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“We Provide a Productive Break With Everyday Understanding” – Sociology between analyzing everyday life and encouraging critical thinking

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Prof. Dr. Jürgen Mackert
Dr. Christian Schmidt-Wellenburg
Hannah Wolf
Photo : AdobeStock/bagotaj
„Wir sorgen für einen produktiven Bruch mit dem Alltagsverständnis“ – Soziologie zwischen Alltagsanalyse und Befähigung zu kritischem Denken
Photo : Thomas Roese
Prof. Dr. Jürgen Mackert
Photo : Thomas Roese
Dr. Christian Schmidt-Wellenburg
Photo : Sandra Scholz
Hannah Wolf

Jürgen Mackert is Professor of General Sociology. But a look at his research interests shows that they are anything but general: He researches migration, closure theory, and the sociology of citizenship, and political sociology. Matthias Zimmermann spoke with him and his team – Dr. Christian Schmidt-Wellenburg and Hannah Wolf – about their view on political structures, the nature of political sociology, and what concerns them as researchers.

Prof. Mackert, you and your team are researching the different facets of democracy. What about it interests you?

Mackert: We live in something called democracy – and I want to know why this liberal democracy thinks it’s so great. This interest goes hand in hand with a research topic that has been with me since the time of my studies: the condition of civil rights, which are closely linked to the emergence of Western societies. After World War II, these societies developed into welfare states that gave a foundation to the rights of citizens. Today, however, an opposing development is emerging through numerous processes of de-democratization: freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, freedom of expression are being curtailed in many places. My criticism of liberal democracies is that they are developing in the wrong direction.

Schmidt-Wellenburg: In my research, I focus on so-called expert knowledge, for example in economics. Of course, there are overlaps because every form of domination is formed by closed areas of experts. The exciting question is how they (re-)produce themselves, what power they have. In addition, I look at how state expertise – and the European statehood that is based on it – comes into being.

Wolf: At first glance, my research topics probably don’t seem like they have much to do with democracy. In the context of my doctoral thesis, I am doing research on housing deprivation and homelessness, and beyond that I am working – rather theoretically – on a sociologically fertile concept of taboo and tabooization. In the latter project, I am particularly interested in how the so-called limits of what can be said are negotiated in democratic societies, or, if you will, how “political correctness” comes into being.

Is democracy as a form of society viable in the future?

Schmidt-Wellenburg: … This isn’t a bowl of cherries! Social systems either survive or perish.

Mackert: I am quite skeptical about the democratic state of Western societies, whether national or supranational. We have seen for years that civil rights are under pressure. One example: What is happening to Julien Assange is not a personal problem but one of press freedom. In May 2022, it was prohibited in Berlin to demonstrate against the targeted shooting of a Palestinian journalist by the Israeli military. This is a matter of principle, because freedom of assembly and freedom of speech were undermined here with flimsy arguments. We are witnessing a massive curtailment of the welfare state and a brutal redistribution of resources, which is widening the gap between rich and poor. Here the often-propagated elective affinity between liberal democracy and capitalism is proving to be a fallacy. They do not get along. The extreme inequality inherent in the distribution of wealth under capitalism has political consequences – you can't separate them.

Schmidt-Wellenburg: What we are seeing are structural conflicts between the capitalist economic system and the democratic order. Critically examining these conflicts does not mean that we have to create an ideal order in a scientific cloud-cuckoo-land. What kind of developments are taking place to the detriment of democratic ideals? How are conflicts between ideal and reality dealt with? Answering these questions can help in the here and now. One must know the framework and critically question it in order to be able to act politically.

Wolf: We must also remember that there are different ideas of what democracy is and which ideals should be realized in it. A minimal definition and a preferably inclusive conception of democracy are worlds apart.

Mackert: In my view, political liberalism and democracy simply do not go together. When you read classical political liberal theory critically, you see that it was never about “everyone” participating in democracy at all. Political decisions were to be made by the owning elites and not by all citizens, i.e. not by the working class. The working class was to be kept out by all means, and it was. This conflict was only pacified after World War II – namely through class struggles. And only because there was the catastrophe of fascism and Nazism: The state was discredited because it was authoritarian and racist, and the economy because it thrived on fascism. The result of the class struggles was not revolution but reform. In addition, there was the competition of the Western societies with the socialist ones. One had to offer citizens something that was better than socialism. As disastrous as socialism was in terms of freedom and civil rights, it did offer a level of social protection that Western societies first had to establish. That was the welfare state. It collapsed with the neoliberal turn after the 1970s and even more so after the end of competition between the systems in 1989.
There was simply no longer any reason to offer people anything except the market and self-responsibility. If you form a society like that, which radically relies on egoism, competition, and rivalry, you no longer have democracy. At least not one that goes beyond the sense that you won’t be shot if you go demonstrating. But then you have completely given way to the economy. If someone calls that democracy, because we tick a box every four years, fine. I have a different understanding. We can see where this primacy of the economy leads in the USA, where billionaires influence legislation, where people who have no wealth are excluded from co-determination, where there is virtually no public education or health care system. It should not come as a surprise that in the USA libertarian and fascist tendencies go together. Political sociology studies such developments.

