"The sociological imagination enables us to grasp history and biography and the relations between the two within society."[1] This observation by C. Wright Mills adorns nearly every introductory textbook in my discipline. It also could shape the challenge of international studies writ large, especially if we come to recognize that history and biography are tied not only within national societies but also across them. The biographies of two visitors to the University of Michigan this winter exemplify individual cross-national efforts to end histories of extraordinary violence.

    On his first day as president of Costa Rica in 1986, Dr. Oscar Arias met with nine other presidents from Latin American countries to establish agreement on the principles of democracy, peace and liberty for the region.[2] Between 1995 and 1998, Senator George Mitchell chaired the negotiations that led to the famous "Good Friday Agreement," which laid the foundations for replacing guns and violence with democratic political contest in Northern Ireland.[3] Both men have been recognized for their work; President Arias received the Nobel Peace Prize and Senator Mitchell received the American Presidential Medal of Freedom and the UNESCO Peace Prize. Neither has rested on his laurels, however. Dr. Arias used the money from his Nobel Prize to establish the Arias Foundation for Peace and Human Progress, which works to promote gender equity, strengthen civil society in Central America and support demilitarization and conflict resolution across the developing world. In October 2000, at the request of President Clinton, Prime Minister Ehud Barak of Israel and the president of the Palestinian Authority, Yasser Arafat, Senator Mitchell agreed to serve as chairman of the Sharm el-Sheikh International Fact Finding Committee. This commission's product, widely known as the "Mitchell Report," continues as a principal reference point in the search for a negotiated peace within the Middle East.

    Their resolve and willingness to listen to different biographies and histories has had clear effects on ending violence in Central America and Northern Ireland and their enduring commitments to peacemaking remain vitally important in other parts of the world; but their own backgrounds shape very different images of peace and the role of American power in producing it. For most American political leaders, that power is, by definition, a force for good, and most obviously present in discussions of the present Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As Senator Mitchell observed, "The United States government is the only entity that has the capacity to create the conditions in which that conflict can be resolved and importantly in which any agreement is monitored, enforced and guaranteed."

    For many political leaders from other parts of the world, however, American power can also be viewed as dangerously close to arrogance; its complicity in the production of violence itself also can be questioned. President Arias himself observed that the proliferation of weapons is the basis for much destructive violence across the world, and the United States bears great responsibility for shaping the terms of this distribution. This is no radical position; Paul Collier, one of the World Bank's leading researchers, in fact made a very similar argument in a visit to the University of Michigan in March.[4]

    For these reasons, it is especially important to cultivate on American university campuses a broader awareness of the variety of perspectives on pressing global issues, from the explicit violence of war to the hidden violence embedded in poverty. And importantly, the perspectives we offer should not only be from those with already global reputations.

    While Fernando Martínez Heredia and Esther Pérez are not household names in the US, their leadership in Cuba, and their contributions to a transnational scholarship around race, nation and justice have been exceptional. Dr. Pérez actively extends the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the pedagogy of liberation associated with the Brazilian Paolo Friere. Dr. Martínez Heredia's journal on critical theory and practice, Pensamiento Crítico, was widely influential across Latin America through its end in 1971 when Soviet ideology "limited not only non-Marxist ideas but also the most fruitful aspects of Marxism itself." He himself worked in Nicaragua between 1979 and 1984, but throughout it all has demonstrated the importance of scholarship in shaping social change, much in the tradition of C. Wright Mills himself.

    Shabana Azmi is a household name across the world.[5] Her political leadership within India and for the United Nations is highly regarded, but her fame comes from the millions who follow Indian cinema. Her work in this context exemplifies how performance and the arts help to recast that very sociological imagination with which I began, and in numbers that the finest scholarship could never dream to reach. Godmother, screened in Ann Arbor with her commentary, offered a powerful critique of communal violence in India. Fire inspired reflection across the world about same-sex relationships, families and women's rights.

    Bringing these distinguished leaders from across the world in the arts, politics and scholarship not only inspires us; it also enhances dramatically our capacity to recognize how biographies and histories work differently across global contexts. Through that recognition, we can cultivate a sociological imagination that becomes more nearly global than national in scope. The implications of these visits can be realized most completely when they rest on enduring partnerships and extended investments in research and teaching about these world regions. Area studies centers contribute critically to the assurance of long-term results of this learning, and the scholarship they support helps us to rethink the very boundaries and terms with which we imagine the world.

    Given how much our imagination is shaped by passport identities and political boundaries, Julie Hastings contributes importantly to a different sense of community with her ethnography of a transnational community extending from Guatemala to Los Angeles.[6] Our sense of social change can also be challenged by area studies work. The Soyuz conference-inspired discussion of prostitution as a metaphor of post-socialist transformation signals a radical rethinking of "transition" away from the more familiar vision of movement from dictatorship to democracy or from plan to market. The work reported by Bill Axinn and Jennifer Barber is notable in a number of ways, too.[7] Not only is Nepal far less familiar in the repertoire of comparative social research, but this particular collaboration also illustrates the value of mutual recognition and investment in building research capacity through partnerships. By developing these enduring ties with places less commonly recognized, our confidence in generalizing about things like the relationship between education and childbearing behavior becomes far more robust.

    Sometimes that investment in other cultures can also undo our generalizing confidence.

