Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2002


Steve Fuller (2002) 'Will Sociology find some New Concepts before the US finds Osama bin Laden?'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 6, no. 4, <>

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Received: 25/2/2002      Accepted: 25/2/2002      Published: 28/02/2002


Five months have now passed since the 11 September 2001 suicide bombing of the World Trade Center that prompted my original article and the responses published in this journal. Some responses convey the impression of sociologists so eager to find new opportunities to ride their hobby horses that they ignore the potential for the social world to confound their cherished expectations. To partially remedy this situation, I propose the concept of 'meso- knowledge' as a sensitising device for understanding the current geopolitical scene that attempts to get beyond the theoretical ruts of contemporary postmodernism.

Cold War; Fundamentalism; Islam; Meso-knowledge; Postmodernism; Secularism; Sociology


Five months have now passed since the 11 September 2001 suicide bombing of the World Trade Center that prompted my original article and the responses published in this journal.[1] Together they provide a rich source of insight for future historians of our times and our discipline. But I must confess disappointment at those responses that convey the impression of sociologists so eager to find new opportunities to ride their hobby horses that they ignore the potential for the social world to confound their cherished expectations. The social sciences are constantly faced with the problem of how deeply particular events should affect fundamental theorizing. There is always the temptation - no less among self-proclaimed postmodernists - to reduce events to instances of already recognizable tendencies. After all, this attitude helps to distinguish us from our intellectual cousins in history and journalism, who more easily switch theories in light of particular events. However, I shall treat 11 September as a reality check on our theorizing, culminating in a constructive proposal.

In my original piece, I suggested that 11 September may mark the beginning of a new Cold War, in which Islam replaces Communism as the global devil. Political rhetoric in the US has certainly moved in that direction, especially since President Bush's 2002 State of the Union address, which identified Iran, Iraq, and North Korea as constituting an 'axis of evil'. To be sure, North Korea is not a Muslim nation, but media attention has focused mainly on the other two nations, which are. That Iran and Iraq occupy opposite sides of the religious-secular divide suggests the broad brush that is being used to portray Islam, one comparable to the one used by Western Cold Warriors who glossed over the differences between the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China in a perversely Trotskyite reading of 'World Communism'. Thus, it should have come as no surprise that Margaret Thatcher quickly backed Bush in an opinion piece in The New York Times that the Guardian republished under the title 'Islamism is the new Bolshevism'.[2]

Other Cold War patterns have emerged on the domestic front. It has been common to focus on the invasion of civil rights among those suspected of being 'the enemy within', often on spurious racial grounds. But a subtler threat is that domestic political scandals, such as the collapse of Enron, will be buried out of fear that national security would be jeopardized by toppling the ruling party. This strategy had been deftly deployed, at the recommendation of Henry Kissinger, to cover up the legal irregularities of the Nixon administration during the Vietnam War, which culminated in Watergate.[3] The sociologically substantive thesis here is that a liberal society's reformist impulse - including the reflexive reformism that leads to the removal of corrupt politicians - - works only when the laws of that society are themselves not felt to be under attack. But once so threatened, social stability may require a professional military that is immune to domestic political intrigue.[4]

However, in one crucial respect, the Cold War precedent does not apply, namely, cutting edge science and technology has not played a decisive role in the call to arms, as, say, the Soviet launch of Sputnik did in 1957.[5] Rather, what I would call meso-knowledge - the sort of knowledge that is within reach of a bachelor's degree - has mattered much more. Indeed, the lack of a specific sort of meso-knowledge surfaced as soon as inquiries were launched into why US intelligence services had failed to anticipate the suicide bombers' activities and continued to dog US efforts at tracking down Osama bin Laden once troops were on the ground in Afghanistan. What was lacking was basic knowledge of the languages ordinarily spoken by the terrorists and potential local informants. In the heyday of imperialism, Westerners would not have been caught up short in this fashion, as they were then explicitly in the business of governing the natives. However, the shift to a Cold War geopolitical mentality, which privileged high-tech action at a distance, has led to a marked decline in the learning of even such world languages as Arabic.[6]

The decline in language learning in the intelligence services is symptomatic of a general turn, especially by the US, away from the idea of global governance, which would have the world's various regions take a greater interest in each other's affairs than simply their economic implications.[7] However, it would be a mistake to assimilate this problem to familiar sociological concerns with 'cultural difference' or 'otherness'. There is just as much internal variation among historically Muslim cultures as historically Christian ones. 'Fundamentalist' and 'secularist' regimes and groups have emerged from both religious traditions, and arguably knowing that one is 'fundamentalist' or 'secularist' will explain more of that person's attitudes and behavior than knowing that the person has a Muslim or Christian background.[8] Indeed, I still maintain that if there is a 'clash of civilizations' worth exploring in this situation, it is the asymmetrical attitudes that fundamentalists and secularists (of any religion) have toward each other's worldviews. Very roughly speaking, fundamentalists are compelled not to tolerate the tolerant, whereas secularists are compelled to tolerate the intolerant.[9]

