Power and Counter Power in Europe. The Transnational Structuring of Social Spaces and Social Fields

  • Susanne PernickaEmail author
  • Christian Lahusen

Macht und Gegenmacht in Europa. Die transnationale Strukturierung sozialer Räume und sozialer Felder

1 Introduction

This special issue addresses processes of European integration and disintegration in times of crisis. Since the late 2000s, the European Union (EU) has not only faced several critical challenges, such as the Great Recession or the strong inflow of refugees in 2015/2016, it is also experiencing institutional shocks and governance crises arising from the inability of the EU to generate sustainable solutions to these challenges. Hence, Eurocritical debates, political mobilisations, anti-EU parties and not least the Brexit-referendum in 2016 have raised questions about the European idea. These developments call for a better understanding of the social underpinnings of the European Union, and thus for more sociological analyses. In fact, the processes of European integration and disintegration are not only guided and patterned by political cleavages, conflicts and bargains between EU Member States, key stakeholders and corporate actors. These processes also have a strong societal component, because citizens throughout Europe attribute their living conditions and prospects to the European Union’s merits or failures and its missions, and have increased their readiness to express their discontent with their governments and EU institutions on the streets and at the ballot boxes. Hence, scholars must find reliable evidence on the societal preconditions, impacts and implications of European integration and disintegration processes, and then analyse the social underpinnings of current political conflicts within the EU.

The focus on the societal component of European integration and disintegration is highly relevant because of evidence from previous studies about the impact of European unification on European societies. European integration has not only increased the political, legal, economic and social interactions across borders, it has also opened up and restructured national social spaces and social fields (e. g., the European Common Market, the European Research Area and Higher Education Area, the Common European Asylum System), and it has intensified the interrelations and interdependencies between regional or national markets, laws, political institutions and ways of life. These changes strongly shape the living conditions and life trajectories of European citizens. In addition, Europeanisation processes have contributed to new transnational social hierarchies, power relations and practices of distinction; these new social relations have their own specific repercussions on the perceptions, attitudes and valuations of social inequalities. These changes do not only refer to the status and power relations between collective or corporate actors within and between different Member States (e. g., the organisations of capital and labour, welfare authorities and associations), they also relate to the resources, the social status, the reputation and influence of social groups and strata within the social structure. The example of the most recent financial and euro crises might illustrate the role of changing power relations induced by Europeanisation and transnationalisation processes. Within the global field of power, the EU has a new type of regional authority (Bach 2008; Schmitz and Witte 2015). With its newly established European Economic Governance (Martin 2014), the EU assumed new competences that weakened national parliaments (Münch 2014, p. 38). The shift in authority also has an impact on social inequalities within and between countries of the European centre and periphery, as well as between elites and ordinary people; these inequalities have led to new tensions, social conflicts and cleavages. This special issue refers to this “double dualisation of European societies” (Heidenreich 2016) as a result of contested and changing institutions, boundaries and practices of social spaces and social fields.

