[This is a blog post based on a forthcoming presentation at the British Education Research Association Conference, taking place in Leeds in September 2016]

Before you read any further, know this: I do believe that the world is in need of radical change. But…

If recent decades have taught us anything, it’s that an automatic preference for traditional national citizenship among populations can no longer be taken for granted. From the corporate elite criss-crossing the planet as they work in multi-national companies that do not pledge allegiance to a single country to nearly half the population of the UK (and other European countries) who are pro-European-Union, to global humanitarian and environmental crises which elicit collective supra-national action in ways that may not benefit the individual nation-states involved, we are today constantly reminded that our national identities and citizenships are not in themselves ‘enough’ to live in the world – that they do not equip us sufficiently to deal with significant amounts of our daily experience. I think the late Ulrich Beck was right when he proffered that the future of the world is easier to imagine globally than nationally.

In light of these issues, and no doubt many others, it can be argued that we are currently in a sort of transitional period (which is not to say that a transition will take place), moving, perhaps, from an era dominated by nationalist logics towards a different one. What this other era might look and feel like, no-one knows exactly. There are aspirations and anxieties; proponents and opponents; and discussions usually involve words such as ‘global’, ‘cosmopolitan’, ‘transnational’, and so forth. More substantive concepts are also sometimes thrown into debates, such as ‘global citizenship’, ‘global social justice’, and ‘human rights’. But ultimately – and for good reason – there is no blue-print or consensus for a post-national world.

This ‘transitional period’ (for want of a better phrase) in which we find ourselves is at one level a period of social anxiety and trouble. Across the world – but especially in the developed world – it seems that sizable sections of populations are ‘pulling’ towards the world of globality and cosmopolitanism (vague though it is) because they believe that on balance the interests of planet earth and its inhabitants are best served in such a world (and some simply think that an increasingly inter-connected world is better for business). Yet similarly large numbers of people are pulling in the opposite direction for a number of social, political and economic reasons, believing that increasing national power (so-called ‘sovereignty’) automatically equates to more power, equality and prosperity in their own lives. The recent events of Brexit in the UK showed a country more or less split in half over issues of identity, citizenship and future. After months of highly problematic (read: fraudulent, simplistic, exploitative) campaigning on both sides of the fence culminating in a vote to leave to the EU, the nation found itself in a state of bitter divisions, prejudicial relations and political and economic uncertainty. Britain, it seemed, was ‘actually’ very different from what many people living in Britain imagined!

For me, two questions need to be addressed urgently: 1) has national citizenship become untenable? That is, are we at a stage where, although we can of course continue to exist as national citizens, doing so is an insistence which will become increasingly costly and harmful for people and the planet? And 2) for those of us interested in moving beyond national citizenship, what options are there for achieving this? Thinkers such as Ulrich Beck and David Held have been grappling with similar questions and have offered innovative, rigorous ideas for pushing beyond nation-centrism especially through the concept of cosmopolitanism. These ideas are certainly viable and must be engaged with seriously (see Gholami 2016; Gholami in press). However, given the huge challenges thrown up in any political and philosophical discussion of ‘the cosmopolitan’, including the fact that it seems to require at least some ‘radical change’, it is also worth considering whether there are less daunting, more immediately concrete and practicable ways of facilitating social change in that direction.

Social change, it seems, is overwhelmingly brought about in two ways: top-down or bottom-up. From above and below, groups attempt to galvanize, mobilize and utilize an array of human and other resources to re-shape ‘society’, often calling for fundamental or radical changes. Yet, from ISIS to Donal Trump, not to mention scores of revolutionary and counter-revolutionary movements in world history, ‘the radical’ can often be exploitative, destructive, exclusive, ineffective…blind. The problem with top-down and bottom-up approaches is that too many unhelpful assumptions hover about them: that people are inclined towards conflict and need to be managed; that ‘movements’ (should) have common goals; that enemies are easily identifiable and ‘they’ wish to do ‘us’ harm; that violence may be necessary to achieve what ‘we’ want…As I said above, I do believe that the world needs radical change, especially when it comes to relinquishing nation-centric logics. But I am increasingly convinced that it is a good idea to align social and political action with forces of gradual social change, incorporating ‘the mundane’, the ‘un-radical’, from within the existing structures of the late-modern world.

