The History of Knowledge: An Indispensable Perspective for Contemporary History

Even if scholars are no strangers to the history of knowledge, it sometimes feels as though some cultural and social historians are not very open to the subject, at least not in the case of contemporary history. Questions put forward by the history of knowledge are seen as sidetracking research from “real” work or “important” questions. Although I sympathize with this reaction, I cannot see any way around the history of knowledge. Without renewing the discussion on replacing the “society” in Gesellschafts­geschichte with “knowledge,”1 I agree with Simone Lässig’s inclusive position that the history of knowledge is “a form of social and cultural history that takes ‘knowledge’ as a phenomenon that touches on almost every sphere of human life, and … uses knowledge as a lens to take a new look at familiar historical developments and sources.”2 In some cases, such as when examining the history of the revolutions of 1989–91 from a longer-term perspective, studying knowledge can also offer historians the opportunity to analyze material never before subjected to historical analysis.

“An East German policeman monitors traffic returning to East Berlin through the newly created opening in the Berlin Wall at Potsdamer Platz,” November 14, 1989, by Staff Sergeant F. Lee Cockran, Wikimedia Commons.

In the case of the revolutions that ended the Cold War, an established division of labor long limited what historians studied. Whereas the time before 1989 and the upheavals themselves are usually considered to be within the realm of historical research, the period after 1989–91 has lain in the hands of social scientists and has only recently attracted the attention of historians.3 Social scientists have been the main producers of knowledge about the 1990s, knowledge stored in books, journal articles, and other academic output that is now source material for historians. Social scientists themselves—or at least some of them—stress that they did not produce “raw data” or “objective” information.4 Instead, they followed their own research and personal agendas, making decisions about methods, theories, staff, and cooperation partners. All this had consequences for the knowledge they produced and thus may also have consequences for historians’ analyses and narratives. This is why I cannot see a way around the history of knowledge, in this case, a history of social sciences, at least not to begin with.

The field of contemporary history is concerned with a period in which the social sciences became a prominent force for interpreting society. As a historian, I am interested in the images and interpretations of the world inherent in the knowledge produced by social scientists, including in the tools and methods they used. Historians of knowledge do not wish to control or judge what has been produced by social scientists in recent times but rather are interested in questions about how the knowledge was produced, how it circulated among various historical actors, and how power and knowledge interact within specific fields of inquiry. Let us illustrate the point with two broad questions: What motivated social scientists in 1989 and thereafter to study the upheaval? What knowledge did they produce and see become prominent?

Social Scientists as Historical Actors

If we take Germany after 1989–90, a mix of scientific curiosity, personal motives, funding, and a restructuring of the academic system brought job opportunities for some (mainly West Germans) and job impossibilities for others (mainly East Germans). This mix seems to have lain at the core of scientists’ activities. The sociologist Renate Mayntz stated in 1994 that shock and surprise were the strongest motives. She considered both to be nonscientific and instead very human.5 Other sociologists framed their motives as scientific. Claus Offe, for example, was enthusiastic about the natural experiment that was happening before his eyes.6 Whichever motive drove their work, social scientists all had the same problem. To put it bluntly, they had not really predicted the collapse of the communist regimes and hardly had a sound theory to explain it. Even the term “transformation” had no clear status in the social-scientific repertoire but instead was used as a catch-all term in a variety of academic disciplines for changes of all kinds.7 This was not only due to specific circumstances in Germany but was similarly observed (and contested) in the much more internationally oriented field of anthropology, whose Western representatives had taken an interest in communist regimes even before the revolutions of 1989–91.8

The term “transformation,” as defined by the historian Philipp Ther (Die neue Ordnung auf dem alten Kontinent, p. 28.), refers to a period of accelerated, radical, sudden, and extensive change in the political, economic, and social system. In the case of the upheavals of 1989–91, this period is not restricted to the actual revolution but also includes at least the previous decade (so-called late socialism) and a decade after that. When the period of transformation begins and ends in historical accounts, however, depends very much on the specific topic. It ended very soon in the case of the Trabi, that most obvious symbol of change to observers in the West, and took a lot longer in the cases of housing and infrastructure.

