and French scholars have advocated the need for a drastic reevaluation of Weber's work, bringing out counterpoints to his main arguments that have remained hidden by the attempts to force his thinking into a unilineal trajectory of, for instance, a universal "disentchantment" of the world. Others have argued that Weber's historical scholarship was not flawless, and that he missed certain historical trends that identify a romantic reenchantment of modern society carried by the spiritualities of consumerism.

Similar ways to decenter and comment upon the social effects of the grand narratives of modernity or modernization can be found in recent thinking about other founding fathers of social science. Restudies of Emile Durkheim and Marcel Mauss's thoughts about magic and religion have surfaced a profound ambivalence about the extent to which their preoccupation with mass society and crowd psychology displays a return to the "mechanical" solidarities that their main narrative declared to be un-modern. Durkheim's thinking about the collective moral consciousness necessary for the modern State - with a large S - links up with recent arguments about the "magic" or the "theological effect" of the social construct of the "State". The rereading of Marx along more literary lines has produced scholarship about the anxieties of modernity - comprehensively, but not conclusively, captured in his thinking about "commodity fetishism" - that also question his otherwise dogmatic insistence on a linear pattern of social development. Taken together, these commentaries - by anthropological, sociological, political, media and cultural studies - seem to call for a historical ethnography of modernity, in all its guises, and in all the places where its traces can be found.

We propose that this first Summer School of the Globalization Network can fruitfully address the array of genealogies of modernity that such recent scholarship suggests by focusing on the following set of related questions:

- How monolithic is "modernity"? If we depart from the tendency of modernization theory to presuppose a unilineal and universal trajectory from "tradition" to "modernity", acknowledge that modernity may have different origins and goals, and try to distinguish the differences among "traditions" it has reinvented in its wake, do we arrive at different "modernities" produced by different cultural and social circumstances, or do we arrive at a singular vision of "modernity" diversified by different historical trajectories?

- Whether singular or multiple, does modernity possess certain "family resemblances" - composed of, say, the procedures of democratic representation, the exigencies of capitalist accountability, the cultural and social demands of commoditization, and the disciplines of technology and science? Supposing such resemblances exist, do these characteristics of "modernity" also come from places other than the "West"? If so, what are their trajectories?

- If "modernity's" trajectories are multiple (or if "modernity" is multiple itself), what are "modernity's" social and moral effects? If it is, indeed, a social construct that produces its own reality, to what extent does it displace, reinvent, allow for or obliterate routines and moralities different from it?

- To what extent is "modernity" a real social situation? Is it, in the first place, an ideological construct (creating real social effects), or is it also a real social effect creating its ideological consequences? In both cases, what are the historical trajectories that make it such?


The Globalization Network's first Summer School is scheduled to take place in Amsterdam from 26 August to 1 September 2001. It intends to bring together the global scholarship developed in the previous years of the Network's functioning with recent graduate research, in an attempt to extend the Network's exchange of knowledge to a generation of successors from both its Northern and its Southern nodes. The Summer School runs for a full week, dividing days beween senior lectures in the morning, and presentations by graduate students in the afternoon. Participants are required to have read a short list of relevant literature that is directly related to the various lectures. To assure coherence, participants will be asked to attend all sessions; full participation is in any case required from the two convenors the participating graduate students. The senior morning lectures will be followed by discussions in which students' participation is particularly solicited. Students' presentations in the afternoon session will be discussed by the senior scholars giving the morning lectures.

Concept Statement | Provisional Programme

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