Workshop: Justice in Discourse, April 4-5, 2013

Working Conference at the Lichtenberg Kolleg, University of Göttingen, April 4–5, 2013
Co-sponsored by the DFG Research Unit on Cultural Property

Organized by Charles Briggs, Stefan Groth, and Regina Bendix.

“Justice” is a complex concept deeply entwined with the moral foundations of society. As a normative concept, justice is clothed in an absolute aura. And yet the deeply contextualized and hence continually negotiated nature of justice cannot be hidden. In focusing on language, this working conference seeks to shed light on this normative concept, looking at the negotiation of justice in specific contexts and media.

Different disciplines and schools of analysis have contributed to this question, ranging from linguistic anthropology to critical discourse analysis in disciplines such as political science, sociology as well as, more broadly speaking, media studies. We will use a broad working concept of discourse: the use of spoken and written language and multimodal forms of communication, as well as those more aligned with Foucauldian notions of discourse. This leaves room for different theoretical approaches to the concept.

Our working conference seeks to take stock of prior work and identify gaps, not least through the presentation of case studies. Negotiations on the international level and questions of health and social justice constitute the main thematic foci of the working conference. On the case level, we hope to see how “justice is in motion” depending on the communicativ

The prelimary program is available here. If you wish to participate in the workshop, we kindly ask you to register with Caren Bergs until March 25.

The Ethics of/in Negotiating and Regulating Cultural Property

The protection of traditional culture and associated material and immaterial resources and practices has been on the agenda of both national and international organizations for several decades. In terms of legally binding rights, however, the survey of what has been accomplished so far is rather sobering. Especially indigenous organizations, minority groups and developing countries have been fobbed off with declarations and conventions contributing little to solving specific grievances. This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, of course, as the ideals of human rights, equality or transnational justice are very rarely in accordance with social, much less economic reality.
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Scholarship and Policy: Against the Motion II (Stefan Groth)

The affirmative speaker rightly alluded to the question why society takes upon its shoulders the burden to finance and maintain the sciences. The obvious answer to this question is that the sciences are beneficial for society, and yet, in this constellation where technically speaking the maintaning society has an interest in maintaining, there is the problem of accountability and sometimes also that of transparency: how can we measure if what we pay to upkeep universities – let alone the humanities – is balanced out by the contribution the sciences make to society?

This notion of the relation between science and society as one between principal and agent as an ex-post-facto argument presupposes a crude historical understanding of the social functions of the university. One could, of course, with a coup de main swipe away the Humboldtian tradition within which European universities stand, and just as easily subordinate the sciences to financial calculation. But the way in which this question is posed misses the point, as it takes a symptom of post-modern society to be an universal and moreover primordial context of justification – a symptom that should rather be the object of investigation and scrutiny than be taken as a guiding principle. Horkheimer termed this the “critique of instrumental reason” – a social constellation where the effectivity of the means is valued more than the reasonability of the purpose; where the immediate – often monetary – gains trump the project of the enlightenment that has the flaw of the metaphysical.

Given its ubiquity, the doctrine of effectiveness and its materialization in the German university system can easily be understood as being without any alternative. From a pragmatistic point of view – think of LOM and third-party funding – this logic is efficacious indeed. Yet, if one subscribes to the notion of the sciences or scholarship as something that tries to think beyond the given, i.e. not within the socially inherent logics of effectiveness and not within a positivist scientific system, this approach has to be discounted as – in the last instance – uncritical, and thus not able to take into account social totality.

This coincides with an apparent different use of terminology and the interrelated conceptions of normativity and positivity. By no means are the disciplines described by the affirmative speaker as “positive” – specifically European Ethnology and Social and Cultural Anthropology – positivist in the way the term is used in the history of thought. These disciplines by no means shy away from the “normative sphere”, i.e. do not concern themselves with questions of normativity. It is rather the other way round, as their scholarship to a great extent combines descriptive and hermeneutic approaches with socially and culturally articulated norms and values – thus measuring ideational social values, standards and goals against their realizations. These disciplines well-nigh call for discussions of the normative; and the description of social grievances, problems, and inequalities is not not-normative when it does not propose normative guidelines and policies. Critique, to stress this term again, does in this sense not have to be constructive in order to be productive. It can well be only negative and acknowledge that there are certain situations where solutions to particular problems cannot be found on the level of the particular.

