Martin Shaw

Globality and social categories

extract from Theory of the Global State, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2000, Chapter 6

The problem of globality for the social sciences is not, as most debates have suggested, just how to understand global change. The defining issue is how to understand society, culture and politics in the global revolution. As Mann noted of an earlier period, ‘In major transitions the fundamental interrelations, and very identities, of organizations such as "economies" or "states" become metamorphosed. Even the very definition of "society" may change.’ What is at stake is no less than whether and how we should reconstitute the central concepts of social science in global terms.

In the existing literature, the need for such a reconceptualization has hardly been recognized, let alone realized. In no area of social thought, probably, is this problem greater than in the understanding of the state. Despite some limited recognition of the internationalization of the state, the state of the globalization debate remains (as we have seen) overwhelmingly the nation-state. Hence the focus on the ultimately sterile issue of whether state and nation have or have not been ‘undermined’ by global change. The key issue has barely been part of the discussion: could what these categories refer to itself have changed?

In this chapter, my goal is to explore what state means in the context of global transformation. However the category of state cannot be understood apart from other social categories. If we are to grasp the contemporary significance of Mann’s point, it will help if we begin with some of the most fundamental of the categories of social science. In this section, I examine how three key concepts of social theory – society, economy and culture – should be re-examined, as a basis for my later reconsideration of the concept of state. I take these concepts together not to conflate them or deny the need for specific consideration of each, but because they pose the same central issues in the global context.

Globality and social categories

Fundamental social concepts like society, economy and culture all have a double meaning, embodying a fundamental contradiction. On the one hand, they can all be understood in a generic sense as process. Society has the meaning of social relations in general. Economy has the meaning of the social organization of human resources. Culture has the meaning of the symbolic aspect of social relations, or symbolic interaction in general. In the generic sense, society, economy and culture are all intrinsically open-ended, rather than bounded. ‘Culture is open’, Raymond Williams proclaimed, and this applies to economy and society too. The scope of social relations are constantly expanded through new interaction. Hence society, economy and culture are intrinsically dynamic, involving constant transformation and change, rather than fixed.

On the other hand, we have ideas of a society, an economy and a culture, or societies, economies and cultures. These meanings particularize the generic concepts and introduce the idea of bounded entities of social, economic and cultural interaction. In some versions, these are seen as relatively static, closed systems. A classic case was Talcott Parsons’ self-regulating ‘social system’ with its functionally interdependent sub-systems, criticized on many grounds including the fact that it equated social system with national context.

Conceptual discussion of societies, economies and cultures in this sense has fallen out of favour, reflecting the greater interest in the open-endedness and dynamism of social relations. The interesting questions appear to be about how boundaries are broken down, or at least reinterpreted, in an era of rapid social change and globalization. But if conceptual discussion has faltered, particularist concepts are still widely used. Domesticated sociology and politics routinely assume national societies and employ the comparative method to analyze their differences. Economists still assume that national economies are real units. Anthropologists have not stopped describing and analyzing particular cultures. Cultural theorists have even particularized cultures further as sub-cultures. Although this idea also acknowledges the layering of cultures, it also presumes we can identify main cultures which include the sub-versions. International relations theorists are only just incorporating the idea that society and culture are important and they often fall for traditional particularist conceptions. Thus when Ole Wæver recently defined ‘societal security’, he identified society with national, ethnic and religious communities rather than with more open, plural or transnational relations.

We need to adjudicate the status of particularist concepts. Neither society nor economy nor culture has ever been fully defined by boundaries. The implicit openness of all social and cultural relations means that boundaries were always there to be crossed, relative and subject to transformation. Even the most isolated tribal societies were defined by relations with ‘other’ societies. Although often seen as relations between social wholes, such ‘inter-societal’ or ‘inter-cultural’ relations can only be understood as interactions between people which were (more or less) institutionalized by the bounded entities concerned.

In the national-international era of modernity, national societies and cultures have always been highly permeable. There have always been manifold, complex and highly significant relations across national boundaries, even when states have attempted to develop autarchic economies and closed social political and cultural systems. In the heyday of the nation-state system, when such attempts at closure were at their peak, most such relations came to be seen as international. However many relations were really transnational rather than international, in the specific sense of being defined by the fact that they existed between national entities.

The more sophisticated forms of social analysis have emphasized the complexity of the levels of social organization. For Mann, for example, ‘societies are constituted by multiple, overlapping networks of interaction’. But this approach, while avoiding dogmatic closure, does not deal with the problem of what defines when sets of networks become societies – or economies, or cultures. Clearly we could reject such concepts altogether. We could argue that there are only social and cultural relations and multiple networks of such relations. We could then hold that to conceptualize these as relations within and between particular units is illusory and ideological because it reifies boundaries.

But this goes too far: social life has always been and still is informed by particularistic concepts. Boundaries, while relative, are real. Thus it makes partial sense to talk of, say, British, Kurdish or Zulu society, as well as many other networks and sub-cultures of sub-national and transnational kinds. We need to examine in what sense particularist concepts can be upheld. What is important is that they must always be understood within the generic meanings of society, economy and culture, rather than defined in opposition to those meanings. All differentiations of particular entities and their boundaries are abstractions from the flux and openness of social relations. Societies, economies and cultures are forms through which relations, understood as process and relationship, are fixed and delineated. Such fixtures or delineations are never absolute, but always relative and subject to transformation.

