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The Thinking Club - Scientific network researches political struggles over new forms of transnationalization

Dr. Christian Schmidt-Wellenburg. Photo: Karla Fritze.

Dr. Christian Schmidt-Wellenburg. Photo: Karla Fritze.

The world is in flux: money is becoming digital, people are highly mobile, and the economy is global. As a consequence, some say, politics has turned global and must be analyzed on this level. Others argue that those political players and structures that really make a difference are still to be predominantly found at the national level. Neither is true, says Dr. Christian Schmidt-Wellenburg. He has initiated a scientific network of political and social scientists examining what political processes in “transnational fields” look like and who the drivers are.

“We use the term transnational very deliberately,” explains Christian Schmidt-Wellenburg, “because we don’t believe that everything in the world works only globally. That is, we see the world and all that’s happening here as neither one big box nor as many small boxes in a row.” Processes are, instead, happening in many places simultaneously and are interrelated – such as the development of a European society, labor migration in all directions, or flows of refugees across continents.

The researchers also refute the widespread notion that politics is becoming less important. They find that interested parties are indeed driving political processes, both in the classical field of politics and in other social fields. Their aim is to establish and develop transnational orders that go beyond nation-states but are not global. Striking examples are the self-contained political and social worlds in Brussels and other places hosting EU institutions, as laid out in European Union treaties. To understand the mechanisms underlying the establishment of such structures, the 18 researchers collaborating in the network “political sociology of transnational fields” are examining very different phenomena.

Transnationality in Europe – from economic to higher education policies

For instance, they are investigating how good economic policy is discussed in the European Union during economic and financial crises. In this context, Lisa Suckert of Max Planck Institute (MPI) for the Study of Societies in Cologne is studying EU members’ National Reform Programmes (NRP), in which each state formulates analyses and ideas for its economic policies and determines how to align them with the objectives of the European Union. “Analyzing NRPs offers a fairly accurate description of how member states discuss the future in their communications with the EU,” Schmidt-Wellenburg explains. “Here, it becomes evident that this instrument changed the perception of what good economic management is.” The crisis in 2008 in particular showed how much the European Union was struggling over how to interpret an insecure economic future – in a completely new setting.

The “Europeanization of higher education” is another transnational phenomenon with its own actors, logics, and structures. Dr. Christian Baier and Vincent Gengnagel of the University of Bamberg are studying the promotion of science in Europe. Specifically, they are investigating how the research landscape changed after the European Research Council (ERC) was founded in 2007. Research in Europe has since ceased being funded only at the national level. After all, the ERC boasts a 13 billion Euro budget between 2014 and 2020 alone. By analyzing which projects have been applied for – and received funding – and in which fields, the two sociologists are looking to determine what a transnational academic field actually is. Are national hierarchies dissolving? And are they being replaced by a European academic capitalism – a pan-European performance comparison characterized by a handful of globally visible winners, brain drain, and a European academic elite?

New policies are made by people, too

In their work, the researchers always put the human actors at the center: “Political scientists tend to speak of systems and organizations doing this or that,” Schmidt-Wellenburg says. “We are interested in the people behind the policies.” To this end, the members of the network apply French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of “field”, which allows the researchers to determine the mechanisms behind the functioning of various societal fields and to capture who follows these rules and – above all – shapes them. “People are not merely recipients of transnationalization but are also its agents and drivers.”

Another member of the network is Dr. Sebastian Büttner of the University of Duisburg-Essen. He is investigating the phenomenon of “EU professionalism”, that is, the experts and professionals who are directly or indirectly involved in the structures of European policy and who support and drive the project of Europeanization. “They possess a special knowledge, are oriented towards Brussels, where they also try to influence policy,” Schmidt-Wellenburg points out. “A unique form of statehood has developed in Brussels as a result.”

Of experts who disagree

In most cases, these new forms of policy and political action are not easily recognizable, the sociologist underlines. “These are silent policies that are seldom labelled as such,” making their identification and description all the more important. In his own project, Schmidt-Wellenburg focuses on experts and expert commissions set up in the wake of the financial crisis at national, European, and international levels. His interest in the matter was triggered by a 2012 open letter in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. After Angela Merkel had spoken out in favor of stricter banking regulation, 274 “economists from German-speaking countries” came forward to sharply criticize the German Chancellor. Just two days later, 221 other economists contradicted this opinion in another open letter – praising the Chancellor’s initiative. “My reaction was: ‘This is crazy! It needs to be studied,’” Schmidt-Wellenburg says with a laugh. “The sample was already there.” So, he began collecting data on the social attributes of those who had signed the letters: What is their scientific reputation, and how was it acquired? What are their connections to politics and academia? And what are their positions in the political economy of German-speaking countries? He also collected statements and publications on the financial crisis by as many of the signatories as possible. “Once coded and statistically analyzed, the data showed a multi-layered picture,” he says. On this basis, conclusions could be drawn as to why and how economists tended to be similar to the signatories of “their” letter – and different from those of the other one. However, no causal explanation can be derived from statistical correlation alone, Schmidt-Wellenburg underlines. “I can use the data to reconstruct structural relationships that show why people act the way they do, but these are not forecasts. I still have to go to the people, talk to them, and try to understand.”

In his network project, he is now comparing German and French economists. In France, there was a public debate about labor market reforms which he intends to analyze further. He will subsequently be comparing the two cultures involved in the debate – and the transnational exchange in the expert commissions. “I am interested in the problems these commissions specified and the solutions they suggested – depending on who was sitting on them.” Once again, he will be combining the qualitative analysis of individual work environments with the statistical analysis of the role economists play in new fields of transnational policy. “All projects in the network are designed to link transnationalization from the bottom and from the top,” Schmidt-Wellenburg emphasizes. The long-term objective is to describe fundamental mechanisms of transnationality on the basis of the individual projects. 

What he appreciates about working in the network is the thematic proximity: “We are doing all kinds of projects but on the same topic: transnationality. So, our network is like an ongoing colloquium. It feels good to debate with people with whom I don’t have to first explain what this is all about.” At regular meetings, the researchers exchange views on methods, discuss articles-in-progress or research findings, and network with international guests. “Our network is a kind of thinking club, in which we read each other’s texts and support each other – a unique and conducive environment.”

Field is one of the core concepts of French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. It is based on the assumption that, in a society, individuals act in various, separate fields. Economics, politics, religion, science, and the arts are all seen as independent fields with their own rules. To operate successfully in one field requires following its rules. At the same time, the structures of a field are alterable and, thus, contested. In his theory, Bourdieu described features that all fields share, providing the basis for their comparison.


The scientific network “Political Sociology of Transnational Fields” comprises 18 young researchers that research transnational processes of societization and accompanying new forms of governing people from a political sociology perspective.
Funding: German Research Foundation (DFG)
Duration: 2016–2019


Dr. Christian Schmidt-Wellenburg studied sociology, political science, and economics at Philipps Universität Marburg, the University of Manchester, and Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. After having held positions at HU Berlin and Otto Friedrichs Universität Bamberg, he started working as research associate at the Chair of General Sociology of the University of Potsdam in 2009.

Text: Matthias Zimmermann
Translation: Monika Wilke
Published online by: Alina Grünky
Contact to the online editorial office: onlineredaktion@uni-potsdam.nomorespam.de