Visit and Lecture by John Comaroff – „Ethnicity, Inc. Revisited“

by: Caren Bergs, M.A., University of Göttingen

From November 10 to November 15, 2013, the Interdisciplinary Research Unit on the Constitution of Cultural Property hosted Professor John Comaroff, Hugh K. Foster Professor of African and African American Studies and of Anthropology/ Oppenheimer Research Fellow in African Studies (Harvard University), for intellectual exchange and a public lecture on “Ethnicity, Inc. Revisited“.

On the occasion of his visit, the entire team, collectively and individually, had plenty of opportunity to discuss their research projects in depth with Prof Comaroff who left us all in an energized and motivated state, ready to tackle the remaining months of our research time.

Professor Comaroff’s visit to Göttingen concluded with his public lecture which picked up main points from the widely received work Ethnicity, Inc. (2009), co-authored with Jean Comaroff. In an anecdote during the lecture he noted that “Ethnicity, Inc.“ had at one point even became mandatory reading for the employees of the largest South African company based on ethnicity, Bafokeng, Inc. – which had formerly been researched by him and Jean.

Professor Comaroff’s lecture aimed to recap, expand and update „Ethnicity, Inc.“ In 2000, the Congress of Traditional Leaders of South Africa (Contralesa) formed a corporation to invest in mining, forestry, industry and tourism. The idea behind this was to empower their peoples by „usher[ing] their rural chiefdoms into the world of global business,“ because the political fight for constitutional recognition had been focused upon too long. Comaroff then went on query the extent to which the future of ethnicity would lie in ethno-futures and entering the market place. In doing so, the binary of rural „traditional“ culture and urban Africa would be made to collapse.

Heritage, Comaroff pointed out, is alienable identity: its objects and objectifications may be consumed by others and sold on a market. To have culture to sell means having a presence in the world. This he illustrated with the rise of ethno-businesses in South Africa, with their cultural products being in high demand. The idea behind empowerment is constituted here with access to markets, material benefits and a people selling its “essential own” – as a brand. Selling culture challenges tried and not so true dichotomies such as tourist performances endangering or replacing “authentic“ traditions.

To Comaroff, politics and economics appear far more interlinked today, He stressed that the context in which culture, identity and politics are embedded, i.e. the nation-state, is changing. Coming from the “fiction of homogeneity” upon which European polities were founded, we now find ourselves in an age of acceptance of heterodox nationhood – a “cultural diversity within a civic order composed of universal citizens”. More than for Africa, this holds true for Europe with its nation-states born of European “colonial fantasy”. In African polities it is an essential right, in the pursuit of collective interest, to be different. Cultural identity, Comaroff stressed, “has become, simultaneously, a function of elective self-production and ascriptive biology”. Culture therefore congeals into a “genetically-endowed intellectual property”, becomes a form of capital and can be sold for profit.

Comaroff also noted the importance of legal instruments, as difference turns into a subject for legal actions. Hence “Ethnicity, Inc.” is a mixture of the commodification of culture, legal actions over cultural identity, the “displacement of the politics into the domain of jurisprudence” and the dissolving binary of rural and urban culture(s).

This is not a new phenomenon, as Comaroff showed by evoking the examples of the Pomo Indians, who went from being two homeless Native American families to being an ethnic group with a casino license, and Maryann Martin who opened a gaming house on the grounds of being the only member of the ethnic group of the Augustine Cahuilla Indians. The creation of ethno-businesses in the USA is mostly financed with the capital of non-Native Americans. Another point of interest is the proclaimed sovereignty of the state and its laws. Native American identity usually begins with a land claim, as “territory” is a major principle of sovereignty. The emergence of the prototypical Native American ethno-business depended on the recognition of legal sovereignty. Cultural identity is then incidental to these corporations. Only in few cases an ethnic group turns local knowledge into a brand from which arises an ethnic corporation, as is the case with the Pueblo of Sandoval, New Mexico, and their brand of “Hopi Blue” corn.

