Charisma in the Degraded City

An Actor-centered Study of Mobilization and Bonding Patterns during Urban Shrinkage

(Last modified November 2010)

This doctoral project builds on the project "Charisma and Miseria" (funded from 2007 to 2010 by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research) by contextualizing the findings from that study within the sociology of communities. The aim of the current work is to expand urban sociology to include a focus on charisma in shrinking cities.

Empirical research was carried out during a three-year period in a small eastern German city whose inhabitants are confronted with radical social, economic, and political change, accompanied by experiences of marginalization and fears of exclusion. The city is characterized by dramatic depopulation, vacant housing, unemployment, and the prevalence of transfer income, features it has in common with all shrinking towns studied in recent years. It has lost a third of its inhabitants in the past 20 years, and unemployment and the receipt of transfer payments are part of everyday life for 30 percent of the remaining population. The investigation into the fate of many urban centers Shrinking urban centers in eastern and western Europe have given rise to an entire branch of research on urban shrinkage in Europe, which has become established alongside research that studies exclusion and precariousness as degradation phenomena.

Findings on forms of sociality in shrinking cities have so far rarely been taken into consideration in urban studies. The dissertation will investigate the hypothesis that the experiences of degradation that characterize daily life in a shrinking city cause inhabitants to draw on charisma as a form of mobilizing social relations (Weber). The charisma approach makes it possible to analyze how individual actors’ mobilization and bonding patterns are interlinked with their position within the spatial and political (power) structure of the shrinking city, in ways that go beyond so-called actor-centered paradigms in urban studies. The charisma attributed to and used by actors explains societal processes from a point of view that deconstructs the traditionally aloof expert role of urban actors and highlights the irrational and emotional components of power production.

This work is based on an understanding or interpretive approach, which retraces the constructions of meaning, biographical horizons, and behavior patterns of actors in a shrinking city. What practices or ideas support actors in attaining charismatic power during processes of demographic shrinking? What patterns of interpretation do charismatic leaders use to mobilize their followers in a situation characterized by loss, deterioration, and the struggle to survive? What charismatic forms of bonding can be observed? How is the use of charisma reflected in an urban (power) setting? These research questions will also take into account the relevance of gender for the charismatic mobilization and bonding patterns of actors.

Empirical data is available from qualitative, structured interviews and field notes recorded during participant observation. This data was analyzed and interpreted hermeneutically. The evaluation aims to reconstruct the mobilizing and bonding practices of charismatic actors in a situation of collective degradation and to typify these practices in relation to the town. Using the format of the sociological portrait will help to focus the evaluation on actors’ individual constructions of meaning and patterns of action. The comparison of contrasting cases can identify typical charismatic mobilization and bonding patterns that are relevant to the degraded city and that contribute to constituting and reproducing the town’s (power) space.