Inspired by Pierre Bourdieu and more recent variants of sociological neo-institutionalism, this issue seeks to develop a space- and field-specific conception of contested “horizontal” Europeanisation processes and to present empirical evidence from selected research areas (European asylum administration, EU research funding, the academic field, employment relations, wage inequality, Euroscepticism and civic solidarity). It focusses on field-specific dynamics, multiple spatial scales and social structural causes and consequences of European integration and disintegration that have lead to the emergence of a unique social space between the national and global levels (Heidenreich et al. 2012). This focus builds on previous research about the construction of the European Union, but in one decisive respect seeks to examine new issues. Scholars have convincingly argued that the European Union has established a complex intergovernmental and supranational multi-level system (Bache and Flinders 2003); this system has spurred processes of “vertical Europeanisation” that presses for convergences by uploading and downloading policy agendas, policy ideas, and legal regulations (see Radaelli 2003; Börzel and Risse 2009; Graziano and Maarten 2007). However, less attention has been paid to the societal processes within this “Europeanised” space. We assume that the EU has helped establish or extend social fields of contentions in many areas (e. g., economy, bureaucracy, higher education, research) based on ‘horizontal’ relations of cooperation, competition and conflict. Collective and individual actors now belong to cross-national fields of action, within which their own resources, their own status and influence, and their own prospects depend on the situation and the “moves” of others. Field-theory thus focuses more strongly on “horizontal” relations of interdependency and interaction and their potential impact on processes of integration and disintegration. In developing a distinctive analytical perspective on horizontal Europeanisation (Heidenreich et al. 2012; Mau 2015; Lahusen and Pernicka 2016), this issue goes beyond conventional European studies as found in the academic disciplines of political science, law and public administration. While those disciplines primarily address top-down and bottom-up processes of Europeanisation and concentrate on political institutions and actors, this issue presents studies that use a sociological perspective to consider the interrelations and interdependencies of “the people” and organisational actors (Bach et al. 2006).

2 Social space within and beyond Europe

The social world is a multi-dimensional social space that, according to Bourdieu (1989), can be analysed as a social space of relations between objective positions (in the sense of a social topography) and subjective position takings; i. e. by virtue of their social position, agents have particular perspectives on this social reality. Even if Bourdieu primarily focussed on the national social space, his earlier analysis of premodern societies and his later works on globalisation suggest that the concept of social space can also be applied to the European space. Bourdieu primarily considered the structure of the “social space” and how social positions imposed opportunities and constraints on individuals. Building upon our previous observations, we intend to emphasise that a nation-state’s borders no longer contain this social space, but it is now reorganised within transnational, European and/or global spaces. The Europeanised labour markets, educational systems or consumption markets now condition the social-structural position of national citizens in terms of labour and income, educational attainment and credentials, living conditions and life-styles. These changes provide specific opportunities to some and impose constraints on others.

We consider the social space of objective relations as structured by the distribution of resources ‘which are or may become active, effective, like aces in a game of cards, in the competition for the appropriation of scarce goods of which this social universe is the site’ (Bourdieu 1989, p. 17). These sociological analyses seek to empirically validate whether a cross-national frame of reference reveals a rearrangement of the provision and distribution of resources. If this is the case, we must assume particular consequences on the social forces (competitions, conflicts, co-operations, etc.) active within such a Europeanised space. Bourdieu noted: “Inasmuch as the properties selected are active properties, one can also describe it as a field of forces, i. e., as a set of objective power relations that impose themselves on all who enter the field and that are irreducible to the intentions of the individual agents or even to the direct interactions among agents” (Bourdieu 1985a, p. 724). The Maastricht Treaty, for instance, lays the legal foundation for a European space of the free movement of capital, people, goods and services. However, this legal field is complemented by transnational economic, political, cultural and social institutions and practices that have constituted a social space of objective relations with its particular boundaries and power relations. For instance, economic integration has had severe impacts on Member States, because the competition enshrined in the European Common Market and the European Monetary Union produces winners and losers, centres and peripheries. While European integration thus establishes a social space of interdependencies and (competitive, conflictual) interrelations, it also erects outside borders. The increasing inflow of refugees from war zones into the EU since the summer of 2015 serves as an example for the effects of a social space as an “ensemble of objective forces” (Bourdieu 1985b, p. 10) that faces people who move between different social and geographic spaces. As soon as migrants cross the boundaries of the European social space, they are fully subject to its structural forces that determine their social positions and existential consequences of their status (for instance, their citizenship becomes a decisive factor in their position as asylum seekers or economic refugees). Financial resources might facilitate their travel to Europe; however, economic capital is of no value when translating one’s resources into a residence permit or citizenship in the European Union. Also, credentials and qualifications obtained in their countries of origin receive only limited recognition and only serve refugees as cultural capital under particular conditions within European social fields. Finally, some asylum seekers might possess social capital in their countries of destination, because relatives or friends have already settled there. However, this form of social capital has largely lost its value due to the closure of national borders and the eventual redistribution of asylum seekers amongst EU Member States; processes that cannot be influenced by individual refugees (Weiß 2005; Nohl et al. 2014). The possession of economic, cultural and social capital and, most importantly, the perception and recognition of its legitimacy therefore essentially determines one’s (power) position and room for manoeuvre within European social space.

