Book Report

ImageThe Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture

By Manuel Castells (2010)


Manuel Castells’ The Power of Identity, first published in 2007 sets the premise that socioeconomic globalization has sparked the need to develop conflicting identities in order to reestablish meaning in light of the major shortcomings of the neoliberal world order. Castells takes a hybrid social and ethnographic approach to analyze social movements (SMs) through observation with the occasional empirical data to support it. The result is a compilation of definitions, theories, and detailed analysis of various movements to explain the changing social and political orders that are characterizing our era. The first half of the book aims to explain how communes are coping with the demise of patriarchies, new structures of wealth and power, techno-economic globalization, and multiculturalism. The second half reverts to a macro analysis of the greater implications of these processes on existing social and political orders to support the hypothesis that the notion of states opposes globalization.

Chapter 1 begins the discussion with a framework for categorizing and discerning the different processes for identity development. Castells defines identities as people’s source of meaning and experiences which are constructed through social processes that distinguish institutional roles from derived meaning (p.3).  This need for meaning creates a collective identity that creates cultural communes that are based on one of three types of identities: (i) Legitimizing identities are those introduced by dominant institutions to rationalize their dominance and is an essential tool of civil society to force change on the state. (ii) Resistance identities are developed from the need of surviving in the face of pressing social devaluation. This pressure most often leads the creation of new identities known as project identities (iii).

Castells argues that religious fundamentalism, nationalism, ethnic identification, and territorial identification are four key communal processes that are proliferating in our modern society from the need to develop resistance identities to hegemonic institutions. Islamic Salafi Fundamentalism and American Christian Fundamentalism are analyzed separately for their reactive and selective adoption of history and religious text to reinforce their identity and propel a physical movement. Because of this choice selection, it is near impossible to rationalize with people who don’t commit to the same authority (p.13). Both Islamic and Christian extremist subscribe to the belief that the people must return to principle morals but Islamic extremist have mobilized their members if a far more dramatic way.

Nationalism however, was derived by the elite in order to have the masses fight for the nation and in turn has create a bottom-up proto nationalism. Castells is careful to discern the difference between nations and states and calls on readers to recognize that states are a western concept which has been subjected on much of the world. Similarly nationalism is a reactive identity which arises when the state needs defense and must be based on a community of history, destiny, memories, and quasi-familial bonds. Nations are defined as, “cultural communes constructed in people’s minds and collective memory.”  The relationship between states and nations has a number of combinations to include: nations without a state (i.e. Quebec), states without a nation (i.e. Taiwan), pluri-national states (i.e. UK), uni-national states (i.e. Japan), shared nation states (i.e. North and South Korea), and nation sharing states (i.e. the Irish in the UK and Ireland). Castells stresses that language is a powerful element that links private and public life and generates automatic self-recognition of a primitive nation.

Castells views ethnicity to be a less crucial source of meaning and identification in comparison to other cultural elements such as religion, nation, and gender (p. 57). He argues that although race matters it must have other cultural and environmental elements in order to create a meaning from it and gives the example of how African Americans are incapable of creating a comprehensive identity despite facing racism across all socio-economic classes.

Similar to the creation of a national identity, the rise of local spatial identities is also a reactionary response. Castells argues that economic exploitation, cultural domination, and political oppression in light of globalization is sparking unprecedented local identity development in order of protecting dignity at the community level.  

Chapter 2 focuses on five reactionary and resistance movements that have evolved in protest to the modern abstraction of power. Despite having a diverse range of ideologies based on specific cultural, economic, and institutional contexts the five movements of the Zapatistas, the American militia, Aum Shinrikyo, al-Qaeda, the Pro-Justice all successfully created electronic and spatial networks that propagated necessary information. Castells asserts that successful movements act on processes of information sharing to shape the public mind. The two basic channels to do this from include mainstream media and alternative media systems. Each group used information and communications technology (ICTs) to share information to justify their cause and build links across other causes and movements. Once a movement becomes spatial, network consists of the local geography of experience as well as the geography of power.

The following two chapters highlight two of the most prominent proactive, project-based SMs, environmentalism and feminism, in order to define the numerous identities which have formed and evolved in order to enact institutional change. Arguably the strength of both movements has been their flexibility in adapting to the discourse of the time and place which has allowed them to propel other complimentary movements such as social justice movement and the gay and lesbian liberation movements. The environmental movement at its most fundamental level, is data-focused SM that requires the dissemination of scientific information to the masses. Women’s rights on the other hand, is a socio-economic SM which ultimately aims to end patriarchalism.

The end of the patriarchal family is discussed to great length for its role in destabilizing the modern family. Castells highlights the need for a new egalitarian family structure in order to reduce individual anxiety (p. 301). Although new networks of support have developed to support singly parent households, it is still not certain how all role definitions are adapting to the changes and the long-term consequences if communities are unable to find meanings within their new roles.  

The final two chapters focus on the changing nature of sovereignty within the networked society. Castells claims that the trans-national nature of communications, crime, social protest, economics, and terrorism significantly decreases the sovereignty of states as these issues supersede their dominion. The result is that we now have networked states who must share sovereignty for supranational macro-processes but deal with internal stresses and micro-processes at the subnational level. Enhance citizen participation through ICTs has created a new world order of information politics which is generating better informed citizens. Castells proposes the rise of electronic democracy in order to bypass the need for political representatives.

Taken together, Castell’s work presents a seemingly comprehensive analysis of the major sociopolitical changes occurring to the sovereignty of the state, family structure, and individual identity formation. The networked society’s embracement of ICTs has allowed for the success of numerous SMs which are forcing unprecedented change. While these movements cannot be summarized as having a negative or positive impact on society without some level bias, it can be stated that the major changes facing our society will undoubtedly write a new era for humanity.


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