Friday, January 23, 2015

Comparison of cultures and epochs: What discourses on weaknesses can trigger

German Research Foundation grants new Collaborative Research Centre to the Goethe University -- 7 million Euros for historians, ethnologists, philosophers and historians of law

Humanities scholars in Frankfurt can begin a mammoth project on 1 January 2015: Between 2015 and 2018, historians, ethnologists, philosophers and law historians will be able to draw on more than 6 million Euros in an attempt to shed light on a global historical issue that stretches from ancient times to the present day. The German Research Foundation (DFG) granted a Collaborative Research Centre (CRC), currently the only one of its kind in the Humanities faculty of the Goethe University. It is entitled: "Discourses on weaknesses and resource regimes". Over the next three years, some 50 scientists will collaborate in this research association, among them about 40 junior researchers.

What is the purpose of this CRC? Here is an example: Contemporary historian Prof. Dr. Christoph Cornelißen intends to examine the debate involving the political, economic and cultural decline of Europe, which raged throughout the entire 20th century. A number of players - politicians, business representatives, publishers and scientists - feared for Europe's position in the world; Advancing Americanisation and the Yellow Peril are just two key phrases. Europe, they believed, was no longer a match for the growing pressure in world markets, and was also losing ground in international education rankings. The discourses on weaknesses were regularly interspersed with calls to mobilise all existing resources, from people and raw materials to organisations and ideas. The idea was to set up a new political, economic and societal order to prevent Europe's decline, galvanising ideas of a unified Europe. This is just a rough outline of the thesis; the work will now involve taking a closer look at the players and establishing with greater precision how resources can be developed from weaknesses.

"Discourses on weaknesses crop up everywhere. Examples that are often discussed include the Late Roman Empire and China in the 19th century. Yet rather different ones also come to mind, such as situations where weak areas of knowledge initially prevailed, as demonstrated by the budding material sciences of the early 20th century", explained the spokesperson of the new Collaborative Research Centre, Prof. Dr. Hartmut Leppin. "We anticipate a high potential of insight from being able to compare such seemingly disparate topics at an appropriate level of abstraction." When diagnosing the deficits, the scientists will always keep an eye on the self-perception of the players and how they are perceived from a distance.

The fact that weaknesses can develop into strengths is often demonstrated when the discourse on weaknesses mobilises the search for resources. It is this interplay that captures the scientists' interest. The humanities scholars in Frankfurt are fully aware that resources do not equate to raw materials: "Rather, we are interested in what it means to perceive a shortage of raw materials, which then develops into a discourse on weaknesses while the search goes on for other resources", Leppin says. This involves very diverse resources, depending on the sub-project: science, kinship, sanctity, nationalism, information, economic calculations, to name a few. "The wide range of resources can only be dealt with from contrasting disciplinary and temporal perspectives. Our aim is to compare cultures and epochs, in order to be able to provide highly generalised findings", the CRC spokesman explained. Ethnologists and law historians are grouped around a heavily historical nucleus, here in cooperation with the Max-Planck-Institute for European Legal History.

The cooperating scientists also intend to establish an approximation between European history and the history of East and South East Asia as well as Latin America. By way of example, ethnologist Prof. Dr. Susanne Schröter, like Leppin a principal investigator at the Frankfurt cluster of excellence "The Formation of Normative Order", intends to address the question of why it is almost impossible to assert Western models of organisation, such as a monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force, in many post-colonial countries. The particular focus here will fall on Indonesia and the Philippines. For instance, which resources do indigenous groups generate that elude state control? Are acephalous peoples with their egalitarian societies, which are oriented towards achieving political and social equality for their members, perhaps the ones who are truly strong, despite their political weaknesses? Is their conduct more reasonable than that of societies produced by state regulation or which have willingly integrated into such? These are the questions ethnologists seek answers to on the ground.

The participants at the Collaborative Research Centre wish to contribute a humanist perspective to our society's self-reflection. "The question of how to treat resources, their shortage and protection, is discussed in what are at times very heated and politically influential discourses on weaknesses. We have known this since the famous Club of Rome report of 1972, if not before", explains Leppin. "I believe the shortage of resources is one of the key challenges facing us today. However, we must avoid focussing on material resources to the exclusion of all else." Other acting CRC spokespeople besides Susanne Schröter are sinologist Prof. Dr. Iwo Amelung and science historian Prof. Dr. Moritz Epple.

The President of Goethe University, Prof. Dr. Werner Müller-Esterl, views the grant to the Collaborative Research Centre, the ninth at Goethe University, as further evidence of the influence of Frankfurt humanities scholars, and its historians in particular. "The grant is another highlight in a very successful year; back in March, the historians were awarded the DFG research group on "Personnel Decisions in Key Sociopolitical Positions". I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate Hartmut Leppin and his group on this successful application. It further underscores the profile of the Goethe University in the humanities."

Other projects of the historians and contributing humanities scholars are highly popular among sponsors. The Volkswagen Foundation deemed the Research Centre for Historical Humanities at Goethe University to be "original, innovative and exemplary", and in July 2014 provided it with a grant of 826,000 Euros.

In total the German Research Foundation (DFG) will be establishing eight Collaborative Research Centres (CRC), the authorising committee decreed in Bonn at its Autumn meeting yesterday. The Frankfurt Collaborative Research Centre is the only one of the eight to involve the humanities. The new CRCs are being sponsored with a total of 62 million Euros. There is an additional 20 per cent programme allowance for indirect costs arising out of research projects. Two of the eight centres are CRC/Transregios (TRR), which are distributed across several research locations.
EurekAlert. 2015. “Comparison of cultures and epochs: What discourses on weaknesses can trigger”. EurekAlert. Posted: December 4, 2014. Available online:

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