The Defiance of Global Commitment

Global Complexity


Interview with Brian Castellani

brian castellani

The following interview was between Phil Haynes (Professor of Public Policy, Brighton University) and Brian Castellani (Professor of Sociology, Kent State University) regarding Professor Castellani’s latest book, The Defiance of Global Commitment: A Complex Social Psychology, which is part of the series he edits, complexity in social science at Routledge


Thank you Professor Castellani for agreeing to be interviewed about your new Routledge book, The Defiance of Global Commitment. By drawing on Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents (as well as the latest advances in cognitive science, evolutionary biology, social psychology and the complexity sciences) it certainly makes for an innovative, highly original and challenging read. You certainly got me thinking and digging deep into my social science memory and the hidden corners of my bookshelves.

1. As human beings, we are not very good at saving ourselves and the planet… give us a quick summary of your argument about why this is the case.

Freud’s big point in Civilization and Its Discontents, which I develop in regards to globalization, is that our best chance at even the smallest degree of happiness in life comes from the advances of civil society; but all such advances – particularly in terms of social justice – require people to make sacrifices to get along; and people don’t like doing that, as they think they are somehow giving up more than they are getting (which they often are), and so they rebel against their global social commitments; which, ironically enough, threatens the very chance most people have at happiness.  In other words, the success of global civil society, it seems, is built on a social psychological conundrum: a sort of psychic catch-22 if you will.

And, vis-à-vis globalization today (circa 2018), this Freudian catch-22 appears to have crossed a negative tipping point, with many segments of the world (albeit not everyone!) falling prey to one type of unhealthy social psychology or another – and all of it helping to adversely reinforce, worldwide, the escalating fears, conflicts, resentments, inequalities, cruelties, and aggressions brought on by the current phase of globalization.

The result, to go to your point, and which we see almost daily in the news, is a rise in the number of people who are willing to raze their respective communities to the ground in order to satisfy their contempt for the global success and wellbeing of others.  Or, alternatively, how this contempt is emboldening people to actively resist their role in (or the reality of) the global social problems we presently face.  And, what is particularly disturbing is that, while much of this contempt comes from those feeling left behind by globalization (which is understandable); it is equally embraced by those who have benefitted the most – namely, those privileged few living in the most technologically and economically advanced parts of the world.  And it does not stop there, as it seems this contempt for others and the planet (a sort of culture of cruelty, if you will) is becoming a model for living for many, leading to a worldwide backlash against the establishment of a more just and equitable civil society.  But, as with all such stories, these negative social psychologies aren’t the only thing going.

2. Which takes me to my next question.  Like Freud, many sociologists are quite deterministic and fatalistic about the path humanity is taking. While you challenge the optimism of writers like Steven Pinker (i.e., The Better Angels of Our Nature and Enlightenment Now), do you think a complexity theory analysis still leaves the global fate in our own hands? – so lots of different possibilities?

As complexity science teaches us, in any complex system (such as our global society) there is always the adjacent possible – that is, the chance that the system is traveling in multiple and different directions, and all at the same time!

And, in fact, that is what is happening today.  Our globalized world is a very complex place; with different groups the world-over (i.e., communities, countries, companies, etc) carving out all sorts of different but simultaneous social psychological paths.  In my book, for example, I chart the trajectory of several of them – from eco-primitivism and affluent resentment to patriarchal nostalgia and ethnic nationalism to globalism and global civil service.  And for each of these social psychologies, it is important to note, I also explore its counter-force: its opposing social psychology of globalization, if you will.  It is also for this reason that I developed, in the third part of my book, a basic model of global power relations and resistance, based on the work of Freud, Foucault and Sylvia Walby.

And, again to your point, using this model to organize my data, it seems to me that, contrary to writers like Steven Pinker, the negative social psychologies of the world are winning across many domains of global socio-ecological life today, particularly given how well they are “propped up” by the current strong-arms throughout the world – from the global east and north to south and west.

But, the current “wins” for these negative psychologies doesn’t mean things necessarily end there, as complex systems are not deterministic – for example, significant countervailing changes often go unseen until they reach a critical point, as in the #MeToo and BlackLivesMatter movements, for example.  Neither is it the case that these “negative psychologies” are everywhere or across everything, as negotiated progress is always simultaneously taking place around the world.

As such, the current global dominance of these “negative psychologies” only means that the capacity for global civil society and healthy resistance to move the world in the right direction is limited.  But, given the constant conflict on which our global system is tenuously and chaotically balanced, these dominating conditions can tip in a different direction – which is why I think, from a policy perspective, we need to keep pushing hard for various types of “engaged governance,” as in the case of global civil society.  Still, I must admit, at least on the ecological front, I am worried, as time is not on our side. 

3. You are inspired a lot by Freud, who is central to your book and argument. Do you think he was actually a complexity theorist without knowing it?

 No, I don’t.  Freud was very much part of the grand narrative tradition of industrialized modernity, seeking to create a single model that explained the full of human psychology.  And that goal, more than anything, blinded him to the complexities of human existence.

