17th Karlsruhe Dialogues – Speakers

The ‘In-Between Society’: Tradition and Modernism in Conflict

Prof. Dr. Roland Robertson



Prof. Dr. Roland Robertson is Distinguished Service Professor of Sociology Emeritus at the University of Pittsburgh, Emeritus Professor of Sociology and Global Society at the University of Aberdeen, and Distinguished Guest Professor of Cultural Studies at Tsinghua University, Beijing. He has previously held posts at the universities of Leeds, Essex, and York.

His visiting positions have included ones in Sweden, the USA, Austria, Italy, Hong Kong, Thailand, Japan, Brazil, and Turkey. His many publications include: The Sociological Interpretation of Religion (1970), International Systems and the Modernization of Society (1968), and Identity and Authority (1980). Forthcoming books include: European Globalization in Global Context; Religion and Culture: The Western Standpoint (a collection of previously published essays, in Chinese); and Global Connectivity and Global Consciousness.

He has published many articles and chapters on such subjects as religion, social and cultural theory, globalisation and international relations, sport, and social stratification. His work has been translated into more than twenty languages. He has been invited to give keynotes or conference addresses in many countries and on all continents.

He has also been a recipient of numerous fellowships, scholarships, and distinguished career awards, as well as serving on the editorial boards of numerous international journals. His present work is focused upon globality and locality; the relationship between global and cosmological studies; anti-Semitism, sociology and the concept of civilization; world order and the changing nature of states and nations.


  1. Preservation in the face of change: From your point of view, what does this mean in the light of the processes of globalisation and glocalisation?
  2. Globalisation encourages preservation as much as it does change. Globalisation constrains societies to announce their deep-historical origins and global significance. Contemporary examples of this include China, Iran, the USA, and numerous others – although in such cases there is frequently conflict within these as to what the identity of the society consists in. In fact it is globalisation in the form of glocalisation that provides the major clue to this phenomenon.

  3. In the face of increasing disorientation, what is it that holds a society together in the age of globalisation, and what drives it apart?
  4. In so far as societies are maintaining a modicum of cohesion, it is primarily through the (highly contested) search for, or invention of, local tradition or identity. There is also a very strong authoritarian, indeed theocratic, trend in nearly all societies in the contemporary world. It is, perhaps, this authoritarian trend that is the most significant aspect of the present forms of ‘cohesion’. Societies are, on the other hand, being driven apart by diasporic movements, multiple national affiliations, multiculturalism, and internal-societal cultural wars, as well as being threatened by increasingly penetrative cyberattacks. In fact, it is a major feature of the contemporary world that, increasingly, virtually all societies are riven by great sociocultural cleavages, as is best historically exampled by the Kulturkampf in Germany of the late 19th century. The most recent major example of this is the enormous and growing tension between ‘left’ and ‘right’ in the USA. However, it is my strong belief that the USA represents just the tip of a global iceberg in this respect. This is, again, where the issue of reflexive, ever-changing national identities enters the picture. The flip side of the authoritarian trend is the very striking passivity of the populace – that appears on its face to herald the end of democracy as we know it, although there are significant signs of redemocratisation. The latter is exampled by the resistance of women in India to their present position, a resistance which increasingly has worldwide support. One could, of course, provide other possible examples, such as Occupy and similar movements.

  5. Our society stands between traditional values and local everyday routines on the one hand, and between rapidly changing attitudes and behaviours on the other hand. What is the role of women concerning these processes of change in the realm of civil society?
  6. In light of the preceding, the position of women in the present global circumstance is rather obvious (and may well be a counterexample to my claim that contemporary societies are marked by the passivity of their populations). This is particularly striking at the present time and best exemplified, as I have said, by the case of India and not only for women themselves. My belief is that the ‘revolt’ of women in India – in spite of its relationship to the caste system and the long-standing valorisation of males on that continent – may well turn out to be much more important than the so-called Arab Spring. In fact, it will almost certainly subsume the Arab case. To put this another way, in the case of women – most notably in India at this time – we find the co-existence of the very traditional and the hyper-modern. Of particular significance also in this regard is the great prominence of youth. The paramount significance of youth in movements of resistance and revolt is, of course, very ‘traditional’. (Needless to say, youth can quite easily be exploited and coerced into being rebellious, as is to be seen in the present activities of very young people in Northern Ireland which has frequently been characterised by the media as ‘recreational violence’.)