Michael Kennedy: Alternative Futures

2012-02-11_Protest_anti_ACTA_in_Brussels_004hi -CC3 share w attrib photo by Marek Blahus


A Comparative and Historical Sociology of Alternative Futures


Michael D. Kennedy

Brown University, USA


Markus S. Schulz invites us to develop a sociology of the futures we want. That’s appealing to me on its own terms, but also because it is a meaningful extension of themes animating Globalizing Knowledge (2015). There, I ask how we might develop a knowledge cultural sociology that mobilizes intellectuals’ institutions and networks to engage issues in a more globally responsible fashion. I conclude the volume by reviewing various approaches to systemic crisis and subjectivity’s reconstruction in anticipation of more desirable futures.

Rather than rehearse points made in that book, I shall extend Globalizing Knowledge in dialogue with three different volumes I have read after completing my own. They invite me to rethink global history, global futures, and transformative practices in ways that inspire a different kind of comparative and historical sociology of alternative futures, and one that could put the sociology of the futures we want at the core of our discipline.

Of course my essay’s title is meant to be paradoxical, but on reflection it should be obvious that there are affinities between our sense of the future and the methods we use. It is easy, of course, to imagine theories animated with prime drivers having teleological anchors. For those concerned with alternative futures, comparative and historical sensibilities seem obvious. I myself find the greatest affinities of such a sociology with the kind of comparative and historical sociology exemplified by Bill Sewell.

Drawing on the “Sewellian list” (Kennedy 2015:22), emphasizing the multiplicity of structure, unpredictability of resource accumulation, intersection of structures, polysemy of resources, and transposability of schemas, I suggest different ways in which we might articulate historical transformations with alternative futures. I also insist that we be more mindful of where and how we look at the world in these sociologies. Nevertheless, in that volume I am not explicit about the global sociology in which I situate my work.

Global Sociology and Systems

Those who know my lineage might assume that I draw on the most macrosociological approach I know – the ecological-evolutionary theory of Gerhard Lenski. And indeed, I have sought to establish his linkage with critical traditions in sociology,[1] but Michael Mann’s oeuvre offers even more recently an ideal interlocutor for the value and challenge of global sociology when thinking about alternative futures, especially now that he has reached the 21st century.

In contrast to Lenski, for whom technological innovation is both empirically and theoretically the prime driver, Mann (2012:423-32) explicitly rejects that kind of argumentation given the interactive qualities of his four non-equivalent and non-congruent forms of power: economic, military, ideological, and economic. And while he might celebrate Marx’s ambition, he ultimately embraces Weber’s historicity,[2] an affinity I share if not only by theoretical inclination, but also from recent world historical developments.

I suggested Lenski could be open to eventfulness but does not theorize it in the same ways Sewell can. But we need that kind of eventful thinking more than ever as we try to figure, for example, what Putin’s invasion of Crimea means for more than Russia and Ukraine. Mann’s framework would allow for us to take up that event, and invites us to consider the ways in which his four sources of social power mix it up in its analysis.

However, it’s exceptionally difficult to determine, on the basis of the invasion of Crimea and Russia’s unconventional war on Ukraine, how we might move beyond ideology itself. After all, explaining its drivers, and its alternative futures, immediately sucks us up into the intellectual extensions of the information war itself.[3] Even beyond this implication, the global disposition explaining sources of social power from without and above is, itself, undertheorized and can be problematic.

Mann appropriately devotes much of his fourth volume to addressing the form of American empire in the world. I find much inspiration, but that kind of global view can erase the qualities of struggles, especially when contemporary, in less privileged places from our view of alternative futures. Indeed, it could even make us disinterested in what Ukrainians want, and focus only on what Americans, other Europeans, and Russians wish, and what powers they have to realize those wishes.

When we think, then, of a sociology of the futures we wish to see, it’s critical for us to recognize which voices get heard and translated into the anticipation of alternatives. That’s hard to figure, and something I began in Globalizing Knowledge. But one might also choose a theoretical lens that appears to escape that problem.

Saskia Sassen’s (2014) emphasis on accumulation through expulsion rather than through incorporation[4] shifts the lens enough for me to worry less about the representation of variably recognized peoples in the articulation of global futures. With her framework, we think less about how any particular struggle shapes the terms for global futures, and rather more on how articulating different expulsions – of peoples (of the poor and of their health, for example) and of things (of proximate environments and global atmospheres, for example) – enables us to recognize an emergent system distinct from the one that has formed our sociology. Instead of analyzing inequalities within systems or societies, we ought recognize those expelled from systemic accounting.

With Sassen’s shift, our sociology is less one of extending lessons learned in one place to characterizations of the system as a whole. It becomes more about reconstructing what that system’s emergent logic is by knitting together expulsions of all sorts typically studied within their own knowledge niches. We might even work to articulate them in something more than academic terms.

