Book Review for Contemporary Sociology                             Christopher Chase-Dunn

Sylvia Walby, Globalization and Inequalities: Complexity and Contested Modernities

520 pp. Sage, 2009

Paperback ISBN: 9780803985186 £25.99 Hardcover ISBN: 9780803985179 £70.00

 (v. 7-31-10)


            Sylvia Walby’s Globalization and Inequalties uses carefully selected elements of complexity theory to reconstruct central concepts in social theory. This is an ambitious, courageous and largely successful effort to rebuild general social theory in response to the challenges posed by postmodernism and globalization. Walby is Professor of Sociology at Lancaster University in the United Kingdom and holds a UNESCO Chair in Gender Research. She is best known for her excellent studies of the causes and consequences of crossnational gender differences. She has also played a foundational role in the European Sociological Association and has studied what she would call the European “societalization project.” Her main intent in Globalization and Inequalities is to incorporate gender into the conceptual center of critical social theory.  This she does by building a new structural schema of multiple regimes of inequality and multiple institutional domains that develops insights from feminist theory and the intersectionality literature on the intertwining of different kinds of socially structured inequality.

            Walby thoughtfully responds to the postmodernist critique of social science by combining a sensitive awareness of the particular cultural, historical and structural roots of notions of modernity and progress with a new dedication to building a general theoretical apparatus for explaining modern social change.[1] Yes there are importantly different modernity projects, definitions of progress and varieties of capitalism. Progress and modernity (and democracy) are contested concepts.  But it is nevertheless possible and desireable to construct general explanations of human social change and to assemble a sensible list of broadly accepted desiderata that allow us to know  where in the world modernity and progress have been somewhat achieved and where they are still lacking. These tasks are done admirably in this volume.

            Walby provides a useful overview of the different branches of complexity theory as they have emerged from the natural sciences and a review and critique of earlier efforts to use complexity theory in sociology. Her selection of several of the concepts of complexity and systems theory differs significantly from that of Niklas Luhmann in being more concerned with power and inequalities. She rejects the equilibration assumption that is prominent in most earlier systems theory. And she embraces the capability of complex systems ideas to deal with changes that are transformative, while also avoiding the tendency among historians and many historical sociologists to see events as entirely conjunctural. She focusses on notions of catalysis, dampening, positive feedback, path dependency and contingent turning points.

            Walby propounds a schema of basic institutional domains: (economy, polity, violence and civil society) for analyzing the institutional aspects of different dimensions of inequality. Treating violence as a separate domain is useful because it makes visible the extent to which some social orders rely on uncriminalized “informal” coercion and violence, especially in gender and racial hierarchies. Avoiding the usual trap of examining gender only within the confines of the household leads to a fruitful investigation of how all the inequality regimes operate in all the institutional domains.

            Walby reconstitutes the notions of polity and economy mainly in order to deal with the challenges to social theory posed by globalization processes. The nation-state is a mythical institution, (but so are all institutions) and only one possible way of constructing sovereignty and citizenship. The national economy is another myth that has been strongly challenged by globalized production networks and financial flows. Societalization is understood as competing projects that  try to make economic, political, violence and civil society practices compatible and interlinked. Societalization has been more successful in some countries than in others, and there are strong competing societalization projects such as the Europe “community.”

            Walby sees two main competing modernity projects operating in the contemporary world: neoliberalism and social democracy. Social democracy is championed mainly by European countries and the EU, and neoliberalism and the Washington Consensus have mainly been proffered by the United States. The most important struggle of the next few decades will be between these competing models of modernity, and Walby thinks that there will soon be a “tipping point” when European social democracy will displace U.S. neoliberalism as the predominant development model.  A third possible outcome of the imminent future tipping point is descent into xenophomic and authoritarian protectionism.

            Most of the theoretical innovations in Walby’s book solve the main problems posed by globalization and postmodernism. I am glad she has taken postmodernist philosophy seriously enough to try to come to terms with it in reconstructing concepts for a general approach to critical social theory. The endeavor to bring gender relations into the core of social theory is successful and admirable. But I strongly disagree with Walby’s contention that there is coevolution of complex adaptive systems (inequality regimes), but “no single unified world system or world society” (p. 89). She justifies this by emphasizing path dependency that has led to very different modernity projects and varieties of capitalism. But the whole global system reappears in her analysis under the guise of a “fitness landscape” and the capacities of some of the actants – the hegemons – to set the rules of the game. This implies that there are some games that are far more important than others. Analysis of the whole global system need not assume homogeneity. Indeed, systemic interaction often produces differentiation, not homogeneity. More attention to interaction networks and multidimensional hierarchies in a global “system of systems” would provide a more powerful purchase for explaining the patterns of world history as far more than one damned thing after another.

            Walby is a cosmopolitan British sociologist who mainly focusses on European integration and comparisons among the most developed countries. This focus results in a kind of “core-centrism” (focus on the most developed countries as the leading edges of evolution) in the understanding of how modernity projects have contended with one another in the past and how they may do so in the future. Walby’s main future projects are basically the left and right strands of the European enlightenment. This probably underestimates the role that the Global South has played in world politics and is likely to play in the future. Global democracy is on the agenda, and the majority of the world’s people do not live in the Global North. Also, despite incorporating the recent sociological literature on the human body and also Marx’s emphasis on technology, Walby follows most other social theorists in failing to incorporate ecological processes into the explanations of social change. There is no mention of population pressures despite the consensus among demographers that the number of humans on Earth will continue to increase for another several decades. This could be due to the core-centrism mentioned above because the demographic transition to population stability has occurred in the core, and is occuring in the non-core, but not fast enough.. There is little mention of peak oil, peak water, or global environmental catastrophes as likely to play an important role in future “tipping points.” I agree with Walby that the struggle between neoliberalism and social democracy is important, and also I hope that social democracy will win, as she does. But this will not solve all the major problems of the human future, or even the next few decades. The coming “globalization from below”, led by the indigenous peoples of the world, will include models of democracy, social relations, spirituality and relations with nature that Walby has tended to consign to “premodernity.” Her tendency is to see strong challenges coming from the non-core as mainly unprogressive, and she is certainly right about some of these. But there are also other developments, such as the Social Forum process and the Pink Tide regimes in Latin America that ought not be dismissed as “premodern.”  If a “system of systems,” and greater awareness of the evolutionary importance of the non-core, and a stronger grasp of ecology were added to Walby’s theoretical architecture it would be far more useful for explaining what has happened as well as for building a more humane world in the future.

[1] The term she uses for her epistemological stance is “pragmatic realism.”