Cosmopolitanism and the Sociological Imagination



University of Essex, Sociology Department

Friday 5th October 2012


Ken Plummer

The first wisdom of sociology is this: things are not what they seem’. Peter Berger, Invitation to Sociology
The sociological imagination enables us to grasp history and biography and the relations between the two within society. That is its task and its promise’. C. Wright Mills, The Sociological Imagination

Consider social facts as things… (they are) ways of acting, thinking and feeling,       external to the individual & endowed with a power of coercion, by reason of which they control him… Emile Durkheim, Rules of Sociological Method

Men make their own history, but not under circumstances of their own choosing….Karl Marx, Eighteenth Brumaire






Q: So who are we?


The problems of differences- who are we?

We all come from different backgrounds and approaches to a diverse department in a diverse university in a diverse world –stuffed full of complexities, multiplicities and differences. Is there anything that may be called a common project – or a ‘core’ of sociology? Have we become irrevocably fragmented, hybridic, pluralized, diasporic, post-modernised and overwhelmed with multiple changes in a rapidly globalizing, ‘risky’ late capitalist world?

Can we can see wider trends shaking the classical foundations – or can we find some kind oF common project?


On Our Differences


  • What are our differences, our varieties? The issues of multiplicities and differences.
  • What are our different cultures? The issues of globalization, hybridity and cosmopolitanism
  • What are our different sociologies – and methodologies? The issue of ‘Western Sociology’
  • The problem  – and necessity – the issues of of dialogues, common grounds and the search for cosmopolitanism

On Cosmopolitanism

  1. There exists a real humanistic universalism of differences. Human difference is a sine qua non of human existence. I believe that these differences have to be a key subject for the human studies.
  2. There are perpetual conflicts about these differences, the source of much human suffering. There is conflict and disagreement about these differences everywhere. They are not likely to go away; but they can be reduced.
  3. Cosmopolitanism stresses the struggles to live with the recognition of these differences of others as being crucial to what counts as being human.
  4. This recognition moves across private and pubic worlds
  5. Cosmopolitan suggests cultures of multiplicities  – and the problem is grasping the relationships between these There can be relations of hostilities, dominance, assimilation, accommodation or creative innovation.
  6. Cosmopolitanism suggests a social psychology of empathy, communication, dialogue and an ability to live with these differences through an expanding  ‘circle of others’ spreading across the globe: at its extreme it requires an understanding of the flow of recognition, role-taking and reflexivity leading to dialogue, empathy, sympathy, compassion and care into a full blown Caring Cosmopolitanism.
  7. Cosmopolitanism suggests a form of society, social structure or social solidarity where a reciprocal inter and intra cultural awareness of differences becomes enshrined in human rights, laws, institutions and everyday practices. But it also suggests a sociology of cosmopolitanism which recognizes only too clearly the problems with seeking common bonds and collective life in a world of individual differences.
  8. Cosmopolitanism suggests a politics of human differences  connecting local political struggles with global ones. It suggests a global civic culture… and it bridges world stages with local stages – through ideas like democracy, citizenship, international law, global human rights, universal values and grounded ethics.
  9. Cosmopolitanism suggests an ethics and a concern with a ‘decent world culture’  and a world moral community (Nussbaum, 2006:1317)
  10. Cosmopolitanism suggests an attitude of ‘openness’ and ‘tolerance’ towards difference, which will often accompanied by a sense of irony, paradox, contradiction and contingency as a fuller appreciation of the different kinds of humanity is developed. It enables us to recognize multiple stances in the world and position ourselves in relationship to them. It tries to avoid outright condemnation, adopting an appreciative stance (even as they are our enemies). Cosmopolitanism has to assert our humanities: common and universal, different and unique





Q: So what is this thing called sociology? Is there a common ground?

How might it be changing for a global twenty first century in a cyber-capitalist world?


Life in a Day (2011): Kevin Macdonald. A documentary shot by video /Youtube users all over the world that serves as a time capsule to show future generations what it was like to be alive on the 24th of July, 2011. 4,500 hours of footage in 80,000 submissions from 192 nations. Are we all sociologists now? What is distinctive about sociology?



