The Cultural Construction of Communities in the Process of Modernisation in Comparison

A joint Project of the European University Institute, Department of History and Civilisation/Robert Schuman Centre, Florence and the Nordeuropa-Institut at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin

Directors: Professor Bernd Henningsen and Professor Bo Stråth


A Preliminary Assessment:
"The Cultural Construction of Community in the Process of Modernisation in Comparison" was a collaborative research project of the European University Institute in Florence, and Nordeuropa-Institut at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. The project was launched in January 1996 and funded for four years by the Bank of Sweden's Tercentenary Foundation. Although in financial and organisational terms the project came to a conclusion during the Spring of 2000, it has by no means come to an intellectual end. Over the past four years the project has opened a field of problems from a pronounced constructivist and culturalist perspective, which will hopefully contribute to a generation of new problems and questions in the future of academic debate.

The project has involved a core of a dozen researchers and was directed by Professor Bo Stråth at the European University Institute and Professor Bernd Henningsen at Humboldt University. Over twenty working papers and some ten books have been published. Additionally some twenty workshops and conferences as well as several seminar series have been organised

The original point of departure of the project was the observation that from a historical perspective the processes of modernisation in Sweden and Germany exhibit striking similarities, although developments in the 1930s advanced in diametrically opposed directions. The object of the interdisciplinary project at the outset was to foster a deeper understanding of why two basically similar processes of modernisation have resulted in such different problem resolutions. The question of governability studied through an analytical focus on language and culture was at the centre of the project.

In January 1997, with Bo Stråth's relocation from Gothenburg to the new joint chair (Robert Schuman Centre and History Department) in contemporary history at the European University Institute in Florence, the original Swedish-German comparison broadened to a more European comparative approach, which eventually transcended Europe.

The unifying question which this research project set out to address concerned how community and identity were constructed with language and symbols and through delimitation into "we-they" categories in different historical situations comparatively in various societies. The construction of community has, in turn, informed important points of departure for both political action as well as political and economic institutions. A sophisticated and critical reflection on the key concepts of the project such as that of "cultural (as opposed to "social") construction", "community", "identity", the demarcation in "We" and the "Other", "liminality", "formation", "transformation", "modernity" and "modernisation" has been undertaken. The role of history, culture, social sciences and religion in processes described using such concepts has been analysed. An epistemological point of departure has been Ernst Cassirer's semiotically grounded understanding of "reality", which he sees as an ensemble of symbol forms. Reality is constructed with symbols.

Through a systematic cultural-scientific comparison of various patterns of modernisation and community building over the past two hundred years we have achieved an increased understanding of how fundamentally similar problems can result in very different solutions. Empirical results have been combined with theoretical and methodological innovation in view of modernisation through a perspective which, in the analysis, has begun with language and symbols; with culture as an arena for the production of relations. Not the least, a comparison of the discursively constructed identity creating concepts of the "people" and the "nation" and of historical foundation myths has opened new horizons of understanding. This discussion has been developed in the volumes, The Cultural Construction of Norden, Myth and Memory in the Construction of Community and 1848 Memory and Oblivion in Europe.

Fruitful questions have dealt with how the image of the Other, through comparing and contrasting as well as identification and rejection, has been incorporated into self-understandings. Autostereotypisation has interacted with xenostereotypisation. Thus, emphasis has been placed upon how, through debate and social contention, in processes of heterostereotyping interests for other cultures function in the act of constructing of community and identity. Simultaneously, the culture, which is the target of these visions is influenced insofar as external interests are not only noticed but are also incorporated into and transform one's identity/self-understanding. These issues have been confronted in the books Europe and the Other, Europe as the Other and Between Europe and Islam: Altering the Boundaries of Community and the Self.

A theoretical perspective has been at the heart of the research program. It assumes that power over language and symbols are important in every social organisation. Interpretations and intellectual power positions are established in the struggle over the definition of social problems and their solutions. The framework is set in which problems will be presented and suppressed. With concepts, symbols and metaphors identity and community are created as well as demarcation and conflict.

The modernisation of western industrial society over the past two hundred years can be seen as the sum of a number of processes such as industrialisation and technological development, bureaucratisation, professionalisation and democratisation. These processes often have different time sequences, which produce tension. This tension is experienced as a problem. Periods of an especially large accumulation of problems are experienced as crises. During crisis established truths either erode or collapse. The attempt to create new concepts or frameworks of interpretation, or to give new meaning to the old, is intensified. In such phases of crisis similarly organised societies can come to seek solutions in very different directions. Within each society a totally new path can be taken whereby development can lead on to totally new paths. Weber, in his famous railroad metaphor, spoke about, switch operators, who led development on to new tracks. New visions, Weltbilder, thereby, played a significant role in informing action. Crisis phases with particular problem accumulation have been the 1930s and the period from the 1970s. The contradictions of modernity are confronted in Enlightenment and Genocide, Contradictions of Modernity (which emphasises the utopian quest for an ever better society as being not only an important trigger of social dynamics in modernisation processes but also as leading to apparently contradictory associations such as Enlightenment and genocide), and The Postmodern Challenge: Perspectives East and West.

