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Why We Need a Deeper Understanding of Today’s Challenges

From climate to conflicts and economic inequalities, in order to turn the tide, we need to understand the mechanisms with which people interpret reality

Photo: Pete Linforth ? Pixabay

In order to counteract anomie, uncertainty needs to be reduced. This has to be done both by reducing the structural factors fostering it as well as by introducing mechanisms and devices that enable people to understand globalization dynamics.

Signs of the problems that our societies have to face are clear enough to most people. Only those whose interests lie in ignoring them are unconcerned about issues like the progressive worsening of environmental conditions, the outright conflict between geopolitical blocs, the growth of economic inequality, the weakening of supranational institutions, the proliferation of armed local conflicts, the explosion of trade wars and the prospect of a resumption of the nuclear arms race.

These global challenges have direct, concrete effects. On the one hand, they mean the worsening of living conditions for large segments of societies – e.g. less health, less work, less social protection, less security, and so forth. On the other hand, they generate a global socio-psychological environment of uncertainty and instability that in turn fosters feelings of distrust in the future and in society, identity entrenchment, fatalism, opportunism, social polarization and fragmentation, hate crimes and racism – namely all those subjective and social phenomena that accompany and comprise what sociologists usually call “anomie”.

It is not hard for either experts or common people to see the bi-directional, recursive bond between critical political and economic issues – i.e. what is generally identified as the “material”, “structural” factors – and the wave of anomie flooding European societies, and more in general the Western world. Globalization has deeply changed the rules of the game: the economy has become de-territorialized and therefore freed from the socio-political and institutional constraints that States are able to exercise only within their territory. As a result, the construction of economic value has become more and more self-referential: an aim in and for itself, demanding that social and political life be subjected to it.

In this, globalization (or rather, the globalization pursued by neo-liberalism) has succeeded in completely reversing the primacy of the social purpose of the economy, namely of the extraordinary democratic and liberal view forged and practiced in the first three decades after WWII. Such an accomplishment has generated a deep cleavage between the winners and losers of globalization.  The division inevitably generates a subjective reaction too. For broader and broader segments of society, it means the loss of any perspective of making their life and that of their offspring better; it means uncertainty, inability to plan the future, low wages and precarious jobs, less, if any, social protection. It means living in degraded, unsafe peripheries, in a context of reciprocal closure, if not hostility, between the local community and foreign groups.

Take migration, one of the main direct and indirect consequences of the current dynamics of globalization. In my previous articles I have tried to provide arguments and data to support the idea that inclusive migration policies are needed, not only for humanitarian reasons, but also, above all because there is no alternative but to choose to govern such a global process. A recent document of the Italian Association of Psychology  provides scientifically grounded arguments for this view. On the other hand, accepting this thesis does not mean one must become blind to the fact that migration has a critical impact on the host society– in terms of pressure on welfare services, potential dumping on the job market, socio-cultural conflicts– and, above all, that such an impact inevitably affects the least protected and most disadvantaged strata of the population, leaving the elites almost untouched.

A couple of weeks ago residents of an outlying township in Rome raised a strong protest against the allotting of public housing to a Rom family. My universalist, liberal and politically correct feelings – like those of many others – were deeply shocked and outraged by this manifestation of closure to otherness, which is the symptom of an identity-defensive attitude– what my research team calls “enemization of otherness”. Yet I have to take into account the fact that, unlike myself and many other people holding universalist principles, among those who voiced their protest there were some for whom the allocation of the house to the Rom family meant they missed the chance of having a place for themselves and their family.

Now, the idea that such “structural factors” could trigger anomic feeling – anxiety, anger, distrust, fatalism and so forth – seems both obvious and unavoidable. And it is reasonable to assume the other way around too: in the final analysis, anomie means deterioration of the quality of the bonds between people and between people and institutions (i.e. what is called bridging and vertical social capital, respectively), and therefore a weakening of the political regulation of social and economic processes. Just to give a simple example of the paradoxical reciprocity between uncertainty and anomie, consider the following: uncertainty triggers negative attitudes towards foreigners as a defensive reaction; yet, once such attitudes are translated into aggressive actions against the out-group, the very fact of such actions – even before the reaction and independent of it – helps to make the out-group appear an enemy. And this can only increase the perception of being threatened, increasing the ontological uncertainty, in a vicious circle that can have a disastrous outcome.