This brings us to social space’s subjective side manifested in the schemes of perception and appreciation, especially inscribed in language itself, according to which social groups stage and legitimise their lifestyle and social status and thus try to secure symbolic power (Bourdieu 1982, 1989, p. 20). This understanding of symbolic power as resources that reflect, constitute, maintain, and change social hierarchies most clearly reflects Bourdieu’s claim that power is a force that pervades all human relations (Swartz 2013). However, Bourdieu’s analyses of the French social space and a variety of social fields (such as academic, cultural, journalistic and bureaucratic fields) explained how social status groups and hierarchies reproduce rather than how they change. Moreover, he focused on fields within a nation-state, thus disregarding how European integration and disintegration can alter the social status and symbolic power of social groups. This poses the question of whether and how different status groups distinguish themselves symbolically in transnational social space and thus contribute to (new) normative and cultural power structures. In their study on everyday practices across national borders, Delhey et al. (2015) provide evidence for a class-based explanation of transnational activities such as studying abroad, making friends and interacting with work colleagues in foreign countries. Even if scholars contest the issue of forming social classes beyond the nation-state (Hooge and Marks 2009; Medrano 2011), the previously mentioned study reveals that socio-economic inequalities provide an important predictor for the scope of transnational interactions and practices. Also, Büttner and Mau (2010, p. 284) show that well-endowed status groups and national regions exhibit a higher intensity and scope of transnational exchange and experiences than poorly endowed groups and regions. The ability to flexibly cope with national boundaries and to create transnational friendships and colleagues in other countries increasingly becomes a valuable source of social capital and a distinction for already well-endowed social groups (Weiß 2006; Gerhards and Lengfeld 2015). However, little research has been done on the relationship, across national spaces, between objective social positions and legitimate visions of the social world (symbolic power). Moreover, available evidence suggests that the European social space has symbolic power relations that are contested. On the one hand, we have indications that social elites still reproduce themselves primarily within a national frame of reference (e. g., educational credentials, career patterns; Hartmann 2007), which implies competition between various national elites about the opportunities provided by the EU for personal advancement and group-specific legitimation of lifestyles and aspirations. On the other hand, the increasingly tense conflicts between losers and winners of the current economic and social developments within the EU intensifies the anti-elitist mobilisations of so-called populist movements and parties, which might have an impact on the symbolic power of the social strata oriented towards transnationalism.

3 Power and authority, new forms of statehood

As previously mentioned, we understand that all social relations have been permeated by power and authority, i. e., power considered legitimate by all affected by it. However, Bourdieu identified distinct arenas of struggle over power and called them fields within which conflicts occur over the recognition, valuation and distribution of various forms of capital. Within social fields, different forms of capital become both the means for and the object of struggle (Swartz 2013, p. 126). Bourdieu sees the fields of power, both the political field and the state, as particular arenas of struggle in which various capitals concentrate (Swartz 2013, p. 4). Besides economic, cultural and social capital, we have already identified symbolic capital as a form of power that enables the imposition of a particular social perspective and the action of social groups, i. e., both already established groups such the economically dependent proletariat (or precariat, as it would be called nowadays) and groups that have yet to be constituted (e. g., groups of professionals who compete over EU funding) (Bourdieu 1989, p. 3). In modern differentiated societies, symbolic and classificatory power tends to be concentrated in the nation-state. However, compared to conflicts inside and across social fields within national boundaries, the transnational social space has much more complex and complicated power struggles. They potentially include different national, supranational and international authorities as well as a variety of powerful corporate actors and transnational elites with their own interests and ideas (Kauppi and Madsen 2013). All these actors struggle over the monopoly of legitimate symbolic violence, i. e., the power to constitute and to impose a common set of coercive norms as universal and universally applicable within the boundaries of a given territory (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992, p. 112).

