Rethinking social issues in Europe in light of the experiences of emerging countries?

International and multidisciplinary conference

Grenoble, 10th, 11th and 12th June 2015


The proposed conference aims to foster debate on the impact of globalisation on social issues, based on findings from old industrialised nations as well as from the so-called “emerging nations”. Emerging nations are characterised by recent and rapid industrialisation that has led to the emergence of educated middle-class consumers and raised living standards of a section of the working class which now enjoys a position that though precarious, is well above basic survival levels. This industrialisation has also led to structured protest movements that authorities have been able to address through social policies that differ from those implemented in old industrialised nations. Emerging nations have also experienced or maintained an increase in inequality leading to corruption, delinquency or criminalisation which has had an impact on the State’s functioning. Inequality could also give rise to parallel initiatives within civil society which is more efficient in emerging countries; founded on democratic principles, the State in developed countries is still able to efficiently intervene in favour of its citizens.


Core issues

The labour force and the redistribution crisis


Coupled with the generalisation of the labour force, the welfare systems of a large majority of European countries funded by the increase in indirect wages seemed to have addressed social issues. The economic crisis that began at the end of the 1970s and has intensified since 2008 has been accompanied by the re-emergence of a population regarded as “supernumerary”, provoking a crisis in the labour force, now unable to provide the economic stability necessary for the social participation of all citizens. When unable to create sufficient jobs, it is necessary to address exclusion by using forms of redistribution that ensure that all citizens have the minimum necessary to guarantee stability. It is to this end that minimum welfare benefits were set up in the majority of European countries. Today, the ensuing debate revolves around the limits of redistribution within economies weighed down by public deficits and facing difficulties in introducing new taxes among the middle classes who are themselves increasingly vulnerable.


Despite the interest that several philosophers and political stakeholders have shown in the notion of unconditional solidarity, public policies around solidarity have been directed towards establishing forms of redistribution that request something in return. In so doing, States steer a section of the labour force by helping them adapt to low and irregular incomes and to professional careers marked by uncertainty. This appears an appropriate manner in which to deal with the impact of the crisis within a globalised context. The success of the best performing economies within the European Union – questionable success if we take into account the social cost – is based partly on the proliferation of precarious jobs which are economic for companies, and partly on employees’ great flexibility.


From proletarism to precarity


There has been an emergence of “precarity” marked by high vulnerability to the vagaries of the economy. This precarity has replaced the proletariat of the early industrial era around which social issues were developed, and welfare and solidarity systems that made it possible to strengthen global and social cohesion progressively built.  The identity of this new category calls for further debate based on the experience of emerging countries, where the identity of the “poor” can appear to be relatively attractive as poverty differs from misery, in the same way as the proletariat differed from the sub-proletariat in the past.


The economies of developed countries are thus similar to those of emerging countries where growth relies on the existence of a poorly protected labour force obliged to be mobile. One could consider that a new social category is emerging in post-industrial countries through the precarisation of a section of the previously stable and well-protected population, and in emerging countries where the opposite movement is characterised by the emergence of a working class aspiring to organise and protect itself. The development of these countries is based on this new precarious social category whose members are no longer poor but remain vulnerable to a slow-down in economic growth. The emergence of the new category, by upward mobility in the south and downward mobility in the north thus challenges sociology which must endeavour to analyse “precarity” and its relationship to society as a whole, and to the State.


State and civil society

For both State and civil society, this “precarity” is central to the new social issues. The encounter between these two types of society through the similarities in how they reflect on and address social issues could be the subject of fundamental debate that could be addressed within an international conference bringing together researchers specialising in post-industrial as well as in emerging countries. In the latter, the low participation of the state in the social field has given free rein to numerous initiatives by civil society.


In old industrial countries, the forms of representation practised by civil society appear to be weakening. Commitment to community-based groups is faltering, unions are losing their ability to mobilise members and participatory democracy is experiencing great difficulty in expressing the opinions of ordinary citizens. This has been accompanied by the discrediting of politicians generally, and in the countries most affected by the crisis in particular. Political stakeholders have been accused of helplessness in the face of economic decision making - increasingly internationalised and less influenced by political authorities.


In emerging countries the State is still able to strongly influence the economy due its relationship with the business environment. Whether in the context of an authoritarian regime such as China or Russia, or in a democratic context as is the case in India or Latin America, it guides the economy using either authoritarian means or by relying on civil society. The State also uses its redistribution options to influence the behaviour of the lower class population with a view to socialisation; one can only obtain government support if his or her behaviour is in line with prevailing norms.