In recent times, the UN and the WIPO have come to recognize the “inherent” rights of indigenous peoples to their tangible and intangible cultural property. This has led to the acceleration of processes of incorporation. Comaroff told the story of the San/Bushmen in the Kalahari desert who were severly suppressed under colonialism and the San’s knowledge of the hoodia cactus which can stave off hunger and thirst. In 1963, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) of South Africa became interested in the cactus and its effects; from then on word spread about the cactus as a hope for the alleviation of obesity without side effects. The bioactive component was patented under label P57 in 1997 and subsequently licensed to the British company Phytopharm and then to Pfizer – all under the impression that the San were extinct. An NGO representing the rights of the San was formed and protested against this case of biopiracy. This led to a profit-sharing agreement between Phytopharm and the San. The San “identity” has since gone through a reanimation, stimulated by the assertion of intellectual property coupled with a land claim. Today, the San are an ethno-corporation while their “identity” is debated by academics.

The major example in Comaroff’s talk was Bafokeng, Inc. which gained wealth with platinum and whose corporate history goes back to sage decisions made by one Bafokeng king in the nineteenth century. Buying land to protect it from white settlers and hence establishing the Bafokeng as a corporate, private owner, the terrain was defended from seizure. Today, Bafokeng Inc. is a nation of 300,000 shareholders and is involved in a complex network of companies yielding some $100 million per year. Comaroff noted that the success in turning Bafokeng Inc. into a hugely successful nation/business is accompanied by a lack of Bafokeng cultural identity.

The strategies of the Bafokeng, the San and Native Americans groups in the USA have several points in common: genealogical membership in their respective ethnic group; sovereignty vis-à-vis the nation state through incorporation based on land claims; and a reliance on ”lawfare” to crystallize or reproduce the sociological entity within which cultural identity is taken to inhere.

To Comaroff “Ethnicity, Inc.” is a “world-historical phenomenon in the making” with many roots in nation states’ search to distinguish themselves through unique cultures. “The ethnically-defined peoples” have taken ethnicity into the global sphere. As such, “Ethnicity, Inc.” is an important subject for anthropological research.

For further reading::
Comaroff, John L. and Jean (2009): Ethnicity, Inc. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Workshop and Lecture Review: Sex, Human Rights and Heritage. Public Lecture and Workshop with Ellen Hertz

by: Prof. Dr. Regina F. Bendix, University of Göttingen

On December 10 and 11, 2012, the CP team hosted Prof. Dr. Ellen Hertz from the Institute of Ethnology at the University of Neuchatel, Switzerland, where she leads the synergia group entitled “Intangible Cultural Heritage: The Midas Touch?” (https://libra.unine.ch/Projets/Projets-en-cours/1310/L-en). Trained in both anthropology and law, Ellen Hertz’s presentations focused on questions of gender within heritage policy. She presented an evening lecture entitled “Sex, Lies and Heritage: Gender Equality -vs- Cultural Diversity, Round Three” – summarized in her abstract as follows:

Sex, lies and heritage: gender equality -vs- cultural diversity, round three

At first viewing, it is difficult to view the UNESCO-driven desire to safeguard intangible cultural heritage (“ICH”) and promote cultural diversity as anything but laudable. However, as many have pointed out before me, the preservation of what has been called “traditional culture” raises a number of issues for another excessively laudable series of U.N.-based initiatives: covenants designed to guarantee what have been labeled as “universal human rights”. This is particularly true, it seems to me, when it comes to gender equality, and notably the 1979 U.N. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. Gender differentiation is central in innumerable ways to all cultures, and discrimination, either explicit or implicit, often follows. Gender differentiation can take forms ranging from sex-based dress codes during rituals, to exclusion of women (or men) from certain areas of traditional knowledge, to the baring of women from certain trades or forms of cultural ownership, not to mention forms of bodily transformation such as excision that are clearly off-limits for heritage preservation efforts.

