March/April • Volume 43 • Issue 3

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Global Dialogue: An ISA President’s Reflections

Michael Burawoy, University of California-Berkeley and past ISA President

Michael Burawoy. Photo by Koichi Hasegawa

Founded in 1949, the International Sociological Association (ISA) was 65 years old at its 18th World Congress in Yokohama this past July. With over 6,000 participants from 103 countries it was the biggest Congress to date. Most of the more than 1,000 sessions were organized by the 63 ISA Research Committees, Working and Thematic Groups. The theme of the 2014 Congress was “Facing an Unequal World: Challenges for a Global Sociology.” As always happens at these events, new bonds were forged—this time over sushi and sake—across linguistic, generational, and national boundaries as well as across research interests.

Unless you happen to live nearby, attending such meetings is an expensive proposition, requiring a hefty grant or a hefty salary. Many members cannot afford to make the trip. With this in mind and with the simple desire to intensify communication, the ISA embarked in 2010 on an online venture that would bring sociological worlds to people’s computers without making expensive trips. This digital endeavor involved interviews with well-known sociologists, including former presidents of the ISA and with members of the Executive Committee; global seminars engaging major social scientists from all corners of the planet; a blog on Universities in Crisis; PhD abstract submissions; a social justice and democratization space; streaming of plenary sessions at the World Congress, not to mention Facebook and Twitter.

The most ambitious venture of all was the creation of a magazine, Global Dialogue, designed to meet the challenge of global sociology—produced by global actors for a global audience (did I mention it is global?). Global Dialogue began in 2010 as an eight-page newsletter published in three languages, and it quickly morphed into a 40-page online open access magazine that appears four times a year in 15 languages. Articles are short and accessible. In the first four years it published 334 articles from 63 countries, written by 310 different authors. It can be found at

Sociology as a Vocation

Much has been made of the diversity of sociologies across the planet, so Global Dialogue invited respected sociologists to write short articles on sociology as a vocation: Zygmunt Bauman (Poland and UK), Margaret Archer (UK), André Béteille (India), Jackie Cock (South Africa), Raewyn Connell (Australia), Randy David (Philippines), Chizuko Ueno (Japan), Elizabeth Jelin (Argentina), Immanuel Wallerstein (US), Alain Touraine (France), Kalpanna Kannabiran (India), Dorothy Smith (Canada), Herb Gans (US), Zsuzsa Ferge (Hungary), Mel Kohn (US). Whatever the conceptual framing—
from liquid modernity to world systems, cosmopolitanism, feminism, environmentalism, and violence—these visions of sociology, although a limited sample, point to a shared global discipline concerned with questions of justice, freedom, and equality, and with bringing critical knowledge into the public realm.

To be sure there are differences. Global Dialogue has featured fierce debates such as the one instigated by Polish sociologist Piotr Sztompka (Poland), unapologetic defender of a singular universal sociology, who faced severe criticism from the advocates of national sociologies, multiple traditions, and multi-versatility. Similarly, Ulrich Beck’s critics of his “cosmopolitanism” claimed he was Eurocentric—something denied by tributes to his career also featured in Global Dialogue. It is precisely this sort of vibrant dispute that produces the unity of a lively global discipline.

Northern Domination

While sociologists may have a shared project, we remain very unequal—an issue that comes up time and again in the pages of Global Dialogue. At Yokohama 71 percent of attendants came from high income countries, 19 percent from countries of middle income and 10 percent from low income countries, closely mirroring the ISA membership (65%, 22% and 13%).1 The U.S. membership of the ISA has been stable for over a decade at around 16 percent, while US registrants at Congresses and Forums fluctuate between 8 and 15 percent, depending on geographical location. The United States, not surprisingly, contributes more participation than any other country; this mirrors the U.S. domination of the international field of sociology. It is a steeply hierarchical field, like higher education as a whole, with elite universities, research funding, publications, degrees, and prestigious journals concentrated in northern countries, especially the United States. Many universities in the Global South have closed their sociology departments, or they are amalgamated with social work, anthropology, or political science, or they are forcing sociologists to migrate into business schools, policy schools, and think tanks. This is not only the case in the Global South, but also in Europe.