While—by continuing to follow Bourdieu—we emphasise the fundamentally arbitrary character of any political and social order, previous struggles have provided existing social authorities with material and symbolic power that limit historical openness. Previous political science research has primarily considered institutionalised forms of symbolic power and has shown that state-based forms of power have been firmly established at both the national and supranational level. In this sense, the European Union can be viewed—in relation to state-building processes throughout history—as a newly evolved structure of authority with a very specific institutional form of exerting material and symbolic power. Over the last decades, the EU has concentrated executive, legislative and judicial powers, while national parliaments have been weakened. Against the background of the most recent financial and euro crises, European executive authorities, such as the European Commission, the European Council and the European Central Bank, have been further strengthened (Schulten and Müller 2015, p. 331). More recent Europeanisation studies with strong ties to Bourdieu’s social theory, such as the Strasbourg School, have traced the formation of new social spheres created around the “European project” and EU institutions (Kauppi 2013). These spheres gained particular attention because they involve the evolution of relatively autonomous European fields of power, with struggles over the “rules of the game” in other fields. These fields are a social and political reality that attracts whoever wants to shape the political, economic or social events within the EU at large, but also within their own regions or countries, given that the latter have become part and parcel of this wider field of contentions. In this sense, the European space alters the cleavages and contentions within each Member State by mobilising, for instance, fervent supporters of a European-wide liberalisation of markets, proponents of European standards of social protection or promotors of a Eurosceptic renationalisation of competencies and policies.

From a sociological perspective, it is crucial to stress that these European fields of power do not only include institutional actors (governments, public authorities, courts, etc.), but also corporate and collective actors and their transnational networks and associations, business lobbies, trade unions and professional groups that struggle over various sources of power that range from economic capital (e. g., the European Round Table of Industrialists), cultural capital (e. g., certain academic professions) to distinct forms of social capital (e. g., networks of employers or labour unions and social movements) (Kauppi and Madsen 2013, p. 9). In this sense, national contentions about the access to power and legitimacy have become—directly or indirectly, explicitly or implicitly—also European contentions.

Behind this development, we see one important driving force, namely the establishment of the European system of governance and, as a result, the ever closer fusion of national and European political and bureaucratic fields. As suggested by Wessels (1997) and Bach (1999), Georgakakis and Rowell (2013), the building of the European Community and the subsequent European Union has generated a European bureaucracy (the so-called Eurocracy) that creates new transnational fields in various policy areas. The scholars examine different status groups within Eurocracy and their career patterns, networks and their anchoring in national fields. They provide an in-depth perspective on the selection processes of bureaucrats and enlighten the particular socialisation and consecration processes in European bureaucratic and political fields. However, Europeanised fields go beyond the ambit of the EU institutions and the European public service (Gengnagel 2014, pp. 300 f). They include the wider field of European public policy shaped by interest groups, think tanks, professional associations and civil society organisations in Brussels and the various capitals of Europe (Greenwood 1997; Lahusen 2004; Kohler-Koch and Quittkat 2013). These fields also include the European Member States where, for instance, EU-related professionals (Büttner and Mau 2014) have new forms of occupation with distinct tasks and responsibilities, forms of knowledge and resources. These fields have evolved against the background of the expanding involvement of private and non-state actors in political governance and the increasingly important professions such as knowledge producers and knowledgeable practitioners.1 Sociologists using the neo-institutional approach classify the professionals’ role as so-called ‘disinterested cultural others’ and identify their authority in (re)producing and enhancing particular models that define and legitimate agendas for action while delegitimising others (Meyer and Jepperson 2000; Bernhard and Münch 2011, p. 173).

