Simplification of social life

The world society is facing an unprecedented situation due to the corona pandemic: What happens when all of society’s function systems temporarily follow one imperative only?1

by Rudolf Stichweh, Sociology, Forum Internationale Wissenschaft and Bonn Center for Dependency and Slavery Studies, University of Bonn, Germany

Sociologists describe society by the forms of differentiation that occur within it. Differentiation means the distribution of societal activities and of participants of society among sub-systems (of which society consists). Up until the 18th century, and to some degree even beyond, premodern Europe understood estates or strata as its main sub-systems. There was the nobility, the clergy, different groups of commoners as well as peasants. The social order was the order of these groups and of the usually lifelong membership of individuals in one of these groups or strata.

Modern society, as we have known it for 250 years, is based on a complete replacement of this form of order. Hierarchically structured estates are replaced by communication systems that are ordered by thematic issues and societal functions. All of these communication systems are world systems: the polity, the economy, religion, science, education, law, art, sports, mass media, the healthcare or illness system as well as the system of intimate relationships and families. No one’s daily life takes place in only one of these function systems. Instead of belonging to them, one selectively participates in them (sociologists refer to this as inclusion), and the persons that participate in the function systems are individuals that become individualized through the extreme diversity of their participations. The individual exists outside of these function systems and is only connected to them in occasional events. Aside from the order of function systems itself, the individual is the other revolutionary invention of modern society.

Regarding the corona crisis, an essential sociological question is whether and how it temporarily puts modern social order into question and what this means for the development of society in the long term. First of all, the fundamental event of the corona crisis, the infection of an organism with the virus, is also the infection and potential illness of an individual, and there are two questions resulting from that. Firstly, how can it be prevented that an infected individual transmits the infection and disease to other individuals? This results in social distancing of an individual from other individuals as the new form of social life in the corona crisis. Secondly, how can the survival of an individual be ensured in case of serious illness?

It is striking that the second question is predominant. We dictate to the individual to practice social distancing (which is difficult to endure) in order to keep the reproduction rate of infections at a level that makes survival of as many individuals as possible more likely. It is impressive how much this latter aspect has priority. Each individual counts. Each death of an individual is one death too many. The incredible significance of the individual in modern society is illustrated in the corona crisis, too, by the fact that no other value can compete with the highest valuation for saving as many individuals as possible. In this perspective, the socio-political shaping of the corona crisis appears to be – across all nations – structurally conservative in relation to one of the most fundamental structural decisions of modern society.

Even more dramatic, then, is the temporary break of the corona crisis with the other structural decision of modern society: the emergence of functional differentiation as the horizontal interplay of numerous global communication systems among which no order of primacy or differences regarding societal significance can exist anymore. This order is, in fact, not only in principle a horizontal order of equal significance of each system. It is also an extremely dynamic order in which each function system is incessantly put into motion and challenged by rapid and surprising developments in other function systems. Both descriptions are no longer appropriate in the current situation. Instead, a peculiar order of function systems emerges to which there is no historical precedent.

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The Necropolitics of COVID-19: A Global South Approach to the Current Pandemic

by Christopher J. Lee, History/African Studies, Lafayette University, Easton, Pennsylvania, USA

The first sentence of Achille Mbembe’s essay “Necropolitics” (2003) begins with the assertion that “the ultimate expression of sovereignty resides, to a large degree, in the power and the capacity to dictate who may live and who must die.”1 The pandemic of COVID-19 appears to be a test of this contention. Mbembe’s argument for the emergence of a new form of politics centered on power over death, recently elaborated in a book of the same title, precedes this pandemic and has been applied primarily to the context of Africa.2 Nonetheless, his concept provides a way of thinking through the politics of the current moment without resorting to conventional frameworks of left and right that have preoccupied discussions thus far in the Global North. Though this established set of politics has fundamentally shaped the infrastructural capacities of states to respond to the crisis, namely with northern democracies such as Britain and the United States facing a distinct challenge in responding from years of austerity and the privatization of medical care, neither should the opportunity be lost to think differently about what is at stake. COVID-19 isn’t simply a medical or epidemiological crisis; it is a crisis of sovereignty.

The events of the past weeks and months cannot be completely recapitulated in this instance, but they can be characterized as an attempt to reclaim sovereignty. They reveal an emergent necropolitical landscape defined by states that have power over life and those with only power over death. A brief sketch of notifications, bans, and closures is useful in this regard: medical doctors in Wuhan, China, first report the existence of an unspecified virus in late December 2019; on January 23, 2020, the city of Wuhan with 11 million people is placed in a mandatory quarantine with additional travel restrictions in place for other cities in the Hubei province (totaling 57 million people); Italy declares a state of emergency eight days later on January 31, 2020; Italy imposes a national quarantine on March 9, 2020; a travel ban is put into place on March 11, 2020, by the Trump administration for travelers from Europe who are not US citizens; Spain announces a national quarantine on March 15, 2020; on the same day Germany implements new border restrictions; South Africa places a travel ban on foreign nationals from high-risk countries on March 18, 2020; Australia imposes a travel ban on foreign nationals on March 19, 2020; and so forth. What this brief summary outlines is a return to the most basic techniques of territorial control and state power—a politics of border restriction, community management, evening curfews, business closure, public dispersal, and empty streets. Citizens are further asked to self-discipline, in a Foucauldian fashion, through social distancing. The scale, speed, and global extent of these sovereign measures appear unprecedented.

