Organizing Knowledge for a Modern Church: The Functional Order of Catholic Libraries in Wilhelmine Germany

In the early years of the twentieth century, Catholic libraries in Germany adopted modernized methods of organization to simplify their use: the arrangement of books by subject, alpha-numeric classifying systems, and card catalogs. The adoption may not seem like much, but in the structure and practice of Catholic knowledge the change was fundamental. How did this revolution come about and what did it betoken? Continue reading “Organizing Knowledge for a Modern Church: The Functional Order of Catholic Libraries in Wilhelmine Germany”

Consumer Engineering and the Rise of Marketing Knowledge, 1920s–1970s

Marketing knowledge—information and analysis concerning markets, consumers, and their behavior—became a crucial asset for businesses and governments during the twentieth century. In 1971, the German-American market researcher Alfred Politz drafted a memoir of his time in marketing research titled “How to Produce Consumers—Methods and Illusions.” Over the course of his career, from the 1930s to the 1970s, Politz had seen the marketing profession become a good deal more methodical. Yet by 1970, this Berlin-trained physicist-turned-consultant of marketing scoffed at the pseudo-scientific veneer that many marketing experts attached to their work. “The word ‘research,'” he wrote, “implies a sort of glamorous intellectual sophistication, and marketing research is a symbol of the modernity of the marketer. Marketing research has become a status symbol, and as such it need not perform; it need only exist.”1 Continue reading “Consumer Engineering and the Rise of Marketing Knowledge, 1920s–1970s”

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”

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”