The critical question is what is it about those networks of relations which we call societies, economies and cultures, which differentiates them from other networks to which these terms do not apply? This question requires a general answer: it cannot be circumvented by saying that national (or any other kind of) entities are by definition identified as the basic units of social life. The general answer which makes sense of the ways in which such units are commonly recognized is this. Societies (or economies, or cultures) are those contexts of relations which are understood as inclusive and constitutive of social (or economic, or cultural) relations in general in a particular time and place. A society, economy or culture is a context of relations, by which other kinds of social, economic or cultural networks are seen as being defined, or of which they are component parts.

This definition suggests that the understanding of what makes a complex of relations into a society, an economy or a culture is subject to change. (This conclusion is immediately plausible because the concepts of society, economy and culture are themselves modern. If applied to earlier periods, they represent the interpretation of the past in terms formulated within modernity.) What is more, the definition suggests that the degree of inclusiveness or constitutiveness of a particular society, economy or culture is subject to variation and transformation. Not all contemporary national societies, economies or cultures, for example, are inclusive and constitutive to the same degree. Likewise, the same national units are more or less inclusive and constitutive in different historical periods.

Since the boundaries of societies, economies and cultures are relative to society, economy and culture in general, a range of particularistic concepts may coexist and overlap. Thus Mann suggests that sociology’s use of its master-concept, society, has oscillated between broad civilizational meanings – connected to the Western multi-power-actor civilization, or industrial or capitalist society – and narrower national meanings. Likewise, it may make analytical sense to talk simultaneously of Welsh, British, European and Western, or of Kurdish, Iraqi and Islamic, or of Zulu and South African societies and cultures. In none of these three ranges are the different terms mutually exclusive, although there are clearly tensions between them.

As these examples suggest, moreover, while societies and cultures may largely go together, we cannot assume that their boundaries are equivalent. Moreover if we substitute economy for society or culture in the ranges just listed, we may find them difficult to sustain. The possibility of non-equivalence of the boundaries of, say, economies and cultures is a feature of the generally overlapping, permeable and non-exclusive character of bounded social entities.

Tensions between overlapping concepts of society, economy and culture are therefore normal in modernity. A number of different contexts of social relations have strong claims to constitute each of these in a given time and place, and to include other kinds of relations. None, however, can be said to be, in any absolute or complete sense, either constitutive or inclusive. There are always competing ideas of which context is constitutive. Of course, for any of them to be at all definitive, they has to be some stability in their defining character, over a period of time. In the modern era, national-international ideas of society have complemented and mutually constituted each other as well as forming poles around which competing particular definitions of society, economy and culture have formed. Thus Welsh and British, Kurdish and Iraqi, Zulu and South African are all in different ways competing versions of nationality. European, Western and (in a rather different way) Islamic are versions of the more general, civilizational context of society, which in the modern era have largely been defined as international.

Following this general conceptual unpacking, we can begin to understand the significance of global society, economy and culture. Any of these can be said to exist to the extent that global patterns of relations have become inclusive and constitutive of these relations in general. The concepts of global society, economy and culture, as of other such entities, do not represent static systems or end-states. They are abstractions from the flux of relations, they vary over time and they co-exist – and are in tension – with other more particularistic concepts. Moreover since a society, economy or culture is an inclusive set of relations, it does not consist merely of relations at its particular level. National entities partially include and constitute not only sub-national relations of many kinds, but also international relations. Likewise, global society and culture partially include and constitute relations at other levels – world-regional, transnational, international, national, local, etc.

It makes most sense to emphasise that global society, economy and culture are emergent realities. They are becoming more defining frameworks, while national-international frameworks – although still important – are becoming less defining. The global is not only inclusive of contemporary national and international relations in general but is also constitutive of them in a way which they are not of it. Similarly transnational and regional relations are informed by a sense of the world as a common social and cultural context, more than this global sense is informed by the international, regional or transnational.

Global society, economy and culture are actually particularistic concepts in the sense defined above. However the comparison of them with all previous concepts of this kind emphasizes the distinctiveness and novelty of these forms. Global entities are not bounded in the same way as every other kind, since they can be said to include contemporary society, economy or culture as a whole, in the generic sense of all such relations. These are maximum concepts, defined not like national or tribal entities in relation to others of the same kind, but in relation to more particular forms which they include.

Global concepts are in many ways extensions of existing general concepts of society, economy and culture, as Western, capitalist or modern. However they are more inclusive than any of these. These older concepts always implied possibilities such as non-Western, pre- or post-capitalist, or pre-modern society. Globality, in contrast, does not so easily define an other (except of course, pre-global). A global society is one in which a general commonality or unification is implied. Clearly these processes are highly problematic, in something like the same way as the earlier extensions of Western power relations to the world scale. They include and reproduce manifold forms of domination, difference and inequality. Global like national entities can be defined as socio-spatial forms of capitalist society; but no more than national society can globality be reduced to the latter.

To define global society, economy and culture as emergent, increasingly constitutive and inclusive frameworks of relations implies, in the light of this discussion, that the relations between global and other potentially defining frameworks are a key issue. In particular, national-international structures are still of great importance. On the one hand, globality is historically counterposed to nationality-internationality and transcends the classical forms of the latter. On the other, it also depends on transformed nationality and internationality. Rather than pursue the implications of this argument abstractly here, I shall return to it in the next chapter in the context of forms of state. It is important to grasp, however, that national forms of society, economy and culture, already increasingly internationalized, are now also becoming globalized; while globality, an unprecedentedly inclusive and complex framework for worldwide relations, depends on transformed national and international forms.