This is, in a way, the crux of modernity: that the bourgeois promises of freedom, equality and fraternity – at least for some – has been followed up on, and that in the same moment the individual is burdened by an enourmous bundle of constraints and grievances. Especially with regard to Cultural Property legislation, this void between the normative standards and their implementation (and realization!) is gaping so wide, that this inconsistency and asynchrony downright coerces the view away from the particular to the general. In the face of immense (global and social) inequalities, treating the Cultural Property conundrum as an isolatable phenomenon that can be solved for the better by adjusting exiting legal mechanisms and policies seems fairly optimistic. It neglects the fact that the best solution for Cultural Property rights reproduces social and political inequalities. The norms used as a tool to draft these recommendations are, after all, not manifestations of universal values without contradictions, but the result of social, political, and economic struggles.

Some anthropologists – among others – call the resulting social constellations asymmetric power relations, and they are one of the reasons why the market alone cannot really function properly. If asymmetric power relations exists – and they barely fail to do so – the task for scholarship should be to analyze these situations, point to inconstistencies, uncover problems, implications, broader contexts and social wrongs. This then is indeed normative as well, and it is indeed a valuable contribution to social problems. Yet, it differs from policy recommendations in the way that it acknowledges its limitations.

Scholarship and Policy: Against the Motion I (Stefan Groth)

The motion up for debate opens up references to a controversy that began more than fifty years ago. Indeed, the question how the social sciences and parts of the humanities, should relate to their subject of research, their slice of knowledge making, has not lost any of its topicality. This includes epistemological foundations, questions of method as well as the issue of how scholarship can contribute and is to contribute to solve societal problems – more precisely, which societal problems and contribute what kinds of recommendations at which level.

The controversy referred to as the “positivism dispute” was fought primarily between the representatives of critical rationalism and critical theory. One can safely claim that today, poststructuralist theory – which is in part still waging the stances of critical theory, yet for different reasons and with partly fundamentally different implications – and positivism oppose one another with largely incommensurable stances. With reference to a scientific pragmatism – or realism, if you will – and societal responsibility, those who do not regard policy recommendations as part of the service to be rendered by science and who thus negate the motion put before us, are reproached with the set phrase of the “ivory tower”. Or, to cite Georg Lukács, arguing from the vantage point of marxist political practice, with the metaphor of the “Grand Hotel Abyss”, inhabited by critical theorists focusing only on theory driven scholarship and – faced with society’s grave problems –, offering nothing other than diagnoses on the social totality and contributing nothing toward solving particular problems.

The arguments against the positive disciplines – „die Einzelwissenschaften” – and their heuristics are, however, lodged rather differently. They are not ignorant of Karl Popper’s dictum that “knowledge … does not begin with perception and observation or the collection of data or facts, but with problems”. The refusal to comment with advice and suggestions on problem solving processes on a global-social level is well founded; and one can illustrate the relevant differences in this “old” debate in a form that also does justice to the questions concerning cultural property. Allow me therefore to recall why the motion before us has different answers, and why the disciplines concerned with society can take more than one position vis-à-vis their subject – and why, which is important to state at the outset, this should be so.

We can begin with the critique of the primacy of scientific explanations. It is based on the deductive-nomological model – a model which assumes in analogy to the methods of the natural sciences that specific or particular societal phenomena can be explained via sets of quasi mathematical-logical sentences. Then there is the method of trial and error, that is, the effort to falsify via experimentation. In this practice we see an intrinsic methodological individualism that recognizes institutions, but addresses influencing variables only partially. Then there is the critique of nominalism which places the reflection of methodology ahead of the structure of the object to be researched – as is e.g. typical of a heuristical approach. This goes hand in hand with the tendency to block the metaphysical and thus the placement of the “positive” as the only relevant material within a scientific system – which, ironically, can only be done via acknowledging the metaphysical (see Habermas, Knowledge and Human Interests).

The side taken here conceptualizes society as riven with contradictions, ripe with social antagonisms as well as unforeseeable contingencies, or in short, as the non-identical social totality. A string of logical sentences thus cannot explain a phenomenon that is so complex. The conjunction of individual and particular social phenomena is such that they can only be regarded as a whole and cannot be taken apart into separate factors – and this in turn challenges experimental research as well as the definition of single terms that neglects taking in account the additional structures of social reality (see e.g. Max Horkheimer, Traditional and Critical Theory).

