Project Area C: Dissolution of Social Orders



Project Area C deals with threats that emerge from within a social order itself whereby the establishment of a threat discourse may occur only gradually at first. The projects look at phases of escalation within longer processes of change or dissolution within existing socio-political orders.

The project area includes the following studies:

C01: Eastern Roman Empire

C02: Dynastic Ruptures

C03: American Race Relations

C05: Political Violence

C07: Apocalyptic Prophecies

What is meant by “Ordnungszersetzung”?

The term “Ordnungszersetzung” (“dissolution of social order”) has not been used in scholarship as an analytical category until now. A historical examination of the use of the term “Zersetzung” (dissolution) in scholarship and everyday language, moreover, also raises doubts as to whether this term can be used neutrally, i.e. without implying a certain bias. One factor that speaks for the use of the term “Zersetzung” for the sub-projects in Project Area C is that it can be used to describe processes of dismantling that can be generated from within as well as without. Moreover, it also implies long-term processes of change.

However, this term also seems problematic given the negative associations with its use in the past. The Nazis used this term for a military criminal offense, namely the “Zersetzung der Wehrkraft” (subversion of national defence), and as an anti-Jewish rallying cry. In the GDR, however, “Zersetzung” was seen in a positive light as a strategy used against the opposition. There are also other older and less loaded meanings attached to this term in Chemistry and Biology where this term refers to a process that describes how chemical compounds are broken down into smaller elements. This “Zersetzung” metaphor in relation to the natural sciences, however, is also a bit problematic as it implies a natural inevitability of events that does not necessarily have to hold true.

In value-free terms, however, “Zersetzung” can effectively be used to describe multifaceted processes of change.

Although “Ordnungszersetzung” has thus been defined for the purposes of this project area as a process of dissolution and change that can be sparked by both internal and external factors, the individual projects focus on threats to social order that come from within. The question of whether such threats only originate internally, however, cannot be unequivocally answered, especially because the answer depends on the respective definition of social order that is used. Not only external perceptions, but also internal self-perceptions can play an important role in the establishment of a threat situation. Consequently, Project Area C has adopted a flexible approach that recognises the reflexive relationship between “internal” and “external”. In the case of C03, for example, representatives of the “white” racial order defined what was “external” in their propaganda on an “as needed” basis. Black civil rights activists, for example, were often painted as conspirators sent in from the outside. A similar phenomenon appears in the Rwandan genocide analysed in project C05: The extremist Hutu regime portrayed the Tutsi-dominated Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) as a part of a foreign (Ugandan) plot to take over power and suppress the Hutu. Despite decades of exile, the representatives of the RPF, however, saw themselves as Rwandans and presented the RPF as a multi-ethnic coalition fighting for the country's freedom and democratization.

Social Order and its Two Faces

Project Area C looks at two dimensions of what can be defined as “social order” that seem to be contradictory at first glance. An actor-centric perspective definitely seems to be at odds with a supra-personal perspective focusing on structures and the difference between these two approaches correlates to other apparent contradictory concepts associated with social order such as “internal” and “external,” as well as short term and long-term threats (see below).

However, Project Area C maintains that these “dichotomies” are not really dichotomies at all, but rather two sides of the same coin. In order to examine the relationship of elements outlined within the definition of social order more precisely and simultaneously overcome these supposed dichotomies, it employs a perspective that takes into account both sides of the coin – the personal as well as the supra-personal – on equal footing.

For example, in project C03, the case of the American Civil Rights activist Bayard Rustin illustrates the importance of taking into consideration both these perspectives. Only dealing with Rustin as an individual person, for example, ignores larger structures at play such as racially-dependent power constellations. From this angle, Rustin appears to be the subject of his own individual fate whereby his person and his actions account for his exclusion. If one only looks at the larger structures behind racism, homophobia, and similar forms of discrimination, however, then Rustin appears to be a seemingly irrelevant outsider whose personal fate was of little importance for the overall picture.

Similarly, in the acute dynastic threat situations examined as part of the project C02, a perspective that only looks at respective individual actions or actors also neglects an essential dimension. In this case, for example, it is important to situate these actors within the structures that affect their ways of thinking, especially in regard to notions of friendship, family, and dynasty over the long run.

What constitutes a threat?