The state parties responsible for drafting the 2003 UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of ICH were aware of these issues, and UNESCO even convened a working group that meet to produce specific recommendations on the subject. However, though the discussions were extremely interesting and sophisticated, they seem to have done more to illuminate problems at hand than to propose solutions. The guidelines and binding recommendations that were to have come from this work have not been issued or circulated. Indeed, the entire discussion seems to have disappeared from the UNESCO vitrine, and raising it today seems almost indecorous.
This paper is based on interviews with experts involved in these debates. It seeks to understand how the issue of gender inequality has been exited from the public sphere, and how it is handled in “private”, in the negotiations around specific propositions of ICH that reach the Paris office and the Intergovernmental Committee who screen UNESCO’s lists of ICH. It asks how UNESCO officials have in pragmatic ways “solved” a problem that I argue is fundamentally unsolvable if we respect the terms of the respective normative frameworks on the Conventions. I conclude by offering some suggestions as to a more productive framing of the problem of gender equality in a world where women disproportionately bear the burden of symbolizing and maintaining “cultural diversity”, and where the cause of sex equality is brandished by states for geopolitical aims.

Her afternoon workshop “Can Sex be Heritage?” was cast as a thought experiment. Using a cultural practice that is not part of ICH thus far and is not likely to ever be nominated permits one to understand what factors come together in the decision-making about “acceptable” ICH. Aside from issues such as UNESCO Puritanism, questions of scale and the nature of diplomatic negotiation, the concept of “patriomonial emotions” (borrowed from French ethnologist Daniel Fabre whose research team pursued this, documented in several workshops, in Paris: http://www.iiac.cnrs.fr/lahic/article186.html) proved particularly helpful in understanding what “emotional property” or characteristic a cultural practice needs to evoke in order to be suitable for heritage status. Lust is clearly not among them. The normative character of the heritage of humanity manifests itself thus even in this implicit guidance of aesthetic response. There was lively discussion intermingling with Ellen’s presentation, making us all look forward to if and when Ellen finds the time to write a book on a topic that will allow for a better understanding of heritage-making and its blind spots with regard to the humanity’s cultures.

Workshop Review: Adat between state governance and self-determined indigeneity in Indonesia

Concentrating on the issues addressed in CP sub-project Cultural Heritage Between Sovereignty of Indigenous Groups, the State and International Organizations in Indonesia, this interdisciplinary workshop, organized by Prof. Dr. Brigitta Hauser-Schäublin and Serena Müller, M.A. took place on October 13 and 14th, 2012. Nearly forty participants from social anthropology and international law discussed Adat within the conference rooms of Göttingen’s historic observatory.

The program opened with introductory papers by Prof. Dr. Brigitta Hauser-Schäublin (Göttingen), Katja Göcke, LL.M. (Sydney, MPI for Comparative Public Law and International Law, Heidelberg/Göttingen University) und Maria Victoria Cabrera Ormaza, LL.M. (Göttingen). They discussed indigeneity in international declarations and conventions and in international law, enriched with ethnographic examples drawn from the various regions where Göttingen colleagues and associates are presently conducting work.

Sandra Moniaga, SH, spoke as legal expert on indigeneity in Indonesia. She connected a survey oft he legal situation and current developments with examples from the Kaneke in Western Java. As a longtime activist in the Indonesian indigneous movement, she was able to provide deep insights into the present situation and ist political background.

