May/June 2012 Issue • Volume 40 • Issue 5

download pdfDownload full issue pdf


The Real Utopia Theme at the
2012 ASA Annual Meeting

Erik Olin Wright, 2012 ASA President

The theme for the 2012 annual meeting of the American Sociological Association is “Real Utopias: Emancipatory Projects, Institutional Designs, Possible Futures.” Thomas Moore coined the word “Utopia” in the early 16th century as a pun on two Greek roots—no place and good place. Utopia is a fantasy world of perfect harmony, peace and justice. When politicians want to summarily dismiss a proposal for social transformation as an impractical dream outside the limits of possibility, they call it “utopian.” Realists reject such fantasies as a distraction from the serious business of making practical improvements in existing institutions.

The idea of real utopias embraces this tension between dreams and practice: “utopia” implies developing visions of alternatives to existing institutions that embody our deepest aspirations for a world in which all people have access to the conditions to live flourishing lives; “real” means taking seriously the problem of the viability of the institutions that could move us in the direction of that world. The goal is to elaborate utopian ideals that are grounded in the real potentials of humanity, utopian destinations that have accessible way stations, utopian designs of viable institutions that can inform our practical tasks of navigating a world of imperfect conditions for social change.

The 2012 ASA annual meeting will explore a wide range of empirical, theoretical and normative issues connected to the idea of real utopia. A number of different kinds of sessions are being planned around the theme:

Plenary Sessions

Equality (Thursday, August 16) Speakers: Philippe van Parijs, Judith Lorber, and Kimberly Crenshaw.

At the core of the idea of real utopias is the problem of realizing ideals of social justice, and in one way or another, these ideals are always bound up with questions about equality. Equality is also part of the normative context for one of the central preoccupations of sociology—understanding the causes and consequences of diverse forms of inequality, especially class, gender, and race. This plenary examines various issues connecting equality and real utopias. There will be a 30-minute spoken word performance on social justice and real utopias by students from the First Wave Spoken Word and Urban Arts program at the University of Wisconsin.

Democracy (Friday, August 17) Speakers: Robert McChesney, Hilary Wainwright, Bruce Ackerman, and Boaventura Santos.

Many real utopian institutional designs and experiments are built around the problem of deepening democracy: how to organize decision-making in organizations, in the state, and in society in such a way that ordinary people are in a position to genuinely exercise real power. This plenary concerns different aspects of the problem of deepening and radicalizing democracy.

Sustainability (Sunday, August 19) Speakers: Paul Ehrlich, Tim Jackson, Harriet Friedman

Few problems pose a bigger challenge to contemporary capitalist societies than environmental sustainability. Global warming looms as potentially catastrophic, and there are good arguments that capitalism as a political-economic system is not only incapable of effectively dealing with this impending crisis, but is itself one of the core causal processes generating the problem.  Yet, there is relatively little public discussion of rigorously argued real-utopian institutional designs for dealing effectively with climate change and other aspects of environmental sustainability. 

Real Utopia Proposals Sessions

Twenty-two sessions revolve around proposals for real utopian institutional designs to resolve different domains of problems. Examples include: unconditional basic income, market socialism, equality-sustaining parental leaves, participatory budgets, random-selection democratic assemblies, worker cooperatives, stakeholder corporations, and democratic media. For each session a person has been recruited who has worked extensively on formulating such real utopia designs, and who has agreed to write an essay laying out the rationale and core elements of the institutional proposal. These real utopia proposal essays are posted on the ASA website at The hope is that people interested in the session will read the proposals before the conference and leave comments on the website.  There will be a 20- to 25-minute presentation of the proposal and generally one discussant. Attendees at the session who have read the proposal in advance are encouraged to come with short prepared comments to be presented from the floor. Most of the session will be devoted to discussion.

Thematic Panels around Broad Topics

Fifty thematic panels are organized around topics rather than proposals. The idea is to explore these topics linked to the theme of real utopias, but these sessions will not necessarily involve detailed proposals for new institutions. These sessions will explore the normative dimensions of various topics, critiques of existing social arrangements and institutions, the directions for social change implied by those critiques and social struggles for the creation of alternatives. Some of these sessions will explore methodological issues around developing a sociology of the possible and the history of utopian thinking within sociology. These sessions include many of the thematic panels proposed directly by ASA members.  The topics include: Beyond Consumerism: the emergence of sustainable consumption cultures; Workers’ search for utopia; Reforming Carework; Worker-Owned Cooperatives: Transformative possibilities and constraints; Building a Better K-12 Education System; and Visions of Feminist Academy. This names only a few of the 50 sessions.

A Special Presidential Panel

Finally, there will be one special Presidential Panel on the broad theme “What does it mean to be a progressive in the 21st century?” This discussion will not be specifically framed in terms of real utopias, but will explore the broader political and philosophical issues involved in the idea of progress and progressive social change. The panel will have three speakers: Claus Offe, Göran Therborn and Francis Fox Piven.

Back to Top of Page

Print this article discuss this article

Featured Advertiser:

Join the ASA Wikipedia Initiative and Deploy the Power of Wikipedia to Represent the Discipline of Sociology

Back to Front Page of Footnotes | Table of Contents