Manuel Castells Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Identity and Change in the Network Society: Conversation with Manuel Castells, Professor of Sociology and City and Regional Planning, UC. Berkeley; 5/9/0l by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Doing Social Theory

You've given us some formidable insights into this nexus that you're talking about. Before we go into that further, let's talk a little about being a social theorist, thinking about the world, using your imagination, but also staying grounded in empirical reality. What does it take to do social theory? What skills?

For me in a very personal version, it's a combination of being attentive to the world and rigorous enough to capture what happens in the world, and then being able to theorize, generalize, and take the broad picture. What happened to me is, on the one hand, I was trained in Paris, I was trained by, in my opinion, the greatest theoretical sociologist of my time, Alain Touraine.

Both Alain Touraine and all the other major social theorists -- Foucault, Althusser, Polanyi -- were, to a large extent, able to provide broad views of society; but their connection to what actually was happening in the world was [limited]. The case of Touraine was better, but in most cases, the training I would receive in Paris was purely abstract and theoretical. I also learned methodology, but that was not the emphasis. The emphasis was on theory. In 1979, after I had been professor in Paris for twelve years, I accepted a professorship in Berkeley. One of the main reasons that I moved to Berkeley is that what I really was interested in was combining empirical research with theorizing. In the American university system is the other problem.

There is, in most cases, a complete split between empirical research and theorizing. So in France, it's just theorizing, or here, of course, just research. The American university system is, by and large, empirically oriented, and theory is kind of a marginal operation. In a department like [sociology at] Berkeley, theorizing was important, but most departments just would emphasize empirical research. So what I think is central in my intellectual activity is that I do what some people have called "grounded theory." That is, I literally cannot think without observing and understanding what's going on in the world. It's a lot of work to do that. But at least I feel that I am not playing with words. I'm not constructing, deconstructing, reconstructing, but actually trying to make sense of what I've observed. So this for me is social theory. The rest is philosophy on the one hand and sociological artistry on the other.

What are the sources of that focus in your background? What led you to be that way?

I would say two things. First, my double combination of French training and American academic involvement, which came even before I came to Berkeley, because I was a visiting professor several times at the University of Wisconsin and other places. On the other hand, I would say, my political interest in social change taught me the dangers of being extremely dogmatic and ideological -- if you try to mold the world into your categories, then it doesn't work. And if it works, it's worse, because then that means that you are struggling to fit the world into what you think it should be, rather than starting with what's happening really in life.

So I would say someone [has to be] interested in social change. While having general ideas about society, has to be very attentive to society, or in other words, doesn't proceed with social change. You have to be pragmatic and realistic. And so the combination of trying to actually influence social change and not simply [study] ideologies about social change. And on the other hand, this institutional environment being a mixture of American and French academic worlds would help.

Ultimately, you can say that my biography, being Spanish, and therefore forced to think about social change; French, therefore theoretically trained; American academic, therefore sensitive to empirical observation and methodology -- this combination of my life is expressed in my way of theorizing.

What is quite striking in your work is the search for case studies for comparative purposes. Your journey led you to make the globe your laboratory and to look for all kinds of cases to make comparisons. That's been important.

At the age of twenty I had to reconstruct my life in a different country and different culture, and then later on I came to the United States. I am tri-cultural, if you wish, at least. And also, I had, very early, a strong interest in Latin America. I was first in Chile in 1968 and I came in very close contact with people like Hernando Enrique Cardozo, currently the President of Brazil, but my personal friend for thirty-five years.

When I started my work on the information technology revolution in 1983, 1984, at that time it became obvious to me two things: that something very important was going on, and that in Europe, from where I was coming, we didn't have a real feeling for it. Certainly, we knew about electronics and everything. But to feel it as I felt it in 1980, for instance, when I landed in Berkeley, it's a very different thing than just understanding; so it was clear to me that something very important was going on and I wanted to understand it. But it was also clear that to understand it was not to understand just Silicon Valley or just California, but to see how this extraordinary transformation would interact with cultures, societies, and institutions throughout the world. It's like someone would have studied the Industrial Revolution and capitalism only in England. So the notion was how to build an observation system in which the theory would emerge from the simultaneous observation of as many places as I was able to observe. I ended up starting at the same time, looking at California, Europe, Latin America, the Asian Pacific, and the Soviet Union.


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