These forces are already at play, particularly in the super-diverse urban spaces – such as London, Paris and New York – of late-modernity. If we tune out the cacophony of vitriol coming from above and below and peer not-too-deep beneath the layers of finger-pointing and scapegoating which pass for politics these days, we will see people engaging with each other and wider society to address vital issues (e.g. of diversity or resource management) in ways which are infinitely creative and effective. The relatively recent boom in social enterprises can be cited as an example in this vein: approaching the logic of capitalism differently to focus on social justice rather than greed-driven individualism. For me, however, a better example is found among migrant and diasporic communities, which, I would argue, we should positively regard as permanent and normal features of the contemporary world. My recent research has allowed me to explore these issues within a range of diasporic organisations but especially the educational institutions of the UK’s Iranian and Turkish diasporas. These fascinating sites are producing unique modalities of education which I have elsewhere described as ‘diasporic education’ (Gholami in press). Briefly, the first point to bear in mind is that such schools cannot be fully regulated by any national government; but they are managed and run by highly qualified and passionate educationalists who are free to collaborate with colleagues across the world to develop innovative pedagogies and curricula – and this is exactly what they are doing. Secondly, due mainly to issues of funding, the schools are becoming increasingly demographically and educationally diverse: one Iranian school, for example, had a significant number of pupils from Serbian, Kurdish, Polish, Turkish and White-British backgrounds, all taking advantage of the maths, English and science classes available. Thirdly, it is important to remember that although a similar diversity may exist in state-school classrooms, the dynamics and power relations at a diasporic school are entirely different. On the whole, my findings suggest that the students had very positive educational and citizenship outcomes, some being markedly happier and performing better academically than in their ‘normal’ (state) school. The upshot is that in these schools concepts such as citizenship, self/other, and education were implicitly and explicitly approached very differently. They never allowed any national or diasporic culture to fully ‘close’ and claim identities, knowledge and cultural forms – and children and young people seemed to really enjoy that experience; they accepted it and worked/lived with it completely naturally. As a result, those very concepts themselves became redefined at the level of concrete everyday experience.

I have no doubt that these children can approach questions of conviviality, ‘global citizenship’, social justice, etc. radically differently in the future than the way we are approaching them today – they can potentially do a much better job, though only if society at large understands the value of what is happening today and supports it. Whether driven by necessity, pragmatism or desire, these modes of agency and engagement are producing desirable – and ultimately radical –  social change. But this is often change which establishment politicians and mainstream media – with their jingoism and economic reductionism – are simply unwilling to acknowledge and support, and which is judged to be too ‘low-key’ and de-centred to have any value for most ‘grassroots’ counter-movements. My argument is that we are missing a trick! We should become better at observing – not interfering through regulation – these social trends and learn from them to develop public policies. We should also iterate back and forth between them and our social theories as a way to bolster both – i.e. inductively develop social theory which helps to maximise the social, cultural, legal and political benefits we harness from these ‘un-radical’ social actors.


Beck, U. (2002) “The Cosmopolitan Society and Its Enemies” Theory, Culture and Society 19 (1-2): 17-44

Gholami, R. (2016) “The Art of Self-Making: Identity and Citizenship Education in Late-Modernity,” British Journal of Sociology of Education http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/01425692.2016.1182006

Gholami, R. (in press) “The Sweet Spot between Submission and Subversion: Diaspora, Education and the Cosmopolitan Project” in Carment, D. & Sadjed, A. (Eds.) Diaspora as Cultures of Cooperation: Global and Local Perspectives. Palgrave.

Held, D. (2010) Cosmopolitanism: Ideals and Realities. Polity Press.