During the second day, adat was discussed on the basis of ethnographic examples. They ranged from Sumatra (Dr. des. Stefanie Steinebach, Göttingen, SFB 990) to Sulawesi (Dr. Karin Klenke, Göttingen, and Anna-Teresa Grumblies, M.A., Köln), Bali (Prof. Dr. Brigitta Hauser-Schäublin) and the Moluccas (Serena Müller, M.A.). The papers clarified commonalities as well as differences in the understanding of adat held by individuals and groups and illustrated the range of possibilities for indigenous agency that have evolved from international agreements. The presenters were also able to show how social structures transform or solidify in part due to these new possibilities. Adat stands for the demand for rights and claims – interpreted and used differently depending on the region. Participants discussed indigenous groups that are more egalitarian in their social organization aswell as more hierarchically organized groups. Dr. Fadjar Thufail (LIPI, Jakarta, research associate of the Göttingen Cultural Property Group) presented different types of networks established among the descendents of regional royal families. They make use of adat among other things to reclaim their former estates from the Indonesian state. Indirectly, they thus plead for the recognition of a stratified society within an Indonesian state that stands for the equality of its citizens.

The ethnographic examples dovetailed extremely well and encouraged the engaging and enriching interaction between international lawyers and social anthropologists. This was evident particularly also in the final discussion during which the different projects were brought together and scrutinized jointly from theoretical vantage points. The workshop papers will be published in a volume within the Cultural Property series of Göttingen University Press.

Workshop-Review: The International Law of Culture: Prospects and Challenges

From 23rd to 25th of May, Prof. Dr. Peter-Tobias Stoll hosted a Workshop on “The International Law of Culture: Prospects and Challenges” in his function as deputy spokesperson of the interdisciplinary DFG Research Unit on „The Constitution of Cultural Property“. The workshop, held in the Historic Observatory of the University of Göttingen, addressed a broad range of current developments in the field of the international law of culture.

In addition to rather “classical” subjects such as “Commerce and Culture”, which was presented on by Prof. Dr. Hélène Ruiz-Fabri of the University of Paris 1 Pantheon-Sorbonne (France) and Dr. Mira Burri of the World Trade Institute of the University of Bern (Switzerland), and “Culture and Human Rights” thematised by Prof. Dr. Francesco Francioni of the European University Institute (Italy), rather new developments and issues were addressed. Prof. Dr. Véronique Guèvremont of the Laval University (Canada), for example, examined the relation between “Culture and Sustainable Development“, while Prof. Dr. Federico Lenzerini of the University of Siena (Italy) conducted a presentation on the role of “Indigenous Peoples”.

Prof. Dr. Peter-Tobias Stoll and Dr. Sven Mißling as representatives of the Research Unit on “Cultural Property”, however, reflected upon the role of “Culture in International Politics” from a legal perspective.

Further members of the Research Group enriched the discussion with papers and reports from their relevant field of research, like Prof. Dr. Brigitta Hauser-Schäublin who presented an ethnological analysis of the relationship between indigenous groups and the state in Indonesia. Hereby, they facilitated an interdisciplinary approach to the issues raised. The discussions raised – due to this interdisciplinary collaboration, which is also inherent to the work of the Research Unit on “Cultural Property” – not only amongst, but also within the respective disciplines were highly relevant for the mutual understanding of the disciplines represented, but also for the general gain of knowledge.

A presentation of Prof. Dr. Lyndel V. Prott of the Queensland University (Australia), commentated on by Dr. Tatiana Flessas of the London School of Economics (England), perfected the workshop. Prof. Prott granted the participants a precious insight into the topic of the return of Cultural Property based upon her expertise gained due to her long-standing work with UNESCO. This was not only much appreciated since the subject matter does regain importance on the international level, but also because it is subject to one of the sub-projects of the Research Unit on “Cultural Property“.

At this occasion, we would also like to thank all participants and in particular the speakers for their contributions and inspiring impulses.