To be clear, these measures should be pursued. In contrast to normative conditions when such methods would be seen as authoritarian, they are essential for sustaining life in this instance. Taken together, they constitute a reactionary version of necropolitics concerned with the management of life and death—to reduce the territorial proliferation of the disease, mortality numbers, and the rate of infection more generally. However, this reactionary stance equally indicates an unevenness of state capacity, that not all governments are able to respond alike. COVID-19 has highlighted a long-term failure among some states to sustain public health, to sustain life, through their commitment to neoliberal agendas to end state welfare in favor of privatization. The US and British governments are particularly egregious in governing on the basis of provisional schemes of affordable death through privatization and austerity measures, respectively. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s initial proposal of “herd immunity” whereby COVID-19 is allowed to run its course through the population exemplifies this approach—a laissez-faire economic attitude applied to ordinary, vulnerable people in the context of a disease pandemic.

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(Data) Privacy: What is the Corona Crisis Teaching Us?

by Fernando Luís Barroso da Silva Filho
(University of São Paulo, Brazil, School of Law),
Carolina Corrêa Giron (University of Triângulo Mineiro, Brazil, Health Department) and
Fernando Luís Barroso da Silva (University of São Paulo, Brazil School of Pharmaceutical Sciences)

Empty streets. Desolated public places. Death tolls 10.000 feet high and rising. Restrictions imposed on the population. People wearing radiation-protective-like suits. Hospitals over capacity despite working on eighth gear. Radical economic measures. Leaders denying facts and scientific evidence. New form of nationalism at its peak. Polarization of ideologies largely and quickly increasing. Countries fighting for resources. Every single location on the globe coping with the same problem. This could describe a dystopian Third World War movie but, unfortunately, it is the reality we are facing at global scale due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Throughout history, mankind has faced uncountable outbreaks of diseases and a few pandemics that changed history (CRAWFORD 2018) – having passed the ‘mutation point’, the coronavirus is a severe one among them. Knowing for sure the world will change, it is still very hard to forecast how the post-COVID future will look like. This depends not least on the present scientific, economical and political achievements. However, a reasonable starting point is to look back in time to previous pandemics and analyse them. Some circumstances will be equal, others will be very much different, there are problems of the past that stayed in the past, others persisted. Yet there are new problems that no one has faced before, one of those is data privacy.

The most far-reaching and deadliest pandemic ever registered happened in the beginning of the 20th century – caused by the H1N1 virus, whose disease is commonly known as “Spanish flu” – and it shares some common traits (transmission mechanism, symptoms etc.) with the one the world has to face right now, among many different aspects (virus’ families, infectivity, fatality and transmission rates etc.) (TRILLA et al. 2008). The greatest aggravating factors at that time, problems that existed during the Spanish Flu and are not an issue now, excluding scientific progress, were (public) health systems absence in every country and just coming out of the First World War‘s practical consequences. On the other hand, the world still struggles with problems “of the past”, for instance, socioeconomic differences between countries and within the same town. Lastly, some circumstances were not an issue at that time but are now, for example, society’s values (specially occidental) set individual over public interests, thus considering privacy a fundamental right. Thus making a contemporary paramount issue whether we weaken privacy or praise safety.

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Nationalism and Transnationalism in Times of the Coronavirus Pandemic

by Christoph Horn, Philosophy, University of Bonn, Germany

The current Coronavirus pandemic strengthens a type of narrow-minded nationalism that the international community seemed to have already left behind. During the last decades since the end of the Cold War, some considerable progress has been made to establish transnational institutions which are capable of tackling the great challenges of our time. Now, however, national instincts return precisely at a moment when the spirit of transnational cooperation is needed more than in less demanding times. At the first peak of the crisis in March 2020, even some of the well-established international rules and agreements were on the verge of collapsing. What would be appropriate, instead, is a considerable increase of global cooperation. Furthermore, in my view, the step to be taken in this situation is to establish transnational institutions which cannot simply be ruled out when resentments of nationalism occasionally re-emerge. I think of firm and stable institutions of global crisis management.

The position I want to argue against is normally not explicitly defended. It is rather an implicit one but one that is largely shared: I call it the dogma of nationalism in politics. It is hardly disputed by anyone that the nation-state and the national community is the ultimate foundation to organize politics. But this dogma leads us into a highly ineffective and unwelcome global situation when it comes to transnational problems like the current pandemic. 

