A new cosmopolitan sociology to match unity and diversity
Vincenzo Cicchelli interviewed by Lorenzo Kihlgren Grandi 24 October 2016

Professor Cicchelli, you outline cosmopolitanism as a cyclic phenomenon throughout the history of human civilizations. Today’s globally widespread violence and clashes between cultures, religions and ethnic groups could foster the perception of being on a declining phase of such dynamics, while your researches prove the opposite. Could you briefly explain why?

We must abandon the idea that cosmopolitanism is a linear philosophy of history. At the same time, no one can imagine it will completely disappear from our horizon of expectations. Its cyclical history manifests this utopian idea is one of the long lasting dreams of humanity. In my understanding, neo-cosmopolitanism is strongly connected to globalization, this epochal change in our history engendering the emergence of a global society: whether we like it or not, our lives are strongly globalized. Indeed, a society can be affected by globalization without being cosmopolitan itself, just as certain philosophers and writers of the past — before globalization, as we conceive it today, even existed — wanted to believe in universalism. Globalization does not necessarily engender the spread of cosmopolitan attitudes, orientations and behaviors in our societies. Whilst our reality is global, the world is not entirely cosmopolitan. The main idea of the book is that the cultural boundaries defining and uniting identities, social groups and communities are now blurring together, becoming open and porous in some cases, increasingly closed and rigid in others.

Alongside the spread of pluralistic values and ideas, many countries’ political sphere is increasingly affected by groups advocating – often in a populist manner – for the re-affirmation of local uniqueness, to be protected against foreign detrimental dynamics. How do you interpret the growing political success and influence of these instances in so many countries of the world?

Neo-populist trends of local closure and xenophobic fear towards different peoples and cultures have found renewed life among political entrepreneurs in several Western democracies (Martinelli, 2005). There is indeed a growing popularity of neo-populist forms of consensus building, which appeal to many ‘losers’ in the globalization process. Many populistic and xenophobic parties take advantage of the several crises that have impacted European societies and disseminate an identity-based conception of the nation. Today’s society is unmistakably witnessing this phenomenon and the rise of xenophobic feelings and discourse, as shown by the return of antisemitism and the upsurge of islamophobia. This should come as no surprise, since globalization is a mechanism that produces interdependencies between societies and favors integration as well as fragmentation, inclusion as well as exclusion. It is therefore imperative to explore the shape taken by the opening and closing of cultural boundaries at both the macro and micro levels. As it is argued in the book, this is the contribution of cosmopolitan sociology, which draws upon a perspective which cannot just be defined as idealistic and utopian or elitist and ideological.

You describe a modern cosmopolite widely different from the old, elitist conception of the term. Does the cosmopolitan attitude imply the capacity to benefit from globalization? Likewise, does the opposition to cosmopolitism overlaps with the perception, real or imagined, to be to some extent damaged by global dynamics?

It is now well known that large-scale transnational processes provide those who are mobile with a great deal of opportunities for empowerment, but can also generate new inequalities, frustrations and forms of disillusionment or uprooting among those who are not. Those who perceive themselves as ‘losers’ in the global economic competition, for being excluded from wealth distribution, are often tempted by identity closure as a fallback position.

Moreover, in a world featuring interconnected cultures and under the pressure of globalization, the feeling of familiarity with one’s culture cannot be the only yardstick by which one can measure the whole reality. I have explored the dynamics that make it possible for someone both to feel attached to a particular local culture and to be willing to perceive himself or herself as belonging to other larger ensembles. This is the art of cultivating a culture of difference whilst maintaining a strong desire for universalism. It is also a specific learning process that consists of situating one’s belonging within bigger geo-cultural entities. Indeed, the capacity to situate one’s own culture (from a historical perspective) and to confront it to other cultures is one of the main prerequisites for cosmopolitanism, according to Bronislaw Szerszynski and John Urry (2006).