Sociology is passionate about the social. It brings a distinctive consciousness and an imagination to think outside of that limiting frame whereby ‘everything can be explained through ‘individuals’ or the ‘natural’. Sociology questions the ‘certain blindness’ of human beings’ which takes the world for granted. Everywhere it looks at the hauntings of social life. Here, as summary and challenge, are my twenty major core elements which enable you to grasp the sociological imagination. This ‘sociological soul’, ‘sociological eye’ or sociological imagination’ has an obsession with the following. It thinks about, looks at, investigates, searches out, takes very seriously, is passionately concerned about and ultimately haunted by the following:

  1. 1.     Sociology is the systematic, sceptical and critical study of the social, investigating the human construction of social worlds. (Just how might we best characterise this world?)
  2. 2.     ‘The social’ captures the idea that we live with others but it also constitutes a level or layer of reality which is quite distinctive and which exists ontologically sui generis to constrain and coerce social life.
  3. 3.     Social life is awesome, amazing and often horrendous, sometimes to be celebrated and sometimes to lead to disenchantment. The air we breathe is social. We can’t stop ’experiencing the social’ and seeing ‘the social’ everywhere in big and small things.
  4. 4.     Sociology is a way of thinking: an imagination, a form of consciousness – that can/will change will your life. It defamiliaries the familiar, questions the taken for granted, treats social facts as things, and destroys the myths we choose to live by. It is a haunting.

Sociology involves a way of thinking (Zygmunt Bauman), a consciousness (Peter Berger), and an imagination (C.W. Mills). It ‘defamiliarises the familiar’ (Bauman). It questions the ‘certain blindness’ of human beings (William James). It challenges the ‘obvious’, the ‘world-taken-for-granted’ ‘the natural attitude’, ‘thinking -as –usual’ and ‘the natural’. It problematises our social discourses through deconstruction (Foucault). It knows that ‘Every way of seeing is a way of not seeing ‘(Kenneth Burke), and stakes out its way as the study of social things (Charles Lemert). Everywhere it looks at the hauntings of social life (Avery Gordon). Sociology’s core is a creative core, an imaginative essence, a relentless consciousness, a way of being in the world, It is hard to acquire, but once acquired even harder to get rid of. It carries across generations. And if it carries across generations, it may need new forms as we move into a cyber-age.

What is under question is the human constructions of social worlds. There are ten major core elements which enable you to grasp the sociological imagination. The ‘sociological soul’ has an obsession with the following. It thinks about, looks at, investigates, searches out, takes very seriously, is passionately concerned about and ultimately haunted by the following:



  1. Sociologists always look for the social patterns, prisons, predictabilities in human social life- the social structures in which we dwell.
  2. Sociologists see human beings as acting in social worlds with others – they create daily life in a search for meaning. Human beings live in worlds of complex symbolization, living with others through social actions. All of human social life is inherently about meanings and social actions.
  3. Human beings weave webs of cultures – life designs, tool kits  for life and ways of living which are composed of complex, mutli-layered, negotiable and ever emergent symbolic actions. Cultures are never tight, fixed or agreed upon but are multilayered ‘mosaics of social worlds’.
  4. Human beings also live in material worlds of brute reality: environments, economies, bodies. We are both animals and cultural creatures- we are intrinsically dual – living simultaneously in material and symbolic worlds. We are the little gods who shit.
  5. We live with the tensions of Constraining Structures and Creative Meanings: sociology sees this tension everywhere. The so called ‘action- structure’ debate.
  6. All social worlds entail differences and are ‘incorrigibly plural’ and we dwell in social tensions and contradiction. Everything in social life – including sociological thinking- brings tensions, conflicts, contradictions.
  7. We live in a deep swirling matrix of inequalities. Human capabilities are structured through divisive processes into structured inequalities which have damaging effects on our lives. Our opportunities for human social life can be thwarted by our class, gender, ethnicity, age, health, sexuality and nationhood.
  8. Social life is always shaped by time and space. Change and Contingency are ubiquitous.
  9. Social life is structured by power relations: we ask – who and what can shape our lives?
  10. Sociology was born of radical social change and continues to dwell in major social change. Social worlds are always changing – and every social thing has a constantly changing history.