Here are three more examples of the centrality of meso-knowledge to the aftermath of 11 September:

  1. Osama bin Laden's network is maintained by people from second-generation middle class backgrounds, who are steeped in both anti-secularist trends in recent Muslim thought and Western-style university training in science and technology. Often these people's families directly benefited from Western political and economic support as a bulwark against Communism, but the support ceased with the end of the Cold War. This, in turn, has instilled sentiments akin to 'relative deprivation', as the previously steady material progress made by their societies came to an abrupt halt. They deliver reports and instructions to each other in computer disks, videos, and paper that are transported personally on airplanes that they can afford to travel on and, when necessary, fly.[10]
  2. Despite some initial hesitation and disagreement among US defence experts, the American military response to 11 September reverted to type, including calls for a national missile defence system that would update Cold War strategy. However, there is no reason to think that it would deter future terrorists or, for that mater, that terrorists would participate in reviving something as conspicuous as an arms race. If 11 September proved anything, it is that the desired damage can be done simply by using widely available technologies within legal means -- until the last possible moment. Moreover, were the US to engage unilaterally in a sophisticated weapons programme, it would risk appearing as a global outlaw.[11]
  3. US panic peaked six weeks after 11 September, when anthrax spores were discovered in the post delivered to various government agencies in Washington and the offices of several major American media outlets. At this writing, the source of the spores has not been identified. and it may even be the work of militant US libertarians trying to capitalize on 11 September for their own anti-statist purposes. Nevertheless, the incident revealed the ease with which biological warfare could be waged, if only because people are no longer routinely vaccinated for diseases that are assumed to have been eradicated. Yet, potentially deadly bacteria and viruses are stockpiled in ordinary research facilities, to which any trained technician could have access. Here we see a paradoxical feature of medical progress: The cost of successful disease prevention is increased vulnerability, should the disease unexpectedly reappear.[12]

My proposal, then,is that we are in desperate need of a sociology of meso- knowledge: that is, of forms of knowledge that exist between the high-tech world of mass surveillance and the low-tech world of indigenous cultures. We tend to fetishize the former and exoticize the latter. One consequence of this polarization is that we too easily surrender the middle ground of political and economic analysis to other disciplines.[13] To put the point vividly, if we do not develop this area, here is how I imagine a future historian writing about sociology in our times:

The 'postmodern' period in sociology began in the final quarter of the 20th century, when the gap between rich and poor nations began to increase again, after having narrowed in the previous quarter century. This gap was mirrored in a bifurcation of sociological interest in, on the one hand, the role of advanced technologies in structuring social life in the rich nations and, on the other hand, the use of traditional forms of knowledge as a vehicle for identity formation in the poor nations. Curiously, the postmodernists rarely attended to the significant minority of people from poor nations who managed to acquire enough knowledge and resources from rich nations to use it to their political advantage - specifically, undergraduate training in science or engineering and the mobility afforded to an upper middle class income. It was perhaps the sheer ordinariness of these conditions in their own nations that blinded Western sociologists to what turned out to be the main determinants of global social change in the first half of the 21st century. Instead, they resurrected the distinction between modernity and tradition, on which the discipline had been founded in the late 19th century.


1Steve Fuller, 'Looking for Sociology after 11 September',

2Margaret Thatcher, 'Islamism is the new Bolshevism', Guardian, 12 February 2002, k/Archive/Article/0,4273,4354290,00.html . The article was originally entitled, 'Advice to a Superpower'. To her slight credit, Thatcher is careful to distinguish the motives of various Muslim nations and groups. However, she also occasionally uses the phrase 'Islamic terror'.

3An informed and provocative source is Christopher Hitchens, The Trial of Henry Kissinger (London: Verso, 2001).

4Samuel Huntington, whose 'clash of civilizations' thesis has now received a new lease on life, originally made this point in a remarkable book, The Soldier and the State (1957), which could end up explaining the 'latent wisdom' of Bush's appointment of a professional solider as US Secretary of State: Colin Powell, an ethical bulwark in a time of increasing shiftiness. An article that portrays Huntington in an extremely sympathetic and prescient light, but which is nevertheless rich in detail, is Robert D. Kaplan, 'Looking the world in the eye', The Atlantic Monthly, December 2001, < 001/12/kaplan.htm>.

