ZiF Workshop

Momentum of its own. Inherent Dynamism in Pre-Modern Societies

Date: 12 – 14 February 2020
Convenors: Franz-Josef Arlinghaus (Bielefeld, GER), Andreas Rüther (Bielefeld, GER)

The core thesis the conference wants to discuss is that the fundamental structures of pre-modern societies worldwide display elements which are in themselves driving forces for constant changes of these societies. At the same time, the nature of this change is specifically pre-modern. This continuous restructuring, so the second assumption, tends to lead to these very structures becoming clearer. In other words: in a way, pre-modern societies come into their own only by the end of the observation period (c. 700 to c. 1700), shortly before their comparably rapid and surprising restructuring into a functionally differentiated modern age.

The organisers developed most of their considerations on the basis of West European material on the Middle Ages and the Early Modern Age. The workshop aims at a) assessing the theses regarding this region, b) discussing them with experts in pre-modern history of other world regions, and c) putting this approach up for discussion in the field of historical research. "Inherent dynamism as a term and general concept means that specifiable changes can arise from the phenomena themselves, for instance through the interaction of elements belonging to them.

As basic structures of pre-modern societies, three aspects appear to be central: 1. Segmentary formation of groups: Max Weber drew attention to the fact that membership in a group (guild, monastery, aristocratic familia) comprehensively determined the overall quality of the person right into private life. The ensuing membership regimes and jurisdictional problems led to permanent restructuring of both the internal structure of these groups and the relationships between them. 2. Estate-based hierarchical order: Niklas Luhmann emphasized the extensive equality within an estate, but hardly bridgeable difference between the different estates (e.g. between nobility and peasants). However, both the gradual differences within and the differences between the strata repeatedly required reaffirmation and/or readjustment. 3. Presence culture and consensus orientation: courts, councils and diets and the peoples presence or absence there had a completely different constitutive meaning than today; dissent and dissenting opinions were dealt with differently than in the present.

We therefore ask whether the specifically pre-modern relationship of the individual to the respective association of persons, whether the hierarchical structure of societies and the type of communication show similarities across world regions that generate comparable dynamics of their own.

The aim of the conference is to explore the explanatory potential of inherent dynamics as an up to now almost unregarded impetus for social change in pre-modern times. The question is whether, and if so, to what extent, changes have arisen from the basic structures of pre-modern societies themselves. The importance of other aspects (e.g. cultural transfer, entanglement of different regions) should not be questioned. Precisely because the project also takes these proposals seriously, weighing these incentives for change against the considerations made here will be a question of importance as well.

The innovative aspect of the project is that pre-modernism, which is usually regarded as static, is not only not described as static, but even produces social change from its own structure. The relevance of the thesis can be seen in the fact that it puts question marks behind the 'special path-narratives' that are prominent in every region of the world, which outline that one's own modernity has roots that go back centuries and is based on one's own specific culture.

Conference Programme
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Please direct questions concerning the organisation of the workshop to Trixi Valentin at the Conference Office. Questions regarding scientific content and contributions should be directed to the organizers.


Tel: +49 521 106-2769
Fax: +49 521 106-152769
E-Mail: trixi.valentin@uni-bielefeld.de