  1. 15.  All of social life is dialogical not monological. Human beings are narrators and  are in a constant round of telling tales of lives and societies to each other. And all knowledge –whatever else it may be – is within this social dialogue: it is always local, contested, relational knowledge.
  2. 16.  Sociologists describe, understand, and explain the social world using the  best‘ tricks of the trade’ they can muster. They must straddles art, science and history.  They think hard, conduct rigorous empirical research, and  skilfully  make sense of data 
  3. 17.  The new information technologies are radically reforming this sociological project – providing new tools for research and new source of data and even new ways of thinking about social life.
  4. 18.  Sociologists are researchers, thinkers, critics, educators, dialogists, critical citizens,  enhancers of  art and creativity, and facilitators of unheard voices being heard. Above all it fosters critical citizens alive and changing their own social worlds.  They dwell in a flowing wheel of sociological life
  5. 19.  Sociologists put their tools to work in envisaging a better worldSociology lives in human social worlds, studies them and takes very seriously the values and politics that help shape them into the future.
  6. 20.  Sociology helps us all to act as critical citizens in a world we never made but which every day we have to help to re-create. The challenge is on for each generation to leave behind a better place for subsequent generations. There is a social dream of a better world which haunts sociology. Maybe there could be a flourishing for all?


Source: Ken Plummer: Sociology- The Bssics (2010) Routledge

ON HOPE – And a social dream of a better world for all, which haunts sociology. There is a political, critical and moral role behind the sociological project.

There are many ‘real utopian dreams’. Here are three:

1 Work for Social Justice and Human Rights for all: The Just/Human Rights Society: 
Foster human rights and the democratisation of everyday life
2. Cultivate Dialogic and Compassionate Ethics: The Empathic and Caring Society
On role taking and dialogue: dialogic ethics
Enhancing sympathy, compassion, care & kindness
3. Encourage Flourishing Lives: Human possibilities and capabilities facilitated: The Flourishing  Society :
keep practical not abstract ( Nussbaum keeps close to women & India); capabilities are wide open and changing – they are not fix; Social relations helps shape them and enable them to flourish.

Consider the development of human capabilities theories, and the search for a humanitarian /human rights based society? Consider an ontology of the human being as a bundle of potentials and capabilities which need appropriate social conditions in order to flourish. Without the right social conditions human life becomes flawed and damaged and prone to too much suffering: lives become ‘wasted’. In the important work of the economist Amartya Sen and the philosopher Martha Nussbaum, we find a major provisional listing of what these human capabilities could be for all human beings – all six and a half billion of us across the world. They include life (being able to live to the end of a human life of normal length); health; bodily integrity (which means being able to move freely from place to place, being able to be secure one’s body against assault and violence, and having opportunities for sexual satisfaction and for choice in matters of reproduction); senses, imagination, and thought ( an adequate education and with  guarantees of freedom of expression : political, artistic and religious); emotions ( to have attachments to things and persons outside ourselves and to love those who love and care for us); practical reason (critical reflection on the planning of one’s own life – and what indeed is a good life); affiliation and recognition (being able to live for and in relation to others, to recognize and show concern for other human beings); the ability to play; some control over one’s environment; and finally and ability to live with other species – a concern for and in relation to animals, plants, and the world of nature. Although such a list is open to change, it seems to me to be a very good starting point for thinking about what a human life needs to develop if it is to flourish on this earth.  The social scientists task is to suggest ways in which social conditions can help facilitate this.


Q? :  What Will Be Your Contribution? How Will You Make A Difference?


With these ‘wisdoms’ of sociology, find an area of social life that you are really driven to understand- a passion to comprehend some aspect of social life. As a student, your dissertation/project/thesis may be your key course goal. All your work builds up to your opportunity to grasp a bit of the social. All the courses can be seen as so much training and background and ‘standing on shoulders of giants’ so you can see what you finally want to do, and where you want to go. But in the end, it is you, your hope, your values and your problem. An image of your utopia helps you in your goals. Why not dream a little?

Being personal, being political, being passionate. 

A passionate sociology? Know what it is you want to achieve. This will also mean an awareness of issues of value relevance, value neutrality, power, ethics etc.


What we can do is…make life a little less terrible and a little less unjust in every generation. A good deal can be achieved in this way. Karl Popper


A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not even worth glancing at. Oscar Wilde.




