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Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin - Department of Social Sciences

About the Department of Social Sciences

1. Our common understanding of the social sciences

 

Our common understanding of the social sciences, in other words the method of our research, covers the following points:

1.     Thematic: Our goal is to perform “problem-oriented analyses of the dynamics of modern societies and political regimes.”

2.     Research design: All of these analyses are theoretically oriented, methodologically guided and empirically substantiated.

3.     Type of social sciences: Although the social sciences we want to pursue are primarily understood as an empirical and analytical science of reality, in our understanding they include a critical and a normative perspective.

4.    Thematic integration: The Department of Social Sciences is characterised by its combination of political science and sociology. In this way, all work and research topics can be dealt with integrally from two different social science perspectives.

5.     Interdisciplinarity: Social sciences research at the Department of Social Sciences is very open to other disciplines. There are close connections with areas such as Gender Studies, History, European Ethnology, Cultural Studies, Law, Economics and Psychology both within and outside of HU.

Together these five points suggest a type of social sciences which can be more precisely described using the following seven characteristics:

1.     Theoretical openness: Although the “multiparadigmatic practice” (Niklas Luhmann) is often deplored in the social sciences, we do not view offering multiple theories as a weakness, but rather a strength. It enables issues to be tackled from several points of view and theoretical perspectives, and results in a more comprehensive view of social phenomena.

2.     Methodological plurality: At the Department of Social Sciences, the issue defines the choice of methodology and not the other way around. This includes combining quantitative and qualitative methods. The social sciences as we understand them suggest explanation and understanding. Only on this basis can a critical or normative assessment be made of the phenomenon in question.

3.     Comparative perspective: The problem-centred analysis of the dynamics of modern societies and democracies requires in particular a comparative perspective that allows for an examination of the similarities and differences of a social or political phenomenon.

4.     Reflected science: The social sciences are always part of the societies and democracies which they are investigating. For this reason, research must always have a ”reflexive” dimension which takes this circumstance into account.

5.     Problem-centred basic research: Research at the Department of Social Sciences is primarily viewed as basic social sciences research. This does not exclude applied research (such as contract research for foundations, associations or ministries), but the focus is on the theoretical, empirically founded approach to basic social sciences questions.

6.    External funding: The quality of research is not measured by the quantity of external funding obtained. Nevertheless, the Department of Social Sciences consistently strives to actively acquire and increase external funding.        External scientific funding takes precedence here.

7.    Internationality: Research at the Department of Social Sciences is characterised by intensive integration in international networks and in teaching and research contexts.

 

2. Structure of teaching areas

 

The areas of instruction are set up in such a way to cover all the basic subjects of sociology and political science. For another,  professorships geared more to thematic focuses bridge the gap between the two subject areas.

For political science, this means that the four cornerstones of the discipline are covered by corresponding professorships: (a) political theory and the history of ideas, (b), governing and the German system of government, including government in multi-level systems, (c) international politics and lastly (d) comparative political science.

For sociology the four cornerstones are (a) sociological theory and fundamentals, (b) macrosociology, (c) microsociology and (d) social sciences methodology.

These eight areas form the disciplinary basis for the two participating disciplines. All other specialisations can be given a new content focus. These professorships are no less key to the department’s ability to fulfil its research and teaching requirements than the teaching areas defined by the subjects’ basic canon. In fact, they make up the specific profile of the Department of Social Sciences.

 

3. Thematic focuses at the Department of Social Sciences

 

There are initially three elements relevant to integrating sociology and political science into the Department of Social Sciences via common thematic focuses:

a.     Both disciplines work with theoretical concepts which are at their core the same or at least very similar, such as functional differentiation, institutional theory, rational choice and socialisation theories (or other forms of micro-foundation for social behaviour), relational and interdependence theories, normative concepts for action and poststructural approaches, which fundamentally enable integrative work.

b.    From a methodological perspective, it is not only the established empirical procedures or the epistemological approach in the two disciplines that is largely identical, but also the comparative perspective, which also plays a prominent role here at the Department of Social Sciences. One of the Department’s traditional strengths is providing students with thorough training in quantitative methods and survey research. Qualitative procedures and (quasi) experimental forms of investigation are communicated equally and are adapted to specific issues. A high level of creative and innovative methods at the heart of teaching and research is the hallmark of the Department.

c.     Since scientific knowledge is omnipresent and virtually constitutive in modern society, science itself is also becoming a key subject of social sciences research. Science shapes the natural and social living environment of modern societies, including their reflection and self-reflection. Theoretical and empirical work  in the social sciences must therefore also tackle questions of the specific role played by science and the conditions of possibility for knowledge in modern societies.

 

 

The following five focuses shape the profile of the Department of Social Sciences:

 

Political theory and social theory

Theories play a role in all sub-disciplines of the social sciences. Theory can therefore be viewed as a cross-sectional topic in the department’s content-related work, reflected in areas such as engaging with theories of inequality, democracy and institutional theories, (micro) theories of human behaviour, theories of migration and diversity, theories of urbanisation, gender theories, theories of work, theories of international affairs, war theories, and theories of scientific research. The constitutive element here is a conceptual and historical/contextual determination of the relationship between political and social practices, structures and movements on the one hand, and  political and social ideas, theories and societal self-descriptions on the other. Theories are understood as possible answers to political and  social challenges. The arguments developed in theoretical texts are thus analysed as an interaction between empirical and descriptive stocktaking, problem diagnosis, and the conception of potential solutions.

