Giddens: We are suffering from ‘cosmopolitan overload’ and a huge task lies before us – to create responsible capitalism

by Labinot Kunushevci*

From the editor: The following interview with a distinguished British sociologist and political thinker Lord Anthony Giddens is interesting from various perspectives. The interview is part of the forthcoming book by Labinot Kunushevci featuring his conversations with renowned social scientists. The emphases here are mine.

 How would you describe the importance of sociology, and what is the role of sociologists in the social emancipation, especially in the ‘century of changes’ we are living in? Do you think sociology should function as part of the positivist paradigm, or should it be more reflexive in relation to history and social reality?
Giddens: The prime task of sociology is to reflect upon the origins and consequences of the rise of modern industrial civilisation and its spread across the world. As such its main focus is upon the past two or three centuries, but of course there has to be a comparative perspective: hence the overlap of sociology with anthropology is quite strong. Positivism is a non-starter so far as sociology is concerned, since its relationship with its subject matter – human behaviour – is inherently reflexive. Sociological ideas, if they are at all interesting, become incorporated into the world they seek to describe and to some extent restructure that world.
LK: What would you say about the media, the development and sophistication of technology in this era of Globalization? Is Globalization bringing us more opportunities or more risks, and what is the type of society we are going to create in the future in an already globalized world?
Giddens: Globalization – the interdependence of societies across the world – is a key feature of Modernity. Over the past three hundred years, globalisation has been driven by two main influences – the economic (and military) expansion of the West; and the intensifying of communication. The two processes are closely related. The rise of printing from the eighteenth century onwards made possible the emergence of the modern state, and facilitated the development of far flung-empires. The rise of electronic communication massively accelerated these processes, but eventually meant they became more genuinely global – not so centred in the West. The coming of the digital age has intensified processes of globalisation and driven them deeply into our personal lives too.
LK: In your opinion, what are the structural and cultural changes brought by globalism in the modern era, especially to the transitional societies of the Post-Socialist bloc and Balkan region?
Giddens: The result is a world in flux, without parallels in previous ages. Digital communication is often empowering and emancipatory – it is likely to transform medicine, for example. However it has also helped to produce a volatile and uncertain future, and has helped accentuate existing ideological divisions rather than dissolve them. It is difficult to live in a world of intense, everyday cosmopolitanism. We are suffering from ‘cosmopolitan overload’ – there are powerful counter-trends, a return to sectional ideologies and divisions at the same time as the world becomes more intrinsically cosmopolitan. Thus we see a return of nationalism in many places and a questioning of cosmopolitan values, including the emergence of religious fundamentalism. These forces can be combined in seemingly bizarre ways. Islamic State, for example, is a sort of mediaeval theocracy, but makes use of cutting-edge digital technology to promote its aims. It is hostile to modernity, but deeply embedded in it.
LK: The world we are living in is facing many challenges, one of them is the global migration of population from East to West and from South to North. How would you explain migrations, the main challenges faced by countries affected by it, and what are the challenges of migrants themselves?
Giddens: Hence there is a sense in which we are all migrants now, whether or not we move physically from one part of the world to another. Via digital technology, most of us are in touch on an everyday basis with a diversity of cultures and opinions. Distance is no longer any barrier to instantaneous communication, driven by a vast expansion in computer power. The first smart phone was only marketed about ten years ago. Today there are 2.5 billion smart phones in the world and double that number of mobile phones as a whole. The smart phone in your pocket has more computing power than even a super-computer of fifteen years ago. Physical migration takes many different forms, but normally has a global component. To take an example, about 2 million Philippinos are living and working in other countries around the world. The large majority are women and children. They use digital means to support global families – networks of spouses and other relatives stretching around the world. Of course, many migrants from poorer countries are not so sophisticated and are fleeing oppression, such as the many thousands now trying to cross from Latin America into the US, or those fleeing the conflicts in the Middle East. Real tragedies are unfolding here on an everyday basis.
LK: Knowing the global challenges and risks: nuclear weapons, inter-ethnic and inter-religious conflicts, the increasing extremism, the climate change, etc., which one, in your opinion, is threatening the global peace the most? Is there any balance between the opportunities offered by the Modernity in one side and the real threats on the other?
Giddens: We live in a world that has moved ‘off the edge of history’ at the same time as it remains deeply embedded in it. By this I mean that today we face risks that no other civilisation has to deal with – such as climate change, the massive growth in world population, or the existence of nuclear weapons. Some of these risks are existential: they are threats to the very continuity of the industrial order as it spreads across the face of the earth. We cannot say which are the ‘most threatening’, since the true level of risk is by definition unknown. There is no past time series to go on as there are with more traditional risks.
At the same time we have opportunities, as collective humanity, that go massively beyond what was available in previous ages, not just for material advancement but for the spiritual enrichment of our lives. I call this a ‘high opportunity, high risk society’ – in which it is almost impossible in advance to know what the relation between these two factors will turn out to be. This problematic relationship is today an elemental part of the human condition. This is not a post-modern world in the sense in which that term is usually used – to refer to the dissolution of reason and of potentially universal values. Rather, a battle is being fought almost everywhere between such values and sectional divisions of various sorts.