Subsequently, we could address a number of cross-cutting issues from a sociological perspective, and analyse the policies implemented with regard to social issues. This would make it possible to examine a number of fundamental concepts in the theoretical debates around the new social issues: precarity, vulnerability, spatial and social economic inequalities, empowerment, “happy poverty”… . These issues could be addressed under four key themes.



A)  Comparative history of social issues and the analyses it has inspired in both old industrial and emerging countries


The context within which social issues emerged in industrialised nations in Europe and North America during the 19th century was marked by the introduction of a new social order perceived as unfair and favouring social implosion. As a result, different policies seeking to avoid this risk were implemented and notably, practices restraining social issues and shifting between repression and employer paternalism, social reform, revolution and the implementation of a new order imposing formal equality at the expense of individual freedom. The evolution of social issues in emerging countries began as a result of the shift from poverty, of a section of the population, mitigated by family and community solidarity, to precarity where higher earnings were generated but more individuals were left isolated and therefore felt the need to create new forms of solidarity. What theoretical sources have guided reflection with respect to the forms of social issues induced by rapid development within a context of globalisation? Has the experience of former industrialised countries been a reference for actors studying social evolution and the societal changes affecting emerging countries?



B) The emergence of more vulnerable categories


As widespread insecurity calls into question the stability of a section of both the working class and the middle class, where are the historically disadvantaged and vulnerable categories now situated? Has there been a feminisation or an “ethnicisation” of poverty in Europe, North America and Japan? In some emerging countries, caste or ethnic antagonisms that have been more or less politicised or ideologised are used to impose acceptance of precarity among the most vulnerable populations, all the while creating popular hostility towards them, thus preventing their revolt. In other countries, vulnerable groups suffer from severe spatial segregation and their residential neighbourhoods have become a battleground for control of an underground economy which is the only source of income. How can the vulnerability of these categories be limited? How can they be provided with social and political opportunities to build a common future?


C) Forms of social engagement and welfare policies


In post-industrial countries, can challenging the welfare state - with regard to its approach rather than in principle – exacerbate the difficulties in accessing services or increase the number of those who have no access to these services? Could the absence or shortage of civil society representatives amplify cases of isolation or withdrawal caused by social difficulties? In emerging economies, field workers have long been working to meet the needs of the impoverished population. Can the empowerment approaches which have increasingly been implemented in several post-industrial counties, and which seek to strengthen the capacity for autonomy among poor populations, inspire new forms of social engagement? The less precarious working class in emerging countries is increasingly mobilising itself and has begun to demand social welfare. Does it draw its inspiration from the experiences of post-industrial countries? 



D) The symptoms of weakening social cohesion

Violence is one of the most visible symptoms of weakening social cohesion. Post-industrial countries have experienced varying levels of delinquent or criminal violence, similar to the phenomenon affecting emerging countries. The spatial dimension is present in both contexts. Beyond comparing the analyses on the causes of this phenomenon in the two contexts, it would be interesting to compare the experiments conducted to address them. At best, repression shifts problems and at worst it exacerbates the tension between residents in poor neighbourhoods and security forces, perceived as external elements, serving only affluent populations.  The residents of poor neighbourhoods increasingly feel abandoned by the State and by the rest of society. How can this logic of exclusion that bears the risk of social implosion be impeded? Can the policies in post-industrial countries draw their inspiration from innovations implemented in emerging countries?


What then is the future of social housing within the framework of a generalised dual trend - the disengagement from these issues by old industrialised States since the 1970s (or in the case of Central and Eastern European countries since the 1990s) and further proliferation of spaces and situations of poor and insecure housing in these same States. Our objective is to examine the trend that seeks a cultural approach to social issues from a new perspective of “cultural diversity”. In this trend, cultural policies are intended to address integration and social cohesion issues, and to encourage democratisation and pacification, for instance, among disadvantaged neighbourhoods characterised by the presence of immigrants or minority groups.


These four key themes will be discussed in plenary sessions that will focus on fundamental issues, and in workshops that will target more specific and practical aspects with regard to these issues.



On behalf of the organising committee


Researchers at PACTE-CNRS UMR 5194


Conference Secretariat

Diego Fernandez Varas, CREA, Université Lumière - Lyon 2


Important dates

Notification of acceptance to authors: December 15, 2014,

The deadline for the final text is April 30, 2015.

Conference dates: 10, 11 and 12 June 2015 at the IEP, Grenoble.

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