 

 

Social and political inequalities

Modern societies and democracies find themselves in a contentious area between political equality and social inequality. The “Social and Political Inequalities” research focus deals with the various manifestations, the associated conflicts, the causes and the legitimation patterns of inequality. Social inequalities are the result of unequal distribution and intergenerational transmission of economic, social and cultural capital, but can also be conveyed and moderated by the state via ascribed differentiating categories such as age, gender or ethnicity. In a globalised world, social inequalities also arise from different levels of integration in international production and financial regimes, and thus cross the borders of societies organised by national states. Political inequalities are often socially encoded, such as the interest in and knowledge of politics which varies by class, status and environment. In addition, political inequalities are caused by the differential distribution of citizenship rights.

 

 

Democracy and transformation

The focus of research and teaching in this area is on an analysis of the interaction between players and institutions within democratic regimes and self-transforming systems. There is a particular focus on formation conditions, function logic, legitimation and change to political institutions, and the impact of institutions on key players’ behaviour and on the performance and quality of democracy. This includes a comparative analysis of deficiencies and crises in established democracies, as well as an investigation of political transformation processes across the entire continuum, from stable autocracies to hybrid systems right up to new democracies. Comparative democracy research takes a problem-centred approach to  all aspects of the political process (voting and citizen participation, representation of interests, public and  parliamentary opinion-forming, and government) and all levels of key players, including democratic participation in multi-level systems at a global level. From a geographical perspective, the work concentrates on the focal area of intraregional and interregional comparisons between political systems in  Western, Central and Eastern Europe and  the Islamic world, but also incorporates other global areas where relevant.

 

 

Work and lifestyle

Changes to work, gender and private lifestyle are looked at from action theory, organisational theory, institutional theory and international comparative perspectives. Work is examined as the central dimension of social inequality and societal power structures within the overall context of work and life. Social and operational organisation of work is investigated within various social, politico-economic and socio-historical contexts and in its interactions with individual patterns of life (e.g., care and career). In addition to the macroanalytical and mesoanalytical perspectives of socio-structural and institutional upheavals to working society, this area also takes into account socialisation processes relating to work, lifestyle, gender and family on a microanalytical level. Finally, along an explicitly critical and normative scale, this area investigates the consequences of current work and lifestyle developments for social and political behaviour and the emergence of new forms of social relationships and collective and civic behaviour, as well as their impact on the processes of social interaction, social inequality, social and geographical mobility, and demographic development.

 

Migration and the urban world

The first pillar of this area focuses on migration and citizenship. Migration as a socio-political field is an excellent example of the processes of globalisation and transnationalisation. Migrants epitomise the powers of globalisation, which challenge and confirm national sovereignty and control. Migration processes enable an investigation of the social, economic, political and cultural dynamics and conflicts  which arise when people from very different backgrounds come into contact with each other. We focus in particular on social divisions at the intersections between ethno-nationality, gender, race, religion and sexual orientation.

Closely linked with the topic of migration is life in (globalised) cities, a situation which presents new challenges to people in terms of access to rights and resources; in addition, globalisation creates locally specific configurations of citizenship. Whilst certain cities and neighbourhoods demonstrate socio-spatial benefits, others reproduce unequal access to resources or even contribute to the emergence of urban inequality. The question of inclusion and exclusion mechanisms is tackled from both a theoretical and an empirical perspective, for example in terms of processes of gentrification, urban decay, changes to social infrastructure (networks and sociality) and the role of specific locations for the city (such as shopping streets, churches, schools and other local institutions).

 

4. Teaching and learning culture

The teaching staff at the Department of Social Studies is committed to Humboldt’s concept of the complementarity of teaching and research and to personal development through scientific education. The department’s Bachelor’s and Master’s programmes and the structured doctoral programme run within the Berlin Graduate School of Social Sciences (BGSS) are therefore all based on a well-founded provision of the fundamentals of political science and sociology, quantitative methods, and subsequently a broad range of potential specialisations. Intensive teaching of the basics is designed to enable students to engage critically with existing knowledge and to embark on their own research paths at an early stage. An education based on current research projects also promotes students’ practical scientific skills in the course of the program and enables them to set a multitude of priorities for themselves.

The department also has a unique programme of exchange partnerships with universities in Europe and beyond, that enables students to gain foreign experience and familiarise themselves with other knowledge and learning cultures at an early stage.

The department’s location in the centre of Berlin, not far from the seat of government, also enables students to generate social science findings from current issues and formulate their implications as potential courses of action for knowledge-based intervention in political processes. Social science dialogue with politics, society and non-university research institutes is a key issue for the department and enables students to gain practical experience at an early stage, as well as to forge contacts with potential employers in typical social science occupations.

 

5. Partners, dialogue structures and internationalisation

The Department of Social Sciences is involved in a multidisciplinary dialogue with other departments and facilities within Humboldt-Universität. In addition, the department has a long tradition of institutional partnerships with universities and research institutions all over the world, which are put to use for a consistent strategy of internationalisation in training doctoral candidates in particular. The department views itself as part of Berlin’s social sciences research landscape and is closely networked with non-university research institutions (such as the Social Science Research Center Berlin, the Centre Marc Bloch, the German Institute for Economic Research, the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, the German Centre of Gerontology, the Institute for Research Information and Quality Assurance etc.) and with other universities in Berlin and Brandenburg (including the Otto Suhr Institute of Political Science at the Freie Universität Berlin, the Hertie School of Governance and the University of Potsdam).