In your research, you repeatedly deal with civil rights. What is the appeal for you?

Mackert: This topic has indeed been with me for a long time. For me, the question of who has or does not have rights actually existed before I studied sociology. I was involved in social movements that helped refugees in the 1980s. At that time, I learned how nationalistically, rather than universalistically, national legal systems work to push people into asylum procedures in which they are powerless for years. I worked on that in my dissertation and asked how civil rights function as instruments not of inclusion but of exclusion. So how do liberal societies manage to keep people out who are not welcome? Modern societies function through rights: We are not here because we all like each other but because we have rights. Migration is therefore a struggle for participation. Who is allowed to join and who is not?

You founded the Centre for Citizenship, Social Pluralism and Religious Diversity together with Bryan S. Turner in 2016. What is the focus of this center?

Mackert: The center was established out of the long-standing collaboration with Bryan S. Turner. The Max Planck Research Award in 2015 made it possible to intensify this collaboration. The center was our prism to look at different topics from many perspectives: Populism, violence, crises of democracy or even the city as a space of social coexistence ...

Wolf: I think urban living and housing is one of the central issues and social problems of our time. I’m interested in rising rents and real estate prices, the role of publicly listed companies that make their profits by speculating and trading with housing as a commodity on the financial market, the decline of social housing, and the very different forms of housing shortage and homelessness. I’m also interested in the question of public space, which is being privatized more and more. Different actors have very different ideas about how to address these problems, and about how people should actually live in the future and what the cities of the future will look like. These are all highly political questions, which I examine from a sociological perspective. If housing becomes increasingly scarce, do we still live together in the city or do we rather constantly compete with each other? What forms of exclusion and discrimination exist, and who benefits? And what does it do to people’s experience and lived reality when home is perceived as an insecure and threatened space?

Neoliberalism, democracy, rights: your research is highly “political”. Why?

Mackert: We all share a specific understanding of sociology. In addition to a distinctive theoretical perspective, we strongly focus on current political developments and incorporate them in research and teaching.

Schmidt-Wellenburg: It must be noted that what we do is not party or election research. Political sociology, as I understand it, is any examination of classifications that are enforced throughout society. This can include a lot of things. For example, Ms. Wolf and I are currently conducting a two-semester student project in which we examine in more detail the direct candidates of all parties for the 2021 federal election in Berlin-Brandenburg. We are collecting their statements on Facebook, Twitter & Co. and comparing them with their CVs. We want to see: Who becomes a politician where? What kind of people go into politics in the Uckermark versus in Kreuzberg? That's political sociology.

Wolf: It is also a matter of examining the way in which topics are placed on the political agenda. What is framed as a social risk, what as a social opportunity? And what is perhaps not discussed at all?

Mackert: In recent years, I have focused primarily on the development of democracy, neoliberalism, and civil rights. However, one topic that is becoming increasingly important - including in teaching - is the continuing colonial tradition and legacy of our Western liberal societies. The West, or the Global North, continues to behave like a colonial master toward the Global South, undermining its own loudly propagated ideals everywhere. I am currently giving a seminar on colonialism. When I ask about “Eurafrica” there, nobody knows it. And that is not surprising because no one is supposed to know that the self-declared peace union and union of values officially conceived of Africa as a geographical extension and raw materials depot when the European Union was founded after World War II - and still does so today. Four of the six founding states were still colonial powers at the time, and their African colonies were important suppliers of raw materials. They were not to be given up so easily. Young people don’t learn about this in school. Nor are they supposed to. They are supposed to believe this self-adulation of Europe. All this ballyhoo about human rights and freedom and whatever else.

Are you yourself political?

Mackert: I came to sociology out of political commitment. In this respect, I have always been politically active, although never in or for parties. But I make a clear distinction between what I myself think politically and what I do as a researcher. As a scientist, you have to make a necessary break with what is negotiated in the public media discourse and thus appears normal and given. From my point of view, you have to critically question what is presented there for Western liberal societies. If you can do that, university teaching will also become political, not in a manipulative way but in the sense of motivating young people to think critically and independently.

Schmidt-Wellenburg: I am a political person. Although I am not politically active as a scientist, I’m political through what I provide in terms of scientific knowledge and reflection. That is my form of intervention. We provide a productive break with everyday understanding. It’s then the students’ decision what they do with it.

