CORDIS - EU research results

Trajectories of modernity - comparing non-European and European varieties

Final Report Summary - TRAMOD (Trajectories of modernity - comparing non-European and European varieties)

The project “Trajectories of modernity: comparing non-European and European varieties” (TRAMOD) has shown, through comparative and historical investigation, that contemporary societies are shaped by their self-understandings, that is, by the interpretations they give to their current situation (and to the ways through which they have arrived at this situation) in processes of communication among their members. This finding is highly significant for conceptual, empirical, and topical reasons:

In conceptual terms, TRAMOD has demonstrated the limits of comparative analyses that only focus on institutions and, thus, tend to see a trend for convergence on liberal-democratic and market-capitalist forms of socio-political organisation, considering other arrangements as merely deviant from the norm. It has also overcome the current divide between neo-modernisation analysts and scholars working within the multiple-modernities paradigm, by showing that current socio-political arrangements neither converge to a single model nor are shaped by inherited cultural programmes. Rather, interpretations of modernity emerge when creatively addressing current situations of political, economic and cultural challenges in the light of earlier experiences. Significantly, such finding also suggests that theoretical approaches that arrive at generalizations by ignoring temporal and spatial specificity, such as rational-choice theory and analytical political philosophy, both currently widespread across the social sciences, fail to capture important aspects of contemporary socio-political constellations.

In empirical terms, TRAMOD has provided nuanced comparative analysis of what common language calls “advanced” and “emerging” societies by focusing on Southern American and Southern African societies, in particular South Africa, Brazil and Chile, in comparison with European societies. Avoiding a priori categorizations, it could be demonstrated that these societies all face a set of similar issues, but do so in different circumstances and in the light of different experiences, thus arrive at different answers. The project identified key such issues and analyzed the differences in the ways in which responses are found. To give some examples: (1) South Africa, Brazil and Chile define themselves as societies that have been marked by profound historical injustice, the consequences of which need to be addressed in the present. In turn, European societies tend to think of themselves as having overcome past injustice, as having settled the past to never re-emerge in the present. (2) European societies claim to have consolidated democratic practices and tend to fear increased political participation, often referred to as populism, whereas Brazilian and South African democracy have been created through resistance to oppressive regimes and thus are based on high participation by social movements. (3) European societies claim to have developed a model of organized social solidarity that they are struggling to defend in the current global context. South Africa and Brazil are highly inegalitarian and included only minorities in many of its key institutions over long historical periods, but they are today addressing the challenge of building inclusive societies without any model at hand, given that the European one was highly context-specific and is today at risk of failing. (4) Societies in Europe have historically mostly been built on some assumption of cultural-linguistic homogeneity, leading to the idea of a national identity being the presupposition for building a stable political order. South Africa and Brazil, in turn, have historically been constituted by numerous native populations, settler groups of different origins, and forced immigration through slavery. Even though this history led to oppression and exclusion, the consequences of which remain highly significant, it also entails that these societies tend today to be more open to diversity and plurality than European ones.

In terms of current socio-political agendas, two conclusions follow from the insights mentioned above. First, rather than operating with a distinction between “advanced” and “emerging” societies, it seems more fruitful to distinguish situations in which model solutions appeared to have been developed, but which now show their limits, from situations in which much socio-political energy is invested in creatively finding solutions to problems for which no model answers exist (or no longer exist). As a consequence, second, comparative analysis should no longer be pursued as the search for identifying which society is “ahead” and which is “behind” on a single linear scale, thus neither for any “best practice” that can serve as general model, but rather as the attempt at identifying problem constellations in their specificity and the conditions in which creative ways of addressing these problems emerge.