4 Power and counter-power in the transnational restructuring of social fields and social spaces

In emphasising the relationship between social positions rather than the substance of the social positions, Bourdieu developed a conception of power and authority that allows a deeper understanding not only of the dominant social classes but also of the dominated groups in society and the various power relations between them (Bourdieu 1997). In contrast to simple conceptions of governance, theories that consider the relation between fields allow the close study of power elites (Kauppi and Madsen 2013) as well as less powerful actors and their struggles over the control and distribution of valued resources; this perspective reveals distinct mechanisms of power and domination. In comparison to Michael Mann (1990, p. 7), who claims that “[t]he masses comply because they lack collective organisation to do otherwise [and] because they are embedded within collective and distributive power organisations controlled by others” (see also Popitz 1968), Bourdieu points to the contribution that various forms of symbolic power or violence make to the reproduction and transformation of structures of domination (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992, p. 15).

To analyse European integration and disintegration processes and their interconnectedness with power and counter-power, it is necessary to examine the relations between the larger transnational social space and the various fields (e. g., economy, bureaucracy, research, higher education). This agenda has two implications. On the one hand, we see the need to consider the various Member States as embedded within a transnational space, largely delimited by the institutional fabric of the EU, its regulations and the related discourses about the European project and idea. In this sense, an analysis of local or national contentions must also consider them as part and parcel of European contentions. On the other hand, we need to stress that within this larger space of interdependencies, interrelations and discourses, we witness the establishment of transnational fields devoted to specific issues and tasks (e. g., administrating asylum applications, funding scientific research, shaping public opinion through media, providing particular services, etc.), which thus attract all public and private actors having a stake in these fields. If we conceive of Europe along these lines, then an ensemble of fields of forces, individual and collective actors endowed with various capitals come to the fore. Whether deliberately or not, these political actors—including large corporations, the media and civil society organisations—shape and influence institutions and help form relatively autonomous social fields in transnational social space. Particular social spaces are understood as autonomous social fields that can generate their own rules of functioning, their own principles of evaluation, their own institutions, their own mechanisms of legitimation and recognition, their own systems of classification and, thereby, their own structures of relative positions (Hilgers et al. 2015, p. 184). A social field’s increasing autonomy has closure effects that help form a field-specific elite, dominant belief systems and practices to be protected from (heterodox) influences external to the field.

The experiences with the various crises show however, that these developments have an unclear direction and are far from being linear and continuous. In fact, integration and disintegration seem to occur simultaneously, meaning that progress in building the European Union generates reactions and oppositions, while the increasingly contentious political debates and negotiations at the EU-level happen alongside attempts to reshape institutions and reinvigorate commitments. The concept of social fields allows the analysis of this intricate relationship between integration and disintegration, of institutionalisation and deinstitutionalisation of power relations, because it focuses on relational forces within a given arena of social interdependencies and interactions. This analytical framework helps to identify two important research assumptions. Firstly, European social fields result from ongoing processes of institutionalisation and deinstitutionalisation in the sense of creating, changing or destroying field-specific rules, norms and cultural cognitive schemes. Secondly, institutionalisation processes are determined by powerful individual and collective actors. However, these actors depend on material and symbolic power to maintain and legitimise their claims and their influence; thus, the actors face ongoing contentions. In this sense, in times of changing interpretative patterns, routines, communication practices and networks, the actors face the possibility of both latent and explicit transformations because the “consensus” serving as the foundation of the current European project needs to be reinvigorated by “the people”.