The Sociological Imagination

Some classics:

CW Mills                     The Sociological Imagination, 1959

Peter Berger                 Invitation to Sociology, 1963
Zygman Bauman          Thinking Sociologically, 2nd ed with Tim May 2000


More recent introductions:

Ken Plummer               Sociology The Basics  2010
Charles Lemert            Social Things, 4TH ed, 2008

Some standard Introductory Texts
Howard S Becker (which cover writing, research and theory respectively):

Writing Social Sciences, 1986, Tricks of the Trade, 1998; Telling about Society, 2007

Robin Cohen and Paul Kennedy Global Sociology, 2008 2nd ed Routledge

John Macionis and Ken Plummer  Sociology: A Global Introduction, 5th edition 20011 Pearson
Rob Stones                   Key Sociological Thinkers, 2008 2nd ed Palgrave

The character of the modern world:
Goran Therborn           The World: A Beginner’s Guide, 2011

Manuel Castells            The Network Society 3 volumes (new editions 2010).

John Urry  Sociology Beyond Societies : Mobilities for the twenty first century  (2000) (and his more recent books include: Global complexity (2003), Mobilities (2007), and Mobile Lives (2010).

Zygmunt Bauman         Liquid Modernity (2000) – and a host of similar sounding books!

David Harvey               The Enigma of Capital (2010) Profile



Some Problems with Western Sociology
Raewyn Connell           Southern Theory  2007  Polity
Patricia Hill Collins      Black Feminist Thought  1990 Routledge Classic
Gurminder K.Bhambra  Rethinking Modernity  2007 Palgrave

Avery Gordon              Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination,2nd ed 2008.

Chandra Talpade Mohanty       Feminism without Borders: Decolonizing theory, practicing solidarity, 2003. Duke
Jasbir K Puar                Terrorist Assemblages 2007 Duke

An Aside: How odd are the English?

Kate Fox Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour (2005)


On Cosmopolitanism and Dialogue

Ulrich Beck                              The Cosmopolitan Vision (2004) Polity
Kwame Anthony Appiah         Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers (2006)

Bob Fine                                  Cosmopolitanism (2008) Routledge

Robert J.Holton                                   Cosmopolitans (2009) Palgrave

Gerard Delanty                         The Cosmopolitan Imagination (2009) Cambridge

Lydia Morris                            Asylum, Welfare and The Cosmopolitan Ideal (2010) Routledge-Cavendish

Dialogic Ethics, Communication Ethics and Multiculturalism

Taylor, Charles  et al               Multiculturalism: Examining the politics of recognition (1994) Princeton

Frank, Arthur                           Letting Stories Breathe: A Socio-Narratology (2010)

Bakhtin, Michel                                   The Dialogic Imagination
Habermas, Jurgen                     Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action (1992) Polity

Ronald C.Arnett et al               Communication, Ethics, Literacy: Dialogue and Difference. (2009) Sage

Benhabib, Seyla                        The Claims of Culture: Equality and diversity in the global era(2002) Princeton

Hope and Visions of a Better World: Debates On Social Justice, Human Flourishing And Cosmopolitan Dialogues

On Hope and Values

Ernst Bloch                              The Principle of Hope  (1986) Blackwell
Eric Ohlin Wright                    Envisioning Real Utopias (2010) Verso
Michael Burawoy                     The Extended Case Method: Four Countries, Four Decades and Four Great Transformations (2009) University of California
Martha Nussbaum                     Creating Capabilities (2011) Harvard
Andrew Sayer                           Why Things Matter to People: Social Science, Values and Ethical Life (2011) Cambridge

The Human Rights Society

Seyla Benhabib                         Dignity in Adversity: Human Rights in Troubled  Times (2011) Polity

Kay Schafer and Sidonie Smith             Human rights and Narrated Lives: The ethics of recognition(2004) Palgrave

Ken Plummer                           Intimate Citizenship: Private Decisions and Public Dialogues (2003)Washington

Fagan, Andrew                         The Atlas of Human Rights  2010 Myriad

Morris, Lydia  ed                      Rights: Sociological Perspectives 2006  Routledge

Ishay, M.R. (2004)                  The History of Human Rights: From ancient times to the globalization era, California: California University Press

The Just Society : On Justice

Amartya Sen                            The Idea of Justice (2009) Allen Lane.

