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Giancarlo Quaranta

Giancarlo Quaranta (May 22, 1937 – November 12, 2015) played a key role in the long research path which led to the establishment of Knowledge and Innovation.

His life was characterised by a multiplicity of experiences in fields such as education and citizen participation in governance processes. However, his main commitment was to sociological research, which will be the focus of this short profile.

In the early 1970s, Quaranta’s interests were focused on what would later become the basis of his research, namely the emergence and strengthening of societies characterised by what he referred to as “high social subjectivity”. This expression points to an articulated and complex process, whose importance and contradictory consequences were at that time still ignored or underestimated. It referred to the fact that individuals and social groups were acquiring an ever greater autonomy of thought, choice and action with respect to the constraints imposed by social structures, such as those which emerge in dominant social representations, in recurring patterns of behaviour, in social norms, in forms of social control, until they become embodied in specific social institutions.

According to Quaranta, the transformation of contemporary societies was an inevitable product of industrial modernity, which created the conditions for greater social subjectivity, such as population growth, the rapid rise in educational levels, greater opportunities for common people to access increasingly powerful technologies, previously only available to organized entities (a tendency that at the time was measured by an increase in energy consumption and today more clearly seen in the degree of Internet use, among other things), greater recognition of citizens’ rights and access of individuals to mass consumption.

The first findings of this research were collected in Politica della cultura (1978), in which Quaranta analyses the crisis of the fundamental characteristics of the culture of modernity resulting from the strengthening of mass subjectivity, expressed also politically through broad and increasingly incisive forms of collective action promoted “from below.”

Quaranta conducted his research on this broad process, still in its early stages at that time, from different but interconnected perspectives.

In L’uomo negato (1978), Quaranta analyses the growing role of individuals in the social management of health, which leads him to identify health institutions as one of the areas in which, unexpectedly, the comprehensive recognition of citizens’ rights comes into play. This analysis forms the basis for the establishment of the Tribunal of Patients’ Rights, which led to the first Report on the status of the rights of citizens in the Italian Health System (1992).

In Potere giovanile (1978, 1980) and Veniamo da lontano (1978, 1981), Quaranta deals with two other fundamental issues raised in the transition to a society characterized by “high social subjectivity”, namely the growing social and cultural autonomy of young people and the explosive systemic impact of the progressive and inevitable emancipation of women from any kind of social subordination.

In Associazione invisibile (1982), he undertakes a broad country-wide empirical study to identify the social subjectivity emerging within Catholic youth groups not linked to major national associations. This leads him to tackle questions raised by the relations between modernity and religion from an original perspective.

The book contains a foreword by Peter Berger and an introduction by Thomas Luckmann, two sociologists who, like Quaranta, rejected the then dominant theory of an ongoing process of secularization due to modernization processes. They saw, on the contrary, the emergence of new religious forms, less visible and organized, but just as powerful, closely linked to the transitions from modernity to so-called post-modernity.

In the same period, Quaranta adopted a more general perspective to look at the positive and negative impacts that these profound phenomena of social change could have on the governance of contemporary societies. In Governabilità e democrazia diretta (1981) and in Federatività (1984), he systematically analyses the impact of social subjectivity on political dynamics, envisaging solutions based on the progressive integration between the mechanisms of representative democracy and emerging, and often uncontrolled, forms of direct democracy. These theories led to the establishment of the Federative Democratic Movement (later Cittadinanzattiva), and long inspired its strategic goals.

These studies (conducted together with many of the researchers who afterwards would collaborate with him in setting up Knowledge and Innovation) were linked theoretically in L’era dello sviluppo (1986). Here the interpretative horizon is extended in time and space, as Quaranta looks at the long-term social processes that led to the emergence and consolidation of the modern state, and eventually to its current crisis. He no longer confines himself to western societies but, in a context of increasing globalization, expands his analysis to include the complex dynamics between advanced and developing societies.

In this period, theoretical research and empirical research are conducted in tandem with epistemological reflection. In fact, Quaranta begins to reflect on the capacity of the social sciences, and sociology in particular, to account for such widespread, deep and complex phenomena.

Between 1980 and 1983, he promotes seminars on the epistemology of human sciences, attended by some of the most renowned researchers of those years (such as the anthropologists Edward T. Hall and Ioan M. Lewis, the historian George Mosse, the philosophers of science Patrick Suppes and Leszek Nowak).

Subsequently, in the context of the Istituto di Studi Avanzati di Rocca di Papa, he promotes further epistemological studies to address the crisis of scientific thought and to analyse its effects on social sciences. Dating back to these years is also Quaranta’s interest in the phenomenology of knowledge, seen as the best way to access the study of human subjectivity since it reduces the risk of producing distortions or running into forms of reductionism.

Over the next few years his interests fanned out to include different areas of investigation, all related to the same research program, which was then formalised in books written by or edited by Quaranta, often in conjunction with other authors, or in which there is an original contribution by him.

These areas include:

  • The role of urbanization in the growth of social subjectivity, especially in developing countries (Rapport ville-campagne dans le cadre des politiques pour le développement, 1986) and in globalization processes (Il ritorno della città, 2000);
  • The processes of social integration of skilled migrants and migration (L’integrazione possibile, 2002);
  • An analysis of the theme of health from a global perspective (Per una interdipendenza attiva tra Nord e Sud del pianeta, special issue of Salute e Società, no. 3/2002);
  • Poverty and social exclusion, seen also in relation to the increased capacity for action of those exposed to them, as compared to the past (Esclusione sociale e povertà, 2005);
  • Social transformations taking place in Africa, interpreted also in the light of post-industrial modernity (Società africane, 2005)
  • The interactions between science and society, the development of scientific citizenship and, especially, the increasing role played by technology in boosting the capacity for action and cultural development of individuals and social groups (Manuale sui processi di socializzazione della ricerca scientifica e tecnologica, 2005; Knowledge, responsibility and culture: food for thought on science communication, JCOM 6, 2007).

In his later years, Quaranta’s efforts focused on producing a synthesis of the numerous theoretical and empirical findings he had presented over time. As always, he worked along both epistemological and theoretical lines.

As regards the epistemological dimension, Quaranta sought to develop a new profile of sociological research, one capable of taking into account the deepest dynamics of human reality, such as ethology, psychoanalysis, cognitive and affective dimensions. This work also reflected his preference for an interdisciplinary approach oriented to the construction of a “common” field of sciences, one that did not lead to the sort of theoretical plateau produced by different disciplines but which could highlight specific contributions.

As for the theoretical dimension, Quaranta explored the possibility of adopting an evolutionary perspective to re-read the phenomena of change produced by broader social subjectivity. His aim was to look at the countless stress situations characteristic of contemporary societies not as mere signs of crisis but rather as the expression of an increased capacity of the human species to penetrate and incorporate, into the circuit of social life, dimensions of reality that had previously been inaccessible to knowledge and, consequently, without any shared or shareable social meaning.

Consider, for example, the expansion of virtual reality, the increased capacity for interventions through artefacts at the nanometre scale, the increasing possibility of being able to affect biochemical processes and thus life, the prospects for the understanding of cognitive, perceptual and affective phenomena emerging from new neuro-cognitive methods, the strengthening of creative and interpretive capacities made possible by the constant development of IT tools, greater knowledge of the universe and the underlying dynamics linked to space and time.

It is only now that these dimensions are being fully opened up to social life and, therefore, to the action of social subjectivity, producing unprecedented phenomena, the consequences of which, Quaranta says, sociology must learn to recognize, interpret and anticipate, in terms of both positive potential and risks.