Knowledge about Democratic Silence: Political Science and the Rise of Electoral Abstention in Postwar Switzerland (1945–1989)

In recent decades, a diagnosis of democratic crisis or even of a post-democratic condition has emerged in public debate in many Western states. The rise of electoral abstention, particularly since the 1970s and 1980s, often serves as statistical evidence for this assessment.1 Yet what exactly can abstention tell us about the state of democracy? My current research project proposes to historicize abstention, not as a political phenomenon per se but rather as an object of contention leading to multiple interpretations and practices in the political sphere. To that aim, I inquire how political actors—politicians and officials, but also journalists and political scientists—have handled abstention through the postwar decades in France, West Germany, and Switzerland. Knowledge played a significant role in the ways abstention was framed in public debate. It was accompanied by the development of various forms of expertise on the topic, ranging from emerging political science to electoral surveys.2 Public discourse on abstention became a matter for experts, journalists, and established politicians—none of whom were prone to abstaining from voting themselves. Continue reading “Knowledge about Democratic Silence: Political Science and the Rise of Electoral Abstention in Postwar Switzerland (1945–1989)”

Knowing Otherwise: The Transatlantic Travels of Creative Thinking Expertise in the 1950s

Brainstorming as a way to organize ideation was first practiced in the United States in 1938 in the advertising firm Batten, Barton, Durstine & Osborn (BBDO). One partner, Alex Osborn, later described it as “using the brain to storm a problem,” adding that it should be done “in commando fashion.”1 As a method for thinking freely and wildly, so as to generate “new thoughts and ideas that no individual would have thought of on their own,”2 it was remarkable for its initial combination of conscious effort and play, of tenacious exercise and practices of freedom, and of rationality and irrationality. Brainstorming gained traction in American manufacturing, government, and the military in and after World War Two.3 And while brainstorming developed as a knowledge-generating practice squarely at the heart of military-industrial settings, it was pitted against predominant utilitarian rationalities of management, the military, and bureaucracies, for instance. Practiced in settings that explicitly suspended hierarchical orderings, it was geared toward the democratic expertise of no expertise—where anybody can have ideas. I have hypothesized that in order to overcome the boundaries imposed by modern and emergent rationalities in these settings, brainstorming offered a form of counterknowledge: an understanding that came about by not following the usual rules of thought.4 Continue reading “Knowing Otherwise: The Transatlantic Travels of Creative Thinking Expertise in the 1950s”

Mind the Gap: Cultural Cleavage and the Idea of the ‘Common People’

A specter is haunting the current political discourse, the specter of cultural cleavage. More and more observers see the emergence of a socio-cultural gap between a hegemonic, globalist, educated class and an underrepresented, locally anchored underclass. The titles of two studies speak volumes: Cleavage Politics and the Populist Right (2010) by sociologist Simon Bornschier, and "The Class Basis of the Cleavage between the New Left and the Radical Right" (2012) by political scientist Daniel Oesch. Meanwhile, French philosopher Guillaume Paoli observes a cultural confrontation between two societal blocs.1 And in his recent work on the "society of singularities,” German sociologist Andreas Reckwitz postulates a new "cultural class divide"—a polarizing dichotomy between a "new middle class" equipped with high levels of cultural and economic capital and a "new underclass" lacking all of this.2 Continue reading “Mind the Gap: Cultural Cleavage and the Idea of the ‘Common People’”

Practopia, or: Science in the Wasteland of Materialism

At the beginning of the history and sociology of knowledge as we know them today, there was a crisis. By the early 1970s, the future of the earth as a natural habitat for prosperity and progress was looking so bleak that many observers began turning pessimistic. Most famously, the Club of Rome declared Limits to Growth in its 1972 report. But other institutions and intellectuals took a similar line. To name just one, Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, an economics professor at Vanderbilt University, probed the depths of history with The Entropy Law and the Economic Process (1971) only to find that Malthus was right all along. In spite of two centuries of industrial frenzy, entropy always was and always would be the reigning earthly principle. Continue reading “Practopia, or: Science in the Wasteland of Materialism”

Projecting ‘World Government’: The Creation of the League of Nations as a Case Study in International Policy-Making

The postwar was, as it often is, a projecting age. Following World War One, political, military, thought, and other leaders resolved to prevent such a catastrophe from ever occurring again. Projects proposed at the Paris peace talks were many and varied in origin, scale, ideology, and so on. More significant, though, was an overarching commonality in their conceptualization. The projects were defined by a certain way of thinking. Continue reading “Projecting ‘World Government’: The Creation of the League of Nations as a Case Study in International Policy-Making”

State Knowledge in Central Europe after 1848

What do governments know? When and why have they generated knowledge about themselves, sovereign territories, the functioning of bureaucracies, legal systems, and the effectiveness of legislation? In other words, how have officials made that capacious concept we call the state legible?

State knowledge took on heightened importance in Central Europe in the nineteenth century with the transition away from remaining vestiges of feudalism. This is especially clear to see during the revolutions of 1848. Over the course of a turbulent two years, revolutionaries protested against a great many things. They most famously called for national unification and the introduction of liberal constitutions, but they also demanded the reform of outdated modes of administration. Such ultimatums were unsettling for governments in two ways. First, they required a rethinking of law, as well as of the kinds of bureaucratic structures and activities needed to bring about a more flexible handling of domestic affairs. And second, they prompted an urgent need to generate knowledge to gage the effectiveness of these initiatives. Continue reading “State Knowledge in Central Europe after 1848”

Queer Ancestry as a Problem of Knowledge in Early 20th-Century Germany

Frederick the Great (1712–1786) was not a homosexual. Or so claimed the German physician and amateur medical historian Gaston Vorberg in 1921. Scurrilous rumors about the sexual desires of the legendary Prussian monarch had circulated ever since the eighteenth century. Vorberg sought to debunk them using the tools of critical scholarship and source analysis. In his essay "Gossip about the Sex Life of Frederick II," Vorberg defended the straightness of the king on the basis of his “long and arduous research.”
Continue reading “Queer Ancestry as a Problem of Knowledge in Early 20th-Century Germany”