The Humboldt Center for Social and Political Research (HCSP) is designed to foster an important interdisciplinary link within the social sciences by connecting social research and political research. It builds on the Institute of Social Sciences’ (ISS) bid to combine the disciplines of sociology and political science. It also reflects the core idea of the Berlin Graduate School of Social Sciences (BGSS) that teaching and research should focus on the interplay of social and cultural diversity with processes of democratization. In short, it fosters interdisciplinary openness by integrating social-science research done within the context of other disciplines at Humboldt University.
The Humboldt Center for Social and Political Research thus provides a research environment for the ISS and the BGSS and is a forum linking a wide variety of social-science related activities at Humboldt University.
Research activities are organized around four themes:
Research is embedded in a series of activities debating the theoretical and methodological foundations of ongoing research at the HCSP. This involves not only discussing the analytical foundations of social-science research, but relating social-science observations back to the social and political context from which they emerge and upon which they impinge. Linking the claim of doing basic research to the claim of doing research with political and social relevance engages with the longstanding belief that the social sciences are – given the object of their research – part of the world they study, a relationship that has become increasingly central for social science research in recent decades.
The organizational design of the HCSP is based on the creation of links between ongoing research activities in the thematic areas mentioned above and related research in Berlin. This is done in four ways.
Firstly, research groups or “labs” emerging from shared research activities provide specialized research environments for doctoral researchers and post-doctoral researchers. Such research groups exist on topics such as “The Vulnerability of democratic societies”, on “Migration" and on “collective Memory” discussing cutting-edge research projects about migration, diversity and globalization-related themes. While such research groups are temporary, they have the potential to be transformed into fully fledged specialized centers at the HCSP. In addition, the HCSP provides research opportunities, such as externally funded post-doctoral groups and individuals; these help place young researchers in the research community and provide a perspective for doctoral students who are trained and formed at the ISW and the BGSS. An incoming new post-doctoral project is the Mari-Curie-funded postdoctoral project on the ecological smenatics in right wing mobilizations in Gertmany, Austria and Switzerland.
Secondly, a number of existing Centers and Institutes are associated with the HCSP through shared research activities. These include the “Center for Empirical Social Research” (providing methodological competence), the “Center for Civic Participation” (doing research on civic engagement and associational life), the “Mediterranean Institue Berlin (MIB), the “Maecenata Institute for Philanthropy and Civil Society” at Humboldt University, and the Centre Marc Bloch, an AN-Institute, linked now through the project “Saisir l’Europe”.
Thirdly, the internationalization of the HCSP is an important aspect of the networking of research at the HCSP. It relies on three elements: the international networks of the BGSS and its related doctoral programs; the cooperation agreements of the ISW with Universities in Europe and elsewhere in the world; and the guest researchers and Fellows spending sabbaticals or longer periods in Berlin. The establishment of an “Einstein Fellow” at the BGSS, funded by the Einstein foundation, is an important step towards achieving the goal of internationalization.
Fourthly and finally, based on existing and planned research activities, “research centers” will emerge from HCSP concentrating research efforts in specific substantive fields. Proposals for such centers with a longer-term perspective are under discussion such as a “Center for Civil Society Research” which is in the making. Center for Mediterranean Studies”.
In this way, a network research community in the social sciences at Humboldt University is created and maintained. Those doing research come and go, bringing, sharing, and taking away knowledge, while a critical and politically consequential social science based on strong conceptual and methodological grounds remains constant. This defines the particular identity of the Humboldt Center of Social and Political Research.
In sum, the Center hosts:
- research activities at the Institute of Social Sciences;
- intra-faculty social-science-related research taking place within the Philosophische Fakultät III, especially with Asian and African Studies and the Kulturwissenschaften;
- inter-faculty social-science-related research carried out at other faculties of Humboldt University and at the Charité;
- research activities of visiting professors, visiting fellows, and research fellows;
- research opportunities for postdoctoral researchers, such as graduates of the BGSS and young researcher groups; and
- an environment for more specialized Centers targeting collective research efforts on particular themes or services.
The emerging organizational structure is unique in Berlin and elsewhere, since it fosters not only the visibility of social science research carried out at Humboldt University, but also integrates the different phases of learning by research in an organizational design, linking in an innovative way undergraduate teaching, graduate studies, postgraduate activities, and research by established colleagues. It intends to sustain learning processes across the differentiated phases of scientific careers, thus developing the traditional Humboldt ideal of linking teaching and research.
- Democratic Designs and the Evolution of Democracy
The design of democracy in Europe and beyond is the object of a series of research projects which look at different institutional patterns considered central to the democratic organization of societies. This includes the issue of political representation, the changing role of administrative cultures, the reconstitution of democracy beyond the nation-state, and classic institutional mechanisms such as federalism and party organizations. The sites for such research range from local through national to supranational sites, including their complex interrelationship.
The learning processes of actors and the reconstructive and deconstructive effects of emerging new rules of the political game provide events which institutions should examine. Thus, institutional innovation and its correlates on the level of the individual actor are an important area of research.
These research activities are based on the assumption that designing democratic processes produces outcomes beyond and/or against the intentions of the designers. This requires to account for the diversity of paths of democratization. This variety of developmental processes which range from developments toward deliberative form to autocratic forms of democracy requires a theoretical understanding for which evolutionary theory offers the best available explanatory model. It allows to take into account equally processes of involution and regressions as well progressions in processes of democratization. Specifying this model in terms of collective learning processes the divergence of paths can be reconstructed as “successful” or “blocked” learning processes of how to constitute society as a political community.
