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Giancarlo Quaranta

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

His life was marked by a variety of experiences in fields such as education and citizen participation in governance processes. However, his main commitment was to sociological research, which is the focus of this brief profile.

In the early 1970s, Quaranta’s interests focused on what would become the basis of his research: the emergence and consolidation of societies characterised by what he called “high social subjectivity”. This term referred to an articulated and complex process whose importance and contradictory consequences were still ignored or underestimated at the time. It referred to the fact that individuals and social groups were acquiring an increasing autonomy of thought, choice and action in relation to the constraints imposed by social structures, as expressed in dominant social representations, in recurrent patterns of behaviour, in social norms, in forms of social control 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 increase in the level of education, greater opportunities for ordinary people to access increasingly powerful technologies that had previously been available only to organised entities (a tendency that was roughly measured at the time by the increase in energy consumption per person and is now more clearly seen, among other things, in the level of Internet use), greater recognition of citizens’ rights, and individual access to mass consumption.

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

Quaranta explored this broad process, then still in its infancy, from different but interrelated perspectives.

In L’uomo negato (1978), Quaranta analysed the growing role of the individual in the social management of health, which leads him to identify health institutions as one of the areas in which the full recognition of citizenship rights unexpectedly comes into play. This analysis formed the basis for the creation of the Tribunal of Patients’ Rights, which led to the first report on the status of citizens’ rights in the Italian health system (1992).

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

In L’Associazione invisibile (1982), he carried out an extensive empirical study throughout Italy to identify the social subjectivity that emerged within Catholic youth groups that were not affiliated to large national associations. This led him to approach the questions raised by the relationship 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 secularisation due to processes of modernisation. On the contrary, they saw the emergence of new religious forms, less visible and less organised, but just as powerful, closely linked to the transitions from modernity to so-called postmodernity.

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

These studies (carried out with many of the researchers who would later collaborate with him in the creation of Knowledge and Innovation) were theoretically linked in L’era dello sviluppo (1986). Here the interpretive horizon is widened in time and space, as Quaranta considers the long-term social processes that led to the emergence and consolidation of the modern state, and ultimately to its current crisis. No longer confined to Western societies, he extends his analysis, in the context of increasing globalisation, to the complex dynamics between advanced and developing societies.

In this period, theoretical and empirical research was carried out in parallel with epistemological reflection. Indeed, Quaranta began to reflect on the capacity of the social sciences, and sociology in particular, to explain such widespread, profound and complex phenomena.

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

Later, in the context of the Istituto di Studi Avanzati di Rocca di Papa, he promoted other epistemological studies to address the crisis of scientific thought and to analyse its impact on the social sciences. These years also saw Quaranta’s interest in the phenomenology of knowledge, which he considered the best way to approach the study of human subjectivity, since it limited the risk of producing distortions or falling into forms of reductionism.

In the years that followed, his interests spread to various fields of investigation, all linked to the same research programme, which was then formalised in books written or edited by Quaranta, often in collaboration with other authors, or in which he made an original contribution.

These areas include:

  • The role of urbanisation in the growth of social subjectivity, especially in developing countries (Rapport ville-campagne dans le cadre des politiques pour le développement, 1986) and in globalisation processes (Il ritorno della città, 2000);
  • The processes of social integration of skilled migrants and migration (L’integrazione possibile, 2002);
  • An analysis 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, also in relation to the increased capacity for action of those exposed to them compared to the past (Esclusione sociale e povertà, 2005);
  • Social transformations taking place in Africa, also interpreted in the light of post-industrial modernity (Società africane, 2005).
  • The interactions between science and society, the development of scientific citizenship and, in particular, the increasing role of technology in the empowerment 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 many theoretical and empirical findings he had presented over time. As always, he worked along both epistemological and theoretical lines.

With regard to the epistemological dimension, Quaranta sought to develop a new profile of sociological research 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 aimed at the construction of a “common field of sciences”, which would not lead to the kind of theoretical plateau produced by different disciplines, but which could highlight specific contributions.

With regard to the theoretical dimension, Quaranta explored the possibility of adopting an evolutionary perspective in order to re-read the phenomena of change produced by a broader social subjectivity. His aim was to see the myriad stress situations characteristic of contemporary societies not as mere signs of crisis, but rather as the expression of an increased capacity on the part of the human species to penetrate and integrate into the cycle of social life dimensions of reality that were previously inaccessible to knowledge and, consequently, without any common or shared social meaning.

Think, for example, of the expansion of virtual reality, the increased capacity for intervention by means of artefacts at the nanometre scale, the growing possibility of influencing biochemical processes and thus life, the prospects for understanding cognitive, perceptual and affective phenomena offered by new neurocognitive methods, the strengthening of creative and interpretive capacities made possible by the constant development of IT tools, greater knowledge of the universe and its underlying dynamics linked to space and time.

It is only now that these dimensions are being fully opened up to social life and thus to the action of social subjectivity, giving rise to new phenomena, the consequences of which, according to Quaranta, sociology must learn to recognise, interpret and anticipate, in terms of both positive potential and unprecedented risks.