One phenomenon that makes this palpable is the shutdown of national borders at the beginning of the Coronavirus crisis. Even in EU Europe, including the Schengen Area, national border controls have been widely re-established. The new inner-European border controls were extremely strict and almost insurmountable, at least for the majority of citizens, including unmarried couples living on both sides of a border. The spirit of free travel and free trade broke down within only a few days. And quite surprisingly, almost nobody protested against it. Strictly speaking, however, the line of action taken by national administrations without Brussels being involved violates EU law and neglects the sense of the contracts: the border closure was not multilaterally agreed upon but a simple unilateral decision of each single nation-state. The respective neighbouring countries were not asked for their consent, sometimes they were not even informed before the measure was taken. What is worse: concerning the fight against Covid-19, the shutdown of inner EU borders had no positive effect at all – it did not even improve the chances to control the spread of the disease. In order to limit the dissemination of the virus, one has to trace single cases under a local and regional supervision. A lockdown that reduces social contacts does not necessarily include the control of borders. It isn’t helpful to close the border between Germany and Poland to successfully reduce the number of Covid-19 cases in Görlitz and Zgorzelec. Rather, this was a symbolic measure, symbolic for a robust defence of the national interests, undertaken by the national governments to calm the fear and resentment of the broader public. It is an expression of the dogma of nationalism.

But simultaneously, it is a fatal symbolic gesture, especially for the EU, which is the only serious promising transnational project worldwide. This fatal behaviour communicates the message that, in times of crisis, what ultimately counts is the nation-state. It is the national community, so the story goes, that is the best agency (or should we say: a secure fortress) to deal with a global pandemic and to organize resistance against it. But at a closer look, this turns out to be an absurdity: as a matter of fact, each of the 193 nation-states alone, even the strongest and richest among them, is unable to adequately respond to this sort of challenge, which is a global one. Moreover, it is unnecessary to find national solutions to the problem since the pandemic concerns all countries equally: it emerges in warm and dry countries as well as in cold and rainy ones and it hits people in each country likewise. The pandemic shows no nation-relative specificity. It threatens and kills Americans as well as Asians, females as well as males, Muslims as well as atheists. What does make a difference is whether a patient is old or young, asthmatic or in a healthy condition, has access to medical care or not. But this has nothing to do with nation-states. And so the WHO guidelines formulated at the beginning of the crisis, in principle, proved themselves correct; those states that followed them are now in a much better position than those that ignored or marginalized them or believed in the bold idea of a ‘herd immunity’.

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Science and its Public after the Pandemic

by Lorraine Daston,
Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin, Germany

All websites accessed 14 May 2020

Who would have thought it? People all over the world, most of whom had happily forgotten whatever they’d learned about science and mathematics in school, were suddenly tuning into broadcasts and podcasts by virologists, epidemiologists, physicians, and geneticists, following the Twitter feed of doctors and nurses on duty in intensive care units, and obsessively washing their hands as they sung “Happy Birthday” (twice) under their breaths. They willingly, indeed avidly listened to explanations of R0, exponential curves, case/fatality ratios, and many other concepts that would have put them to sleep in seconds only a few weeks before. The Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center website, bristling with maps and graphs and data, was bookmarked on hundreds of thousands of computers. Heads of state gave press conferences flanked by scientists, to whom they regularly deferred, and promised to be guided in their decisions about how to fight the new virus by “science and the data”. All the hand-wringing discussions about the growing distrust of science as evidenced by climate-change deniers and vaccine objectors vanished almost overnight from the airwaves and the newspapers. Terrified by the specter of the COVID-19 pandemic, the public looked to science for its salvation.

Is this too good to last? Should it last? What do science and the public stand to lose and gain from their intense interactions during the pandemic?

It’s worth recalling just how anomalous this moment of voracious curiosity on the part of the public and daily communication on the part of scientists in the relevant specialties is. With the possible exceptions of astronomy (all those technicolor images of galaxies and black holes) and ethology (the perennial appeal of natural history films), most laypeople’s attitude toward the sciences has been at best indifference and at worst hostility. Oddly, the countries in which high school students show the least inclination to continue studies in science and mathematics are arguably the ones that have profited most from these disciplines: the Norwegian-based Relevance of Science Education (ROSE) project found an inverse relationship between level of economic development and students’ desire to learn more science, with Ugandans most eager and Norwegians least ( As for the scientists, despite recent efforts to counteract exactly the apathy documented by the ROSE study by more public outreach, their preferred mode of communication is to fellow specialists at conferences or in peer-reviewed journals. No one was more astonished than the virologists who conduct the shop-talk podcast This Week in Virology ( to see the number of downloads skyrocket from 20,000 to 500,000 in the first quarter of 2020 and to receive anxious questions and adoring fan mail from new listeners ( We are living in a state of exception in more ways than one.

First, the scientists: Pleasing though it must be for virologists, epidemiologists, and other biomedical researchers to find both politicians and the general public hanging on their every word, not to mention a gusher of research funding and the I-told-you-so satisfactions of having long warned the world in vain about the probability of just such a pandemic, the scientists most exposed to the limelight quickly discovered the nastier side of celebrity. They were understandably offended by personal abuse in the media (especially the troll-infested social media), and still more by what they perceived as an intolerable mix of science and politics. Time and again they struggled to separate knowledge and belief, but at least two factors made their task more difficult. First, as soon as politicians publicly ceded decision-making in the crisis to scientists (“We are following the science.”), science became ipso facto politicized. Leaders confronted with thorny moral dilemmas – save more lives at the price of ruining livelihoods? – were all too happy to shift the responsibility to other shoulders, and the politically inexperienced scientists bore much of the brunt of the wrath that was bound to come from those disadvantaged by emergency policies.