Part of the reason for this is university privatization, which goes hand in hand with branding to attract funding and students. As articles in Global Dialogue from UK, Russia, Italy, Czech Republic, France, and Australia show, national sociologies have suffered from the audit culture—rankings within countries of disciplines, departments, and universities—evaluated on criteria that place Harvard (with its  $36 billion ewndowment) at the top.  With the notable exception of Germany, where sociologists have courageously resisted department rankings, this “normalization” has been devastating. It has distorted national sociology by diverting it from local issues to frameworks defined by so-called “international” journals, usually based in the United States. As Palestinian sociologist Sari Hanafi wrote, “Publish locally and perish globally or publish globally and perish locally.” Ambitious states invest in “world-class” universities to the detriment of others, often starving them of resources and condemning them to scratch out a minimal existence in the peripheries. Where sociology does not “pay its way” it is easily sacrificed.

History Lessons

Global Dialogue has tried to give historical perspective to these global processes. Jennifer Platt, the ISA’s historian, has contributed a regular “History Corner” column dealing with topics such as the development of the ISA’s two major journals, Current Sociology and International Sociology, the history of its executive office (now in Madrid), the struggle in Mexico (1982) for the inclusion of Spanish as the third official language, the evolving structure of the ISA, the shifting balance of power between national associations and research committees, the rising prominence of women throughout the organization, and the slower inclusion of the Global South.

In the last issue of 2014, six former ISA Presidents reflect on the past, present, and future of the Association. Some are nostalgic for the old days when it was an elite organization, hosting more intimate gatherings. Nearly all the former Presidents referred to the increasing hegemony of English, which today is defended by speakers of English as a second language as much as by native speakers. They also wrote of the projects that had defined their four-year presidency, such as Alberto Martinelli’s highly successful annual PhD Laboratory, or of the changing topics that demand attention such as Michel Wieviorka’s “Challenges of Digitalization, Disciplinarity and Evil.”

Global Perspective on Current Events

Global Dialogue has also devoted itself to capturing world events through a sociological eye. Thus, we tried to keep up with the social movements as they spread across the globe, starting with a retrospective on Iran’s 2009 Green Movement. We followed the Arab Uprisings with articles from or about Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, and Israel. Articles by the Egyptian sociologist and photojournalist Mona Abaza became a barometer of the fluctuating fortunes of the Cairo insurgencies, from her stirring account of the January 25 Movement to the Muslim Brotherhood’s ascent to power, and then the military coup of 2013.

We covered the movements against austerity in Southern Europe—from Portugal (“The Inflexible Precarious”), Spain (“Real Democracy Now”), England (“Big Society Bail-Ins”), and the extraordinary Chilean student movement against privatization. You can read about feminist movements in Russia, the Caucuses, and Ukraine and how they have been beaten back by a new-found ultra-nationalism conspiring with the Orthodox Church. We followed the fate of labor movements in China, Brazil, South Africa, and Mexico; the environmental movements around mineral extraction and land in Colombia and India; and the water wars across Latin America. Filipino sociologist Herbert Docena reports each yearly on the rising frustration of social movements at the annual UN climate change negotiations.

Reading the pages of Global Dialogue in 2011 and 2012 you might think that a world revolution was approaching, but these movements dissolved, occasionally breaking through again as in Turkey and Brazil in the summer of 2013 and in Hong Kong in 2014. From the beginning Global Dialogue has also followed the rightward political turn of many social movements, including articles on Hungary’s “mafia society” and articles on racist movements against Islam in France and Germany. The March 2015 issue of Global Dialogue leads off with Boaventura de Sousa Santos’ global assessment of the antecedents and repercussions of Charlie Hebdo assassinations. We will follow this up with ethnographies of the fear and insecurity saturating minority
communities, especially Muslim communities, but also penetrating the wider society.

