Martin-Luther-Universität Halle-Wittenberg

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Society and Culture in Motion

Diffusion - Experiment - Institution

At the centre of the research cluster Society and Culture in Motion (SCM) is the study of the motion – and consequently also the persistency – of people, ideas, artefacts, and models in international contemporary and historical contexts. This involves changing societal configurations when they can be interpreted as the results of moving ideas. Along their path of motion, movable elements will change as they pass into new contexts and situate accordingly. This, then, brings about the transformation of both the new and the original context. Old, persistent elements will only become evident through their reaction to motion or be rediscovered as valuable, already existing reserves. From this perspective, the concept of motion proves to be a central consideration that enable numerous, partly heterogeneous research disciplines to converge around a common perspective.

These movable elements, the key objects of the research cluster SCM, are people, artefacts and models in the described broader sense. The primary research interest lies in the embedded ideas which can only move in a materialised or mediatised form – i.e. through mediums like people, artefacts and models. However, our primary concern is not so much the migration of people as an economic and political process influencing border demarcation and identity forming processes, but rather the motion of materialised or mediatised ideas that travel with people. Artefacts are items produced by people, and many of them, if not most, circulate as goods. The focus of the research cluster, however, concentrates on the study of the embedded ideas and not on the objects as commercial goods. Models are blue-prints or schemes for all kinds of actions (working, organising, making music, worshiping gods, interpreting the world, etc.) that circulate between contexts for imitation or repetition, or even prompt resistance. These action schemes are always situated in a material context which is either transformed or remains stable while they are put in motion. Here, the central question is also how the ideas inscribed in the models transform due to the models’ motion.

Neither the preconditions nor the consequences of the global movement of elements, which form ever new configurations through their adaptation to more or less sharply defined contexts, are sufficiently known. Furthermore, the global movement of elements sets a new framework for the localisation and stabilisation of social orders - frameworks that are also insufficiently understood. New technological, political, judicial, and economic frameworks and innovations have increasingly trans-local and quite often global meanings that have to be appropriated locally. This process always produces something new, yet the product of this process can seldom be anticipated with a sufficient degree of certainty. Despite this, or perhaps precisely for this reason, modern socialisation (Vergesellschaftung) is characterised by its efforts to improve anticipative knowledge – predictability, formability, prevention, minimisation of risks, as well as maximisation of the chance to participate, thus the traditional themes that empirical research has always tackled – even after its post-modern disillusionment. The perspective concentrating on the causes, consequences, and above all modalities of the movement of elements chosen for this research cluster is expected to yield new insights into these processes. This research approach is not in opposition to the traditionally empirical, philological, and methodological disciplines, but rather considers them vital to the generation of new research perspectives.

The new forms of movement generated by the last wave of globalisation (reaching back to the 1980s) entail a number of pressing problems, which can be characterized by the threatening and juxtaposed scenarios “homogenisation” and “fragmentation”. The future world is imagined either as gravitating toward an increasing homogenisation that will bit by bit destroy the plentiful diversity (ranging from seeds to cultural and social forms), or as leaning toward an increasing fragmentation that will result in the incommensurability of human life forms. In this context, we can exemplify the clusters’ research question by means of a central problem brought on by the last globalisation wave. This problem lies in the fundamental contradictions that arise with increasing frequency between national or local institutions and representation and legitimisation authorities as well as such institutions and representation and legitimisation authorities claiming universal validity (e.g. Universal Declaration of Human Rights). As a result, the global application of standards and regulations through a top-down method in different local and regional contexts often leads to completely different results. Thus, the global application of standard solutions is post hoc revealed as an experiment. In turn, this unpredictability also leads to the globalisation of anti-globalisation movements and ideas (e.g. ATTAC or Global Islam) that accentuate the local and context-dependent character of any and all ideas claiming universal validity.

First, we aim to devise terms that allow for the description of this dialectic problem area between universalisation and particularisation. It is, then, our goal to develop a set of terms as well as a theoretical approach adequate to the task of tackling the problem. In doing so successfully, we will be able to tackle the problem areas analytically, and thus open up new perspectives that may, due to their elevated reflexive potential, be of practical relevance.

The research cluster SCM acknowledges that motion in the broader sense described here is not always a diffusion originating from the West. There are also important motions taking place independently of Europe and North America. The fact that circulating ideas, artefacts, and models, which originated at some point from the West, later return to the West in a translated form will also receive attention. This draws on the idea that new forms usually develop in interstitial spaces, where elements from different contexts come together and form new combinations, which could not have developed in either of the contexts where the elements were last embedded. Other issues to be dealt with are creative resistance, adaptation, appropriation, acquisition, and camouflage that can be identified as forms of reaction to circulating elements. Of particular interest, in this context, are recourses handed down or already forgotten forms that are extracted again from the cultural archive in the face of new challenges.

The research will not, however, only look at the movement of elements in space. Just as important is the movement in time, i.e. the transfer of historical concepts as well as the transfer of contemporary concepts into the past. One primary research object will be the interactions between different parts of society, e.g. between aesthetics and science, law and religion, science and ethics, etc.

The elemental questions concerning the movement of people, ideas, artefacts, and models are: Which are the tangible elements, and between which areas do they move? What kinds of motion are there? What causes the motion? What enables the motion? What are the consequences of this motion? How can the diverse consequences of motion be differentiated? What does not move? Which continuities are preserved by motion? What kinds of standardisation take place? What dialectic differentiations do these standardisations bring about? Which intentional movements (often described as transfer of services or interventions) can best be understood as experiments? When do interventions or experiments lead to iatrogenic results, when to actually intended results, when to surprising innovations, and finally, when to new institutions? What level of controllability can be reasonably expected in which contexts?

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