Felix Stalder. Manuel Castells and the Theory of the Network Society.
Polity Press, 2006

1 Transformation of Baselines
    Neo-Marxism and the Renewal of Urban Sociology
    Technology and Social Change
2 Production
    The Economic Crisis of the 1970s
    Internationalization of the Economy
    Global Financial Markets
    The Network Enterprise
    Individualization of Labor
    Informational Capitalism: Critical Issues
3 Experience
    Social Movements as Subjects of History
    Social Movements beyond the Local
    Social Movements and the Creation of Identity
    Two Case Studies
    Social Movements and the Culture of Real Virtuality
4 The Network State and Informational Politics  download chapter
    The Theory of the State
    The Crisis of the Nation-State
    Informational Politics
    The Reaffirmation of the State
    The Rise of the Network State?
    Power and Networks
5 Flows and Places  download chapter
    Castells’s Theory of Space
    The Space of Flows 
    The Time of Flows
    Cities in the Space of Flows
6 The Logic of Networks
    What is a Network?
    Informational Networks
    The Network Logic
    Preeminence of Morphology over Action
Bibliography of Manuel Castells
Other References
Notice: Chapters 4 and 5 are made available courtesy of Polity Press. All rights remain with Polity Press. For personal use only.
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Manuel Castells’s theory of the network society has a unique place among the many attempts by social scientists to come to terms with the contemporary dynamics transforming the fabric of everyday life around the globe. It provides the single most comprehensive framework through which to connect, in an integrated analysis, very diverse phenomena, ranging from demonstrations of gay activists in Taipei to money laundering in the financial networks, from the globalization of production to the renewal of democracy at the local level. This makes it the lone contender as the grand narrative of the present, signaling the return of sociological macrotheory after years of postmodern pessimism about the possibility, or even desirability, of such a project. It brings to a close three decades of research on the “postindustrial” or “information society,” two concepts which, as Castells convincingly argues, are inadequate to frame the present. In their place, the theory of the network society opens up new perspectives on a world reconstituting itself around a series of networks strung around the globe on the basis of advanced communication technologies. Indeed, networks, as the name indicates, are what the theory is all about. Its central claim is that in all sectors of society we are witnessing a transformation in how their constitutive processes are organized, a shift from hierarchies to networks. This transformation is as much an organizational as a cultural question. There is a deep relationship between how social processes are organized and the values they embody. An uneasy adaptation of the structural and cultural logic embedded in a myriad of projects, each reflecting imperfectly the particular agendas of its members, is what drives the evolution of the network society.

The breadth and interdisciplinarity of Castells’s analysis is without parallel today and puts it in the same league as Max Weber’s classic, Economy and Society. In Castells’s case, its enormous scope is the consequence of two assumptions shaping his entire perspective: holism and multiculturalism. Aholistic approach contends that society cannot be reduced to any of its parts, no matter how important that part might be. Rather, there are multiple sources of change which need to be understood on their own terms as well as in their relation to each other. There is no privileged vantage point from which to understand society as a whole by analyzing a supposed key aspect, be it the economy, politics, culture, or technology. In order to understand one aspect we have to understand the whole, yet the whole emerges from a myriad of interdependent events. Multiculturalism, on the other hand, stresses that contemporary social developments cannot be understood in terms of less and more advanced societies all striving to emulate, with varying degrees of success, the single most advanced model, whether it is Silicon Valley, America, the West, or the East. Rather, the particular character of the present period stems from the interaction of multiple models, each shaped by the historically determined resources that people can draw on in dealing with the challenges and opportunities of a world integrated and fractured as never before. Thus it makes no sense to argue that, say, the United States is a network society and Colombia is not. Both societies contain nodes that are deeply integrated into the global flows of information, goods, and people, while others are excluded from them. The cocaine cartels of Medellin and Cali, for example, are very sophisticated organizations, fully capable of using the most advanced networking to their own ends, and they are distinctly Colombian. Depending on the networks under consideration, the geography and culture of the network society looks very different. Yet, despite this multiculturalism, the network society is more than the sum of its parts; it is not a huge patchwork quilt. Through deep flows of information and people along networks that span the globe, innovation (or tradition) travels from its place of origin to where it appeals to people and their agendas. In the process, it is transformed, adapted, and becomes an essential part in the constitution of the very networks along which it flows. This applies as much to production methods as to social movements, to efforts to save the planet as to attempts to destroy it.

