Academic journal article The Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology

A World of Emergencies: Fear, Intervention, and the Limits of Cosmopolitan Order *

Academic journal article The Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology

A World of Emergencies: Fear, Intervention, and the Limits of Cosmopolitan Order *

Article excerpt

IN THE MIDST OF WORLD WAR II, Pitirim Sorokin (1968) wrote one of the first important sociological studies of "emergencies," Man and Society in Calamity: The Effects of Was Revolution, Famine, Pestilence upon Human Mind, Behavior; Social Organization and Cultural Life. Predictably, Sorokin was concerned to situate the immediate situation in relation to long-term social and cultural dynamics. How did different sorts of cultures take hold of calamities, he asked, and how did calamities change social and cultural organization? The theme was not altogether new to Sorokin (1975), who wrote on the human experience and impact of hunger in the wake of World War I and the Soviet Revolution. (1) And the theme was enduring. Decades later, Sorokin (19641 brooded over the dissolution of a sensate culture in decline and, especially, the question of what might effect a renewal of ideational and eventually idealistic values. Sorokin sought to do his part to encourage more "creative altruism" and he worried that sociology in general was not doing its part. But he also wondered whether the world would recognize the importance of altruism only when shocked by unprecedented "tragedy, suffering and crucifixion."

Impressive altruism has indeed shaped responses to the world's tragedies in recent years. Since World War II, and especially since 1989, there has been an extraordinary growth in the number of non-governmental organizations devoted to providing humanitarian assistance to those suffering the effects of wars, famines, and diseases. Organizations like Medecins Sans Frontieres are paradigmatic, and are among the most morally admired in the world. Calamities have always garnered media attention, and this is only more evident in this era of "real time" and heavily visual electronic media. It is also linked to successful charitable fund-raising and pressures for interventions to stop suffering.

But the social sciences have still not paid as much attention to calamities as they might. There is a notable, but still small, subfield of disaster research. But this has remained mostly quite specialized, and there has not been enough integration of attention to disasters with the rest of sociological theory and research. Specifically, there has not been enough attention given to calamities, emergencies, and disasters in the context of sociological accounts of globalization, and it is to this task that I would like to contribute today. I want to outline the way in which I think the emergency--for this, rather than "calamity" has become the standard term--has been woven into a social imaginary, a way of seeing the world that fundamentally shapes action in it.

International and global affairs have come to be constructed largely in terms of the opposition between more or less predictable systems of relationships and flows and the putatively unpredictable eruptions of emergencies. This reflects both the idea that it is possible and desirable to "manage" global affairs, and the idea that many, if not all, of the conflicts and crises that challenge global order are the result of exceptions to it. It also underwrites what I think is most dramatically new in the relationship among governance, violence, and the use of force today: the apparent compulsion to intervene. This, I think, we cannot understand simply by realist reference to state interests or culturalist accounts of civilizational clashes. It is certainly a matter of material interests; emergency relief and intervention is a huge industry if one analyses it thus. And it is a matter of cultural understanding, but not simply the sort of "culture as inheritance" that shapes accounts like Samuel Huntington's. Rather, it is a new cultural construction. As the idea of a global order produced not by empire but by a system of nation-states involved the development of a characteristic way of imagining the world, and was then made real in action, so does the idea of emergencies. "Emergency" is a way of grasping problematic events, a way of imagining them that emphasizes their apparent unpredictability, abnormality and brevity, and that carries the corollary that response--intervention--is necessary. …

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