Such research cannot be separated from normative accounts of democracy which play a social role in the making and remaking of democratic institutions, a role which is quite separate from the idea that normative principles serve as the foundation of democracy. This double role of normative accounts – as systematic statements of what democracy should look like and as a discourse which influences empirically the institutional design of democracies in changing social contexts – raises a series of theoretical and methodological problems that are addressed within this area.
- Diversity and Inclusion/Exclusion
This area focuses on how increasing cultural heterogeneity affects social relations by drawing social boundaries in various spaces, narratives, and imaginations. These include citizenship practices, ethnic conflicts, the mobilization of religious beliefs, and the role of the public sphere in debates on collective memory and collective identities.
These issues are discussed and researched in terms of individual and collective attitudes and/or identity constructions. An important role is assigned to ethnic constructions of a particular “we” in relation to migration, transnationalization, and the resulting social diversity (or heterogeneity). On the cognitive side, the perception of justice and/or injustice in a world of increasing social and cultural “diversity” is a central research topic in this area.
The emotional side and its behavioral reflections are not only present in the contemporary events but are deeply rooted in religious beliefs and/or narrative constructions of the past. Such processes are observed on different levels (local, national, transnational) and in various places/spaces. Eastern and South Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean basin are particularly challenging spaces that provide quasi-experimental laboratories of symbolic cultural (re)constructions of meaning and the related individual and collective practices.
- Inequality and Welfare
The social and political dimensions of welfare constitute the fourth thematic area. The area addresses equally the structures of inequality, the policies that react to inequality, and the politics of inequality, i.e. forms of organizing and mobilizing groups against or for existing structures of inequality.
The structure of inequality is raised in analyses of both the material and the symbolic aspects of social inequality. Such inequalities are contextualized in different social spheres, including families where the well-being of children is at issue, health systems where inequalities of being treated appropriately are at issue, or policies of citizenship and immigration where the unequal distribution of rights and opportunities of making use of rights is at issue. The organizing idea is the link between the unequal distribution of opportunities of well-being with the institutional modes of rectifying such inequalities through welfare policies.
Since welfare policies are contested issues, the politics of welfare comes into focus as well. Welfare issues trigger processes of collective mobilization and counter-mobilization, which add a third element beyond social inequality and welfare policies.
Research activities on social inequality, policies of rectifying and generating welfare, and political struggles over welfare provisions in social, political, and cultural contexts are a theoretically and methodologically productive way to address the complex issue of welfare.
A follow-up problem, following a classic line of sociological research, is the question of whether such policies and politics affect the structure of the distribution of life chances. Observing such effects in particular areas, including family or health, may be a way to answer this question. Whether social science knowledge makes a difference and which difference it makes links this thematic area to the Center’s fourth thematic area of study – public knowledge.
- Public Knowledge
This thematic area deals with the interplay of tradition, scientific knowledge, and public knowledge, defining public knowledge as an emerging mode of making narrative sense of scientific knowledge. Situating scientific knowledge between tradition and public knowledge, thereby illuminating the dynamics of the interplay between the narrative construction of the world through tradition and public knowledge and the scientific mode of generating knowledge in processes of argumentation, is the focus of this research area.
Taking knowledge as what forebears have accumulated, recent research in the sociology of religion has shown that tradition still plays an important role in modern societies. Thus, the role of tradition in post-traditional societies constitutes a first element in this thematic area. It covers studies of classic political concepts (often taken from the Judeo-Greek-Roman past) up to the study of religious narratives in the self-perception of modern societies which vary widely among the so-called modern societies.
Science adds another source of knowledge which fosters processes towards a society leaving its tradition behind and orienting itself toward a present of opportunities opened up by scientific knowledge. New professional roles are created to mediate this knowledge to society and foster the image of societies becoming post-traditional. To the extent that knowledge engages in process-oriented accounts of social, economic, and cultural development, issues such as innovation and forecasting (e.g. of environmental risks) come into focus. Replacing Cassandra and religious prophets, a new institutional framework for disseminating knowledge emerges, accompanied by a meta-knowledge: the knowledge of how society generates and reacts to self-produced knowledge. The ongoing production of knowledge, be it reviving traditions, steering politically the production of scientific knowledge, or generating innovations in diverse organizational settings, constitutes the distinctive “reflexivity” of modern societies.
Finally, the emergence of a new narrative of social and political life, “public knowledge,” is an important subject of research in this area. Public knowledge goes beyond tradition and traditionalisms to draw on scientific evidence, but it translates such evidence into new sense-making patterns of experiencing and perceiving the world, thus questioning whether narrative beliefs are disappearing and science is taking over the function of sense-making.
By looking into the diversity of institutional forms of producing, distributing, and consuming knowledge, a series of theoretical and methodological challenges for the social sciences come to the fore, thus fueling ongoing debates at the HCSP.
Above all, the Humboldt Center provides a forum for different types of research units, bringing together social scientists from across Humboldt University with the aim of combining the social-science competencies available at Humboldt in a collective research effort. The research units are as varied as the topics they address: specialized HCSP Centers consider issues of interdisciplinary and political relevance; HCSP research groups and laboratories focus on theoretical methodological issues which are temporary and fluid; finally, a number of existing Centers at Humboldt University and Berlin-wide are affiliated with the HCSP, bringing their expertise to bear on the HCSP’s research activities.