Pushed onto the public stage, scientists discovered that the uncertainty and disagreements that are an essential element of all scientific inquiry, carefully assessed in error analysis and debated in the pages of specialist journals, could be exploited by factions seeking support for their own views or simply to undermine all authority. Here the far Right and the far Left made common cause, to the dismay of most scientists. Because science journalists habitually erase all the uncertainty that surrounds the new results they report, the majority of readers were disagreeably surprised to discover from real-time coverage of science-in-the-making that scientists often disagreed among themselves about the reliability and interpretation of what data existed. Precisely at the moment when the public craved scientific certainty, they were confronted with scientific uncertainty. The uncertainty was of course amplified by the novelty of COVID-19 and its bewildering spectrum of clinical manifestations, from barely noticeable to deadly. Also, the urgency of the moment lowered the threshold for going public among scientists. Suggestive results that might not have survived peer review were hastily posted as online preprints and widely cited by journalists. Science in the fast lane can be treacherously uncertain. But all science is and must be fringed with uncertainty: if it were not, it would not progress.

Second, the public: Ultimately the responsibility for political decisions in a democracy rests with its citizens, and during the pandemic electoral choices have come home to roost. People all over the world could compare death rates between, say, the United States and Canada, or the United Kingdom and Germany. Although every analysis must remain provisional until the pandemic is behind us and all the data is in, so far these comparisons do not bode well for populist governments. The fates of nations have also stoked the debate over whether authoritarian states like China or democracies like South Korea have protected their citizens better in a crisis – and also whether the form of government matters less than the quality of leadership. The point here is that the data about the pandemic has created a new kind of scorecard by which citizens can rate the performance of their governments – and also focused public attention on whose official data can and cannot be trusted. Whatever reservations the scientists may have about the strict comparability of the statistics, comparisons are being made by almost everyone on a daily basis.

Moreover, the public consciousness has been sharpened not only for numbers but also the reliability of numbers: whether it is deaths with or from the virus that enters the official count; the false negative and positive rates of antibody tests; the difference between case-fatality ratios and deaths-per-100,000 people. People have always been numerate in the areas of life they care about, whether it’s mortgage rates or sports statistics; now they care fervently enough about public health statistics to pay close attention.

Finally, the public has observed the contrast between the international community and the scientific community. Whereas nations by and large responded to the crisis by closing borders, hoarding essential supplies, and pointing fingers at each other, even within the European Union and among the states of the U.S.A., scientists by and large responded by sharing data and cooperating. The latter response cannot be taken for granted. As one London-based scientist working to combat the virus remarked ( cuts?utm_campaign=4210&utm_content=ukrw_nonsubs&utm_medium=email&utm_source=newsletter): “We are part of an effort that extends across the world: I have never encountered such openness and generosity among scientists (we’re a competitive bunch).” The real international community turned out to be the scientific community.

What lessons will the scientists and the public draw from their super-charged encounter once the pandemic is over? It’s all too possible that they’ll just lapse back into mutual obliviousness. Lay people will lose interest in virology podcasts; scientists will return with relief to their labs (those currently most in the public eye are already complaining that the time spent enlightening the public is time stolen from reading the latest publications). But this would be a missed opportunity on both sides.

The scientists are badly in need of a more sophisticated way of thinking about the relationships between science and politics. Protestations of purity are ineffectual in situations in which politicians must rely on scientific counsel to make consequential decisions. All parties – scientists, politicians, citizens – need more practice in distinguishing between the scientific and political components of such decisions, as well as in discerning where the distinction is blurred. This is only partially a matter of transparency; it is also a matter of critical reflection and a frank acknowledgement of the risks involved. Scientific knowledge is the best knowledge we have, but it is not and cannot be certain knowledge.

The public for its part is badly in need of an education, both intellectual and moral, in uncertainty. Intellectually, this would mean a better understanding of how science domesticates but does not eliminate uncertainty: if laypeople could figure out R0 in a matter of weeks, there’s no reason why they can’t also learn the meaning of error bars, confidence intervals, and the other checks and balances instituted to gauge the reliability of scientific claims. We don’t all have to become scientists, but we do have to become scientifically literate citizens. The moral component of this education will be harder: we must wean ourselves of our addiction to certainty. The past few months have been a brutal lesson in just how uncertain life can suddenly become. Yet to an admirable degree the vast majority of people coped with the fact that their world had been turned upside down and inside out. Accustomed to planning our lives months in advance, we learned to live with a foreshortened future horizon of only a few days. The real challenge will be to hold onto this lesson learned once life again becomes predictable – predictable, but not certain.