Yet, for all its integrative capacity, the theory of the network society is open to the extreme. For Castells, there is no such thing as historical necessity, and there are no social laws to be uncovered. Progress, as he puts it, “is an ideology.” While social transformations are far from random and exert strong pressures, they are not assumed to have a preconfigured directionality. Whether society is improving or decaying is a matter of whose values are taken to be relevant to answering this question. Reflecting this commitment to openness, Castells identifies the beginning of the historical transformation as an “accidental coincidence” of three independent trends, interacting “serendipitously”: microelectronics and the IT revolution, starting with the creation of the microprocessor in 1971; the crisis of industrialism, in Western capitalism and in statism (Soviet-style socialism), that became apparent in both systems in the early 1970s; and the profound cultural challenge mounted by diverse “freedom-oriented” social movements in the late 1960s. None of these developments was caused by, or was even a direct reaction to, the other trends. Yet in their subsequent path they deeply intertwined to constitute a new historical period. The rise of the network society is thus not seen as a social or technological necessity, nor stemming from a single cause or driver. Rather, it resulted from surprising, unpredictable effects of multiple and changing sets of social actors, struggling with the cultural and material circumstances in which they found themselves, each pursuing their own agenda, following their own, limited understanding of the situation they faced. Taking this openness to heart, the theory of the network society is explicitly not “a venture in social forecasting,” as Daniel Bell saw his own work on postindustrialism, 1 even though the two share significant ground (which I will discuss in detail later on). Castells restricts himself to analyzing the present, on the basis of available empirical evidence, taking into consideration that the network society, perhaps more than any other, has the ability to deliberately alter its own path of development, for better or worse.

This analytical commitment to holism, multiculturalism and openness provides the core character of Castells’s theory. Immediately striking is the fact that the enormous scope of the theory is matched by the equally broad range of empirical studies through which it is developed. The Information Age trilogy, containing the argumentative core of the theory, is some 1,500 pages long and has already been substantially revised for its second edition. Castells draws freely on more than three decades of his own prior research, that of a very wide range of other scholars, and on the work of the many doctoral students he supervised during his career. Quite fittingly, the trilogy has been called “encyclopedic” more than once. Yet, the theory of a network society is not simply a long list of items strung one after the other, but a complex, integrated analytical framework. Furthermore, it represents both the culmination of a major research effort and the start of a new one. Castells has since continued the development of the theory in numerous additional books, scholarly articles, and major research reports.

To the reader, Castells’s work as a whole poses three general challenges. Two are related to coming to terms with the work itself, and the third arises from the particular focus of the theory of the network society, bringing into view some of its limitations. First, in an argument as large as that, it is easy to lose sight of the wood for the trees, and it is hard to assess the internal coherence of the analysis. This goes not just for the reader but also for Castells himself, who allows more than one internal contradiction, strange gap, and imprecision of vocabulary. So, if grand is indisputable, what, precisely, is the narrative? To bring into the foreground the core argument of why we are supposed to have entered a new historical epoch is the first aim of this book. On this level, it provides a critical introduction to, and overview of, the theory of the network society. This is the basis for the book’s second aim: to assess the theory as a work in progress. To call it a work in progress is, in itself, not a critique, but reflects another aspect of its openness. Castells’s theory, by necessity of its particular construction, is under constant development. Thus, the theory of the network society is both a major analytical achievement in its own right, and a highly flexible framework able to be adapted to reflect new empirical findings. Indeed, empirical findings are what this theory is all about. It is from this that the second challenge to understanding Castells arises. For him, the value of theory lies primarily in its ability to provoke and structure empirical studies. In this sense, theory is an intermediate step rather than the ultimate goal of research. Thus Castells shows significant reluctance to provide anything more than rough definitions of the terms used or to participate in an explicit way in major theoretical debates. Yet to assess the theory, in both its ground-breaking audacity and its real limitations, it is necessary to make some of the connections to major debates more visible. The contextualization offered here is not intended as an intellectual history, tracing the long flows of ideas among scholars. It will be limited to providing the foundation of the constructive critique necessary for a continuation of the collective processes of theorybuilding.

This is particularly crucial for two reasons. First, Castells has adopted a strategy of “communicating theory by analyzing practice.” The theory provides the scaffolding that gives shape to the empirical research, but it is removed from sight once that research is deemed to be able to stand on its own. Second, Castells constructs his narrative to be as “autonomous” as possible. Contemporary theory from the social and natural sciences is copiously integrated (and duly referenced), but rarely discussed. This particular communication strategy makes the accounts of the network society highly textured and accessible, but obscures the main argument. Like a tree in summer when leaves make it hard to see the branches, the empirical richness makes the analytical argument fuzzy and thus hard to deal with. It will be necessary to reconstruct this scaffolding by removing much of the detail provided by the case studies. Thus I will shake off many leaves, trying to reverse the trade-off between clarity and richness of argument. This will bring into view the third, and most substantive, challenge arising from Castells’s particular strategy in integrating the enormous breadth of cases: shifting the focus of his analysis from conflict to forms. This has culminated in declaring a form, the network, to be the signature of the new, well, network society. This shift has turned out to be tremendously fruitful, not just because Marxist theory – particularly the structuralist paradigm under which Castells had worked – had driven itself into a dead end during the 1970s. More importantly, this shift enabled Castells to expand the scope of the analysis to the point where it can justifiably be called holistic and multicultural on a global scale. Yet this reorientation came at a price. Conflicts had to be relegated from being the main engine of social transformation to being subsumed under the heading of identity. Its main driver is no longer structural contradictions, but reflexive social movements. Thus actors regain a central place, but the conflicts in which they engage appear skewed in the analysis. Collective actors on one side, processes on the other. This might be an adequate rendering of the inner view of most social movements, according to which people fight against systems. But as a result of this perspective, Castells’s theory of power, particularly in the analysis of the economy and of politics, has been hollowed out. It will be one of the main challenges to the further development of the theory of the network society as a critical project to reintegrate conflicts and power more prominently into the analysis without reverting to Marxist reductionism.