Wolf: Of course, it may sound like old news by now, but the personal is political. In this respect, reflecting on and critically questioning one’s own actions is part of political practice for me – whether at the kitchen table, in the seminar room, or in a social movement or political party.

Centre for Citizenship, Social Pluralism and Religious Diversity

The Centre for Citizenship, Social Pluralism and Religious Diversity is a space of international critical and vivid sociological and interdisciplinary debate on today’s world’s major economic, political, social and cultural problems and challenges.
The Centre was founded in 2016 by Professor Jürgen Mackert and Professor Bryan S. Turner, one of the world’s leading sociologists and recipient of the International Max Planck Research Award 2015 – the most prestigious individual science prize in Germany, awarded by the Max Planck Society and the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. Following the main interests of the prize winner since its opening, the Centre’s research has concentrated on a number of the most far-reaching and severe transformations that challenge modern societies, their economic, political and social foundations as well as ideas of pluralism and diversity against the background of democratic infrastructures, rules and institutions. Research topics therefore encompass the analysis of the transformation of citizenship as a concept, the impact of neo-liberalism on democracy, the financial crises and Europeanization of Western democracies, the rise of right-wing populism, neo-fascism, and authoritarianism all over Europe and the West, the de-democratization of cities from spaces of public debate and political organization to spaces of investment and revenue, and, not least, major rights issues such as gender and sexual minorities’ rights in a context of ageing societies, religious conflicts, and migration.

Dr. Christian Schmidt-Wellenburg

In the academic network “Political Sociology of Transnational Fields,” which he co-founded, Dr. Christian Schmidt-Wellenburg collaborates with other researchers to investigate transnational processes of socialization and associated new forms of governance. These are quiet politics that are often not distinguished as such. This makes it all the more important to identify and describe them. In his own project, he takes a look at experts and expert commissions that were created in the wake of the financial crisis at the national, European, and international level. For him, it started with an open letter in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in 2012. After Angela Merkel argued for a stronger regulation of banks, 274 “economists from German-speaking countries” spoke up and sharply criticized the German Chancellor. Only two days later, 221 other economists contradicted this judgment in an open letter of their own – and praised the Chancellor’s initiative. Schmidt-Wellenburg collected data on the social characteristics of the signatories of both letters: What scientific prestige have those examined earned – and by what means? What connections do they have to politics and science? And what positions do they occupy in the German-speaking national economy? In addition, he collected statements and publications on the financial crisis from as many participants as possible. “Coded and statistically analyzed, the result is a multi-faceted picture,” he says. “I can reconstruct structural relationships from the data that show why people act the way they do. But these are not predictions. I still have to go to people, talk to them – and understand them.”

Prof. Dr. Jürgen Mackert

Prof. Mackert is currently working “on a book about social closure theory, which aims to develop a new approach to forms of socialization and communitization, both of which take place through processes of power and the operation of fundamental social mechanisms. In addition, a book is being prepared that brings together basic and current texts on the paradigm of settler colonialism, which has been neglected if not completely ignored in German social science, and which I will publish with my colleague Ilan Pappe from the University of Exeter at the publishing house Nomos.”

Hannah Wolf

In her research, Wolf focuses, amongst other things, on the sociology of everyday life. “By researching everyday life, you can learn a lot about large social structures, especially about how they influence and regulate people’s lives. At the same time it reveals the possibilities for action that people creatively establish for themselves in their everyday lives and how they, in a sense, exert resistance to restrictions or also bring about changes. I investigate this either by being there - that is, through the method of participant observation - or also by asking people why they do things in their everyday lives this way or the other. This kind of questioning then leads to explanations that are both very subjective and very social: According to which rules and norms is everyday life organized, which power relations are reflected in it? I also consciously use this perspective in many of my seminars by practicing with the students how to question one’s own everyday actions by looking at them from a sociological perspective. For me, that’s one of the most important skills: being able to wonder about the supposedly ‘normal’ and then deriving relevant research questions from it.”

The Researchers

Prof. Dr. Jürgen Mackert studied sociology at the universities in Heidelberg, Berlin (FU), and Frankfurt/Main. Since 2009, he has been Professor of General Sociology at the University of Potsdam.
Mail: juergen.mackertuni-potsdamde

Dr. Christian Schmidt-Wellenburg studied sociology, political science and economics at the University of Marburg, TU Dresden, the University of Manchester, and Humboldt Universität zu Berlin. Since 2009, he has been research associate at the Chair of General Sociology.

Hannah Wolf studied theater, film and media studies, cultural anthropology, and European ethnology and philosophy in Vienna and Frankfurt/Main as well as sociology and educational science at the University of Potsdam. Since 2018, she has been research assistant at the Chair of General Sociology.
Mail: hannah.wolf.iiuni-potsdamde


This text was published in the university magazine Portal Wissen - Two 2022 „Humans“ (PDF).