How will/should the world change? The corona crisis as an interdisciplinary challenge

by Véronique Zanetti (ZiF Bielefeld, Germany),
G. Ary Plonski (UBIAS, IEA Sao Paulo, Brazil) and Britta Padberg (ZiF Bielefeld, Germany )

Heavily shaken by the corona pandemics many of us are currently thinking about how we could contribute to overcome this unprecedented situation. The covid-19 crisis not only challenges disease control and crisis management, but may also have long-term and far-reaching impacts on states, societies and international cooperation. There are increasing indications that the world will look different after the crisis and that globalization will be questioned in many areas. According to these observations, the covid-19 crisis would mark a turning point. In times of deep uncertainty, science is asked to look to the future and to flank a rational discourse about how to react to the current global crisis, and therefore now better cope with other tantamount global challenges such as the climate change.

Since this challenge is genuinely interdisciplinary, Institutes for Advanced Studies are rich pools to fish for visionary ideas and scientific observations. We are very happy that a number of distinguished and young scholars from different fields and countries agreed to write short essays on how the world will change and how it should change. The pieces will be posted bit by bit, two texts per week. Since science and art make a good couple in developing a good sensorium for tectonic shifts we also asked the comic artist Oliver Grajewski to complement and contrast the academic way of thinking. He will deliver one short comic series each week.

We hope that the blog will contribute to sketching out ideas of a world that is more sustainable, fairer and fit for the future and are very much looking forward to lively discussions.

Wider die Beutegemeinschaft

Zwei Psychologen über Abwege der interdisziplinären Kollaboration

von Manuela Lenzen

Interdisziplinarität ist die Zukunft: das hören vor allem junge Forscherinnen und Forscher wieder und wieder. Komplexe Forschungsfragen, so wird oft betont, machen die Kooperation über die Fachgrenzen hinweg unvermeidlich und vor allem: Es gibt Fördergelder. Der kanadische Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council etwa reserviert ein Drittel seines Etats für interdisziplinäre Projekte, die Dutch National Science Agenda wurde extra gegründet, um Brücken zwischen den Disziplinen zu schlagen, schreiben die Psychologen Roy Hessels (Helmholtz Institute und University of Utrecht) und Alan Kingstone (University of British Columbia) in einem auf dem Preprint Server PsyArXiv veröffentlichen Paper.

Eine gute Entwicklung? Nicht unbedingt. Hessels und Kingstone konstatieren, dass sich eine bedenkliche Form von interdisziplinärer Kooperation entwickelt habe, um an diese Fördertöpfe zu gelangen: die Beutegemeinschaft, die Autoren sprechen von „fake collaborations“. Diese gefährde die Integrität der Forscher*innen und ihrer Arbeit, denn sie liefen Gefahr, Teil wissenschaftlicher Täuschungsversuche zu werden: „Wir denken, dass in der aktuellen Förderlandschaft interdisziplinäre Projekte bestenfalls ihr Potential nicht ausschöpfen und schlimmstenfalls Gefahr laufen, Teams zusammenzubringen, die unecht und irreführend sind.“ 

Beide Autoren berichten von Anfragen, sich an interdisziplinären Projekten zu beteiligen, nicht weil man an ihrer Expertise Interesse gehabt hätte, sondern, weil man noch einen Vertreter ihrer Disziplin für einen Förderantrag brauchte. Hessels fand, dass Kollegen sich wegen seiner Doppelaffiliation in experimenteller und Entwicklungspsychologie besonders für ihn interessierten, Kingstone musste seinen Namen ungefragt auf den Förderanträgen solche Beutegemeinschaften lesen.

Beide haben, wie sie betonen, nichts gegen interdisziplinäre Forschung, wohl aber gegen Kooperationen von Art „Hast Du schon einen Neurowissenschaftler?“ Sie kritisieren zu kurze Bewerbungsfristen, mangelnde Kommunikation der Forscher*innen untereinander und Erbsenzählerei von Seiten der Geldgeber: Statt sich vom Sinn oder Unsinn einer interdisziplinären Kooperation zu überzeugen, werde abgehakt, ob genug verschiedene Fakultäten auf der Liste der Antragsteller stehen.

Und wie kann gute interdisziplinäre Zusammenarbeit gelingen? Die Autoren sehen drei Punkte: 1. Kooperation müsse bottom up erwachsen, angestoßen von Forscher*innen, die sich treffen und die Forschungsfragen der anderen schätzen. 2. seien kleine Teams oft innovativer als große, und 3. sei solche Kooperation in der Regel asymmetrisch und es sei daher unrealistisch von Förderinstitutionen, darauf zu bestehen, dass alle Beteiligten gleich relevant und verantwortlich seien. Forscher*innen sollten sich also über die Art ihrer Kooperation klar werden und das ehrlich kommunizieren, sich nicht auf zu knappe Bewerbungsfristen einlassen und vor allem: „Nothing, absolutely nothing, beats meeting face-to-face and spending time with one or more possible collaborators.“ Um dies zu realisieren, käme auch den Institutionen der Forscher*innen eine zentrale Rolle zu: Um echte interdisziplinäre Kooperation zu befördern, statt um der Drittmittel willen Beutegemeinschaften auf Raubzug zu schicken.

Hessels, Roy S., and Alan Kingstone. “Fake Collaborations: Interdisciplinary Science Can Undermine Research Integrity.” PsyArXiv, 29 June 2019. Web.

