top of page
Image by Pang Yuhao

Possible Futures

As human beings, we have partial capacity to choose our futures – individually, in specific groups and societies, and at global scale. This is a matter of both conscious choices and aggregate impact of unintended activity. What futures are possible is also shaped by processes and conditions humans do not produce and cannot control. Understanding what futures are possible and what factors shape them is crucial to exercising choice – as individuals or collectively, to achieve ideals or to avert disaster.

Understanding possible futures begins with understanding the present as part of history. This includes attending to the openness and indeterminacy that make for multiple possibilities, the contradictions in every social situation that make change inevitable, and the combination of constraints and empowerments in which action is situated. At the individual level, we could say this is simply the nature of life and that our ability to take successful actions depends on these contextual factors (and on our ability to judge them and our motivations in relation to them). 

Craig Calhoun's work focuses more on the transformation of larger contexts that are also basic to possible futures: capitalism, climate change, and world-making and remaking. In each case, we need to understand not only collectivities at various scales but also systems of variable complexity and openness but always structured by relations among parts and dynamic feedback loops. 

Recent Publications

Work in Progress

Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation and Transformations Today,”
for Social Research

An examination of Polanyi’s classic book and key concepts it introduced, with attention to similarities and differences among the transformations of late 18th and early 19th-century industrialization, crisis in the first half of the 20th century, and growing crises today.

Infrastructure and Society"
(with Hillary Angelo)

Beyond the very smallest scale, infrastructure is a basic condition of social organization. It enables communication, coordination, and trade to extend ever more widely in space. It supports the growth of cities and the agricultural productivity and supply chains that sustains them. It makes possible the growing frequency and diversity of contacts and transactions that Durkheim called ‘dynamic density’. It underpins the rise of states and empires, business corporations, world religions, and wars. Durable investments in infrastructure shape are conditions of society as we know it and shape contemporary transformations. This includes the internal cohesion of countries and transnational relations both within contiguous regions and across them.

Image by Zhou Xian
Image by Zhou Xian

Eurasia and the remaking of the modern world-system

Western European countries were ascendent for 400 years as the modern capitalist, nation-state, world-system took shape. After massive crisis in the first half of the 20th century, the US assumed hegemony in what amounts to a new phase of the same world-system. This development took place in tension with alternative world-making projects, including (a) the attempt to build communism, sometimes as a world-system, sometimes in one country at a time, and (b) the attempt to advance international integration on a more equitable basis and outside the control of capitalist or communist powers.

Both communism and transnational post-colonial projects like the Bandung alliance and pan-Africanism lost dynamism from the 1970s. In the 21st century, however, both new conflicts and structural changes are upsetting the cohesion of the modern world-system. The transformation is evident especially in the growing integration of Eurasia, understood broadly to reach from the Pacific across land to the Atlantic, and by water across the Black Sea, the Mediterranean, and the Indian Ocean. Relations among national states are being reconfigured with new infrastructures, markets, media, and geopolitical alliances and also continuing influence of older imperial histories and civilizations. The post-Soviet space is particularly volatile.

Far from representing an inevitable global future, Europe finds itself dependent on Russian gas and Chinese finance and markets. Loss of cohesion in the EU reflects not just short-term political failures but deeper restructuring of regional and trans-regional relations. China/US rivalry to finance and build infrastructure symbolizes struggle to dominate the world-system – but also potential to transform its organizational structure. This restructuring extends beyond the Asian continent narrowly understood, as Islam connects (and sometimes divides) societies across all of Asia from Xinjiang or Indonesia to the Middle East and Africa; natural resource markets drive both political alliances and economies; and positional struggles among secondary powers like Russia, Turkey, Iran, and Persian Gulf States reshape political alliances and security cooperation across Asia and throughout the world. Crisis after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine plays out in the context of this Eurasian remaking of the world-system. And of course, Eurasian transformations cannot be fully understood just ‘internally’ but are part of larger reworlding processes involving relations with other regions.

Previous Publications (selected)


Item Title

Item Title

Item Title


Cosmopolitanism and its Limits

2003 - Variability in Belonging: A Response to Brubaker

2008 - Cosmopolitanism and Nationalism

2002 - Imagining Solidarity: Cosmopolitanism, Constitutional Patriotism and the Public Sphere

2003 - Belonging in the Cosmopolitan Imaginary

2008 - Cosmopolitanism in the Modern Social Imaginary

2012 - Cosmopolitan Liberalism and its Limits

2003 - The Class Consciousness of Frequent Travelers: Toward a Critique of Actually Existing Cosmopolitanism

2010 - Beck, Asia, and Second Modernity: An Appreciation and Two Arguments

2009 - Cosmopolitanism and Hegemony

Humanitarian Response to Emergencies

2008 - The Imperative to Reduce Suffering: Charity, Progress, and Emergencies in the Field of Humanitarian Action

2004 - A World of Emergencies: Fear, Intervention, and the Limits of Cosmopolitan Order

Humanitarianism in Question: Power, Politics, Ethics

2010 - The Idea of Emergency: Humanitarian Action and Global (Dis)order

Religion and Secularism

2010 - Varieties of Secularism in ‘A Secular Age’

2011 - Rethinking Secularism

2013 - Habermas and Religion

2008 - Religion, Secularism, and Public Reason

2016 - Religion, Government and the Public Good

2012 - Time, World, and Secularism

2018 - Religion in the English Public Sphere

bottom of page