Mystic Art Design / Pixabay.

What is not so clear is how to break this critical vicious circle. The idea that the circle can be simply reversed by improving structural conditions runs the risk of confusing what is necessary with what is sufficient. In other words, the fact that effect B (anomie) is due to cause A (structural factors) does not mean that the elimination of  A leads to the neutralization of B. For instance, one can catch a cold from being exposed to bad weather; yet, once the cold has started, avoiding low temperatures is necessary, but it is not enough to cure the cold.

The asymmetry between cause and effect – i.e. the fact that once an effect has been triggered it is not enough to eliminate the cause to overcome it – is even more salient in the case of complex phenomena involving human beings. Indeed, the ways people make sense of their world – and anomie is one of these ways – follow their inner tendencies and rules. Structural factors trigger sense-making, but they do not determine the form it will take. Thus, to promote innovative ways of feeling and thinking, enabling us to counteract anomie, a deep understanding of how sense-making works, in and between people’s heads, is needed.

Social and cultural psychology can help in this direction. Here I want to focus on a rather general mechanism, highlighted in different ways by various theories and empirical analyses: the more people perceive a threat to the basic meanings on which their life is grounded (values, worldviews, ways of life), the more they try to recover the balance by resorting to generalized, affect-laden interpretations of what is happening, regardless of how such interpretations fit with the facts. In other words, the greater the subjective and inter-subjective uncertainty, the more people’s sense-making is influenced by identity motives (i.e. by shoring up one’s individual and social self) rather than by a valid representation of reality.

One can recognize the powerfulness of these affect-laden generalized ways of feeling, thinking and acting once one takes into account that the greater the uncertainty, the more people tend to surrender to the complexity of the world and become prone to simplified explanations – e.g. the idea that problems depend on an enemy entity, be it the political elite, migrants, Arabs and so forth – and to the prophets of such explanations – e.g. far-right, populist parties as well as overarching religious credos.

How can an understanding of this mechanism help us to find solutions?

This indicates the need for two complementary strategies. On the one hand, in order to counteract anomie, uncertainty needs to be reduced. This has to be done both by reducing the structural factors fostering it as well as by introducing mechanisms and devices that enable people to understand globalization dynamics. Indeed, what triggers anomie is not only the lack of opportunities and resources per se, but the inability to understand, even to represent, why this happens, according to what projects and systems of interest, by the mediation of what mechanisms. In other words, understanding what happens is the first protection and the first form of people’s empowerment against uncertainty. On the other hand, we need to enrich the cultural resources in the social environment. Indeed, the more the cultural environment provides symbolic resources – i.e. innovative meanings supporting the social capital – the more people are enabled to feel, think and act in terms of civicness, respect and valorization of otherness – in other words, in terms that are consistent with the complexity of contemporary times.

According to this standpoint, the cultural environment is no different from the physical one – just as we need policies to counteract climate change and the deterioration of ecological resources, we also need policies to counteract the impoverishment of the cultural environment that characterizes the era of globalization. The critical issue is that we know what we should do to defend the physical environment, but the real awareness of the relevance of the cultural environment is very low, both among people and institutions, to say nothing of how to promote its development.

As I have said in previous articles, if we want to get an idea of how to do this, we can get a pointer from a very general idea deriving from several lines of social science (psychology, psychoanalysis, sociology, anthropology):  innovative cultural meanings are produced in social hubs where innovative models of human relationship are in operation. And this means that an innovative cultural meaning is first and foremost a form of human relationship. Insofar as such a form is practiced, it filters down as a cultural meaning. Therefore, institutions and agencies that want to counteract anomie should start to imagine innovative forms of human relationships involving and promoting new visions of the future. A big challenge, but, like any challenge, a prospect for a possible future.

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