The Political Sociology of Cosmopolitanism and Communitarianism


Theoretical background and objectives

Across many advanced democracies – albeit to varying extents and in different forms – we observe a growing distance between the positions taken by political elites, and those of mass publics and electorates. This elite-mass divide has crystallised in a limited number of issue areas, which are often related to globalisation and denationalisation, in their political, socio-cultural, and economic forms. It shows that the denationalisation of markets, governance structures, and migration flows entails not only an aggregate growth in opportunities and wealth, but also a reconfiguration of power, wealth, and status between different classes of actors within national political systems as well as between supranational and national institutions. In the national political arena, various globalisation processes led to tensions in many countries reflected in the rise of populist movements and parties on the left and right. On the international level, inter­national institutions are not any more seen as just functional agencies to foster coordination between governments, but increasingly as sites of political authority and arenas of political contestation.

Against this background, we ask: (1) To which extent do these different conflicts follow a similar logic and can be described as a "new political cleavage"? (2) Whether the positions of the two sides of such a cleavage are already embedded in encompassing normative foundations which we may label as cosmopolitanism and communitarianism? (3) To what extent does the appropriate handling of such a conflict require a significant change in the landscape of political institutions?

This research project feeds into three themes with far-reaching implications for understanding new social conflicts in globalising societies: (1) Part of the success of the modern nation-state was its ability to successfully institutionalise social and political cleavages. To the extent that new political cleavages challenge the role of political institutions of the nation-state as such and that some players use political arenas outside of the traditional nation-state realm for their purposes, the classical patterns of legitimacy and decision-making in national democracies get undermined. (2) International institutions, such as the WTO or environmental regimes, were successful in acting as, more or less, technical agencies under firm control of the executives of the member states. To the extent that these international institutions exercise authority and thus become an arena of political contestation, their "technical" foundation of success gets challenged as well. This mechanism applies in general, albeit in different forms, to the EU as well. (3) Migration and integration have been seen for a long time as issues of social relevance, but only with limited impact on the core of national political institutions. To the extent that this cultural component of the new cleavage becomes dominant, migration and integration will move closer to the centre of political competition and will eventually change norms, rules, and procedures within the national political systems.

Research design, data and methodology

There are three empirical modules in this project: In Module 1 we will investigate the following aspects: "objective" representation deficits, the subjective perception of them, the emergence of populist parties and the consequences for political conflict as well as democracy's capacity to reproduce their legitimacy. Moreover, it will extend the cross-country comparison from Europe to Latin America, where a major reaction to globalisation and its socio-economic consequences is not exclusive against immigration, but rather inclusive towards the marginalised underclass of their countries.

In Module 2 we address the question why elites tend to have and act according to a more cosmopolitan world view than their citizens/electorates. While it seems plausible to assume that modest cosmopolitan positions are more widespread among political elites than among citizens, it is less obvious that especially economic elites are also widely committed to more ambitious cosmopolitan positions such as the constitutionalisation of global governance. On the one hand, the project seeks to explain why political elites are more cosmopolitan than citizens/electorates but also what the determinants of the emergence of different forms of cosmopolitanism among different elites are and how it clashes with different variants of communitarian inclinations of many "normal" citizens.

In Module 3 we undertake an inquiry into the question about the relative distribution of (different types of) cosmopolitanism and communitarianism across different political arenas (supranational, international, transnational, national and regional). We assume that cosmopo­litan positions dominate the political arenas beyond the nation-state and use them mainly for purposes of agenda-setting and compliance with international norms within nation-states. In this way, they can strengthen their position in national political arenas without being necessarily in the majority position. At the same time, communitarian political forces are put into the defence and appear parochial.

We will develop a distinct type of political sociology covering cosmopolitanism and communi­tarianism along the three mentioned paths of enquiry. The first project component focuses mainly, but not exclusively, on the first research module and will rely primarily on secondary analysis of population surveys and party programme data. We can therefore take a large-N approach and investigate a wide range of countries. Components two and three of the research project require the creation of primary data. We plan to apply three types of analysis in order to investigate the issues mentioned in research modules two and three: (1) A content and frame analysis of pro-cosmopolitan and pro-communitarian opinion articles in elite newspapers and weeklies as well as in opinion articles in tabloid newspapers. (2) An online questionnaire among members of the political elite (local, regional, national politicians/party functionaries and European/international functionaries as well as NGO representatives) measuring cosmopolita­nism and communitarianism items that are also available in existing representative population surveys, allowing a comparison between elite and mass opinions. (3) An analysis of the major focus of political activity when pursuing the cosmopolitan agenda. The hypothesis to be tested here is that cosmopolitans and communitarians act on different playing fields thus making the direct political confrontation impossible.

Main content

Selected Publications

de Wilde, Pieter/Koopmans, Ruud/Merkel, Wolfgang/Strijbis, Oliver/Zürn, Michael (in press):  "The Struggle over Borders. A Political Sociology of Cosmopolitanism and Communitarianism". Cambridge University Press.

Teney, Céline/Strijbis, Oliver/Carol, Sarah/Tepe, Senem (2018): Elite Survey of the Bridging Project 'The Political Sociology of Cosmopolitanism and Communitarianism'. Technical Report. WZB Discussion Paper SP VI 2018-105 SP VI 2018-105. Berlin: WZB.