This is not just an issue of abstract theory-building. Rather, it is an urgent matter of empirical analysis. Each period has its defining conflicts. Under industrialism, the struggle between labor and capital provided the main political dynamic within industrialized countries as well as in global politics (cold war). In the “information age,” a new set of social conflicts is likely to become defining. A possible candidate: the fight over access to information and knowledge. Struggles are already arising in areas as diverse as agriculture (patents on plants), health care (access to medicine), cultural industries (copyright), and global institutions (international treaties). These conflicts point to the emergence of a new global power structure, with social movements playing an important role in articulating a countervision. Yet, if we want to understand both sides of the struggle, these conflicts cannot be subsumed under the heading of identity. Here an analysis focusing on forms reaches its limits.

This book is structured as follows. The first chapter focuses on the transformation of baselines that have shaped Castells’s work over close to four decades now. Every narrative is based on a set of assumptions and concepts along which the formulation of the actual work proceeds. The theory of the network society is shaped by the evolution of these baselines, in the sense that it evolved out of series of continuations from and breaks with Castells’s own earlier analytical ventures. In particular, the success and failure of the early Marxist urban sociology provide the background against which many of the core arguments of the theory of the network society are developed. Central, as mentioned above, is the shift from conflicts to forms. Another building block whose particular character can only be understood in reference to his early work is “informationalism” as the technological paradigm of the network society. Finally, his early Marxist experience has also deeply affected the epistemology shaping the particular character of the theory as a flexible set of interrelated propositions.

The second chapter deals with Castells’s analysis of informational capitalism, focusing on the globalization of economies, the transformation of the structure of firms (“network enterprise”), and the changing realities of labor. It will highlight two problematic aspects of his treatment of contemporary capitalism. There is the lack of attention to the construction of new forms of property at the core of the most advanced processes of global capitalism. And somewhat more implicit, but equally problematic, is the claim that the economy is, for practical purposes, beyond the control of anyone. What do we win, and what do we lose, when we call the financial markets an “automaton”?

The third chapter discusses Castells’s analysis of social movements as the subjects of contemporary social change. Through a detailed analysis of his treatment of feminism and of religious fundamentalism, the argument that these movements are at the same time autonomous sources of new values, and a distinct reflection of the character of the network society, will be assessed. The fourth chapter deals with Castells’s analysis of politics and governance, focusing on the crisis of liberal democracy and the transformation of governance (“network state”). I will examine Castells’s theory of power, and question how adequate it is for analyzing the new realities of dominance through networks.

Chapters 2, 3, and 4 cover the main pillars – production, experience and power – on which the theory and its empirical argument rest. The fifth chapter deals with what I consider to be Castells’s most far-reaching theoretical innovations: the concepts of the “space of flows” and, somewhat less developed but equally consequential, “timeless time.” Space and time are the foundations of all aspects of social life, and the analysis of their transformations goes a long way toward unifying the theoretical framework. Despite the structural dominance of flows, places do not become obsolete as long as people have bodies as we know them. Rather, the space of flows and the space of places interact, transforming cities and creating entirely new urban agglomerations, the metropolitan regions. This interaction is at the core of the new, nonlinear character of (urban) geography and the fragmented character of contemporary societies held together less by physical contiguity than by informational networks.

But what exactly are informational networks, and why does this transformation from hierarchies to networks as the dominant form of social organization matter so much? This will be the focus of the sixth chapter, which discusses in depth the particular conception of the network that emerges from Castells’s wide-ranging analysis. If the transformation of social morphology from hierarchies to networks is, indeed, a process of historical significance, then there must be something particular about networks independent of the various projects that are realized through them. Castells calls this the “network logic,” but remains guarded about what this is. By way of complexity and organizational theory, the content of this logic and the way it shapes the theory of the network society will be analyzed.

The conclusion assesses the theory as a whole in order to point out its key strengths as well as areas that need significant further development.

Castells’s theory, because of its unique combination of integration and openness, can be read almost like a hypertext. It can be entered at many different places, thus providing insights to people with various interests, while offering to all links that connect their field with what is argued to be the general dynamics of the network society. This present book should be understood as a personal engagement with, rather than as the authoritative interpretation of, the theory of the network society. It is therefore not a shorthand for dealing with Castells himself. It is also not an intellectual biography, and nor does it chronicle the extensive debates inspired by Castells’s work over more than three decades. Rather, I present a direct, personal engagement with Castells’s arguments, hoping to preserve the engaging quality of the work itself and entice each reader to find his or her own individual ways through the conceptual matrix that is the theory of the network society.