These reservations against such a positive, or positivist approach – consisting of positively defining a particular problem like the one around Cultural Property, analyzing it with methodological and logical consistency within a seemingly given frame of reference, drawing conclusions from this heuristical approach, thus finding solutions on the basis of a social reality via logical operations, and then making recommendations for the better design of societal processes – these reservations have been proven to be prevailing and topical within the research carried out within this group. The question of how to optimally distribute bundles of rights and bonds (?) between the different actors involved, are a prime example why the positive analysis of particular aspects of social life has to miss the point of the problem at hand: the myriad of facets that would have to be considered as analytical categories for the elicitation of a better allocation relate to each other so contradictorily that the analytical gaze almost automatically averts from the particular to the abstract. from a confined problem to the total context. Trying to align the particular in face of this “bigger picture” must then seem like a farce.

These sets of old problems then increase in face of a global simultaneity. Relating to Cultural Property, one would for example have to refer to a twofold indeterminancy of the notion of culture that well-nigh forces the diagnosis on one that the problem in hand ist not unanimous, not simple, and at the same time rational and irrational. Most importantly, however, one would have to realize that the subject matter does not yield to the logic that positive heurisitcs try to impose on it – “the subject matter”, to cite Adorno, “resists the bare systematical unity of connected statements.”

Quite rightly, the question what culture, and much less what Cultural Property is, has not been answered within the research group and its sub-projects: a term cannot be identical with its object where there is a multiplicity of objects and terms juxtaposed in numerous discursive fields. The notion of “culture”, e.g., is twofold indetermined because neither is it secured knowledge what culture ist, nor is there a sufficient overview what culture can be in its various contexts and in relation to social totality. To define culture reductively; to elicit characteristics common to its specific manifestations; to determine their structure and functions (with good reasons functionalism and structuralisms have been critiqued in the humanities for their theoretical short-comings, especially as to their inability to theorize on inconsistencies, conflicts and inequalties!); and on the basis of this approach to make “recommendations” on how to define things the “optimal” way – this is indeed a spurious course of action that both elicits questions about the criteria of the optimal and – more importantly – about how such criteria can be thought so immediate, so identical, in face of social totality and cultural complexity. To phrase it differently: if the ideological pretence of society is multiplied by a global synchronicity, how then is it possible to define a best way without being apologetic of social conditions on a global scale?

In such contexts, the creation of typologies would inevitably results in enumerative definitions (cf. Amitai Etzioni’s theoretical reflections on these issues), the falsificatory drafting of recommendations would not result in a reduction of complexity, but rather in its increase: if there is no clarity about what the problem is, and if the falsificatory approach fails as early at its definition of its subject matter, then every attempt whatsoever at solving the problem is necessarily arbitrary because of its selective choice of reference points. The basis of the resulting analytical as well as of recommendatory work would presuppose a holistic and thus closed social system that can be described by a set of logical sentences, and that has a logic of its own that at the same time determines and is adopted by actors when making recommendations to reform a given situation.

A critique of this conception of a holistic and closed system with a logic of its own is in face of – among other factors – the multliplicity and synchronicity of contradictions, disparities and – in the last instance – logics of their own indispensable. (And such a critique has indeed been made repetetively, see for instance Alfred Schmitt’s work on epistemology, but also generally the anthropological critique of a holistic approach that finally – quite rightly – abandoned the concept of holism.) Given these aspects, a claim for a “culture of recommendations” has to be met with refusal if one is not to deny these differences, and if one does not want to contribute to a reductionist justification of the total context. This total context does, in relation to Cultural Property, indeed not prompt optimism. To end on a positive note, however, it should be noted that the explication and critique of procedures and structures relating to Cultural Property has the potential to analytically embedd particular phenomenons into larger contexts, to investigate the ideologies that interpretate these phenomenons; thus creating room for the articulation of resistances and unsolvable inconsistencies. In the last instance, this is a form of recommendating, too.

Scholarship and Policy: Oppositional Perspectives within Interdisciplinary Cooperation (Introduction)

For the conference “The Constitution of Cultural Property: Interim Conclusions” in June 2011, two members of the DFG Research Group on Cultural Property engaged in a discussion on the relation between scholarship and policy recommendations.

The debate centered around the following motion:

This research group holds that scholars have a social/global responsibility to provide policy recommendations in contexts and negotiation bodies concerned with cultural property.

