The Politics of Measurement: Knowledge about Economic Inequality in the United Kingdom and Beyond since 1945

If you had a conversation about the growing gap between rich and poor almost anywhere in today’s world, you would very likely refer to “the top one percent,” a phrase that evokes the skyrocketing wealth of the superrich. A similar conversation in West Germany in the 1970s or 1980s would have revolved around the latest movements in wage earners’ aggregate share of the national income, evoking images of a society divided into employers and employees. In 1980s Britain, you might have talked about income growth among the bottom tenth of the population, as the government tried to steer the discussion away from income relativities and overall inequality. Continue reading “The Politics of Measurement: Knowledge about Economic Inequality in the United Kingdom and Beyond since 1945”

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”

Report: Kinship, Knowledge, and Migration

Panel Series at the 41st Annual Conference of the German Studies Association in Atlanta, GA, October 5–8, 2017

In October 2017, Simone Lässig and Swen Steinberg convened a panel series at the German Studies Association’s annual conference that focused on the roles of family and kinship, including children, in knowledge and migration processes.[1] In her opening remarks, Lässig emphasized that knowledge travels with migrants and is transformed by their experiences in the new homeland. Further, family is a forum for teaching and learning, for sharing, evaluating, and preserving knowledge. Kinship itself entails knowledge-of who is who and how they are connected to other family members. Kinship networks can serve as networks for communicating and processing other kinds of knowledge. They often take on particular importance when individuals and families migrate. Migrants carry knowledge with them; they produce and acquire new knowledge with the experience of migration; and they usually need new knowledge to establish themselves in their new cities, towns, and countries. Family, both immediate and extended, often constitutes a crucial knowledge resource for migrants. The aim of the panel series, Lässig concluded, was to explore the interplay of kinship, knowledge, and migration more closely by examining the experiences of German speakers who left German-speaking Europe and non-German speakers who migrated there. Continue reading “Report: Kinship, Knowledge, and Migration”

Political Interpretations of Knowledge in Colonial Contexts

Attractive classroom scene

In the 1970s and 1980s, the concept of the “knowledge society” (Wissensgesellschaft ) rapidly gained in popularity among social scientists and politicians in Western countries.[1] The concept referred to a socioeconomic system that was no longer organized around the manufacture of material—especially industrial—goods but instead around the production of knowledge, expertise, and highly specialized skills. The prominence of this perspective was strongly influenced by the experience of de-industrialization in Western Europe and North America in the last third of the twentieth century, with former sites of industrial production being dismantled and the so-called service sector rapidly gaining in importance. Closely linked to emphasis on the relevance of knowledge in the twenty-first century was concern with educational models that seemed to be outdated because they were rooted in the industrial paradigm of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It was in this context that school and university curricula were revised and “modernized” so that they would match the technological demands of postindustrial societies. These efforts were driven by the understanding that the international standing of formerly industrial countries and regions depended on their ability to supply and apply the skills and expertise needed to compete in an increasingly global economy. Continue reading “Political Interpretations of Knowledge in Colonial Contexts”

The Granddaughter’s Dissertation: Some Thoughts on Knowledge about Migration in 1960s Switzerland

While studying the scholarly literature on immigration in post–World War II Switzerland, the personal dedication in a 1964 dissertation about the “assimilation of foreign workers” caught my attention: “In memory of my paternal grandmother Antonietta Zanolli-Recati, who in 1905 moved with her family from Belluno to Zurich, the land of Pestalozzi.”[1] This dedication interests me because it points to the ambiguity of “migrant knowledge,” a concept that has been introduced only recently to academic debates at the intersection of the histories of migration and knowledge.[2] The case of Satuila Zanolli, the author of this dedication and the study it accompanied, invites a closer look at the interrelation of two different aspects of the broader problem of migration and knowledge formation: (1) knowledge possessed by the migrants themselves, that is, migrant knowledge in the truest sense of the term, and (2) knowledge about the phenomenon of migration, that is, migration knowledge.[3] Continue reading “The Granddaughter’s Dissertation: Some Thoughts on Knowledge about Migration in 1960s Switzerland”