Policy Paper: Verbundförderung für interdisziplinäre Gesellschafts- und Kulturwissenschaften: Eine Kritik

Regina Bendix/Kilian Bizer

Interdisziplinarität ist nicht nur ein Etikett, das die zeitgenössische Universität, geprägt durch Exzellenzinitiative, W-Besoldung, leistungsorientierte Mittelvergabe und vielem mehr, nutzt, um sich auszuzeichnen als besonders fortschrittlich, weltoffen und -zugewandt. Interdisziplinär angelegte Forschung ist auch eine Herangehensweise an die komplexen Herausforderungen einer heterogenen, globalisierten Welt, und tritt dem Bild des Elfenbeinturmes, in dem sich seine WissenschaftlerInnen verschanzen, wirkungsvoll entgegen. Interdisziplinarität wird unterschiedlich theoretisiert; sie lässt sich gemäß der hier beigezogenen Analyse von Barry, Born und Wszkalnys als ein Kontinuum charakterisieren, das von Multidisziplinarität über Transdisziplinarität bis hin zur Interdisziplinarität im engeren Sinne reicht. Während ersteres ein Nebeneinander von Disziplinen meint, die am gleichen Themenkomplex arbeiten und einander punktuell zuarbeiten, adressiert Transdisziplinarität ein gesellschaftlich wahrgenommenes Problem und vermittelt bzw. kooperiert mit gesellschaftlichen Akteuren. Interdisziplinarität im engeren Sinne inkludiert eine auch methodische Zusammenarbeit, die die Grenzen zwischen den Disziplinen zumindest ansatzweise verschmelzen lässt. Diese Form der Interdisziplinarität ergänzt den methodischen und ideologischen Kanon der jeweiligen Disziplin, um das adressierte Problem einer besseren Lösung zuzuführen.

Dieser Beitrag untersucht, auf welche Weise Interdisziplinarität in der gesellschafts- und kulturwissenschaftlichen Forschung zu gestalten ist, um einen Beitrag zur gesellschaftlichen Problemlösung zu liefern. Dabei stellt er Defizite in der Vergabepraxis interdisziplinärer Verbünde insbesondere durch die DFG fest und entwickelt daraus Empfehlungen für die Fortentwicklung der Förderrichtlinien. Abschnitt 2 konkretisiert zunächst, warum Interdisziplinarität einen Mehrwert verspricht. Abschnitt 3 fragt nach den Bedingungen für das Funktionieren von Interdisziplinarität. Abschnitt 4 formuliert Empfehlungen anhand von Beispielen für die Förderung von Verbundvorhaben. Abschnitt 5 dient der Schlussbetrachtung.

Das vollständige Paper kann als PDF heruntergeladen werden.

Scholarship and Policy: Moderator’s Comments II (Regina Bendix)

Rather than summarizing the opposing points of view, let me point to the crevices of interdisciplinarity that become apparent in this debate: the social significance or even legitimacy of intellectual inquiry look very different for an economist’s and a cultural anthropologist’s point of view. The former has several decades of research experience and participation in endeavors that not only suggest but demand policy recommendation and he demands – not without caveats – that investigating the constitution of cultural property result in policy recommendations. Society as the client ultimately paying for our work might otherwise just decide that work such as ours might not be worth funding anymore. The cultural anthropologist in the process of finishing his dissertation delimits the boundaries within which he could permit recommendations. He draws on the foundational history of humanistic inquiry and updated stances of post-war critical theory. Both to him combine into a sufficient bulwark against forgetting the power asymmetries existing within the very problem that we investigate.

Are there possibilities to reach common ground – or at the very least productive cooperation – between disciplines as different as law, economics, cultural anthropology and ethnology? We would like to think or imagine that there are, and in the days ahead of us, we hope to illustrate where we have found the possibility of working in tandem or at the very least next to one another in addressing arenas within which cultural property is constituted.

On Friday morning, finally, we will return to this debate and further input on how this group has experienced interdisciplinary research between fields of inquiry not usually teaming up together and we will – this at least I would like to promise – seek to come up with policy suggestions for funding organizations and universities with regard to fostering interdisciplinary work.

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: For the Motion II (Kilian Bizer)

In his stance against policy recommendations Stefan Groth tries hard to end on a positive note: He sees a potential for the debate on cultural property to be placed within the greater context of societal problems and finds that this in itself is a form of recommendation. Apart from this, and he is making this very clear, there is no room for a “culture of recommendation”.