    Twila Tardif, recently recruited to Michigan as an International Institute Sponsored Appointment by the Department of Psychology, Center for Human Growth and Development, and the Center for Chinese Studies, explains how our failure to take language differences seriously can hinder our ability to understand basic processes in human development.[8] What happens to our understanding of the development of toddlers' cognition when languages use different words to express knowing a person, knowing that something exists, and knowing how to do something? This not only affects the sequence with which concepts emerge in children's repertoires, but also may reflect more basic differences among theories of mind associated with various civilizations.

    Sometimes, however, fundamental differences are not worlds apart, and are rather embedded in painful proximities as the events of 1915 illustrate. While too many in the world are unfamiliar with the significance of that date, it is impossible for Armenians not to recognize immediately what 1915 represents. Many of them would moreover challenge my use of this vague term, "events." Call it what it was, they might say. It was genocide. This is something, however, that official Turkish state policy vigorously denies. While many Turks and Turkish-Americans have no reason to challenge their state, or the state of their national heritage, Turks who do recognize the deportations and massacres of Armenians in 1915 may not use the term. Thus, it would be easy to have a major political event focused on the correct nomenclature, but that focus could derail scholarly progress. By setting aside an insistence on names and "national correctness" and by focusing on an analysis of historical process and causality, Ron Suny and Muge GÖÇek organized an extraordinary workshop.[9]

    Their scholarly focus facilitated unprecedented academic exchange among Armenians, Turks and others, and created conditions in which nobody forced anyone to use, or not to use, the term "genocide." To be sure, there were people in this workshop who spoke of the moral and ethical need to recognize the genocide as such, but they did not insist that others use the term before they could discuss the dynamics that led to the deportations and massacres. Likewise, some people freely used the term "genocide," violating the codes of their national community. They did so not because they were forced to use it, but because their own intellectual engagement with the issue allowed them to do it. Other critical questions then could be debated and assessments of sources shared. While nobody ever forgot their nationality, or national ancestry, the biography that marked them as scholars defined their contributions, especially when the discussion moved toward whose history mattered.

    Was that history based on a systematic identification of every abuse Armenians suffered at the hands of Turks over the preceding decades? Did it compare the experiences of Armenians with other peoples in the Ottoman Empire? Was it informed not only by those who read documents in Armenian and Ottoman Turkish, but also those who read the Russian, German, English and other diplomatic sources critical to a complete historiography? Or must that history itself be embedded in a larger history of genocide and holocaust? To be sure, these alternative histories mattered, but what was not disputed was the importance of scholarship in posing and addressing the questions of violence and responsibility.

    As I listened to these scholars move contentious historiographies into dialogue across national boundaries, I was drawn to reconsider the International Institute's last year of work on religion, security and violence across global contexts.[10] Publics and political leaders alike appear increasingly compelled to define questions of security in national terms. Religion sometimes serves more as an anchor for conviction than an aid for moving beyond the conventions of violence. In that light, our university has offered a important space in these times where politically incorrect questions and necessarily complicated answers can be developed in an atmosphere of reason and respect. The variety of Islam's expression and practice can be considered directly. The feasibility of deterring terrorism openly questioned. The historical grounds of global terrorism can be engaged, with superpower and client state complicity directly examined. Theatrical performance can help us experience anew various sensibilities of global loss. Discussions of the local dynamics of ethnic violence in South Asia and the axes of identification and contest in Central Asia also can find informed audiences. The relevance of peace negotiations in Northern Ireland and of the proliferation of small arms trade across the world can be examined in the search for peace after September 11. And within a university, these discussions can lay the groundwork for more sustained research and teaching so that reflection on the most pressing issues defining global futures might be anchored in a more globally resonant imagination.

    The sociological imagination became famous because it promised to connect the "intimate realities of ourselves" with "broader social realities."[11] When the nation is our "broader social reality" we might rest easy with the notion that society is the other side of biography. But for a world more deeply entwined in both trade and violence than any American sociologist could have imagined 40 years ago, political conventions and national histories hardly prepare us for the autobiographies our students will write with their lives. Their life stories will be the better to the extent that we all learn about the variety of ways in which the history of the world is being understood. Indeed, the struggle to write a better history of the events of 1915 might not only offer an important foundation for reconciling Armenian and Turkish conflicts. It might also help us remember how a global future is being made out of very different biographies and histories, and how often violence results from ignorance of those differences.

      1. C. Wright Mills, The Sociological Imagination. London: Oxford University Press, 1959, p.6.return to text

      2. See http://name.umdl.umich.edu/4750978.0009.303return to text

      3. See http://name.umdl.umich.edu/4750978.0009.302return to text

      4. Paul Collier, "Globalization and Conflict: How Can We Build A Safer World?"return to text

      5. See http://name.umdl.umich.edu/4750978.0009.311return to text

      6. Seehttp://name.umdl.umich.edu/4750978.0009.307return to text

      7. See http://name.umdl.umich.edu/4750978.0009.309return to text

      8. See http://name.umdl.umich.edu/4750978.0009.306return to text

      9. See http://name.umdl.umich.edu/4750978.0009.301return to text

      10. See http://www.umich.edu/~iinet/iisite/events/religion_security_violence.html return to text

      11. Wright, p.15.return to text