One of the most distinguishing concepts that sets Project Area C apart from the others is that it deals with threat situations that were not immediately identified by contemporaries as a threat. This means that the threat discourse was initially established gradually through “warning groups” who were ahead of the game, so to speak. For some of the individual projects, such as in the case of American race relations (C03), the establishment of a threat discourse can be easily traced. But, there is a source problem when it comes to projects C01 and C02. In these case studies, at least so far, there is little known evidence for any kind of direct communication between the actors involved about an acute threat. Doubtlessly, a great deal of this communication occurred verbally.

To deal with the problematic nature of some sources, the project area has developed a set of criteria to help define what sources can indicate a threat situation. Firstly, there are sources in which warnings and direct appeals may be explicitly expressed that elucidate a reflection about the threat in the immediate threat situation. Conversely, there are sources in which the absence of a threat is a theme. Secondly, one may be able to detect the gradual appearance of sources that only seem to imply the existence of a threat situation. These sources may also appear to belong under the rubric of efforts undertaken to combat a threat. Sometimes a specific threat discourse is overlaid with references to other threats. Thirdly, it may only be possible to identify some sources as being part of the development and establishment of a new social order with hindsight. These types of sources are especially important for projects C01 and C02.

Thus, in order to analyse these different aspects, this project area has adopted a differentiated, critical approach to sources and their interpretation. Limiting the definition of threat discourse to only the explicit communication about the threat would make a comprehensive analysis in the individual case studies impossible. At the same time, however, it is important to make sure that the sources are not over-interpreted in terms of the "threatened order" and/or threat discourse under consideration. For this reason, a critical analysis of sources has been built into the overall theoretical framework of Project Area C.

Furthermore, the exchange between the different scholarly disciplines involved in the project has revealed that “Kommunikation” (“communication” / “discourse”) must be more clearly defined in this context. So far, this term has been used in reference to speech and/or writing about a threat and as distinctively separate from any actions taken to combat or overcome a threat. But, given the problem mentioned above that it may only be possible to detect a threat to a given social order indirectly via the measures undertaken to deal with it, it makes sense to work with a broader definition of communication and, respectively, media that may also include non-verbal activity.

How do threats relate to the dynamics of accelerated social change?

Another substantial criterion for all projects within Project Area C is that the social orders in question are confronted with long-term threats that were manifest in short phases of rapid social change. In determining the intensity of the threat, the projects look at more than just phenomena that are often referred to as "crises" or "transformation phases". Rather, they also analyse the rhythms and relationships between shorter and longer phases of threat. This means that – for Project Area C – both short-term as well as the long-lasting threats must be taken into account, as neither threat type can be fully understood without considering the other. Thus by investigating this dichotomy of "latent" and "manifest" threats, the complex phenomena of social orders undergoing processes of dissolution and/or reconfiguration can be more precisely examined, analysed, and categorised.

The use of a long-term perspective also makes it possible to identify underlying, latent types of threat that, depending on the situation, may or may not be clearly perceived as a threat by the actors involved at the time. It is often virtually impossible for contemporaries to determine any beginning or end points or to identify decisive moments in these processes. In C01, for example, a latent threat can be detected that lasted for more than 80 years, from around 450 to the early reign of Justinian in the 530s. During this period, multiple generations of emperors were not able to lead imperial politics away from being purely reactive in nature. On the flip side of the coin, as highlighted by project C03, the advocates of white supremacy in the American South felt distinctly threatened by a possible slave rebellion on the eve of the abolition of slavery in 1865. The increasing aspirations of African Americans, especially in the post-Civil War era strengthened this threat perception in a relatively short period of time.

The projects in C03 clearly show that concrete, manifest threats must be distinguished from longer phases of latent threat because they culminate in specific events within a brief period and can be identified as important “hinge moments” that affect the further develop of systems of social order. These types of phenomena can be found in all the other projects as well. They can be found in the form of usurpations and unrest that emerged out of the events of 476 (C01), in the absence or death of a male heir (C02), or in the foment fostered within ethnic conflicts by African elites to suit their own interests (C05)

The perceived depth or strength of a threat can seldom be directly detected on the basis of the available sources. Thus, in order to be able to distinguish latent from manifest threats, the projects will not only examine the perceptions of actors themselves as they struggle to control the threat discourse, but also they will identify moments in which the actions or measures taken in response to the threat intensified.