Do I disagree? Taking a holistic approach to the world will make it difficult for Stefan Groth or anyone else to come to a recommendation – I agree. Taking a holistic approach will make almost anything difficult, including a precise description. There are good reasons for being reductionist at times, and I myself find it difficult to walk on the fine line between being too holistic to say something meaningful and being too reductionist to not be trivial. From casual observation I feel, that economists are more often in danger of being too reductionist while anthropologists may be more at risk to be too holistic. But we clearly disagree on the scope for recommendations within social science.

Let me put in simple terms what Stefan Groth suggests: If we, society’s social scientists, make some finely tuned observations about how a conflict over something indefinable “cultural” in some equally nebulous social context such as an “indigenous society” or a “modern society” takes place, then policy maker’s time has come to make something out of it – or leave it be. In his perspective, I understand, policy recommendations are an accidental by-product of a scientific process aiming for something else. And ‘accidental’ he would understand rather in the sense of a casualty than a probabilistic event.

My point, by contrast, is that social scientists may aim for whatever they wish, e.g. understanding or enlightenment, but they must address in the end how societies’ institutions should or could be altered to bring about different outcomes. I am well aware that scientific progress is never quite as straightforward so as to end every paper with meaningful policy implications but we must grow with the challenge. I would like not merely to create a “culture of recommendation” but clearly demand that recommendations are understood as an ultimate test for the usefulness of a science project.

Most social science research I have come across starts out with some kind of a vague idea about a possible problem. Most academics are used to explain why their research is relevant to others and to society at large. Very few, me included, would expect large crowds to develop an interest in their issues, and are happy to find the few across the world who work on similar or related issues.

Putting the idea of the problem in words for a first time, as done by Regina Bendix in our research group on cultural property about six years ago, is equal to deciding on a lot of normative issues: On what do I place my attention? What is of interest to me? What do I accept as a problem? These are questions of enormous implications for the actual scientific process without being positive-analytical science.

I myself decide what is of importance to me. And I decide by pre-scientific standards, i.e. curiosity, reputation, conflict etc. The age-old debate over normative versus positive-analytic positions, so wonderfully summarized by Stefan Groth, appears of little importance in this respect: We are never non-normative however ‘Weberian’ we try to be in doing science. We are always caught by being and acting normatively within the science process. That is why it is so important to reflect one’s own normative viewpoint from the beginning to the end: From putting the research question into words to enunciating policy recommendations.

As we reflect our results on the basis of our prescientific and normative concepts we can grasp whether they can be accepted as universal results or whether they are merely based on our own normative predisposition. As social scientists, we try to build (or destroy) a stock of accepted knowledge in our field. To do so we all apply theories, build hypotheses, collect data, test hypotheses, falsify or accept them for the time being and suggest modifications to theories according to the data. But none of the theories are non-normative as they focus their attention already on certain issues: Political sciences frequently on power (Downs), justice (Rawls), economic theories on efficiency (welfare economics) etc. Across the disciplines we have many different forms of theories, we have different methods of collecting data and we may have different standards for falsifying hypotheses. The fine and elaborate description of what we find in the field is a necessary condition for scientific progress in all social science disciplines. But it is never a sufficient condition as the mere description does not test accepted knowledge against the empirical data.

I certainly agree with the notion of going only as far as an explicit model of assumptions, if-clauses and rigorous conclusions can take us. I also agree that we should be clear about our normative preconceptions which in earlier times might have been sufficiently labeled by “left” and “right” but which have grown much harder to make explicit nowadays. I also demand constant reflection of our conclusions and being open about the fact that our conclusions are contingent on ourselves and our normative preconceptions. But I clearly do not agree that we should accept diffuse concepts, nebulous arguments or, worst of all, no conclusions. For understanding as well as enlightening can only come from defining concepts clearly, arguing rigorously and drawing logical conclusions. In the process, we might still work on understanding theories; we might grow desperate over the lack of data or their inadequacy. We might grind our teeth to make sense of the data. But in the end we are called to add a piece of knowledge however small to our field which can be accepted as that by the community. If this piece of knowledge is added then we are called to check whether any conclusions must be drawn towards policy recommendations.

