Interaction, Indifference, Injustice: Elements of a Normative Theory of Urban Solidarity

Mervyn Horgan


Sociologists have long been interested in cities as places where the close proximity of strangers produces particular kinds of social relations, political formations, and social institutions. As social and spatial forms, cities require a multiplicity of theoretical perspectives and methodological tools to tackle their complexity, and urban scholars have worked hard to develop these tools and perspectives over the last century.1 Clearly, the

This chapter benefitted from audience feedback at the University of Guelph, University of Calgary, York University, St. Francis Xavier University, Acadia University, and at meetings of the Canadian Sociological Association and the American Sociological Association, where various elements of the argument were presented. I also benefitted from discussion of drafts with graduate students in my theory seminars at Acadia University and the University of Guelph. Special thanks to Marcia Oliver and Fuyuki Kurasawa for their close readings and feedback, and to members of Canadian Network for Critical Sociology (CNCS) for their input.

M. Horgan (*)

Department of Sociology and Anthropology, University of Guelph, Guelph, ON, Canada

© The Author(s) 2017

F. Kurasawa (ed.), Interrogating the Social,

DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-59948-9_3

variety and intensity of urban experience makes available a near endless source of data for novel and recombinatory theorization.

In that spirit, this chapter seeks to expand conversations around the ‘right to the city’ in critical social scientific scholarship (Lefebvre 1996; Harvey 2003; Mitchell 2003) by connecting the theoretically ambitious and politically progressive but empirically thin and sociologically undergrounded concerns of recognition scholarship in contemporary political thought (Benhabib 2002; Fraser 1997; Taylor 1994) with the narrower focus and sociologically microscopic but politically thin concerns of studies of the ‘interaction order’ by microsociologists (Goffman 1983; Rawls 2009; Drew and Wootton 1988). Since their explicitly stated goals seem to differ so radically, these literatures are rarely discussed in tandem, but in this chapter I discern some implicitly shared concerns. As a step towards bridging these literatures in order to contribute to critical sociology, I provide some conceptual tools for thinking through the development, sustenance, and dissolution of solidarity between strangers in cities.2

My argument operates according to the principle of ‘post-paradigmatic agnosticism’ (Kurasawa, this volume) that undergirds the theoretical orientation that the CNCS both advocates and practices. This involves bringing microsociological studies of what I call the ‘urban interaction order’ into conversation with the broader themes of recognition and social justice to be found in political theory. Through this conversation, I advance a position that inspects the existing social order but rather than rejecting it outright (as is the want of orthodox critical theory), I glean glimpses of normatively inflected action in the present. At a general level, my analysis and the claims that I make align in some ways with the ‘ideal of city life’ offered by Iris Marion Young (1990), and in terms of political theory at least, my position most closely approximates Young’s. As a contribution to critical social theory of the kind that the CNCS seeks to advance, my analysis is more sociologically informed but is by no means determined by that discipline’s boundaries (Kurasawa, this volume).

Today, at more than any time in human history, dwelling amongst strangers is a basic fact of collective life. Thus, in what follows I treat the city as a space of strangership (Horgan 2012). Understanding strangership as characteristic of everyday urban life makes it possible to analyse the sustenance of social order, and, in line with Young, treat the city in its ideal form, as a social space of assumed equality and respect for difference. I extend Young’s claims around the ideal of city life, to argue that the kinds of interactions (and indeed, non-interactions) to be found in cities are infused with a politics and practice of recognition that instantiate solidarity, albeit in a relatively weak and subtle form—what I call soft solidarity. I use this term in contrast to ‘hard’ solidarity, in an equivalent way to the distinction that is made between the ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ sciences. The ‘hard’ sciences are explicitly nomothethic and privilege empirically verifiable data as the means by which to uncover direct—often causal— ties between persons, objects, phenomena and categories rendered as variables with a particular value. Similarly, I use the term ‘hard solidarity’ to refer to the kinds of collective formations whose existence is empirically verifiable and whose activity is explicitly oriented to the achievement of specific external goals. In general, hard solidarity involves some degree of formally institutionalized boundedness (think, for example, of sports teams in competition, armies at war, and unions organizing for strike action), where the orientation of interactants and the organization of interaction is towards an object that is exogenous to the interaction. The form of solidarity dealt with in this chapter, ‘soft solidarity,’ operates according to different principles. As with the soft sciences, soft solidarity is less amenable to quantification, it revolves more around values than value. More specifically, I use this term to refer to the implicit sense of membership in a collective that emerges amongst copresent individuals through very loosely shared understandings (rather than knowledge) and generalized experience (rather than specifically goal-oriented behaviour) that are necessarily unarticulated but which can be discerned though interpretive analysis. It is a form of loose boundedness that does not necessitate formal institutions but rather is always and only informally negotiated in situ. For the purposes of this chapter, ‘soft solidarity’ makes collective life amongst copresent strangers possible—and sometimes even pleasurable.3

This chapter sketches the internal organization of what I call the urban interaction order by formulating strangership as a core element of urban sociation and social order. The urban interaction order rests on consistently patterned demonstrations of soft solidarity, which depend on what I call minimal mutual recognition. I explain how the city’s basic interactional form—mutual indifference—is constitutive of the urban interaction order and counter-intuitively, how, since it is dependent on minimal mutual recognition, this interactional form can be interpreted as a kind of urban solidarity. Following Alexander, I take it that ‘[j]ustice depends on solidarity’ (2006: 13; see also, Kymlicka 1995: 173-174), and so the kind of soft solidarity that I discern in everyday urban life can, I argue, also be read as a basic precondition for justice. I conclude by proposing that contexts where minimal mutual recognition is absent give interactional grounding and expression to structural inequality, thus mitigating against possibilities for achieving urban social justice. Put more forcefully, I claim that the absence or elision of minimal mutual recognition is both symptomatic and constitutive of injustice. Consequently, I propose that without minimal mutual recognition, urban social justice will remain illusive.

To be clear, I am guided by a search for the minimal conditions that demonstrate solidarity and so make justice possible. These are by no means the conditions under which solidarity and justice flourish but are rather the conditions under which solidarity is at least demonstrably present, and thus some modicum of justice may be achieved. My focus on discerning these conditions in everyday life derives from a phenomenologically grounded sociology which posits that any adequate theory of social reality must account for, and treat as foundational, ‘the paramount reality of the Lebenswelt (Schutz 1959: 96).

As outlined above, the conceptual underpinnings of my argument involve identifying a lacuna that exists between political thought and microsociology, two literatures that are very rarely read alongside one another. More specifically, I tease out some complementarities between contemporary liberal and critical political philosophy and political theory, on the one hand, and studies of the micro-foundations of social order in the sociology of everyday life, on the other.4 But before entering the breach between political philosophy and microsociology in order to propose new foundations for critical sociology, I will first provide some context from the particular socio-spatial milieu—the ground—out of which grew the abstract formulations of relatively mundane social processes that form the main body of my argument.

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