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Real Utopias: Emancipatory Projects, Institutional Designs, Possible Futures

2012 Annual Meeting Theme: 107th ASA Annual Meeting, August 17-20,  Denver, CO

“Real Utopias” seems like an oxymoron: Utopia means “nowhere”—a fantasy world of perfect harmony and social justice. To describe a proposal for social transformation as “utopian” is to dismiss it as an impractical dream outside the limits of possibility. Realists reject such fantasies as a distraction from the serious business of making practical improvements in existing institutions. The idea of real utopias embraces this tension between dreams and practice: “utopia” implies developing clear-headed visions of alternatives to existing institutions that embody our deepest aspirations for a world in which all people have access to the conditions to live flourishing lives; “real” means taking seriously the problem of the viability of the institutions that could move us in the direction of that world. The goal is to elaborate utopian ideals that are grounded in the real potentials of humanity, utopian destinations that have accessible way stations, utopian designs of viable institutions that can inform our practical tasks of navigating a world of imperfect conditions for social change.

Exploring real utopias implies developing a sociology of the possible, not just of the actual. This is a tricky research problem, for while we can directly observe variation in what exists in the world, discussions of possibilities and limits of possibility always involve more speculative and contentious claims about what could be, not just what is. The task of a sociology of real utopias, then, is to develop strategies that enable us to make empirically and theoretically sound arguments about emancipatory possibilities. This opens a wide and challenging agenda for sociology:

  • Empirical studies of innovative contemporary institutions and practices around the world that in one way or another prefigure emancipatory alternatives to dominant social structures and institutions. The task here is both to seek out the best and most interesting examples of innovation and to understand the limits, contradictions, and dilemmas which they confront.
  • Historical studies of attempts at building real utopias, both for specific institutions and for broader projects of social transformation.
  • Analysis of reform proposals for specific institutions—for example, universities, criminal justice, the media, city government, the financial system, food systems, environmental regulation, the Internet, intellectual property, the military, corporations—that focus both on the way a given proposal might help solve pressing current problems and point in the direction of broader real utopian transformations.
  • Systematic theoretical models of alternative institutions at both the micro-level and the macro-level, with particular attention to the normative ideals and trade-offs of different institutional designs.
  • Studies of the role of utopian thinking in sociological theory, philosophy, and other forms of social thought.
  • Research on discourses about social alternatives in the popular imagination and social movements.
  • Research on various political processes and social struggles involved in advancing and opposing real utopian transformations.
  • Methodological discussions of the problem of studying limits of possibility and the transformations of such limits.
  • Explorations of the dilemmas of linking strong normative commitments to empirical research.

The 2012 meeting of the ASA will explore this agenda in the context of the many subfields of sociology. We also welcome proposals for innovative formats for panels and sessions at the annual meeting.