Michael Sandel                                     Justice: What’s the right thing to do? (2007/2009) Penguin
Iris Marion Young                    Justice and the politics of difference (1990) Princeton

Lukes, Steven                           Moral Relativism  2008 Profile  


The Flourishing Society and Human Capabilities
Martha Nussbaum                     Creating Capabilities: the Human Development Approach  (2011) Harvard)

Sevrine Deneulin et al              An Introduction to the Human Development and Capability Approach: Freedom and Agency   (2009) Earthscan


The Empathic and Cosmopolitan Society

Jeremy Rifkin                          The Empathic Civilization (2009) Polity

Jason D. Hill                            Becoming a Cosmopolitan : What it means to be a human in the new millennium  (2001) Rowman and Littlefield
Elijah Anderson (2011)                        The Cosmopolitan Canopy (2011) WW Norton

Stan Van Hooft                                      Cosmopolitanism: A Philosophy for Global Ethics (2009) Acumen


Other works which might be mentioned in the session:

Ulrich Bech                  A God of One’s Own (2009) Polity
Jeffrey Alexander         Trauma: A Social Theory (2012) Polity
Zygmunt Bauman         Collateral Damage: Social Inequalities in a Global Age (2011) Polity
Sylvia Walby                Globalization and Inequalities, 2009 Sage

Saskia Sassen                Territory, Authority, Rights: From Medieval to Global Assemblages, 2006

Loic Wacquant                         Punishing the Poor: The Neo Liberal Government of Social Insecurity  (2004) Duke

Craig Calhoun et al       Business as Usual  (and linked volumes) 2011 New York

Mark Harvey, Steve Quilley and Huw Beynon Exploring the Tomato:Tranformations of Nature, Society and Economy, 2002. Elgar
Iain Wilkinson                         Suffering: A Sociological Introduction 2005

But the reading – like the conversations – are endless. See Umberto Eco The Infinity of Lists…..










Archival documents (historical, personal, all kinds);  artefacts and things (‘stuff’: personal possessions, archeological ‘finds’, consumer objects);  art (painting, sculptures); attitude scales;  autobiographies and life stories; auto ethnographies; case studies ; census; content analysis; conversation analysis; cyber material (web sites, e mails, blogs, you tube, second life, social networking sites); diaries; discourse analysis; documents of all kinds (eg school records, club magazines); documentary film; experiments (laboratory studies);  field research (participant observation, ethnography); fiction (novels, television drama (eg soaps); films and video; focus groups; historical research; interviews of all kinds(short, long, focused, survey, in depth, analytic);  letters;  life stories; maps; personal experiences ; photographs;  post codes; questionnaires; social surveys (national, local, longitudinal, panel); texts of all kinds; visuals (photographs, film, documentaries, videos, paintings and art). And more?



Whatever social thing you are looking at – schools, social work or senility – always try and ask questions about how it interconnects with at least some of the following:


    Social Orders  (channels of opportunities) Supporting ideas  (discourses /ideologies) Identities: who are you?
  1 Class  Order Classism Class consciousness and identity
  2 Gender Order  (& patriarchy) Sexism Gender identity
INTERSECTING ORDERS OF SOCIAL INEQUALITIES:A STRUCTURE OF LIFE OPPORTUNITIES 3 Racial Formation(ethnicity and race) Racism Black, Asian, etc  ethic identities
  4 Age stratification and generational orders Ageism Age identity
  5 Nations Nationalism National identity
  6 The sexual order Heterosexism, homophobia & heteronormativity Queer, sexual identities
  7 The disability and health order Sickness and ‘disablement’ ideologies Diability, health identities

And see: Sylvia Walby: Globalization and Inequalities (2011) Polity






(interconnections, flows)


(‘The land’? Used to be communities, now commonly nation states)

eg states, economies, families, religions, communications law etc,)


CULTURES                                        MATERIAL WORLDS

(and their meanings & languages,                       (and their resources: economies,

dominant and subterranean)                             environment, the land and population, technology)




(instituting and habitualising social relations)

Meso: organizations and networks of relations
habitus, fields and life worlds
social worlds etc


Micro: practices, narratives, embodiment, self



Human energy, capabilities and goals..


linked to

(and their subjectivities:



TIME                                       POWER                      COMPLEXITY                       SPACE

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