Sociologist Manuel Castells wins 2012 Holberg Prize

Spanish sociologist Manuel Castells has won this year’s Holberg International Memorial Prize – the ‘Nobel prize’ for the arts and humanities, social sciences, law and theology. A professor at the University of Southern California and other top institutions around the world, Castells earned the award for four decades of compelling analyses of power.

The Holberg prize is worth US$775,000 and is named after 17th Century Norwegian philosopher and historian Ludvig Holberg.

In its citation the prize’s academic committee said: “Manuel Castells is the leading sociologist of the city and new information and media technologies. His ideas and writings have shaped our understanding of the political dynamics of urban and global economies in the network society.

“He has illuminated the underlying power structures of the great technological revolutions of our time and their consequences. He has helped us to understand how social and political movements have co-evolved with the new information technologies.”

Castells is about to complete a book for Oxford University Press on the new youth social movements in North Africa, Europe, Latin America and the United States.

His most recent work Communication Power (2009) analyses the influences of corporate power in politics, culture and society and the role of new media in exerting citizen power through social movements.

The prize committee said: “Castells has taken thinking about ‘the political’ to an entirely new level through his prescient account of the emergence of and interaction between new forms of power in the age of the network society.”

One of his best-known works is the trilogy The Information Age: Economy, society and culture (1996-98), which provided an exhaustive theory of the global information-based society associated with urban networks and media communications.

Earlier books include The City and the Grass Roots (1983), in which Castells studied the city “as the product of conflict between social movements and urban power elites”, and The Urban Question (1972), in which he explained cities in terms of local struggles for political power rather than being driven by markets operating across geographical space.

In an interview with the Holberg Prize, Castells said analysis of power had been the overarching theme of his work. “Power in the city. Power in and by information technology. Power in globalisation. Communication power, that is the power and counter-power built in the media and in the internet networks.

“In terms of specific themes I think that what will remain from my work is to have been able to map out economies, societies and culture at the dawn of the information age, coining the concept of the network society as a key thread to understand the transformations brought about by the digital revolution in interaction with the culture of autonomy, and the globalisation of the economy.”

Born in 1942 and raised primarily in Barcelona, Castells was a student activist in the anti-Franco movement and this involvement forced him to flee Spain. He went to France and, aged 20, obtained a degree and then a doctorate in sociology at the University of Paris.

From 1967 he taught at the University of Paris. Fired from Paris X University Nanterre because of his involvement in the 1968 student protests, he moved in 1970 to the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, where he lectured until 1979.

That year he was appointed with two professorships, in sociology and in city and regional planning, at the University of California – Berkeley, where he taught for 24 years. He remains a professor emeritus at Berkeley.

In 2001 Castells became a research professor at the Open University of Catalonia, and in 2003 he joined the University of Southern California as a professor of communication and the Wallis Annenberg Chair in Communication Technology.

He is also professor of communication at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, and is on the governing board of the European Institute of Innovation and Technology.