Markus S. Schulz: For a Sociology of Possibilities


On the Futures We Want, Global Sociology, and the Struggles for a Better World

English | Sobre los futuros que deseamos…(Español/Spanish) | Pour une sociologie de possibilités (Français/French)

Markus S. Schulz

University of Illinois, USA


The globalized planet is marred by unabated injustices, rampant conflicts, and environmental destruction. Yet, hopes for a better world persist. Dreams are nourished by courageous struggles from the jungles of Chiapas to the townships of Johannesburg, from the streets of Arab capitals to the neighborhoods of Chicago, from the pathways of migrants to the virtual spaces of new media. Utopian energies have not been exhausted but can inspire scholarly innovations. Unprecedented risks and opportunities demand new ways of thinking.

Globalization has unleashed enormous productivity gains and produced tremendous wealth. Yet, it also exacerbated inequality, marginality, and poverty. Markets, states, societies and the relations among these spheres are being profoundly restructured as globalization connects multiple social scales in ever more intense ways. No nation, city, neighborhood or community is left untouched. The effects and experiences are highly uneven and often contradictory. Never before in history have so many migrants been on the move, and impending environmental changes are likely to increase this trend. New transnational spaces have increased cultural diversity, while mobility becomes an increasingly salient axis of inequality. The new information and communication technologies helped to accelerate globalization. Yet they unite as much as they divide, and facilitate as much as prevent free exchange. New forms of control, surveillance, and warfare are emerging.

Deterministic models and military response logics have proved too shortsighted, too costly, and ultimately counterproductive to peace and security. Sustainable solutions require deeper and methodologically more open analyses of underlying problems. Outcomes of the new transnational dynamics are not the result of some inevitable forces, but are socially shaped by institutionally conditioned, yet reflexive human agency, thus a result of decisions and choices, whether these are intended or not.

In many of today’s national sociologies, the future appears spectacularly neglected. Why is that so? Among the locally varying reasons, one view seems to be particularly widespread. It argues against dealing with the future because we cannot know anything about it, and since we should not talk about what we cannot know, we should better be quiet about the future.

This position runs counter to the fact that we all lead our daily lives based on innumerable assumptions about the future, short-term and long-term, small and large. Whether we deem something possible or impossible, likely or unlikely, desirable or undesirable has consequences. Anticipation, aspiration, expectation, hope, imagination, planning, projection, and vision are inherent aspects of future-oriented human action.

Once we accept the need for sociology to become more forward-looking several tricky questions arise. How can we conceptualize the future? What are the most fruitful ways, and how do we assess competing modes of engagement? Finding answers to these questions is a task to which a range of theoretical approaches can contribute.

In the past, the future was often assumed to be predestined, predetermined, or at least progressing in a certain direction and thus, with the proper approach, predictable. During sociology’s foundational period, religious beliefs in some future telos appeared to give way to the positivist search for social laws, the knowledge of which sociologists – in traditions from Comte to Durkheim – thought to be useful for administering society. Marx shared similar assumptions when he pronounced the laws of history pointed to a necessary triumph of the oppressed proletariat over the bourgeoisie, though he did recognize in his more empirical-historical writings that there were no automatic formulae but plenty of room for contingent action. Scholars from, or engaged with, the Global South (e.g. Amin, Cardoso, Dussel, Guha, Quijano, Nederveen Pieterse, Saïd, Santos, Spivak) have challenged the pervasive modernization models according to which the so-called Third World was behind in its development and could overcome its presumed backwardness only by following the path of the Global North.

The dissociation of social experience from expectation unleashes theoretical innovation along with specters of radical uncertainty. What is could have been different. The existing reality could have been differently shaped through indeterminate human action, in more or less reflexive as well as more or less conflictual or cooperative ways. This consciousness of indeterminacy is increasingly thematized in contemporary social theory through the explicit inclusion of social agency and multiple historical trajectories. It finds today its expression in the emphasis on autopoiesis, creativity, imagination, and vision.

Sociology’s re-orientation toward the future can thereby benefit from a whole range of empirical, analytical, and normative approaches in exploring the tiny worlds of micro interaction as well as the broadest macro trends that affect the entire planet. For example, recent advances in action theory overcome positivist restrictions and narrow instrumentalism. Theories of collective action and social movements can help to recognize alternative visions formulated from the grassroots and to gain a better understanding of political contestation. Time-diagnostic approaches can help to discern pertinent trends. Critical theories can help to pinpoint the value decisions at stake, unmask the working of vested interests, and identify differential consequences for different sectors of society.

Pressing problems of increasing social inequality, human rights violations, climate change, environmental degradation, and the underlying failures of distribution, recognition and governance require forward-oriented scholarship that can go beyond narrow business perspectives and corporate interests and that can reach across borders in search of sustainable alternatives. The current economic crisis seemed to have discredited the economic approaches that were dominant since the 1980s but a broader social-science perspective has still to fill the void. New conceptual perspectives and methodological tools are needed for research on possible, probable, preventable, and preferable futures. If sociology is to become more relevant, it needs to embrace a more forward-looking orientation and engage with the manifold futures envisioned by different social actors.

Note: A version of this article appeared in Global Dialogue (2015, vol. 5, no. 2), edited by Michael Burawoy.


Markus S. Schulz is Vice-President for Research of the International Sociological Association (ISA) and serves as President of the 2016 ISA Forum of Sociology in Vienna. Among his most recent English publications is the special issue on Future Moves: Studies in Culture, Science, and Technology for the ISA journal Current Sociology (forthcoming March 2015). Web:


Banner image:  The Zapatistas are indigenous peasants in Chiapas, Mexico. They have set up an autonomous educational system in resistance against long-standing injustices and as part of their effort to build their own futures. Photo taken by the author in a highland community.

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