Research Programme


Research perspective and aims

In the current public discourse about politics, as well as in the social and cultural sciences, the perception of a "transformation of the political" is being consolidated, in which different areas and institutions, topics and styles of communication, agents and legitimizations of the political are changing. One particular characteristic of the present is that the separation between the political and other important areas of reality is increasingly being questioned (Ulrich K. Preuß) - quite different examples range from the media ("mediocratism") to forms of civic culture and commitments ("subpolitics") and to the relatively new political issue of overweight people.

This observation supports the SFB's hypothesis that different areas of reality can be transformed into parts of the political space and that the definition of boundaries, i.e. of what belongs to the political, and what does not, is itself a genuine part of the political. Therefore the research group does not work with a preconceived definition of politics that refers to particular areas or issues. Even power and violence, which used to be seen by political science as core elements of the political, become part of communicative (re-) definitions of the political.

The SFB is based on a constructivist understanding of questions posed by cultural and communications history. With this perspective it aims at developing a new approach to political history, which neither concentrates on the processes of political decision-making nor on those agents that are traditionally examined (governments, parties, groups of lobbyists, federations). Rather it also includes less prominent forms of political agency and seeks to overcome the separation between theories of structure and theories of agency.

The research proposition of the SFB does not allow for a singular, general and 'timeless' term of the political. Instead, it looks at the historically changeable boundaries, mechanisms and media of a discursive and symbolically constituted space of the political. For the analysis of this the agents and their constellations, modalities of communication and institutional conditions are equally significant.



Concept and fundamental terminology of the SFB

"The Political"

The SFB focuses on two kinds of investigation: First, it is necessary to historicize concepts of the "political." What did the different agents make of "the political" or, "the non-political" at different times? Theses questions are aimed at the discursive and semantic definitions of boundaries created by agents and at the communicative strategies they used. Moreover, practical research leans toward a heuristic understanding of "the political", in which the practices, discourses and the definitions of boundaries are regarded as political if they:

  • transcend individuals in effectiveness and work on an extensive basis. This characteristic of the political incorporates the relationships of the agents, in which the rules of living together are negotiated or changed.
  • are not ephemeral, but permanent. Practices and discourses achieve permanence if they associate themselves with relations of power or violence or call them into question. In this context, power is not understood as a fixed pattern of relationships, but constructed and negotiated symbolically and discursively.
  • aim at obligation. They are obligatory if they discuss the problems of collective classification, define rules as well as inquire after the possibilities and limits of things that can be said and done.



Political communication and the establishment of boundaries work through the appropriation by agents of semantic and symbolic pools within social and cultural groups. Communication depends on the choice of certain means such as language, images, rituals or symbols. The media in which topics, circumstances or persons are presented as political shape the political space with its principles and possibilities of expression. Thus the SFB explores a dynamic development which has characterized the possibilities of participation and organization since the revolution of communication in early modern times.

These characteristic effects that the media have on political communication is examined along the following lines:

  1. Its part in determining the limits and boundaries of the political. Communication politicizes objects, problems or aims, which did not necessarily have a political character before. What kind of social, private or political topics are brought into the communicative space of the political or excluded from it, how and by whom, are some of the principal questions of the SFB. Other questions to be examined include whether the setting of boundaries extends the space of communication or narrows it down, whether the boundaries become strengthened or more permeable, whether the politizised problems increase or decrease. Apart from the fixing of boundaries, the transgressing of the cultural subsystems, e.g. the politicalicizing of aesthetic appearances and the aestheticizing of political interests, are of special relevance.
  2. Its consequences for political mechanisms. Here the relationship between inclusions and exclusions which mold both the conditions within and the outer limits of the political space is of central interest. It is this ambivalence of discourses, symbols and rituals that exist side by side, or are part of each other, that include or exclude each other, which becomes relevant in this context. With this point of view the SFB separates itself from a linear story of success of political communication.