I take a distinctive position in the analysis of cosmopolitanism, which I view as a form of learning, a tangled and reversible process — e.g. as a conceptual framework that people acquire through actual, virtual, or imagined contact with alterity, rather than a substantive trait or disposition. I distinguish four orientations of cosmopolitan socialization: cosmo-esthetic, cosmo-cultural, cosmo-political and cosmo-ethical. These four orientations are conceived as different ways of handling otherness and as distinctive expressions of the cosmopolitan spirit. They are composed to varying degrees of global awareness, openness, reflexivity, a sense of belonging, and feelings of ambivalence. All are the outcome of encounters with cultural differences and imply negotiating with plurality and reshaping one’s relationship to the otherness.

At the same time, most people are likely to be ambivalent cosmopolitans (Skrbisand Woodward 2007). There is a disjunction between the consumption of global cultural experiences that provides exotic resources with which we can enrich and diversify our bodies, private lifestyles, self-presentations and our determination to take moral responsibility for people far away (Kennedy 2010). One may profess values of openness in some cultural fields and reveal to be intolerant in others; adore manga and other Japanese cultural products and yet never feel any desire to visit Japan; eat couscous without any interest in North African music and literature. Some people appear to be more open-minded and increasingly sympathetic to cultural differences and otherness and at the same way more close-minded and even hostile to live in multicultural societies. 

The rise of the new cosmopolitan behavior you describe does not seem to be mainly ignited by education systems, as it was the case from other main cultural revolutions, such as the Renaissance, deeply affected by the reintroduction of humanistic studies. Do you foresee any similar shift in education systems, allowing them to deeply shape today’s dynamics?

Of course, as it is not possible to imagine cosmopolitism without education. One need only think to the Erasmus program: linked to the individual initiative, and yet made possible by EU policies. We need to remember that, according to the EU, geographical mobility is a key component of a knowledge society, particularly on a regional, European scale. The dynamism of an economy depends on the ability to effectively exploit human capital in an integrated manner and on both the individual and the system to adapt and change (Barrington-Leach, Marcel Canoy, Hubert, Lerais, 2007). According to the EU, learning mobility shall play a key role in strengthening Europe’s competitiveness, in order to create a knowledge-intensive society and to deepen citizenship within young generations (EU Youth Report, 2009). Nevertheless, this hardly proves to be enough. There is a need for a broader resort to cosmopolitan education, starting at school, through the study of foreign languages and of the European and world’s history.

In a forthcoming book (co-written with Sylvie Octobre), we have concluded that aesthetic and cultural cosmopolitanism, so widespread among young people, does not necessarily lead to a political and ethic openness, and that an institutional education to the otherness must go along with cultural consumption and cosmopolitan encounters while traveling.

Should a government pursue a cosmopolitan agenda aiming at supporting both cultural hybridization and diversity, how could it manage the resulting social and cultural transformations, effectively enhancing the cosmopolitan experiences of its citizens?

We need to rethink the « vivre ensemble ». Hospitality towards those who no longer have a home, fleeing from wars, massacres and horrors, is the founding value ​​of the cosmopolitan humanism. At the same time, everyone must be provided with a decent society. This implies shared rules and a certain amount of courage to prevent the creation of a zero-sum game. Of course, individuals are able to demonstrate openness towards others, as Elijah Andersen has shown in his book on the cosmopolitan canopies where racial tensions are neutralized. But this does not always happen spontaneously. If inclusion is the founding principle of any cosmopolitan view of the world, its realization relies on the development of a praxis supported by the institutions.

Vincenzo Cicchelli is an associate professor at the Université de Paris-Descartes and a research fellow at Gemass (CNRS/Paris Sorbonne), as well as a visiting professor at the Scuol Dottorale (Roma Tre, Italy), the Universidad de la Republica (Montevideo, Uruguay) and the Universidad de Santander (Spain). He has notably published “L’Esprit cosmopolite. Voyages de formation des jeunes en Europe” (Presses de Sciences Po, 2012). He is the series editor of”Youth in a Globalizing world” (Brill).



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