5My view is contrary to that recently (and perhaps too conveniently) adopted by the author of a book about the launching of the first artificial space satellite. See King Kaufman, 'Out of the Blue', s/int/2001/12/13/dickson/index.html?x.

6Robert Worth, 'Agents wanted: Should speak Pashto', New York Times, 1 October 2001, ht tp://

7Stanley Hoffmann, 'Why Don't They Like Us?' The American Prospect, 19 November 2001, <>.

8I stress this point because it is easy - more for Western Europeans than Americans - to write as if the West does not have its own home-grown fundamentalism. It is also easy - more for Americans than Western Europeans - to write as if Islam does not have its own home- grown secularism. An excellent popular history that should dispel these misconceptions is Karen Armstrong, The Battle for God (London: Harpercollins, 2001). In the aftermath of 11 September, secular Muslims have come to the fore, calling for soul-searching in the Islamic world. Most prominent has been the pseudonymous 'Ibn Warraq', who has written a Bertrand Russell-inspired book, Why I am Not a Muslim (1995) and more recently has criticized Western captivity to Edward Said's 'orientalism' thesis, which Warraq regards as too 'politically correct'. See Chris Mooney, 'Holy War', The American Prospect, 17 December 2001, <>; Ibn Warraq, 'Honest intellectuals must shed their spiritual turbans', Guardian, 10 November 2001, <,4273,4295749,00.html>. In this light, I would seriously question the thrust of Benet Davetian, 'Moral Tensions between Western and Islamic Cultures: The Need for Additional Sociological Studies of Dissonance in the Wake of September 11', < tian.html>. One should not assume that ordinary Iranians have any greater understanding of what distinguishes themselves from, say, ordinary Americans than ordinary Americans would. The preoccupation with courtesy that Davetian finds so distinctive in the Iranians is also a cultural staple of the US South, the hotbed of fundamentalist Christianity. Recently, a useful term, 'occidentalism', has been coined to capture the demonising stereotypes of the West employed by non-Western cultures: Avishai Margalit and Ian Buruma, 'Occidentalism', New York Review of Books, 17 January 2002. <>.

9This paradoxical arrangement can be taken as either a tragedy or a wake-up call. The two interpretations, from the secularist side, are provided, respectively, in Edward Skidelsky, 'A liberal tragedy', Prospect, January 2002, <http://www.prospect->; Victor Davis Hanson, 'Why the Muslims Misjudged Us', City Journal, Winter 2002, <>. The British government is currently attempting to cut through the secularist paradox of tolerating the intolerant by attempting to pass legislation that would require the licencing of foreign nationals studying university subjects that could be used to inform terrorist activities: Charles Arthur, 'New laws to suppress academic research', Independent, 18 February 2002, < uk/uk/legal/story.jsp?story=120601>.

10This point was grasped in Stephen Vertigans and Philip Sutton, 'Back to the Future: Islamic Terrorism and Interpretations of Past and Present', < igans.html>. See also Jason Burke, 'The last revolution: The US won the war in Afghanistan, but bin Laden's ideology lives on'. The Observer, 27 January 2002, <,4273,4343749,00.html>. On the social epistemology of the recent technoscientifically informed Islamic revivalism, see Ahmed Bouzid, 'Science and Technology in the Discourse of Sayyid Qutb', Social Epistemology 10 (1996): 289-304.

11Steven Weinberg, 'Can Missile Defense Work?' New York Review of Books, 14 February 2002. <>.

12This point was subject to a lengthy examination, starting on the front page of The New York Times, 1 November 2001, which arguably could be used by would- be terrorists to weigh the pros and cons of waging biological, chemical, and nuclear warfare. William Broad, Stephen Engelberg, and James Glanz, 'A Nation Challenged: Assessing new risks, from nuclear weapons to chemicals and germs', <> . To his credit, one respondent caught sight of this issue and its implications for reorienting sociological attention: Simon Williams, 'From Smart Bombs to Smart Bugs: Thinking the Unthinkable in Medical Sociology and Beyond', < ams.html>. Perhaps the most interesting sociological point about the envisioned epidemic- based form of biological warfare is that it is parasitic on normal social interaction. In other words, any systematic policy of prevention would force people in the potentially victimized society to regard each other in a substantially different light (i.e. as possible disease carriers). This perhaps explains some of the grassroots resistance to government-led calls for vaccinations in the US and UK (although there are also more strictly medical reservations about physical side-effects).

13Some respondents appear to do this gladly, even though it would leave Marx and Weber turning in their graves. See Chris Rumford, 'Confronting "Uncivil Society" and the "Dark Side of Globalization": are Sociological Concepts Up to the Task?' < ord.html>.

Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2002