Collective Dynamics, Social (De-)Regulation and Public Spheres

Beyond their empirical and theoretical divergences, most sociologists would agree that these two last decades have been characterized by a weakening of social cohesion, a « decline of institutions », the dissolution of collective actors, and the dismantling of the public sphere. A number of studies have shown that the trend towards social deregulation, which usually goes hand-in-hand with “neo-liberal” inspired policy measures, tend to undermine collective structures and destabilize traditional instances of regulation (trade unions, professional associations, rights-based welfare protection systems, etc.). Not only do these processes of decollectivisation weaken public institutions, they also jeopardize any reference to the general interest, to the common good and to a universal system of rights and obligations. By placing high value on private initiative, personal autonomy and individual responsibility, such processes lead to the individualization of life courses and to reduced engagement with public life, thereby increasing the vulnerability of certain fringes of the population (migrants, the elderly, the unemployed, the working poor, poorly-qualified young people, etc.). Furthermore, the usually opaque functioning of political institutions, further reinforced by the growing number of political decisions made in the name of economic imperatives, tends to bypass public processes of deliberation.

Although significant, these processes of individualization and deregulation are nevertheless accompanied by unprecedented forms of collective action. Some research has revealed the emergence of new forms of social and political mobilization (mainly via social networks), innovative modes of coordination (e.g. the Anonymous collective) and groups structured by new organizational principles (e.g. the Indignant Citizens Movement). The definition of certain public problems (e.g. same-sex couples, ecology) also contributes to the emergence of new – individual or collective – actors on the political scene and in the media. Although they often appear in fluctuating and ephemeral forms, these actors contribute to the reconfiguration of the public sphere and to the elaboration of new systems of regulation, including through law. They are also characterized by new kinds of social, political and identity claims that should encourage sociologists to renew their approach to regulation. Indeed only an broad conception of politics, extending far beyond formal institutions, can account for the plurality of practices and the multiple arenas where new norms are potentially created, and sometimes translated into law and policy measures.

Sociological investigation into the processes of social fragmentation should therefore be articulated with the study of new and diverse forms of social cohesion, and with the examination of new instances of social regulation, both on the microsocial scale of intimate relationships, social networks and the life course, and on the more macrosocial scale of the social groups that attempt to impose new identity, cultural or religious landmarks in the public sphere. Such issues are fundamentally sociological in nature, because they focus on new individual and collective dynamics of social regulation. But such they also raise political questions, since these dynamics may generate new processes of social differentiation, hierarchisation and exclusion that current policy measures are unable or unwilling to address.

The aim of the Congress is to examine how these issues are tackled in different contexts and in different research fields. This requires addressing questions of theory and of research methods. For instance, how central should material inequalities and structural configurations be to the study of collective dynamics across the life course? How can research on the semantic and normative properties of public processes be attentive to the influence of structural configurations? Can we analyze social phenomena of this kind from an individualist perspective or should we favor analytical tools that immediately stress their collective dimension?

The 2015 Congress will focus on these fundamental questions.