Preprint DOI

The Anthropocene, Modelling Socio-Environmental Transformations in the Americas, and a New Interdisciplinarity

by Eleonora Rohland

By now almost everybody has heard of the “Anthropocene” and knows that it’s a term for a new era, the “era of humans”. The concept was coined by the Dutch atmospheric physicist and Nobel Laureate Paul Crutzen and the U.S. biologist Eugene Stoermer in 2000 (Crutzen & Stoermer 2000), referring to considerable human-caused modifications of the earth system. Since 2009 the international and interdisciplinary “Anthropocene Working Group” (AWG), a sub-group of the International Commission on Stratigraphy, has been working on the question of whether this new epoch can be formalized, which might imply the end of the Holocene (the last 11’700 years before present). This formalization process also and importantly includes the question of when such a new era should in fact begin. For the International Commission on Stratigraphy (that is, geologists) this involves finding a “golden spike”, a stratigraphic marker in rock or recent sediments that would indicate the human takeover as a planet-altering force. Consequently, earth system science, other natural sciences and a small hand full of historians have been busy over the last ten years, checking different such historical markers for their viability to count as the start of the new epoch. In June 2019, a majority of the members of the AWG voted to look for a marker around 1950, which is also the beginning of the “The Great Acceleration”, a phase in socio-economic expansion after World War II (Steffen et al. 2007).

Meanwhile, apart from a few notable exceptions (John McNeill, Dipesh Chakrabarty, Amitav Ghosh, Franz Mauelshagen, Julia Adeney Thomas, Zoltan Simon), the humanities have largely focused on criticizing the concept and its Euro- or Western-centric focus. While this is to a certain extent an important and worthwhile endeavor, it is also quite limited considering the scope of the problem that the concept of the “Anthropocene” encompasses – whether one thinks the term adequate or not. As a consequence, the discourse of the humanities has largely remained detached from the research of the earth system sciences involved in collecting evidence for different Anthropocene starting dates or involved in highlighting the multilayeredness of the predicament of the Anthropocene. For, contrary to popular belief, it is not the same as anthropogenic climate change (Adeney Thomas 2019) but encompasses a multiplicity of problems that have most tangibly been visualized in Johan Rockström et al.’s Planetary Boundaries concept (2009, 2015).

It is true that the diagnosis of the Anthropocene has come largely from research by the natural sciences. However, some social and political scientists have since argued for expanding the understanding of the “Anthropocene” by including their perspective (e.g. Lövbrand et al. 2015, Pattberg et al. 2016). Most of these approaches have remained in or deepened the “us vs. them” logic of the divide between the natural sciences and the humanities/ social sciences.  A small number of proponents from the humanities have, however, started to link their own research more directly to the work of the AWG and earth system scientists working in the field. An example for this bridging of the great interdisciplinary divide is the group of researchers that met for the Workshop Modelling Socio-Environmental Transformations of the Americas during the Little Ice Age at the Center for Interdisciplinary Research (ZiF) Bielefeld in November 2019 in order to explore the possibilities of modelling societal impacts on the earth system in the post-Columbian Americas.

This uncommonly concrete regional focus on the Americas in the context of the usually lofty global scope of the Anthropocene is due to an ongoing research controversy that involves the Western hemisphere and – for (colonial environmental) historians crucially – the era of the European Expansion. Evidence from CO2 captured in Antarctica ice cores shows a significant decrease in atmospheric concentration levels from around the beginning of the 17th century. While back on the rise soon after that, CO2 concentrations stayed below the long-term average of the previous 700 years until around 1750. One hypothesis attributes this to the mass-death of indigenous Americans at the hands and germs of Spanish conquistadors after 1492 and to the consequent reforestation of their agricultural lands. Those new forests acted as a carbon sink and, hence, greater amounts of carbon than before was withdrawn from and thus cooling the atmosphere (Lewis & Maslin 2015). Another hypothesis explains the decline in CO2 levels with natural feedbacks in response to northern hemispheric cooling during the 17th-century peak of the so-called Little Ice Age.

The workshop’s aim was not so much to resolve the research controversy, but rather to bring a highly interdisciplinary group of researchers (earth system scientists, archaeologists, historical geographers, environmental and climate historians and historical climatologists) to the table who would be able to refine the data of current earth system models with information from the social sphere, in particular. Earth system modelers have become very skilled at modelling the behavior of natural systems, yet the great conundrum is still how to, and in particular, historically, with which data to model the societal realm. Fine-grained historical land-use data from historical records could help to improve the reconstruction of past (and hence also future) climate modelling. Among many more content-specific insights the workshop made clear that research in the context of the Anthropocene must be radically interdisciplinary.

This endeavor is not only continued by the Modelling research group, but also by the Maria Sibylla Merian Center for Advanced Latin American Studies (CALAS), the Center for Advanced Studies Bielefeld University (and the ZiF) is setting up in collaboration with the University of Guadalajara in Guadalajara, Mexico. An interdisciplinary research group will work on the Anthropocene from a Latin American perspective.