This special issue contains seven original contributions, four of which address the restructuring of social fields in Europe with their particular power-relations, boundaries and practices (asylum administration, research funding, academic fields and employment relations) and three articles focus on cleavages, conflicts and cooperation in European social space (wage structure, Euroscepticism and transnational solidarity). In their contribution “EASO Support Office or Asylum Authority? Boundary Disputes in the European Field of Asylum Administration” Stephanie Schneider and Caroline Nieswandt analyse the contested role and position of the European Asylum Support Office, which despite its limited staff and financial resources manifests the enduring conflicts of recognition, valuation, and distribution in a Europeanised administration of asylum seekers. Besides these struggles, the authors find evidence of a transnational field in Europe of asylum bureaucracy with its own beliefs and principles of valuation including a strong belief in disinterested, apolitical bureaucratic rules and expertise. Sebastian Büttner, Steffen Mau, Katharina Zimmermann and Ole Oeltjen organise their analysis of EU research funding around Bourdieu’s notion of the power of nomination and, accordingly, call their contribution “The Power of Nomination and Vocabulary of EU-Governance”. The authors demonstrate that with this relatively “soft” form of symbolic power exerted by the use of a specific language and vocabulary, the European Union’s research framework programmes can have a considerable impact not only on the cognitions and practices of scientific researchers but also on the inclusion and (self-)exclusion in terms of (successful) program applications. With their contribution entitled “Academic Autonomy Beyond the Nations-State: The Social Sciences and Humanities in the European Research Council”, Christian Baier and Vincent Gengnagel seek to better understand the contestations over academic autonomy and heteronomy in an emerging transnational European arena established by the European Research Council. Their analysis of the mission statements of successful ERC Starting Grant projects in the social sciences and humanities as well as the neuro-science and psychology reveal a clear pattern of self-representations in these two subfields. The social sciences and humanities tend towards more non-academic influences than neuro-science and psychology; this indicates a weaker position of the social sciences and humanities within the European academic field and thus mirrors their dominated position within national academic fields. In their contribution entitled “The Restructuring of National Wage Setting Fields between Transnational Competition and Coordination”, Susanne Pernicka, Vera Glassner and Nele Dittmar explore the driving forces of wage-setting institutions in social services. They identify how power relations and the state of field boundaries and practices on various spatial scales can be decisive forces of change or continuity in wage-setting institutions. While Austria’s national collective bargaining fields helped create a sub-field of wage bargaining in social services, actors in the transnational field, such as multinational companies, have helped reproduce Germany’s fragmented and contested wage-setting institutions in social services. In their contribution “Wage Developments in the Public Sector: A Key issue of European Austerity Policies?”, Sven Broschinski, Jenny Preunkert and Martin Heidenreich explore the impact of the EU crisis and austerity policies on public sector salaries and employment structures. Their quantitative analysis of EU-SILC data shows that these external forces do not directly translate into employment and wage effects but are mediated by institutionalised power relations in public sector fields. Charlotte Galpin and Hans-Jörg Trenz address, in their contribution “The Spiral of Euroscepticism: EU News and Media Negativity”, the role of the media in shaping Eurosceptic attitudes and driving opposition to the EU. By comparing Germany and the UK, the authors investigate the extent to which news coverage of the EU suffers from a systematic bias towards negativity and conclude that a negative bias in the media has helped delegitimise the European integration project. Christian Lahusen, Maria Kousis, Ulrike Zschache and Angelos Loukakis, finally, deal with civil society organisations engaged in solidarity practices in Greece and Germany. Their findings show that most organisations remain active primarily at the local level, and that only a minority of them is involved in cross-national activities. European activities are associated with organisations maintaining a web of transnational partners and a more politicised mission. This testifies that cross-national activism can develop at the grass-roots level on the basis of a transnational organisational field that is not necessarily dependent on the supra- and intergovernmental field of European governance.


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Copyright information

© Springer Fachmedien Wiesbaden GmbH, ein Teil von Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institut für Soziologie, Abteilung Wirtschafts- und OrganisationssoziologieJohannes Kepler Universität LinzLinzAustria
  2. 2.Philosophische FakultätUniversität SiegenSiegenGermany

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