The Cosmopolitan Standard of Civilization: A Critical Sociology of Elite Belonging among Indian Diplomats

This talk asks what it takes to belong among the “cosmopolitan elite” in international society. With a reflexive sociological sensibility, it examines the ways in which the career diplomats of the Indian Foreign Service (IFS) have sought to secure recognition and equal standing in international society by inhabiting a cosmopolitan habitus. Instead of analysing cosmopolitanism in the conventional register of political theory, as an egalitarian ethic, the article considers “actually existing cosmopolitanism” as an elite aesthetic. It suggests that the demands of an elite-defined cosmopolitan habitus constitute a new cosmopolitan standard of civilization, imposed on Indian diplomats not by Western fiat but through a process of cultural self-policing. In this process, dominant upper-class and upper-caste members of the IFS uphold a socially performed cosmopolitan standard of civilization against internal Others, including those of lower class and caste status. The performance of the cosmopolitan habitus serves a social function in international society – it is a social strategy by which Indian diplomats seek to find parity inside the global club of cosmopolitans. As such, the performance of the cosmopolitan habitus exposes the unequal rules of elite belonging in a formally pluralistic but socially stratified international society. Ultimately, the exclusionary social logics of “actually existing cosmopolitanism” among Indian diplomats also signify the political failure of cosmopolitanism as an egalitarian ideal.