The same problem of embracing complexity seems true for a lot of public policy today – which is why applied research centres and networks, such as CECAN, are so important: they are advancing the field to improve its capacity to evaluate and, in turn, develop public policies that are more sensitive to initial conditions, path dependencies, the nexus of things, and the multiple and different trajectories along which the impact of a policy flows.

4. Relative to your point, do you see your work, then, as a normative turn in complexity theory, to assist its move from the sciences into the social sciences?

Yes I do.  For me, Byrne and Callaghan’s, Complexity Theory and the Social Sciences: The State of the Art, is the first real push to go beyond a sales pitch for complexity – which was very important! – to saying, “Okay, we’ve got all of this complexity science stuff, so what are we to make of it?  How does it actually help us get on with the job of doing social science?”

Of course, you had others, particularly during the late 1900s, seeking to establish a normative social complexity, such as Edgar Morin and his distinction between restrictive and general complexity – as well as, for example, the work of Talcott Parsons and Niklas Luhmann in sociology, and Paul Cilliers in philosophy, and Peter Checkland in managerial studies.  But all of these approaches, despite their brilliance, ignore three important issues that I have sought to bring forth in my work:

First, there is the role of power relations and conflict in complex systems.  There is little in complexity science today, for example, that addresses power, particularly its negative states, as in the case of domination, exploitation, oppression, cruelty, aggression, etc – which is why my work leans so heavily on Foucault.  The same is true of conflict: you do not see complexity scientists studying conflict in complex networks, for example, as it is not part of the vocabulary of physics and computer science. Which is why I turned to Immanuel Wallerstein and, more important, to Sylvia Walby, who does an absolutely brilliant job of integrating intersectionality theory and feminism with complexity science and globalization studies.

Second, there is the role of social psychology in complex systems.  For example, other than Manuel Castells, there is little work on identity and its links to complex systems, let alone the role of group conflict or in-group/out-group behaviour.  The only exception is agent-based modeling, which does an excellent job with swarm behaviour, predator-prey models, social segregation, economic competition, contagions in networks, and so forth.  But, still, a lot more could be done to incorporate the work of symbolic interactionism, for example, into complexity science models – all of which is why, in my work, I sought to develop (and argued for) a social psychology of globalization and, more specifically, a social psychology of policy research.  More specifically, I argued for a mental health model of globalization; which takes me to my next point.

Third is the role of psychology in complex systems.  Type in the words “complexity” and “psychology” in Google, for example, and you will get next to nothing.  It is as if the two fields don’t know that, presently, each the other exists.  The only exception, today, is in cognitive science and the embodied mind literature, given their strong links to the work of Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela and the fields of distributed artificial intelligence and cybernetics.  And that is particularly upsetting, given that many of the systems science founders – such as Margaret Mead, Anatol Rapoport, Kurt Koffka, Murray Bown and Gregory Bateson – made such important advances in a “systems” approach to psychology, including the development of family systems theory and gestalt psychology.

As such, in terms of establishing a normative social complexity, I see my work as both an advance and a rapprochement, insomuch as I have tried to link a complex systems view of the world with the inner psychic life of humans, including their primitive paleomammalian emotions, cognitive biases, irrationalities, anxieties, aggressions, embodied minds, psychopathologies and personalities; as well as their social psychologies and power relations and group-based conflicts.

5. As you just demonstrated, your work spans many disciplines, but notably the domains of sociology and psychology. You have a dialogue with social psychology that is philosophical and macro social (in terms of the role of the individual).  Is there a place, then, for social psychology in policy?

Absolutely!  We don’t discuss it much, but the social psychology and mental health of a community is just as important as its economic and political wellbeing.  And, just like the psychology of an individual, the mental health (and healthy awareness) of a community can become dysfunctional, particularly in the face of widespread change – as we see with globalization today – and in the face of the escalating conflicts, fears, resentments and aggressions that often surround it, as I just mentioned.

Equally Important, when the mental health of a community becomes problematic, people fall prey to feel-good decisions and unhealthy choices – as well as the political strongarms of the world – which seem, on the face of it, self-preserving, but are often, in the long-run, not good.  We see this, for example, in the growing embraces of ethnic nationalism, global capitalism, the fight against ecological preservation, and the negative reactions against the civil rights of women, ethnic minorities, refugees, and the LGBT communities.

The challenge, then, is to counteract this pathology by improving the mental health (and healthy outlook) of communities – hence the role of global civil society and public policy.  And, it is important, to point out, we already have good models for doing this work.  They come from the fields of community and public health, which have always been in the business of developing (and evaluating) policies that seek to improve the mental and physical wellbeing of communities.  And, given such transformative goals, these fields have always had to deal with politics, power, and conflicts, as well as the emotional irrationalities and cognitive biases and social psychologies of people.  So, it has been and can be (and also very much needs to be) done.