Eleonora Rohland is Professor for Entangled History in the Americas (Early Modern Period) and Director of the Center for InterAmerican Studies (CIAS) at Bielefeld Universty

Reden hilft!

Göttinger Forscher*innen geben Tipps für das interdisziplinäre Arbeiten

von Manuela Lenzen

Interdisziplinäre Forschung ist in aller Munde. Dass man das kann, es gerne und mit Erfolg betreibt, wird immer selbstverständlicher vorausgesetzt. Dabei wird allerdings meist übersehen, dass die Zusammenarbeit mit Kolleg*innen aus anderen Disziplinen keineswegs immer einfach ist. Oft zeigen sich Verständigungs- und andere Probleme erst nach einer gewissen Zeit und nicht immer ist gleich klar, worin diese Probleme genau bestehen, wie man sie am besten überwindet oder, noch besser, von vornherein vermeidet. Auch dass interdisziplinäres Arbeiten ganz Unterschiedliches bedeuten kann, vom „Zukauf“ von eher technischen Dienstleistungen über das Nebeneinanderstellen von Forschungsergebnissen aus verschiedenen Disziplinen in Sammelbänden bis zur intensiven Diskussion über Themen und Methoden, wird von dem nach wie vor attraktiv klingenden Begriff meist verdeckt. Viel zu selten ist die interdisziplinäre Forschung bislang selbst zum Forschungsgegenstand geworden, und entsprechend rar sind Einsichten in die Formen und Dynamiken dieser Formen der Kollaboration und konkrete Tipps für die Forschenden.

Hier setzt die Arbeit von Margarete Boos und Lianghao Daivon der Universität Göttingen an. Sie haben sich drei verschiedene interdisziplinäre Forschungsprojekte angesehen, in einer Feldforschung die Interaktion der Mitglieder und ihre Arbeit beobachtet und Interviews mit den Beteiligten geführt. Dann erstellten sie cognitive maps der Forschenden und analysierten, wie weit sie übereinstimmen. So konnten sie zeigen, wie Vorstellungen und Wissen der Teammitglieder geteilt und zu einer gemeinsamen Wissensstruktur integriert wurden.

Die Forscherinnen unterscheiden zwei grundlegende Muster des Austauschs und der Integration von Wissen in den interdisziplinären Forschungsteams. Das erste, das sie theory-method collaboration pattern nennen, bezeichnet die Zusammenarbeit zwischen Wissenschaftlerinnen und Wissenschaftlern, in denen die einen theoretische Grundlagen und die anderen Methoden zur Erhebung und Analyse von Daten zur gemeinsamen Fragestellung beitragen. Das zweite, technical collaboration pattern genannt, charakterisiert den Austausch von Werkzeugen und technischem Know-How zu einem geteilten Untersuchungsgegenstand.

Mithilfe dieser Muster entwarfen sie vier Szenarien der interdisziplinären Kooperation, die sich danach unterscheiden, ob die Forscher*innen das Forschungsthema und / oder die Forschungsmethoden teilen oder nicht. Davon ausgehend, dass es helfen kann, wenn Forscher*innen sich über die die Art ihrer Kooperation klar werden, sich also in dieser Matrix verorten, formulierten sie Empfehlungen für interdisziplinäre Teams:

  • Diese könnten Zeit und Kosten sparen, wenn sie sich in einem Kick-off-meeting auf Ziele, Kommunikationsregeln und -werkzeuge einigten und das (meist unterschiedliche) Verständnis ihrer grundlegenden Begriffe diskutierten.
  • Man solle sich überlegen, welche der Kollaborationsformen am besten zum eigenen Vorhaben passt und daraus auf die nötige Kommunikation schließen. Eher technischer Zusammenarbeit ist schon geholfen, wenn Datenbestände geteilt werden, Methoden und Theorien zu teilen, erfordere deutlich mehr Kommunikation.
  • Im späteren Projektverlauf sei es hilfreich, sich explizit über die Art und Weise zu verständigen, wie Forschungsergebnisse integriert werden können. Zudem sei es wichtig, sicherzustellen, dass alle Beteiligten über Fortschritte und Zwischenschritte informiert sind.
  • Auch für Geldgeber mag es einfacher sein, den Fortschritt einer interdisziplinären Kollaboration zu beurteilen, wenn klar ist, um welche Art von Kollaboration es sich handelt.

Interdisziplinäre Zusammenarbeit ist vor allem eine Übung im Teilen, so die Autoren. Das betreffe Arbeitskraft ebenso wie Geldmittel, Technologie und Wissen. Ob sich alle interdisziplinär Arbeitenden ihrer Klassifikation wiederfinden, bleibt abzuwarten. Sie ist auf jeden Fall ein Schritt, die Interdisziplinarität mit ihren Chancen und Fallstricken selbst zum Thema zu machen, statt sie nur zu beschwören.

Originalveröffentlichung: Lianghao Dai & Margarete Boos. Mapping the right fit for knowledge sharing. Nature (2019).

