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Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin

Connections and Connectivity


 

Prof Christiane Eisenberg and Prof Gesa Stedman

 

Comparative research in the humanities, especially in the area of social research, both contemporary and historical has enjoyed a significant upturn since the 1970s. A great number of comparisons have been made between Great Britain and Germany in particular. In addition to comparative research, further studies since the 1990s, among them several by the Centre's staff, have dealt with the phenomenon of cultural transfers which – often unintentionally – go along with encounters between 'indigenous' and 'foreign' countries. This branch of research transcends the comparative tradition insofar as scholars do not simply enquire into similarities, differences and, from time to time, increases or decreases in distance. They also conduct an analysis of exchange relations, media and mediators between states and societies in the course of the growing interest in questions concerning Europeanisation and globalisation.

Researchers at the Centre for British Studies include a further aspect which, as a result of the connection between comparative and transfer research, will increasingly force itself into the foreground of research practice: connectivity problems between states, societies, economies and cultures. What we mean by this are failed cultural transfers and broken-off communications, as well as strategies of avoidance and rejection in the course of transnational processes. We would also like to examine British connectivity with Germany and compare the problems of British-German connectivity with other cases. And we want to do our part in ensuring that a general academic exchange comes into being in the area of connectivity research. The project was launched at a workshop conference in Berlin in June 2009.

 

Further details

In times of rapid travel, communication, mass migration and international exchange of all kinds, it is not surprising that the interest in connections and connectivity has now reached academia. The Centre for British Studies will concentrate its future research on this interdisciplinary area.

We will focus on two aspects of connections and connectivity: on the one hand, we intend to investigate different theoretical approaches and models of connection and connectivity, such as cultural exchange theory, neo-institutionalism, communication, and postcolonial approaches. On the other hand, we want to examine individual cases which compare Britain with other selected regions or countries. The aim is to combine both high-level theoretical reflection with case studies, the better to test the validity of such theoretical approaches. The disciplines which will be part of the research group are as follows: history, law, cultural and literary studies, sociology and economics. We hope to attract partners from ethnology, as well as from other area studies, since connections and connectivity between states and institutions, societies and cultures need to be examined from an interdisciplinary and theory-informed perspective. An analysis of specific connections and of the mechanisms enabling connectivity requires that legal, institutional, political, economic, social and cultural contexts be investigated.

The phenomena to be investigated may or may not transcend national boundaries. Both postcolonial theory and neoinstitutional analysis, for example, partly or even predominantly concern themselves with connectivity within a nation; postcolonial theory addresses the experience of the individual who has to negotiate his or her position with regard to several different cultures, while the analysis of institutions with regard to similarity or complementarity requires the existence of common values or standards and is therefore applicable either on the national level, or with respect to international organisations like NATO as well as supra- or transnational NGOs. Both approaches have their shortcomings; postcolonial theory privileges the experience of the internationally mobile, ‘hybrid’ intellectual over that of millions of less mobile migrants who are, therefore, less able to negotiate their position with regard to the social structures or cultures they have to interact with. Institutional analysis, in its turn, faces difficulties to systematically provide information on the less formalised interactions between social structures or cultures that transcend the boundaries of nation states. For such connections, cultural exchange studies are more helpful. Where connections relating to technological developments and communication are concerned, areas that transcend individual experience on the one hand, but where the nation state, on the other hand, is not necessarily of primary importance, neither of these approaches is particularly helpful. Here, it is tempting to use established metaphors and describe the phenomena in terms of networks and flow; this incurs the risk, however, of privileging metaphorical theories at the cost of specific insights. In fact, any general investigation of connections and connectivity must bring together a whole range of approaches from different disciplines while simultaneously avoiding the risk of operating on so high a level of abstraction that no specific insights on actual historical connections may be gained. There is, to date, a shortage of theory-informed approaches that explore the phenomenon of connectivity in general, including the question whether connections and connectivity can also arise from (former) conflict.

The project at the Centre for British Studies addresses a range of specific questions regarding the phenomena of connections and connectivity, primarily during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and with Britain as its focal point. However, since comparison is a sine qua non for most forms of cultural exchange and connection, our aim is to find points of comparison, be they German, French, or non-Western regions or countries. We explore the exchange processes that underlie not only the development of international and transnational relations and the mechanisms of interaction associated with them, but also the occurrence of cultural change. For the discussion and possible import of foreign models by any society generally serves one of two purposes; that of justifying or that of challenging the status quo.