How to understand the relationship between the individual and the many? This is one of the oldest and, undoubtedly, most challenging of questions. Social reality, a complex object par excellence, is obviously not immune to this inquiry, and the Plural Societies programme aims to act as its sounding board while also challenging the aporia usually associated with it.
Thinking about ‘society’
Our first challenge is epistemological in nature. How can we continue to use this all too simple, traditional and convenient term ‘society’ in a post-structuralist context, in which postmodernism and deconstruction have left their indelible traces? On the other hand, by the mere act of taking a sharp and hyper-analytical look at it, do we not risk destroying our object of study as we’re told is the case in contemporary physics? And does the justifiable rejection of all forms of essentialism not lead to the formulation of hypotheses which, however innovative, are equally radical and lead accordingly to forms of agnosticism akin to the black holes of positivism? Our research group is diverse and applies a wide range of meanings to the notion of ‘society’. However, we agree on the relevance and, therefore, the operativity of this notion. In other words, we agree on the fact that something that is called society can be observed and identified in a given space-time and is neither an illusion of popular consciousness nor an illusion of an over-naive semi-science. For how can we think about the ‘many’ without the ‘one’? How can we think about ‘the plural’ or plurality without society?
The notion of the ‘plural’
A second – and again epistemological – challenge involves imbuing the notion of the ‘plural’ (plurality) with a conceptual content that goes beyond the accepted meaning of the term and would be capable of subsuming the different social expressions of the ‘many’. As the philosopher Wittgenstein remarked, the most difficult thing is to see what is right in front of our eyes. What is always in front of our eyes is the real – the phenomenon, that which seems – in its evidence, an evidence that imposes itself on everyone. Who would contest the facts that our societies are ‘plural’ and are becoming more plural every day, particularly as a result of migration, and that there are hardly any remote and some might say ‘preserved’ societies, whose future will not be mixed and combined, or at least complex and plural? “The most difficult thing …”: over-familiarity prevents us from seeing and, therefore, from thinking, that is apprehending, measuring and conceptualizing. Our research programme arose from the keen awareness that its subject runs precisely the risk of being too evident, too current and too ‘societal’ and that the risk of finding intellectual comfort and laziness in the superficial analysis of this diversity and plurality is not an insignificant one, particularly if it is necessary to do it in the context of a number of “sad affects” – to adopt Spinoza’s expression, i.e. concerns, fantasies or, conversely, positive and messianic affects. Hence, one hand, there is the fear of the loss of identity and, on the other, the hope of going beyond national holism towards an integral cosmopolitanism.
Our intellectual object and how it is constructed
First, we start from a broad definition of the notion of ‘plural’, which is understood as observable discontinuity in a given social space-time. This discontinuity can be the result of human mobility or intrinsic to society; it can be rooted in synchronicity or be evolutionary in nature; it can express itself in the register of symbolic forms (religion, langue, art etc.) or in the register of time (the multiple trajectories of one and the same historical phenomenon). Finally, this discontinuity assumes an axiological dimension when it attracts a following or becomes an objective to be attained (in this case we refer to pluralism as a democratic value), or, conversely, when the discontinuous and diversity trigger rejection and marginalization. Without exhausting the notion of ‘plural’, this definition covers the many issues and perspectives that the Plural Societies programme aims to tackle.
Second, we introduce a comparative dimension of a historical nature. In other words, we avail of the study of previous periods in history, both in themselves and as surviving memories, which engender symbolic discontinuities, and also – if August Comte’s striking statement that “the dead govern the living” is true – because we live and act in accordance with the dynamics of the living past. It is interesting to recall in this regard the dialectic at work in the study of the contemporary and of ancient times by numerous sociologists including Max Weber and Shmuel Noah Eisenstadt. Although they focus on ancient religions, neither has a particular historical interest in far-off times, however they both attempt to explain social change in general and the mechanisms at work in their own times in particular. Of course, from a methodological point of view, the historical periods are “territoires des écarts” (“territories of difference”), to adopt Florence Dupont’s expression. Nonetheless, their study is an indispensable heuristic tool for the examination of the contemporary. The analytical depth and historical depth of the ‘plural’ are two epistemological instruments that help us to go beyond the simple evidence.
What questions does the concept of the ‘plural’ raise?
Our intellectual synergy has produced some key ideas and objectives. The approaches adopted to the study of the impacts of the circulation of humans and of material and immaterial goods need to be updated. The contemporary world is lived and read about through the paradigms of globalization. Humanity has already experienced such phenomena (the ancient Mediterranean, the century of the great discoveries, the post-war period), however the intensity and scale of the current planetary mobility appears to be unprecedented. Hence the question of evaluating the scope of this change in scale is a legitimate one. Which image best reflects this reality: that of the ‘global village’, the ‘small world’, or that of a return to the territory? Should these two visions be considered in opposition to each other or as linked in a dialectic to be defined? How should the categories of ‘near’ and ‘far’ be conceived in this context? Does the ‘elsewhere’ exist? How does the category of the ‘virtual’ (internet) operate in the definition and perception of the ‘near’, the ‘far’ and the ‘elsewhere’?
The phenomenon of reterritorialization raises another question of an anthropological nature. Are we in the process of witnessing the reintegration of the ‘environment’ into the factors that shape and determine humanity? In other words, are we in the process of rejecting or adapting the Cartesian adage: “I was a substance whose whole essence or nature is simply to think, and which does not require any place, or depend on any material thing, in order to exist”? Western and non-western researchers are proposing a new conceptual framework for thinking about the determination of humanity today, and our programme also sets out to tackle this question.
In addition, we propose to revisit the question regarding the processes of ‘communication’ within plural societies. A number of important anthropological, sociological and historical concepts have been developed to describe and explain the phenomena that arise when two or more cultures come into contact with each other: they borrow from each other, hybridize, resist each other or assimilate. Behind these observable and in part quantifiable results lies the emergence of processes for the production of meaning, and this is of particular interest to us. How do societies create symbolic systems, under which conditions and using which methods? Between ‘acculturation’, bricolage and connections, which framework of interpretation should be applied and to which context?
Finally, we seek to revisit the issue of the event and its predictability. As already mentioned, there is a need to reconsider the categories of the ‘near’ and the ‘far’ and an innovative approach is also required for the evaluation of the categories ‘before’ and ‘after’. Conflict and resilience, crisis and recovery, revolution and post-revolution are all facts whose modelling also follows the logic of plurality. They require both academic and practical reflection that incorporates multiple approaches: the diagnosis of rupture and its risk factors (be they historical, economic, religious or environmental), the development of strategies for going beyond and returning to ordinary times, and the evaluation of the consequences of the event at individual or group level.