In the upcoming couple of posts, the contributions for the motion – by Prof. Dr. Kilian Bizer (Economics) – and against this motion – by Stefan Groth, M.A. (European Ethnology) – as well as the moderator’s comments by Prof. Dr. Regina Bendix (Cultural Anthropology/European Ethnology) will be reproduced on this blog for further discussion.

NDR Menschen und Schlagzeilen: Weltkulturerbe – ein Nachteil?

Der angekündigte NDR-Beitrag zur Diskussion um die Nominierung des „Alten Landes“ als UNESCO Weltkulturerbe im Rahmen der Sendung „Menschen und Schlagzeilen” ist mittlerweile online auf den Seiten des NDR abrufbar. Prof. Dr. Regina Bendix, Sprecherin der DFG-Forschergruppe zu Cultural Property, kommentiert darin die Debatte aus kulturanthropologischer Sicht.


„Sollen im Alten Land die einmalige Kulturlandschaft erhalten werden und Touristen anziehen? Oder sind die wirtschaftlichen Interessen der Apfelbauern wichtiger?“ (Quelle: NDR)

CFP: “Heritage and Individuals” (Pori, Finland)

3rd Conference of the SIEF Working Group on Cultural Heritage and Property 14–17 September 2011 in Pori, Finland.

For a PDF-version of the CFP, click here.

The conference of the “Heritage and Individuals” will penetrate different views to: Intangible and tangible cultural heritage; Cultural change from past to future; Individual and common definitions and uses of cultural heritage; Culturally sustainable development;

Individual human beings, their different common and individual activities as a potential power in society, and different cultural, social, political, economic and legal contexts for cultural heritage activities are the core of this conference. Individual human beings and everyday life is the ground for all selected and protected cultural heritage, and the commercial, political and societal use of it. The power of national and international laws and conventions are remarkable. On the contrary, the power of individuals is often invisible, and it is not always obvious to take it into consideration in connection to cultural heritage and the use of it.

The power of individuals is hidden and fragmentised to unorganised and organised levels of activities, into different socio-cultural structures of activities, and to different local and global interaction networks. Glocal interaction, where locally active individuals and communities meet global contexts for their messages, is also extremely interesting contexts for the development of cultural heritage, and the individual and common uses of it. The power of individuals has multiple places, contexts, and contradictory directions in both the local and global context of cultural heritage.

Anyhow, it is never possible to protect any piece of cultural heritage without the individual power fragmentised in different parts of the society, into the political and legal structures of society, and in the everyday life. At the same time, people produce as individuals and organisations both on local and global level contradictory ideas about cultural heritage, the need of it, the protection of it, and the use of it. What could be culturally sustainable cultural heritage in this contradictory world?

Conference: “Heritage Regimes and the State” (Göttingen)

The interdisciplinary Göttingen DFG-Research Group on Cultural Property jointly with the Institute of Cultural Anthropology/European Ethnology at the University of Göttingen is pleased to announce an international working conference on “Heritage Regimes and the State: Nomination, Implementation, Regulation” from June 17-19, 2011.

Heritage research has blossomed into a vast area of interdisciplinary research. Our working conference aims for a comparative perspective on the diverse implementations of the heritage regime in different political systems. UNESCO heritage conventions have to be ratified by member states and not all states have opted to ratify every heritage option developed by UNESCO since 1972. Once a convetion is ratified, it is up to the individual state to generate institutions and processes for the selection, nomination and implementation of a given element of the World Heritage regime. Diverse modes of governance have thus developed, each with their own effects on heritage sites and practices and the actors associated with them on local, regional, and national levels. Working from a shared set of questions, the conference features presentations and joint discussions with international scholars who all have done ethnographic research in the realm of heritage or heritage-prone practices; they will summarize case studies touching on states’ handling of intangible and tangible heritage, cultural landscapes, and heritage in the making.

External guests are warmly invited to attend this working conference. Due to limited capacities we kindly ask for early registration, at the latest by May 1, 2011. The conference fee of € 15 will cover coffee breaks, two on site lunches as well as conference materials. To register, please contact Arnika Peselmann at apeselm (at) or:

Arnika Peselmann und Aditya Eggert
DFG FOR 772, Cultural Property
Baurat-Gerber-Straße 4-6
D-37073 Göttingen

Prelimary program: (PDF)