Sassen offers no guidelines to practice here, but she does leave open the door for it. She suggests that the system is not necessarily self-destructive, but what might make it sustainable is another systemic question. In order to develop the sociology of futures we want, of a system that does not destroy humanity and the world that sustains it, we need to figure how systems can be otherwise. But for that, we need to move away from structures. And here, the Japanese Tea Ceremony might be surprisingly instructive.

Global Sociology and Practice

Kristin Surak’s Making Tea, Making Japan most evidently concerns the practice of nationalism, but it is also something more. Surak’s analysis of the tea ceremony suggests something new about cultural power.

The tea ceremony has somehow survived radical transformations of Japanese national expression while at the same time ensuring a sense of continuousness that phases of isolation, westernization, imperialism, postwar defeat/recovery, and democratic and peaceful internationalism would seem to deny. There is something about this tea ceremony that is remarkably resilient, on the one hand, and generative, on the other.

It is resilient because it is reproduced over time. Yes, the experts and principal practitioners may shift from upper class men to housewives, and it may articulate very differently with various kinds of power, from militarists to commercial houses. It remains recognizably the same in practice over time, but it is more than resilient. It is generative.

Tea ceremony practitioners are able to use this ceremony to express a kind of power that is not just about the manipulation of force or the distribution of resources. It expresses, in that Durkheimian sense, a kind of collective effervescence that is not only in the moment of ritual, but present in the anticipation of its performance, in the immaterial residues left on its artifacts, in the contemporary aura of its historical endurance.

In a seminar at Brown University, Surak explained that resilience and generativity of practice in terms of the contradictions that the tea ceremony embodies. It is distinctively Japanese, and yet it is universal. It is remarkably dependent on certain concrete settings and material artifacts, and yet it transcends the material world. It is heavily scripted, but it depends on a measure of improvised interaction in which much is unpredictable. It is, in short, a performance dripping in feelings of authenticity and yet unreal given the world in which we live. It is not so obviously anticipating a global future we wish, however. Universities could.

Although I celebrate knowledge networks in Globalizing Knowledge as the most agile and immediate in addressing the futures we want, their nodes necessarily involve universities. They appear to function in ways that appear to be mostly about the reproduction of their status, or the search to climb the ladders of recognition. But I wonder whether we might not recognize in these knowledge institutions contradictions that not only debilitate our higher purpose, but represent the resilience and generativity Surak identifies in the tea ceremony.

A Global Sociology of the Future I Wish to See

Part of the future I wish to see are universities that are not only simultaneously dedicated to public engagement and basic research, but figuring their fusion in ways that enhance the likelihood that we develop the global futures we want. One sees this readily in environmental hubs, less so in international studies where the distinction of “practitioners” and “scholars” reproduces the problem. Why? The notion of practice already presumes identification with constituencies of power and/or professions of convention while scholars rarely develop the reflexivity that justifies their position vis-à-vis various powers that be. This allocation of knowledgeable labor won’t help us realize the futures we wish to see. We need a new model of engaged scholarship that could take inspiration from the practitioner/authors I mention above.

Our sociology of the futures we wish to see needs to develop a sense of emergence in Sassen’s sense, a feel for global powers and transformations that Mann exemplifies, and the attention to unrecognized practice that Surak’s study illuminates. If I might suggest based on my own work, it also demands a cultivation of intellectual responsibility that makes us recognize the importance of global priorities, collaborative learning, and public engagement. To be in conversation around these volumes would build in my present the future I wish to see.



[1] Michael D. Kennedy “Evolution and Event in History and Social Change: Gerhard Lenski’s Critical Theory” Sociological Theory 22:2(2004): 315-27.

[2] Consider Mann’s response to John A. Hall around his relationship to Marxist and Weberian traditions (pp. 169-76).

[3] I have discussed the challenge of intellectual responsibility around Ukraine in my lecture at American University, whose elaboration is here.

[4] I reviewed it here: (2015) “Centering the Edge in the Shift from Inequality to Expulsion” Contemporary Sociology 44:1(11-14)


Kennedy_Michael - portraitMichael D. Kennedy (@Prof_Kennedy) is professor of sociology and international studies at Brown University. Throughout his career, Kennedy has addressed East European social movements, national identifications, and systemic change. For the last 15 years, he also has worked in the sociology of public knowledge, global transformations, and cultural politics, focusing most recently on energy security, universities and social movements. —  Kennedy was the University of Michigan’s first vice provost for international affairs in addition to being director of an institute and five centers and programs at UM; he also served as the Howard R. Swearer Director of Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies. — Kennedy just concluded nine years of service on the Executive Committee and Board of Directors at the Social Science Research Council and joins the Open Society Foundations’ Higher Education Support Program Advisory Board in June 2015. — His latest book Globalizing Knowledge: Intellectuals, Universities, and Publics in Transformation has been published by Stanford University Press. Postal address: Box 1916 Maxcy Hall Brown University 108 George Street Providence, RI 02912 Fax: (401) 863-3213. Web: http://watson.brown.edu/people/faculty/kennedyhttps://brown.academia.edu/MichaelKennedy.


Banner image: Protest against the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement in Brussels, 11 February 2012. Photo by Marek Blahuš under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

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