Specific to Germany was the dual capacity of West German scientists. On the one hand, they were interested in studying the phenomenon of upheaval and its consequences. At the same time, they were involved in transforming the academic system of social sciences in the former GDR. Take, for example, the Commission for Research on Social and Political Change in the New Federal States (KSPW), which was constituted for three major purposes: to study social and political change in the former GDR and to enhance research on these topics; in doing so, to provide an empirical and theoretical foundation for policy recommendations; and to cooperate with social scientists in the so-called new federal states as well as to support young scholars there.9 By the time the KSPW ended its work in 1996, when its governmental funding ended, its members and other scientists had amassed a huge corpus of material, produced a wide-ranging body of knowledge, and contributed to the transformation of the social sciences in the former GDR.10

To understand and use the knowledge produced by the social sciences in the 1990s, it is necessary to take this specific research context into consideration, the specific focal points it included, and the ones it left out.

Social Scientists as Producers of Knowledge

If we look at the knowledge produced, specifically, that which attained prominence in the public discourse, a division becomes apparent. In recent years, younger social scientists have called for a fresh look at East Germany. They argue that research on the subject has focused too much on German unification without considering East Germany in its own right.11 Similar unease has led a group of younger Germans who did not feel represented at the festivities surrounding the twentieth anniversary of the peaceful revolution and German reunification in 2009–2010 to found the 3rd Generation East Germany Network.12

If the intellectual content of this critique is not new,13 it is nonetheless an interesting social phenomenon. A large amount of social scientific research was published after 1989, but East Germans—or at least some of them—miss a congruence with their own experience. The knowledge produced and circulated by the KSPW and other historical actors from the social sciences does not comport with the knowledge of those who experienced the transformation first-hand. To frame this with the terminology of the history of knowledge: knowledge comes from everyday experience with the world around us as well as from scientific inquiry.14 Within social and scientific formations of hierarchy and power, however, some knowledge is delegitimized and ignored, as was the case here.15

This did not mean that such silenced knowledge was not produced or circulated. The question of how individuals attach meaning to their lives in times of sudden and radical system changes was already being posed by prominent sociologists such as Rainer Lepsius in 1991.16 However, only three years later, in 1994, Renate Mayntz observed a division in transformation research, with a focus on formal institutions and organizations, on the one hand, and a focus on changes in social life, attitudes, and behavior, on the other hand. What she could not see was a connection between these two areas of research. Only by looking at the macro level and the micro level at the same time, she argued, would it be possible to develop a complete picture.17


The initial findings of historical studies completed more than twenty years later come to similar conclusions. Take the case of private property and owner-occupied houses. People tell a story of loss, even if they have been able to keep the houses in which they were living when the Berlin Wall came down, successfully withstanding challenges to their ownership by other claimants. How widespread this divergence is and how it can be explained remain open questions. It is also not clear if this narrative reflects experience or if it represents an opinion given in the context of a qualitative interview, an opinion shaped through the interaction between the two partners in the interview. In any case, the division within transformation research forces us “to rethink the complex relationship between structure and agency,”18 between changes in systems and individuals’ own experiences in their specific lifeworlds. It also forces us historians to include the history of knowledge in our historiographical repertoire, especially if we want to use social scientific data as sources for historical analysis.

Kerstin Brückweh directs a project titled The Longue Durée of 1989/90: Regime Change and Everyday Life in East Germany at the Centre for Contemporary History (ZZF) in Potsdam, Germany, and she is a lecturer (Privatdozentin) at the University of Tübingen.

