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April 19, 2015

Responding To: Week 12: Clash of Civilizations?

Is Grand Theory Too Grand?

Peter W. Cookson, Jr.

Sam Huntington was a big, big thinker. Among his many intellectual projects was analyzing the rise and fall of civilizations. Last weekend a wonderfully eclectic and diverse group of thinkers gathered at the Berkley Center to reflect on Huntington’s central thesis --- the global politics of the future would be shaped by a clash of civilizations.

But as Cynthia Schneider, Sarah Feuer, Jean-Lois Sarbib and Raza Razi pointed out there are clashes within clashes that seem to be as important today as the clashes between civilizations. Internal regional differences spark as much, if not more, passion than differences that stretch across continents.

Huntington wrote of paradigm shifts with an eye to the big picture, but perhaps the view from 30,000 intellectual feet above daily life blurs the smaller paradigm shifts happening on the ground.

Outside the academy, most people don’t live and breathe theory --- their lives are more densely lived, more fraught with immediate conflict and more driven by the passions, interests and the necessities imposed by daily life.

We need middle range theories of change that take into account sweeping global trends but fill-in these trends with more finely tuned accounts of change that illuminate the living geography of human fears and hopes.

Peter W. Cookson, Jr. is the director of The Equity Project and principal researcher at the American Institutes for Research (AIR) and teaches sociology at Georgetown University.

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