Political, social, and cultural conflicts are a ubiquitous and unavoidable phenomenon in democratic and pluralistic societies. In positive cases, they lead to enhanced awareness of problems and to social change, in negative cases to increased polarization and violence.
The work at the Institute is concentrated on theoretical and empirical analyses of both constructive and destructive conflicts and their consequences. One central focus is on the extent and causes of violence.
The forms that this destruction takes, its extent and its consequences for the mental and physical integrity of individuals, the coexistence of social groups, or the moral constitution of a society have often been described. Most are accompanied by the hope that modern society is developing along a path that is culturally humane and structurally directed toward social equality, with political interventions ensuring that violence becomes less and less of a threat to individual and social life. This hope is shaped by the assumption of civilization as progress. How the present situation is assessed as regards trends in violence depends on the chosen historic time frame. For example, the long-term decline in homicide rates in Western societies has inverted since the 1960s. This raises questions about the extent to which this reversal may be related to anomic and disintegrative consequences of rapid social change.
The current need for explanation has been triggered especially by the return of ethnic and cultural conflicts and the associated politically motivated violence, including in modern industrialized Western societies. For a long time, this trend was not perceived as a particular problem, because it was anticipated that ethnic and cultural stratifications would melt away during the course of social modernization. This did not happen, however. The increasing socioeconomic polarization in Western societies, and their growing ethnic and cultural heterogenization and socio-spatial segregation point to new and complex problems with a high potential for conflict. This increasing potential for conflict is accompanied by structural problems in achieving satisfactory systemic and social integration in Western industrial societies. Therefore, one focus of work at the Institute is on examining which forms of the dynamics of integration and disintegration give rise to far-reaching problems.
Social identity theories provide a particularly good basis for analyzing the social and psychological consequences of these societal problems. They permit the investigation of processes of ethnic group formation or exclusion along with their sometimes escalatory consequences, and also consideration of the conditions leading to a breakdown of such collective identities.
Another central goal of research in the context of social integration or disintegration is longitudinal analysis of attitudes of enmity such as racism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, etc. in the population, as well as their expression in extreme right-wing group violence in public spaces.
Researchers also explore the extent to which the consequences of social disintegration on the one hand and violence perpetrated by groups from the majority society on the other are of significance in the development of political and religious attitudes or activities in migrant groups and may thus be causes of power-oriented religious fundamentalism, for instance.
Last but not least, this leads to the formulation of major research questions on the complex interactions between structural conditions (such as economic constraints, social positions, legal principles), sociopsychological mechanisms (such as apportionment of responsibility, social comparison, and collective identification) and interacting groups (such as political parties, ethnic groupings, violent extreme right-wing groups) in the sociospatial context, so as to analyze both conflicts that take a constructive course and, above all, destructive conflicts and any violence that ensues. Wherever possible, use is made of both multilevel analyses and interdisciplinary concepts for this purpose. If successful, they may lead to further development of the theoretical concept and of possibilities for preventive action.