LK: What makes you think that we are not living in the post-modern era, but we are still living the high Modernity?
Giddens: Our personal and even intimate lives are being transformed by the changes running through world society. Here I would stick with the main themes of my book Modernity and Self-Identity, although some of the processes I described there have become further radicalised. In a world of almost infinite sources of possible information the self becomes a reflexive project. All of us have to develop a narrative of self – a story line that holds our lives together, against the backdrop of a world in flux. Tradition and custom are no longer there to do the job: they themselves are invented and reinvented. As Modernity advances not just identity but the body becomes shaped by these forces, in complicated and contradictory ways. Thus obesity today is becoming a global phenomenon, with massive implications for health. About a billion people across the world today are radically overweight, not only in the prosperous countries, but in many developing economies too. At the same time roughly the same number are undernourished, suffering from malnutrition or even at risk of starvation. And among the most affluent, the cultivation of the body takes a completely opposite form – people devote many hours to fitness and exercise training, often to the point of obsession.
LK: What changes has Modernity brought with the development of expertise and the stimulation to trust on them? How much does this contribute in creating a ‘technocracy’, which ‘devours’ the spontaneity, freedom, equality etc., which in the same time serve as fundamentals of modernity?
Giddens: ‘Technocracy’ does not seem to me the main barrier to our chances of successfully mastering the bundle of opportunities and risks we have created in modern civilisation. Rather, the influences I have described still operate in a world driven in some large part by the exigencies of market capitalism, now itself radically globalised and penetrated by the digital revolution. Almost all money has now become electronic, for example, and can be transmitted instantaneously across the world in a way that was never possible before. The world economic order is driven in fundamental ways by the actions of consumers on the one hand and the global companies – including financial ones – on the other. Most of these processes do not pass through the democratic systems of states, even the most powerful. This is one reason for the stresses and strains of politics today. Everyone can see that national politicians lack the power to significantly influence some of the major forces influencing our lives. To get elected, they must make promises that they simply cannot deliver upon. Huge inequalities, especially at the very top, have arisen, but it is very hard to contest them, given that capital can be moved around the world so fluidly. Much of the revenue that lies in tax havens has no productive role. Only if they can learn to co-operate collectively will states be able effectively to master these forces. It is an open question how far such collaboration is possible.
LK: Do you continue to embrace the “Third Way Politics”, and is it still current to this day? In this context, how would you explain the world economic crisis? On what premises should we have mechanisms and systems that would help to overcome the challenges of the generation of economic growth? 
Giddens: The global financial crisis – still far from having been fully resolved – reflects many of the features of world society discussed above, even including the gender dimension, given the role that ‘charged masculinity’ played in the aggressive behaviour of those playing the world money markets. However, there is a further key factor: the role of neoclassical economic theory. No other academic discipline has ever had such a world historical role before. It has driven the world economy and its radical subjection to unfettered market mechanisms. This observation brings us to general issues of a political nature. There is still a key role for the ‘third way’, understood as an overall political orientation and applied beyond the limits of nation-states. A huge task lies before us – to create a form of responsible capitalism, in which wealth creation is reconciled with social needs, including environmental ones.
LK: To conclude, what about the state of European Union these days and its relations with Balkan countries?
Giddens: The EU, as we all know, is passing through a particularly troubled phase of its evolution. Only about a decade ago, the EU – and its currency, the euro – were widely seen as success stories. Today it floats in a sea of troubles. The euro has not been properly stabilised and its very continuity remains at risk. Trust in the EU among its citizens has fallen, precipitously in some member-states. Populist parties are on the rise almost everywhere. To the east the situation in the Ukraine poses huge risks, at the outer edge even the risk of nuclear conflict. Chaos in Libya and some other states in the Middle East and North Africa poses major risks on the EU’s southern flank. Migrants are flooding across the Mediterranean desperate to find a new life. In spite – and partly because – of these problems, the EU remains an essential to the stability and further development of the European sub-continent. In my book Turbulent and Mighty Continent: What Future for Europe? I try to show why this is so. Only with the further progress of the EU can the problems of the Balkan countries potentially be resolved.
Labinot Kunushevci was born in the Republic of Kosova. He holds a Master’s degree in Sociology from the University of Prishtina and his main field of study is sociology of communications. As part of his project on the intersection of international and national sociology, he conducted interviews with prominent sociologists around the world. Three of them – with George Ritzer, Patricia Hill Collins, and Ibrahim Berisha – were recently published in Global Dialogue – The Magazine of International Sociological Association. 

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  1. Perhaps we can also consider items from ‘Pre-Industrial societies’ such as the ‘Gayaneshagowa’ (Iroquois ‘constitution’), reportedly ‘written’ between 1095 and 1150 A.D.

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