  1. See the inspiring article by Philipp Sarasin, “Was ist Wissensgeschichte?,” Internationales Archiv für Sozialgeschichte der deutschen Literatur 36 (2011): 159–72. ↩︎
  2. Simone Lässig, “The History of Knowledge and the Expansion of the Historical Research Agenda,” Bulletin of the German Historical Institute 59 (2016): 29–58, quote 44. ↩︎
  3. See, for example, these ongoing projects: “Technocratic Governance and Expert Knowledge in Czechoslovakia 1960–2000,” led by Michal Kopeček (Prague); “1989 after 1989: Rethinking the Fall of State Socialism in Global Perspective,” led by Mark James (Exeter); “Transformations from Below: Shipyards and Labour Relations in the Uljanik (Croatia) and Gdynia (Poland) Shipyards since the 1980s,” led by Philipp Ther (Vienna) and Ulf Brunnbauer (University of Regensburg); “Volunteering in Local Communities between Late Socialism and Liberal Capitalism: The History of Volunteer Fire Departments in Germany and East Central Europe, 1980–2000,” led by Philipp Ther (Vienna) and Thomas Lindenberger (Dresden); “Rooms: Manövrierräume im Staatssozialismus: Zwischen Aneignung und Experiment,” led by Claudia Kraft (Siegen) in cooperation with Jerzy Kochanowski (Warsaw); “The Longue Durée of 1989/90: Regime Change and Everyday Life in East Germany,” led by Kerstin Brückweh (Potsdam). ↩︎
  4. See Lutz Raphael and Gert Wagner, “Zur (potentiellen) Bedeutung der Mikrodaten sozial- und wirtschaftswissenschaftlicher Erhebungen und amtlicher Statistik,” RatSWD Working Paper Series, no. 250 (2015), ↩︎
  5. Renate Mayntz, “Die deutsche Vereinigung als Prüfstein für die Leistungsfähigkeit der Sozialwissenschaften,” Biss Public 13 (1994): 21–24. ↩︎
  6. Claus Offe, “Die deutsche Vereinigung als ‘natürliches Experiment,'” in: Bernd Giesen and Claus Leggewie, eds., Experiment Vereinigung: Ein sozialer Großversuch (Berlin, 1991), 77–86. ↩︎
  7. See Eberhard Sandschneider, Stabilität und Transformation politischer Systeme: Stand und Perpektiven politikwissenschaftlicher Transformationsforschung (Opladen, 1995). For the broader context, see the introduction to Handbuch Transformationsforschung, ed. Raj Kollmorgen, Wolfgang Merkel, and Hans-Jürgen Wagner (Wiesbaden, 2015), 11–27. ↩︎
  8. For a glimpse at the underlying issues within the discipline of anthropology, see Tatjana Thelen, “Shortage, Fuzzy Property and Other Dead Ends in the Anthropological Analysis of (Post)Socialism,” Critique of Anthropology 31, no. 1 (2011): 43–61; and Elizabeth Cullen Dunn and Katherine Verdery, “Dead Ends in the Critique of (Post)Socialist Anthropology: Reply to Thelen,” Critique of Anthropology 31, no. 3 (2011): 251–55. ↩︎
  9. Hans Bertram, “Editorial,” in Arbeit, Arbeitsmarkt und Betriebe, ed. Burkart Lutz et al. (Opladen, 1996), xiii–xix. ↩︎
  10. For an overview, see Stephan Weingarz, Laboratorium Deutschland? Der ostdeutsche Transformationsprozess als Herausforderung für die deutschen Sozialwissenschaften (Münster, 2003). ↩︎
  11. Sandra Matthäus and Daniel Kubiak, eds., Der Osten: Neue sozialwissenschaftliche Perspektiven auf einen komplexen Gegenstand jenseits von Verurteilung und Verklärung (Wiesbaden, 2016). For the broader context: Astrid Lorenz, ed., Ostdeutschland und die Sozialwissenschaften: Bilanz und Perspektiven 20 Jahre nach der Wiedervereinigung, Leverkusen 2011. ↩︎
  12. See Netzwerk 3te Generation Ostdeutschland,; Michael Hacker, Stephanie Maiwald, and Johannes Staemmer, eds., Dritte Generation Ost: Wer wir sind, was wir wollen (Berlin, 2012); and Adriana Lettrari, Christian Nestler, and Nadja Troi-Boeck, eds., Die Generation der Wendekinder: Elaboration eines Forschungsfeldes (Wiesbaden, 2016). ↩︎
  13. The Collaborative Research Centre 580 “Social Developments after Structural Change—Discontinuity, Tradition, Structural Formation,” which ran between 2001 and 2012 at the Universities of Jena and Halle, took this development as a starting point: Also influential and widely received outside academia: Heinz Bude, Thomas Medicus, and Andreas Willisch, eds., ÜberLeben im Umbruch: Am Beispiel Wittenberge: Ansichten einer fragmentierten Gesellschaft (Hamburg, 2011). ↩︎
  14. Alfred Schütz and Thomas Luckmann, Strukturen der Lebenswelt (Konstanz, 2003). ↩︎
  15. Lässig, “History of Knowledge,” 51. ↩︎
  16. Rainer Lepsius, “Ein unbekanntes Land: Plädoyer für soziologische Neugier,” in Experiment Vereinigung, ed. Giesen and Leggewie, 71–76. ↩︎
  17. Mayntz, “Deutsche Vereinigung.” ↩︎
  18. Lässig, “History of Knowledge,” 44. ↩︎
Suggested Citation: Kerstin Brückweh, “The History of Knowledge: An Indispensable Perspective for Contemporary History,” History of Knowledge, December 4, 2017,