ZiF 2.0

by Wolfgang Prinz

Das ZiF verdankt seine Entstehung einer Idee, die vor 50 Jahren in der akademischen Welt Fahrt aufzunehmen begann – der Idee der interdisziplinären Forschung. In Deutschland waren es damals vor allem Vordenker wie Helmut Schelsky, die in dieser Idee ihre Unzufriedenheit mit den herrschenden universitären Verhältnissen zum Ausdruck brachten. Betrachtet man nämlich, wie Soziologen es tun, das Wissenschaftssystem als gesellschaftliches Teilsystem mit bestimmten Problemlösungs- und Dienstleistungsaufgaben, wird schnell offensichtlich, dass Disziplinen allein nicht richten können, was Wissenschaft als Ganze für die Gesellschaft leisten soll. Viele Probleme kann das Wissenschaftssystem nur dann erfolgreich lösen, wenn seine Disziplinen intensiv zusammenarbeiten.

In der Bielefelder Universität, für deren Gründung Schelsky ja eine besonders prominente Rolle gespielt hat, wurde diese Idee gleich zweifach in Beton gegossen: in einem zentralen Universitätsgebäude, das alle Disziplinen unter einem Dach vereint und einem besonderen Zentrum für interdisziplinäre Forschung – einem Ort also, der ganz ausdrücklich der Zusammenarbeit zwischen den Disziplinen gewidmet ist.
Als das ZiF gegründet wurde, war Interdisziplinarität noch ein Alleinstellungsmerkmal, das Bielefeld vor anderen Universitätsstandorten auszeichnete. Aber in den 50 Jahren, die seither vergangen sind, haben sich die Verhältnisse grundlegend gewandelt. Die Idee der Interdisziplinarität hat Karriere gemacht – nicht nur in programmatischer Rhetorik, sondern auch in institutioneller Praxis. Heißt das, dass die Mission des ZiF damit erfüllt ist? Hat es sich ironischerweise überflüssig gemacht, weil es als Modell für andere so erfolgreich war?
Das ist die Frage, zu der ich hier einige Überlegungen beisteuere. Der erste Schritt blickt zurück und untersucht die Motive, die seinerzeit die Forderung nach interdisziplinärer Zusammenarbeit begründet haben. Der zweite Schritt nimmt dann die neuen Verhältnisse, die sich inzwischen eingestellt haben, in näheren Augenschein. Nimmt man beides zusammen, sieht man, dass die alten Ideen heute mindestens ebenso aktuell sind wie damals. Nur müssen sie neu gelesen werden, weil die Barrieren, die zu überwinden sind, sich inzwischen in das Innenleben der Disziplinen hineinverlagert haben.


„interdisziplinär“/„Interdisziplinarität“ – historisch

von Susanne Schregel

„In den letzten Jahren zeigt sich immer mehr das Bestreben, gewisse Probleme, die sich durch ihre Ausgedehntheit und Kompliziertheit auszeichnen, durch eine Zusammenarbeit, die nicht nur interdisziplinär, sondern auch international ist, anzugreifen.” (1960)[i]

Klagen über eine allzu große wissenschaftliche Spezialisierung haben die Herausbildung der modernen Disziplinen seit ihren Anfängen begleitet. Das Adjektiv „interdisziplinär“ erscheint in der Bundesrepublik gleichwohl erst seit Mitte der 1950er Jahre vereinzelt in wissenschaftlichen Texten. Das Gros dieser frühen Belegstellen stand zunächst in einem direkten Zusammenhang zur US-amerikanischen Forschung und Wissenschaft. Insofern beginnt die Geschichte der Begriffe „interdisziplinär“/„Interdisziplinarität“ nicht als deutsche Geschichte; es handelt sich bei ihnen um Importe aus der US-amerikanischen Wissenschaftsterminologie und insbesondere aus dem Umfeld der amerikanischen Sozialwissenschaften.

Seinen eigentlichen Durchbruch als eine wissenschaftsnormative Figur erlebte „Interdisziplinarität“ in den USA nach dem Ende des Zweiten Weltkrieges, als Disziplinen überschreitendes Arbeiten sich unter dem Vorzeichen des Kalten Krieges mit einem Diskurs um Offenheit und Demokratie verband und zu einer Vorgehensweise avancierte, die demokratische Tugenden wie geistige Flexibilität signalisieren wie forschend umsetzen sollte.

Dieser Bezug zur US-amerikanischen Wissenschaft und Forschung lockerte sich in der Bundesrepublik im Verlauf der 1960er Jahre. Interdisziplinäres Arbeiten wurde in den 1960er Jahren zwar durchaus noch als „neuartiger ‚approach’ für die wissenschaftliche Forschung“ (Kade 1965) wahrgenommen. Dennoch wurde es allmählich zu einem Teil der bundesdeutschen Wissenschaftssprache. Dies wird etwa deutlich, wenn ein Tagungsbericht 1964 von „interdisziplinär“ (in Anführungszeichen) als „dem beliebt gewordenen neuen terminus“ (Schiffers 1964: 33) spricht. 1965 bezeichnete ein Wissenschaftler in einem Vortrag „die Wortbildung ‚interdisziplinär’“ als „heute international durchgesetzt“ (Göppinger [1965] 1966: 1).