"Social Capital" in Transitional European Societies

Communities, Families, Generations

The participating institutions and the respective project heads are as follows:

Brandenburg-Berliner Institut für Sozialwissenschaftliche Studien (BISS e.V.), Dr. Michael Thomas, Pettenkofer Str. 16-18, 10247 Berlin

Humboldt University Berlin, Institute for European Ethnology, Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Kaschuba, Dr. Ina Dietzsch, Dominik Scholl, Mohrenstr. 41, 10117 Berlin

Maxim Gorki Theater Berlin, Andrea Koschwitz, Am Festungsgraben 2, 10117 Berlin

Thünen-Institut für Regionalentwicklung e.V., Dr. Andreas Willisch, Dudel 1, 17027 Bollewick

University of Kassel, Department of Social Sciences / Sociology, Prof. Dr. Heinz Bude, Nora Platiel-Str. 1, 34109 Kassel

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(Last modified October 2008)

The Hamburg Institute for Social Research (HIS) is involved in a partnership for research and communication that addresses issues of survival in societies in transition. This research partnership is funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research within its program “The Humanities in Dialog”, with which the ministry aims to explore new modes of introducing knowledge from the social sciences into public discussion. The insight underlying this goal is that communication forms traditionally used by scholarship as a subsystem of society all too often remain bound up in the self-referential sphere of academic communication. We should aim to address this problem, especially in times in which society seems marked by dramatic upheaval and asynchronicity and people turn to the relevant academic disciplines for analysis and interpretation. What kind of society do we live in? Which groups in society emerge in the course of social change as winners, which appear to be losers? Are there signs of new forms of social division in today’s society?

Such issues are not only relevant for academic work; they are questions of preeminent public interest. The period in which economics claimed to be the hegemonic discipline of the social sciences is now over. Hardly anyone is willing to believe that the market will take care of things, and that, in order to establish a more rational society, we merely have to see to it that individuals’ life planning is optimized. But culture is no more convincing than the market as concept, since it can also serve to legitimate withdrawal and narrow-mindedness. Those who insist on their own culture often intend to defend privileges or claims. As a result, the concept of society has gained new appeal. The dynamics of contemporary society would seem to be more adequately reflected in the issues of power and domination, inclusion and exclusion, privilege and under-privilege, than in the well-trodden paths of a confrontation between the market and culture.

On the backdrop of this situation, the institutions involved in this research partnership have taken up the issue of survival as an question of scraping-through, making-do, and keeping-one’s-head-above-water in circumstances marked by the threat or experience of degradation, rebuttal, and exclusion. The focus of research is a concrete place where such issues come together: the town of Wittenberge, located along the main rapid rail connection between Berlin and Hamburg. Beginning in the early twentieth century, Wittenberge became a center of sewing machine manufacturing, where sewing machines were first produced under capitalist conditions by the Singer Company and later under socialist conditions under the brand name Veritas. Production lead to the emergence of an industrial cluster offering the necessary logistical infrastructure, in the form of rail links and sufficient manpower with a tradition of appropriate technical training; this was backed up by an ambitious program of subsidized housing that contributed to shaping the municipal landscape. Shortly after German unification in the early 1990s, this industrial context collapsed more or less overnight. Jobs disappeared, but the people are still there. What is life like here? How does the town deal with this history of abrupt deindustrialization? What do people do to maintain their self-esteem?

What is unique about this partnership is the way it combines an academic perspective with an artistic one. Not only sociologists and ethnologists have come together to focus on this exemplary place but also playwrights and performers.

What do performing artists see, what do researchers overlook? What does the academic detect, and where do artists have their blind spots? Those working from both of these perspectives share an understanding of “survival” as a practice that involves deficits, that leads to only weak interests, and that cut people to the quick.

The project focuses on various aspects of the issue of survival. The research conducted by staff members from the Hamburg Institute for Social Research addresses the role of charisma in initiating contexts of survival. Other subgroups focus on the family as a natural institution of survival, on the search for forms of subsistence, and on the role of mistrust in the community of those “left behind” by fate. Finally, another study considers community building within the context of deindustrialization.

In these joint projects, researchers and participants from the performing arts work together at close quarters. Performance is a concept drawn on by both and one which draws attention to the various rituals of everyday life and to techniques of disguise and forms of resistance. While academics aim to record certain insights in portraits, playwrights endeavor to capture these moments in plays “written with their feet”. Together they search for intersections, discrepancies, and juxtaposed elements of these two perspectives on public perceptions of those who shape ways of life that are not situated on the sunny side of the street. What do people do, what do they dream of, and what causes them to fail? The kind of exploration pursued here allows us to sharpen our senses to perceive injustices for which there are neither unequivocal solutions, nor unambiguous attributions. Together all of those involved in the project are working to develop a concept of the political that undermines traditional forms of political management in a state of crisis. This concept of the political aims to reconstruct models that reveal the possible within the impossible, that which succeeds in failure.