Let me exemplify my point: We could believe that many secrets of traditional knowledge will be never divulged for fear of being misappropriated. We could build a behavioral model addressing such choice problems and form respective hypotheses. Such a model would make use of already existing theoretical work. As economists we would be well advised to embed our analysis of the possibly individual choice into the social context within which the choice problem will be addressed. We would not only ask who keeps the secret, but also ask about the process of sharing knowledge, social sanctioning et cetera. If then we are successful in collecting field data or experimental data we can test our hypothesis, and reject or – for the time being – accept it. Let us say we accept our hypothesis that helpful traditional knowledge is kept a secret. From such research, we can draw conclusions: For example, we can provide a property right to such traditional knowledge to make it possible to share without having to fear its misappropriation. Of course, we should be careful about the policy implications as there might be adverse and non-intended effects which we did not address in our own research. But forming a clear policy recommendation enables our community to argue the point in question.

In my primitive functional model of society and science there is – even in its most elaborate form of principal agent models of politicians and social scientists – no place for hiding from or avoiding policy implications. There is plenty of space for debating the “best” regulatory choice or critical doubts about normative preconceptions, adequately collected field data, theories and disciplinary blindness to certain phenomena. But if you don’t even try to derive policy implications at any point of your own research, don’t be surprised if society feels that elaborate books whose authors do not feel it necessary to explain the social relevance of the issues investigated might not be worth the expense. Why, in a few words, should they pay for it?

Scholarship and Policy: Moderator's Comments I (Regina Bendix)

The two parties have offered their first positions on the 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.”

I will begin by noting the conflicting or contradictory use of the term “positive” as employed by Mr. Bizer and Mr. Groth respectively. Mr. Bizer coins the notion of “pos-people” for disciplines engaged in documenting and interpreting what is there. Mr. Groth invokes the concept of positivist heuristics for an approach to research that allows one to ignore all the anomalies. One might then rephrase the players in the two groups as “positivist norm-guys” and “critically problematizing guys and gals”.

Both debaters invoke a scholarly past, but to different ends. Mr. Bizer, not without irony or perhaps longing, references a past within which scholarship faced less expectation. He observes a fundamental shift in the sociopolitical parameters within which social scientists work. Society no longer wants to support scholarship without immediately recognizable use, and Mr. Bizer points to the economic reality that society pays us to produce useful results. This change in parameters is due to distrust vis-à-vis what it is scholars actually do, and hence an effort to distribute funds in exchange for concrete and useful results. Society seeks guidance, he argues, and thus offers public funds to have groups such as ours offer guidance, in this case on an emerging issue such as a cultural property – which is by no means devoid of normative posts at the outset.

Mr. Groth evokes the longevity of a dispute once fought between critical rationalists and critical theorists and rekindled at between new camps motivated by new contexts but formulating an analogous opposition. Using Mr. Groth’s argumentation, and considering the research topic of cultural property, we are to face the impossibility of society’s demand for policy recommendations in exchange for research funds. To him, social phenomena are too complex and too contradictory for them to be harnessed in experiments capable of forecasting reliably the costs and benefits of a given course of action.

Yet the fact that Mr. Groth’s statement, too, is not devoid of irony would indicate that the state of affairs is not entirely pleasing. While Mr. Bizer chaves under the nature of newly introduced systems of measuring and paying academics, Mr. Groth refuses a service sector role for social scientists, but there would seem to be a certain longing behind the sarcasm of that expression, a wish to be able to do more than acknowledge the irresolvable nature of the cultural property conundrum.

Hence you are now both invited to respond to one another and further prepare the ground for our ensuing discussions.