Department of History - History of Modern Societies
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History of Modern Societies. A Concept Paper.
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Thomas Welskopp: History of Modern Societies. A Concept Paper.

In the past, Social History suggested that "society" was to be understood as a concrete and palpable unit. What is more, this unit was meant to be defined by a certain territory and the group of individuals it included as well as a certain structure that organized this entity internally. This implies that "society" was commonly thought of as a stout collective singular, which was securely clamped within the limits of nation states.

We now have to refine this concept of "society" without relapsing to levels below those of History of Societies and the Social Studies. This means that we have to think of a definition, which is more flexible with regard to theories. "Society" first of all means an aggregation of social relationships in between agents. However, if we consider "society" in the light of its agents, its practices and its communication this necessarily renders the firmly demarcated unit as a collective subject debatable at the least. In History of Modern Societies the diverse forms of "socialization" must be at the very center of analysis. "Society" at all times is an event which has to be produced - and is endowed with a bare chance of being reproduced only - rather than a starting point for historical reflection.

Obviously, our definition of "society" is a modern one. Then what does "Modernity" mean? Frankly speaking: Doesn't History of Modern Societies maneuver with two different but equally vague conceptions that nebulize each other instead of making things clearer? It is not least the terms themselves which shape our conceptions of social organization. They establish these conceptions as social organization structures because we align our behavior along them. Hence, they implement actions of construction. "Modernity" was the first to find a language abstract enough to reflect on "the whole" of "society" without relying on metaphoric reassurances of religion, myth or analogies to commonly perceptible forms of community. But this doesn't necessarily mean "Modernity" was successful in grasping this "whole". Most of its self-descriptions are of metonymical or metaphoric character.

Anthony Giddens, among others, coined the term "Second Modernity" to refer to the times he believes we are currently living in (and will continue to do so for the time being). Giddens argues that the proliferation of Postmodern Theory is an indication for our arrival in a "Reflective Modernity". He is convinced that we haven't yet left "Modernity", in spite of frequent post-modern assertions. In hindsight, Giddens´ neologism can be interpreted as a sign implying that "Modernity" has always been "reflective" and that its capability of categorical reflection by abstracting language, but without the limitations and guarantees of final insights has been one of its central characteristics. From the perspective of historians, this makes the search for a chimeran uniformity of "Modernity" a fascinating period of "reflection", which annihilated itself as a consequence of the urge to include even the most recent social developments. "Post-Modernity" was thus degraded to a period of time in which people felt secure enough to process uncertainties in a playful manner though eventually elevating citation and relativization to a final "form".

Questions arise with regard to the media: Is a special relationship towards mass media a characteristic of "Modernity"? Can this relationship be defined as a "mass-media mode of Modernity" or is it rather itself internally being characterized by the same factors that constantly transform the role and impact of media on modern societies? We agree with Luhmann's thesis that the mass-media is a generator of communicational relations on higher organizational levels. Generation of communication between functional systems seems to be one of its general effects. However, there is a flip-side to this symbolic reintegration of systems: owing to their idiosyncratic systemic characteristics and logics, allegedly bridging communicational structures of the mass media have buffering effects on the dialogue. Mass media can, for instance, suggest (unreal) socialization by simulating non-existent face-to-face interaction. Processes like these can be observed in detail as early as in nineteenth century nationalism. Likewise, when used on behalf of politics, mass media can generate an alleged nearness of those who rule and those who are being ruled. This is not to say it was a mere show effect: Quite contrary, this artificial nearness can in fact create real reactions towards politics - while paradoxically widening the actual gap between politics and "the citizens" at the same time. This gap is an implication of the interposition of a mass-media system that follows its own logical rules. Consequently, History of Modern Societies neither conceives of the mass media (and its historical effects) as an exploitable tool for manipulation nor as an autonomic, demonic power. It rather tries to disentangle those complex reciprocal effects through exemplary studies of historical constellations.

One thing should have become quite apparent by now: A research field with a title as ambitious as "History of Modern Societies" will have to rise up to the challenge of sketching a social theory on the meta-level. Subsequently, we investigate shared and impacting structural effects of institution complexes, functional systems and socialization of "Modernity". The actual institution complexes, however, will rather be found with the help of abstracting in-depth questions: How, for instance, did capitalism establish institutionally? Which role do corporations play in this process? How - or rather to which extent - can specific complexes of social inequalities be described as social strata? Any social theory that aims to instruct empirical study will inevitably have to start on the level of actual institutions. In the next step, research can focus on class societies, capitalistic economies, the nation state or societal organization structures of violence. Only meta-reflection can constitute a vantage point that enables us to observe self-descriptions. This does not grant that we can grasp "the whole". But it sharpens our view of those structural effects that are at work on the underlying level of institutions.

Against this background the question arises whether and to which extent institutional complexes, socialization and collectivization in history show effects of functional differentiation, the formation of institutions of a higher and potentially commanding order, and processes of autoselection or reintegration and buffering via the media. The subsequent thesis is the following: Those structural effects are not exclusively "modern", but can retrospectively be identified as mainsprings of societal development in pre-modern times as well.