Contemporary Societies in Global Perspective


Philosophies of Social Science Research

Professor Nicholas Gane

Tended to analyse social relations or social institutions as bounded by the nation-state, eg class in Britain, education in France.

A clear statement of this is to be found in C.W.


Sociological Imagination


, p.150).


‘In terms of power, and in many other interesting terms as well, the most inclusive unit of social structure is the nation-state. The nation-state is now the dominating form in world history and, as such, a major fact in the life of every man’ (


Mills continues: ‘The nation-state has split up and organized, in varying degree and manner, the “civilizations” and continents of the world’


, p.150)

Ulrich Beck accuses this type of approach of

‘methodological nationalism’. Society is seen as being ‘contained’ within the nation-state

He says that classical social science thinkers

‘shared a territorial definition of modern society, and thus a model of society centred on the national-state’ ( p.24).

What is Globalization


Ulrich Beck: ‘The national state is a territorial state: that is, its power is grounded upon attachment to a particular place…The world society which, in the wake of globalization, has taken shape in many dimensions is undermining the importance of the national state, because a multiplicity of social circles, communication networks, market relations and lifestyles, none of them particular to any particular locality, now cut across the boundaries of the national state’ (

What is Globalization

, p.4).

National boundaries define the limits of societies

Globalization is defined by connections and ‘flows’ rather than borders or boundaries

Two main features of recent approaches to globalization are:

1). An interest in movement or transnational social relations and movements.

See, for example, John Urry’s mobility

, and in

Sociology Beyond



2). A focus on complexity. For example: Urry’s

Global Complexity

(2003) and pp.26-31 of



The basic argument here is that globalization brings new levels of complexity to social life

Many social relations now play out across nation-state borders, often aided by new communications technologies

Often these relations are fast-moving and constantly changing

New forms of social complexity emerge through the meeting of different cultures

Blockages and flows: new tensions

A new focus on the latter: the mobilities of people, commodities, information, signs, money that make the world today so complex

Urry: ‘What is important is to try to shift…from the study of society to the study of movement…one of the things I am keen to show is the importance of networked relationships across the globe’ (


, p.109).

‘It is predicted by 2010 there will be at least one billion legal international arrivals each year (compared with 25 million in 1950); there are four million air passengers each day; at any one time 360,000 passengers are…in flight


the United States, equivalent to a substantial city…’ ( p.3)



More thank ever: the social world is not static but dynamic and fast-changing

Epistemologically, how do we cope with this?

Someone might live ‘in Britain as a taxi driver while at the same time working in New Delhi or relating to their family there…But you cannot understand how a British Indian taxi driver is living a transnational life-form if you only look at this life from a national, British point of view.

Instead, you have to relate this world of experience and acting to a place and position in the Indian class system as well. You have to make these interconnections…’ (Ulrich Beck in


Future of Social Theory

, p.153).

Not just the mobilities of people but also of things, commodities, signs, objects and data

Once things become mediated by digital technologies, how do we study them?

A focus on infrastructure and/or media

An example: the market

To give an extreme illustration:


Urry argues for a ‘mobility turn’: ‘a different way of thinking through the character of economic, social and political relationships’

This turn ‘emphasizes how all social entities, from a single household to large scale corporations, presuppose many different forms of actual and potential movement’

For Urry, the ‘mobility turn is postdisciplinary’ (p.6). Is this the case?

Urry presents mobilities thinking as changing the very basis of social science: it forms a new


He says: ‘a mobilities paradigm is not just substantively different, in that it remedies the neglect and omissions of various movements of people, ideas and so on. But it is transformative of social science, authorizing an alternative theoretical and methodological landscape…’ (


, p.18)

Urry maps out some methodological rules for studying these new mobilities

The first of these is: to develop through appropriate metaphors a social science ‘which focuses upon movement, mobility and contingent ordering, rather than upon stasis, structure and social order’ (


, p.18).

Question: where do the metaphors come from in your own research? What work do they do?

Urry talks about mobile methods at further length in



He says that research methods ‘also need to be “on the move”’ (p.39)

Traditional social science:

1). Observation of people’s movements

2). Participation in patterns of movement – moving with people (ethnography)

3). Time-space diaries

4). Study of movement through key nodes

Urry says that ‘methods need to be able to follow around objects’ (p.41)

Thinkers such as Lash and Lury have argued for a ‘cultural biography of objects’ (see, for example of

Global Culture Industry

How is this possible?

, 2007)

What are the methodological and epistemological challenges of trying to keep track of a fast-moving and complex world

(inhabited by not just by humans but increasingly ‘intelligent’ machines)

A real challenge: should social science keep pace with and understand a world that is moving so quickly?

Unlimited, real-time data?

A methodological problem but also a problem for theory

Part of the problem is the underlying media of social science research (including the PhD)

Slowness could potentially be advantage?

Not just mobility in terms of space: we also need to be aware of the time-sensitivity of our work