National Sociologies against Marketization

Following social movements alone obviously misses a great deal of what is happening both in sociology and in the world it describes. Even an active member of the ISA has little idea of what sociology might be like elsewhere, what issues it faces, what foci it adopts, what theory it develops. Each issue of Global Dialogue, therefore, features symposia on “national sociologies,” composed of multiple perspectives from within a given country.

Colombian sociologists wrote about the sociology of violence; from China we learned about land grabs and rural urbanization; from Indonesia the challenges of democratic openings under the new President Jokowi were discussed, and; from France how political and economic changes are affecting sociology careers, funding, and the direction of research; from Uruguay we discover exceptional progress toward social democracy, symbolized by the charismatic President José Mujica; and from Bulgaria leftist perspectives on the meaning of socialism and of life among the down and out, to name a few of the symposia we published. Reading these accounts from different places, one learns how unusual the United States is, and yet across those differences how abiding the problems are that continue to define sociology. If there is a general lesson to be learned, it is how market fundamentalism is eating away at societies across the globe and yet eliciting very different reactions, depending on the character of national political regimes and the manner and extent of commodification.

Because of this wave of marketization, sociology’s ideas are often received weakly, if at all, and its institutional basis has been badly fractured. Still, it is possible to find sociologists going against the grain wherever one goes. A few were interviewed for Global Dialogue. In an early issue, Shujiro Yazawa described his life as a longtime internationalist, suspicious of Japanese nationalism, determined that one day Japan would host the ISA’s Congress (which it did). Arlie Hochschild—innovative in so many areas—describes her passions and projects to a young Portuguese sociologist. Libyan academic, Mustafa Attir, explains to Sari Hanafi how it was possible to practice sociology under Gadafi and in the civil war that followed. In another interview, Manuel Antonio Garreton, a leading sociologist from Latin America, explains how Chilean sociology went underground with the ascent of Pinochet, what role it played in his eventual downfall, and why sociology has never recovered.

There is an interview with Fernando Henrique Cardoso, describing how his training as a sociologist helped him be a better President of Brazil. The interview with Peruvian sociologist Nicolas Lynch describes his moves in and out of politics. Sociology and politics have always been intertwined in Latin America, an explosive mixture that has made for an original and dynamic sociology. This is true in Africa too; we learn from the interview with Issa Shivji, a steadfastly critical intellectual at the University of Dar es Salaam from the 1960s to the present. My favorite interview is with Izabela Barlinska, who was recruited to the ISA while still a student active in the Polish Solidarity Movement. Unable to return for many years she became a permanent fixture in the ISA Secretariat, which she has run successfully for 30 years. While she doesn’t tell all, one has a glimpse of the challenges of directing an international organization that operates like a branch of the UN, with all its uncertain and byzantine politics.


Some of the most interesting features of Global Dialogue are its least visible. With the irreplaceable assistance of Gay Seidman, every issue is first produced in English. Articles are often translated from foreign languages so that the long-winded sentences of erudite French, complex Russian, or radiant Spanish are crafted into simple English prose with mindfulness to the danger that a distinctive sociology may be lost in the process. Global editorial teams (India, Russia, Poland, Turkey, Romania, Spain, Taiwan, Japan, Tunisia, Lebanon, Iran, Kazakhstan, and Brazil) largely made up of young and dedicated sociologists translate the English into their native tongue. This is as much a sociological exercise as it is a linguistic one.

Every issue involves the collaboration of more than 100 people, communicating with one another across the planet and then transmitting their communications to lay publics as well as local sociologists. From this reservoir of youthful talent will be drawn the next generation of sociologists—global sociologists, well-versed in global dialogue.  


1 The ISA uses World Bank Classifications into A (high income), B (middle income) and C (low income) countries based on per capita gross national income. These categories are used in determine differential dues, registration fees, and distribution of grants and subsidies.

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