17th Karlsruhe Dialogues – Speakers

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

Prof. Dr. Natan Sznaider



Prof. Dr. Natan Sznaider is professor of sociology at the Academic College of Tel-Aviv-Yaffo in Israel. He was born in Germany, educated in Israel and the United States. He has taught at Columbia University in New York and at Munich University in Germany. He is part of an international research team investigating cultural memory in Europe, Israel, and Latin America.

He is an author of various books and articles. In 2006, he co-authored the article ‘Unpacking Cosmopolitanism for the Social Sciences’ with Ulrich Beck (published in the British Journal of Sociology), which was elected by the editors of the British Journal of Sociology as one of the most influential essays of the decade. His latest books include Jewish Memory and the Cosmopolitan Order (2011), Human Rights and Memory (2010), Gedächtnisraum Europa: Kosmopolitismus: Jüdische Erfahrung und Europäische Vision (2008), and The Holocaust and Memory in the Global Age (2005).


  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. Preservation and change do not contradict themselves. Just the opposite. They are joined at the hip. Clearly, at the start of the 21st century, globalisation represents a challenge to the integration of the temporal and spatial durability of our lives and, therefore, a challenge to preservation. At the same time, there is the burning question whether the developments of the last decade constitute an epochal break within modernity. It seems that history and borders are no longer the only form of social and symbolic integration. In the age of globalisation, cultural and political self-images can be reduced neither conceptually nor empirically to a territorially fixed space and viewpoint. That does not mean, however, that there can be no overarching horizon. Thus, in order to preserve modernity in the face of change, we should try to construct taboos. And at the same time, we should raise the question which taboos can and should be justified. For me, these taboos are about the preservation of the achievments of modernity. I am also aware that this is strongly being criticised with some justification. On the other side, I recognise an almost ebullient cultural criticism, which declares the concepts ‘human being’, ‘humanity’, ‘freedom’, and ‘individuality’ to be Western mechanisms of repression, and which argues and criticises within the horizon of a stable economic-technical civilization and society whose existence has never been called into question.

    Can we go on doing this? At issue is the problem of a self-limitation of modernity: How are post-traditional, reflexive taboos made possible? The answer lies hidden in modernity itself. Modernity must become aware of its own threatened modernity, of its own sacredness, which also involves the question of a transcendental horizon, which tries to preserve itself in the face of change. The alternative is barbarism.

    I think that such taboos can rely on the memory of historical or fictitious events, which reveal what happens when taboos are broken. They are based not on the hope of better times, but on the fear of worse ones. Here, historical memory is just as important as sociological imagination – it is about the ‘Ethics of Never Again’. This ethics consists of the awareness of catastrophe and the contingencies of life and death. ‘Never Again’ has the potential to connect universal principles with particular concerns, i.e., to preserve what is dear to us in the face of change.

  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 my opinion, the soul of modern politics is conflict, and the soul of social life is the production of common norms. In the world of the social contract, public conflict can be the key to integration, and the clash of conflicting norms can deepen our common norms and make them stronger. Thus when there are only one, two, or three divisions in society, they cut deep; loyalties are strong, and therefore antagonisms are just as strong. But when there are numerous divisions, each of them commands a smaller, more fragmented group loyalty and the opposition is disorganised and therefore milder. Society coheres because the overall tension has been lessened. In modern society, the groups that define us overlap, and this changes everything. It not only means that we are connected with people horizontally, rather than vertically. It also means that each person constitutes a unique combination of connections. And this in turn has three consequences. In the first place, it means people are more individualised; the number of possible combinations increases geometrically. In the second place, it means each individual has more in common with a wider group of people. And in the third, it means the lines of division between groups of people are fuzzier because of all the overlap. The weak bonds of association are enough to hold society together (a) because they are weak bonds to so many; (b) because they erode, through their very existence, the forces that used to drive people apart; and (c) because they are anchored in the individual’s free expression of his desires. When a person joins groups because he wants to, and not because he was born into them, he is bound by his desires more than by taboos. And when we do what we like, we do not feel bound, which is whence weak social bonds derive their strength. Indifference (or, in Goffman’s words, ‘civic inattention’) is not nothing. It is a very subtle something. It means treating everybody exactly the same. It is not corrosive of morality. It is the basis of modern morality. And the institutional form of indifference – of treating everyone the same – is rights. Consequently we need a concept of the public where divisions can unite, and where indifference and social distance can contribute to society’s integration.