Project Area D: Competing Social Orders


Project Area D looks specifically at societies in which a threat to social order came from an external source, but where the threat itself may not have been immediately evident to those concerned. Even if the threat may not have been directly perceived, there must be an established discourse of threat or at least one in the making. In order to make this quite open description more manageable, this CRC project area focuses on cases in which different constellations of social order compete with one another. The individual projects investigate phases and situations in which representatives of two versions of social order that both claim to be valid for the whole of society see each other as an existential threat. Both sides seek to establish their interpretation of this threat as hegemonic by dramatizing an already existing undercurrent of threat discourse in such a way that they are able to develop strategies of defence and attack as well as appropriation. The opposing social order is perceived as distinctly “other” and therefore not part of the same social order; rather, it is seen as an external danger.

The field of scholarship surrounding this concept of “competing social orders” is by no means wholly new. Giants in Sociology such as Norbert Elias ("royal mechanism") or Karl Marx (Bonapartism) have described historical moments in which large social groups compete for hegemony over the whole of society where no clear winner emerged at first. Marx and Elias maintain that these kinds of undecided power balance situations can unleash new processes of social change and lead to surprising political configurations. Of course, their arguments are indeed based on specific historical constellations and should not necessarily be taken out of context. Building on the shoulders of these sociological giants, however, the CRC aims to move in a new analytical direction.

As the individual projects point out, the perspectives underpinning existing historical and socio-cultural analyses of competing systems of social order are often laden with biases. Constellations that emerge out of the competition over social hegemony, which as we know from Marx and Elias are not necessarily directly related to the constellations that existed as the competition ensued, are often used to make teleological projections onto this competition over social order as part of processes of shaping the future. In historical analyses of competing social orders, the following often appear: 1) judgmental statements about the opposing social order (modern vs. traditional, future-oriented vs. backward-looking, meritocratic vs. self-sufficing, proactive vs. reactive); 2) one-dimensional logical explanations of the future based on the past that disregard the emergence of spontaneous effects that may have initially made the resolution of the competition over social order possible in the first place. Within the CRC “Threatened Orders,” these competitions over social order are approached from the beginning rather than from the end; both sides' perceptions of the situation and their respective chances for success in the future are thus examined from an open perspective untainted by teleological goals. In doing so, the projects focus on the escalation and de-escalation of threat discourses as well as unintentional side effects. Both these phenomena can lead to consequences resulting from the competition over social order that were unforeseen at the time the conflict began, and which make it virtually impossible to make a simple assessment as to the success or failure of one of the initial competitors.

In keeping with the goals of the CRC as a whole, the project area covers a broad timespan ranging from the 3rd/4th centuries A.D. (D01) to the late 1970s and early 1980s (D04). The projects also differ in terms of their respective geographic parameters. Two of the sub-projects (D02 and D03) look closely at specific regions within German-speaking central Europe while two other sub-projects (D01 and D04) deal with threat discourses in which the geographic contexts are only marginally significant.

To ensure for productive scholarly exchange and comparable results despite the differing time periods, geographic locations and disciplines included in the project area, the four sub-projects have been finely tailored to work well with each other on a methodological level.

All of the sub-projects focus on mechanisms behind the establishment and abatement of threat discourses. The specific competitions over social order examined in the different projects are set apart from others by the fact that they are comprehensive and fundamental, i.e. they present alternative forms of social order which are intended to form the basis of social life. The successful establishment of a discourse of threat, as well as its abatement, is perceived by the contemporaries in all case studies as a sign of a fundamentally new situation, marking the end or beginning of an era.

Two of the sub-projects (D02 and D03) are situated in the 18th and 19th centuries. They deal with competing social orders that are centrally significant for the perception of a fundamental change “around 1800,” namely between nobility and middle classes and between state and social ranks. These cases are especially interesting in light of the CRC's overarching goal to critically question the fundamental difference between “pre-modernity” and “modernity”. Moreover, as the focus is put on threat discourses, the project area can critically analyse the conceptual history that forms the backbone of Koselleck's theory of the “saddle period”. By moving out from the strong chronological axis around 1800, the shared basic theoretical constellation across the projects can be used to bring ancient history and contemporary history into dialogue with one another.