This workshop provides the opportunity to pool intellectual resources and develop expertise in the theoretical and empirical possibilities of cosmopolitanism as a concept for historical analysis and as an historical subject itself.

In 2000 Dipesh Chakrabarty was among a number of scholars who initiated a general discussion about the significance of cosmopolitanism for the study of the past as well as the present (Public Culture 12.3 (2000) 577-589, later published with Duke University Press, 2002). These scholars posited that ‘the nature of late-twentieth-century nationalism, multiculturalism, and the globalisation of late liberalism has created a historical context for reconsidering concepts of cosmopolitanism.’ They also stated: ‘We are not exactly certain what it is, and figuring out why this is so and what cosmopolitanism may be raises difficult conceptual issues. As a practice, too, cosmopolitanism is yet to come, something awaiting realization.’

Cosmopolitanism has since emerged as a major field of social inquiry, particularly in response to some of the tensions (or inadequacies) within such concepts as ‘globalisation’, nationalism, and sovereignty. Indeed, as a theoretical concept, cosmopolitanism is being drawn upon to invoke alternative political and social strategies for dealing with the problems of xenophobia and the status of migrants and asylum seekers in national contexts. The current understanding of the term cosmopolitanism is broad and largely defined in terms of the opportunity to break free from old dualisms of domestic/foreign or national/international in thinking about the relationship of identity to sovereignty, and modes of political organisation. In the discipline of history, work on the topic is currently in its infancy. The aim of this workshop is to bring the resurgence of interest in cosmopolitanism among social scientists working in political philosophy, anthropology and social theory, into dialogue with historical scholarship.

Based on our reading of the current discussions in the social sciences, the convenors of this workshop also believe that ‘cosmopolitanism’ can open a rich vein of enquiry into the past, and that new understanding of the past has relevance for present configurations of society, and of the relationship between identity and sovereignty. This is the reason for assembling this workshop.

This workshop provides the opportunity to pool intellectual resources and develop expertise in the theoretical and empirical possibilities of cosmopolitanism as a concept for historical analysis and as an historical subject itself. As described in section 2 (below), the workshop will approach this objective by addressing five major themes which are, briefly: histories of the idea; subjectivities and identification; cosmopolitanism and nationalism; vernacular cosmopolitanisms; and, cosmopolitanism in relation to trans-national connections.

The workshop brings together early career academics with established researchers in the social sciences. Each of the participants is currently engaged in research projects that provide a useful reference point from which to explore cosmopolitanism. The projects broadly cover the following areas: comparative studies of modernity, the history and philosophy of ideas, nationalism, modern indigenous political cultures, European political thought, biography, linguistics, gender and trans-national histories.

Specific emphasis of the workshop is on the historical meanings of cosmopolitanism, and for this reason, many of the participants have a background in history, or incorporate the historical in their disciplinary approaches. Of the historians, many also have an interdisciplinary expertise in other social science disciplines, such as sociology, political philosophy and anthropology. The participants’ expertise also covers the broad geographical areas of Europe, North America, Asia, the Middle East, and Australia, thus offering opportunities to move beyond a Euro-centric viewpoint. This extensive geographical coverage means that the idea can be interrogated and examined as it arises in societies other than European ones, and especially its emergence in settler and postcolonial societies.

By bringing these social scientists together our overall aim is to renovate the meanings of national culture and international attachment and explore different versions of transnational thought, and question moral and political norms. We conceive of this workshop as the basis for a larger project to develop existing resources for studying histories of cosmopolitanism, and for bringing together historians to reflect and publish on cosmopolitanism as an idea and practice, among women as well as men, in Australian, African-American, European, Asian, early modern and modern history.

Underpinning this project is an innovative methodological interest in the theoretical and experiential intersections of the ‘history of ideas’ and ‘social history’. We aim to explore and develop our understanding of the term cosmopolitanism, and its potential for our own work. We will report on the outcomes of this workshop by publishing a collection of essays with the series, ‘Critical histories in subjectivity and culture’ (see below), and working towards the establishment of an international social sciences research network in the study of cosmopolitanism.