6. I grew up in an age of cognitive social psychology and was inducted in applied social practice concepts like self-efficacy, self-esteem, locus of control, learned hopelessness, etc…  It did get very frustrating trying to make these concepts relevant in therapeutic practice. Is there any place left for such social psychology?

I was raised in the same era of thinking and, like you, found the clinical utility of these concepts problematic.  Still, I think that out of these ideas the social sciences have evolved significantly.

For example, cognitive science and the sociology of emotions have helped us make major strides in understanding the highly irrational and biased ways that the human mind and social groups work.  And, in turn, identity theory has proven very useful in demonstrating the significant role that social support plays in self-efficacy and psychological development – particularly as linked with LGBT and gender studies.  The same is true of intersectionality theory, which has demonstrated how the mental health of individuals is significantly impacted by the larger organizational, geo-spatial and societal arrangements in which they are situated – as well as the corrosive impact that institutional racism and economic discrimination have on self-esteem, locus of control, etc.  And, finally, there is the stress and coping literature and the social psychology of healthy behaviours.  So, yeah, I think there is still a place for these ideas.

7. The philosophical conclusion of your research is that we need to communicate a clear and simple concept of global collectivism and commitment, ‘loving others as ourselves’. And that this needs to become a totalising, dominant logic.  Does this have implications for how we teach and communicate social science, in that there is no point in a hyperrational and empirical approach – if we have no normative guide for our student’s journey?

Being so heavily influenced by Foucault, I am not sure I would say my usage of the term “love” is a totalizing discourse or logic.  Instead, I think it points to the positive role that socialization, in all of its various cultural and political forms, has on the psychology of people, mainly through the inscription of morals and mores and values and beliefs.  And I think Freud’s point was similar: the psychological absurdity of loving others, including our enemies, is his therapeutic challenge to the catch-22 of our human existence – which I discussed earlier, in regards to your first question.  In other words, the only real counter-point to the defiance of our social commitments, at least at the psychological level, is to socialize people to better manage themselves and to see the value in it. 

For Foucault, the word “love” is translated into “care” and, in turn, leads him to a meditation on how communities – historically speaking – have variously thought it best to care for ourselves and others; as in the great Delphic precept, “to take care of yourself; or to be concerned, to take care of yourself.”

And, as Foucault demonstrates throughout his writings, through such meditations society is constantly up against such key sociological questions such as: How does love or care translate into justice?  And, what is being just?  And, what is a just community or society?  For example, in the policy realm, these mediations lead to such questions as: What is a just social policy?  Or, what constitutes equity or parity on the part of a government or some piece of legislation?  And, should governments and policy makers even be in the business of being just?  Which, in turn, leads to the examination of such core sociological themes as domination and exploitation and inequality and so forth.

Related – and to the main point of your question – in our era, one such way we think it “best” to examine issues of care and social justice in social policy is through the lens of social science.  That is our normative approach; or at least the one in which I was trained.  For example, as colleagues, you and I both place emphasis on developing data-driven policies and procedures, which seek to procure the best possible results for the greatest good, etc; as well as identifying evidence-based outcomes and effective methods and measures of utility.  And, as applied researchers, we put equal emphasis on being reasonably objective or at least as true to the data as possible; as well as teaching our students to be up front about their methodological limitations and sharing results, etc.  In similar fashion, as social scientists I think we both place pride on being professional in our work. 

However, we also know as sociologists, policies (including the normative social science upon which they are based) are often governed by deeply irrational, dysfunctional and non-therapeutic purposes and desires, and that relations of power are everywhere in policy; and that bad things can (and often do) come from good intentions.  We also know how patriarchy and racism and cruelty and economic aggression and fear and resentment, as well as emotional and psychological dysfunction, infiltrate the discursive fabric of our policies and procedures.  Alternatively, pace Durkheim and cultural anthropology, we also know that the socialization of our individual and cultural super-egos, along with teaching morality and social norms, can work to counteract these forces.  So, I think that, as a normative guide, social science give us the best tools for doing our work in a caring way.  And so I would continue to advocate for them….  Anyway, that gives a sense of it.

8. Your father was a big influence as a minister of religion, did you ever think about taking a similar path?

Not in terms of religion, as I have always been largely secular in my views.  But, in terms of social justice, absolutely!  I think all of my work – be it as a therapist, researcher or teacher – has had, as its primary theme, the issue of social justice, which was what my father was all about!

9. What is your next academic focus, any previews for your next book!

I am already working on a follow-up to my current book, as there are a number of questions that my book raised that I want to address.  First, how is social justice becoming hostage to identity politics, such that so many people struggle, today, to endorse the human rights of others and, more widely, people in general?  Second, and related, why are so many people embracing a culture of cruelty today; and how does that link to the social psychology of global fear, cultural resentment, nostalgic political retreat and economic aggression?  Third, while I discussed in detail the need for a social psychology of politics and policy, I never really outlined in detail what such an endeavor would look like.  So, I want to articulate what such a thing would entail, mainly by drawing on the literature in public and community health and education, which have given considerable time to addressing the social psychology of such health issues as smoking, obesity, safety, and so on.