The concepts of state and society are excellent examples of how the utopian search for new and better communities is an on-going process and that established communities are in constant transformation. They have been used to develop utopian images of a better future (or past) as heuristic points of reference in various patterns of overlapping or exclusion.

State and society expressed different attributes in an imaginary community. Those attributes which appeared in every given situation to be least emphasised were sought in a movement back and forth, in a constant search for better communities, where that which one does not have becomes the goal of new visions. Taking the symbiotic character of concepts like state and society into consideration, rather than standing in opposition to each other, or being entities, which exclude each other, they are much like the two sides of a coin, essential to each other.

A second conceptual pair, which compliments society and state is freedom and equality. These concepts arose during the French Revolution and were thought of as one but soon enough drifted apart. In practical politics either one or the other has been emphasised which, not the least, the transition to a neo-liberal discourse during the 1980s demonstrates, even if one, rhetorically, sought to hold the concepts together.

A third conceptual pair of utopian oriented counter-concepts which this project investigated is community/society.When the concept of community was used in the Paris and Rome Treaties in 1951 and 1957 respectively, it was to express a purposeful intention toward an organisational unity, which superseded the concept of the nation-state, after it was corrupted during World War II. Community became the name of the European integration project. One of the key problems when this project was formulated was how to make Germany a strong ally in the Cold War and at the same time guarantee that the western allies controlled its power. The principal architects of this design came from France, where concern about this key problem for historical reasons was particularly great. In Germany, in the 1930s, the Gemeinschaft concept linked to the Volk concept had been key elements in the development towards catastrophe. In the German speaking world the Gemeinschaft concept was more or less banned in the 1950s. In France, communauté, for historical reasons, in the 1950s had a much more positive value charge than Gemeinschaft in Germany. In the form of the European Community in German translation, Gemeinschaft returned as a political concept, which guaranteed German incorporation in the West European Alliance in the Cold War, and which, as such, was disconnected from its historical heritage in the German speaking world.

As with the conceptual pairs state-society and freedom-equality, community has often been seen as an alternative to society. This dichotomy extends back to Ferdinand Tönnies' Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft (1887). He was clearly influenced by the distinction between culture and civilisation when he coined his thesis of an archaic community which, on the basis of the Enlightenment, was transformed into a rational society on a higher stage of development. Community was a conscious endeavour; society an organisational principle. The example of the European Community as well as the use of the concept by the Nazis' during the Weimar Republic and the Swedish Social Democrats' "People's Home" community shows, nonetheless, that community-society cannot be seen in a diachronically linear path of development. It is, rather, a constant utopian change of scene between both sides of the face of Janus at odds with the alienation of modernisation.

Society is not, in this respect, an overarching order but manifold represented unity which in itself, however, can also contain residual conflicts. This unification is of very different scope, durability and substance. In order to attain such unity existing or newly created rules are not enough. Rather, "social work" is also required to interpret situations and to adapt interpretations to each other. The search for unity in itself cannot be derived from the participants' social position, or out of a certain type of conflict, but rather is about a variety of criteria for how situations are interpreted. The quest for unity is an ongoing social activity, which necessitates a continuous construction of community whereby persons and objects, which by nature are not alike or equivalent, are equalised.

Central to the entire research project has been the concept of culture. Culture, as the fundamental category in the construction of community, cannot solely be seen as a phenomenon manifested in symbols. Instead, culture is much more like software that forms the social organisation; a model of conduct. At the same time, and on another level, it is also a process for observing and evaluating this organisation. Culture is a selection process for the reduction of complexity, this reduction being unavoidable for the creation of frames of interpretation and community.

During the discussions in the project it has become clear that a certain tension exists between culture and modernisation, continuity and discontinuity as well as symbolic construction respective representation. History reveals the risks of an ideologised, community charged concept of culture. The solution, which this research project would like to suggest goes in the direction of modernisation research where the historical and semiotic analysis of the construction of community is combined with a social scientific analysis of society and social organisation. The linking of community to society aims at an ideological de-charging of the concept of culture to make it into a scientific category of analysis where the dynamic and never friction free unity between constructed community and society in modernisation processes can be made comprehensible without the analysis taking the form of "crypto-politics" and Gemeinschaft as was the case with Kultur concepts in the 1930s. The cultural and radically constructivist approach of this project aimed at the promotion of a new social and political history, clearly distinct from historiographic trends with their roots in the 1980s, because it reconsidered the importance of political and social issues in problem formulation and research interest.<

The Publications
Myth and Memory in the Construction of Community
Europe and the Other, Europe as the Other
Enlightenment and Genocide, Contradictions of Modernity
l848 - Commemoration in Europe
The Postmodern Challenge: Perspectives East and West
The Cultural Construction of Norden
Nationalism and Modernity (pdf)

See also the workshop: Pasts Proposed: (Contra-)Factual History and Futures Past