With regard to its theoretical and methodological point of view, the SFB follows historical semantics as well as elements of political Culture-Studies, which are concerned with patterns of interpretations, political rhetoric and discourses. Other important impulses for the SFB's comprehension of communication come from Michel Foucault's depiction of discourses as practices for the setting of boundaries, as well as Niklas Luhmann's exploration of attempts and failed attempts at communication. This portrayal of communication as an unclearly defined process emphasizes the importance of Luhmann's so called "Thematisierungsschwellen", i.e. his work on barriers within discourses which contribute to the realization that some contents and contributions cannot be communicated. In the terminology of the SFB the "codes" by which these incommunicable ideas are structured do not belong to the area of the "speakable" and so limit the political space. Aside from discourses the SFB looks at rituals, images and symbols and asks for the generic-specific, medial and aesthetic possibilities of grasping political contexts and of expressing ambivalence.




Use of the term "space" to characterize the political makes it possible to identify the boundaries of the political within and without. Using "space," boundaries are examined in their dynamics and adjustments. Both concepts of "space" employed by the SFB are procedural, relational, and communicative, and are thus compatible with the SFB's definition of the political:

  1. Following cultural-semiotic ideas (Jurij Lotman) "space" is on the one hand understood as a form of thought and convictions, which describes social relations and is responsible for the development of various views of the world (Max Weber). Though the SFB does not grant the space of the political qualities of agency as such, it nevertheless emphasizes the sensuality of what is being communicated, its aesthetic qualities as an image and as rhetoric. The space of the political is understood as a metacategory. It summarizes various political spaces, which exist in a society, which are created, disappear and may also overlap at times. Consequently there is a succession of occasional political spaces which are restricted to the interests, forms of communication and means of certain groups of agents.
  2. Space is understood as one form of reality perception, as well as a place of political communication in which not only distance and proximity are determined, but which is also a place of power struggles and conflicts. Particularly useful is Pierre Bourdieu's constructivist and agency-oriented concept of "field." The political space in Bordieu's thinking is regulated by symbolic capital, since it falls primarily to politics to exercise power of designation and interpretation. Since arguments about the interpretation of reality occur in other fields as well, the political becomes understandable as a practice which touches different fields. This is what makes this theory practical for the SFB, which seeks to question at what point which parts of society is drawn into the space of the political.

The access to the space of political communication, which was and still is limited by barriers of age, gender, social status and education as well as ethnic and religious association, becomes just important from this perspective as the definition of and the perception of the political. Its inner structure composed of discursive strategies, semantics and an arrangement of symbols, is central to the work of the SFB. The research center is furthermore concerned with the agents that establish the space of the political including and excluding groups of people. The borders of the political may shift according to the different contexts, different legal, social and cultural conditions that the agents participate in.



Research Hypotheses

  1. First research results have affirmed the conceptual correlation of the intensity of communication and the limits of the political space. With increasing communication between groups of agents, wider parts of the population started to participate in political processes and the political space went beyond processes of decision-making and institutions. But it also became clear that a denser form of communication, especially provided by the mass media, did not necessarily result in politicizing effects. Rather, ambivalence and opposing developments of politicalization and depoliticalization became visible, calling for a line of questioning about the shifting in boundaries of the political in both directions: inclusion and exclusion, politicalization and depoliticalization.
  2. Secondly, the SFB has confirmed that the process of the development of the political, in the long run did not only lead to the differentiation of an autonomous space of the political during the "Sattelzeit" (Reinhart Koselleck), but also to a "code switching." This observation concerns particularly the change in the definition of boundaries between the esthetical and the political, the religious and the political and the judicial and the political. When in medieval and early modern times the "speakable" in politics was relatively firmly circumscribed by religion, law and morality, the semantic and institutional structures that the political communication was part of, became more diverse, negotiable and vague.
  3. However, in contrast to "pre-modernity" this process is shaped by an increasing dominance and autonomy of the political in modernity, something which has become particularly apparent in a separation from religion. The inclusion of non-European societies in Project Area B serves among other things, to grasp and to modify the thesis of the relative autonomy of the political on a temporal and spatial level. Within semantic studies covering numerous epochs, the self-reference of the political is included more strongly in Project Area A. Finally, in the new Project Area C, a recent structure of the political will be examined through the perspective of communicative space, the state monopoly on legitimate physical violence.



zur SFB-Abschlusstagung "Writing Political History Today" (01.-03.12.2011)


Neu erschienen in der Reihe "Historische Politikforschung":
Susanne Schregel, Der Atomkrieg vor der Wohnungstür

Reihe "Das Politische als Kommunikation"

Reihe "Historische Politikforschung"

Weitere Publikationen


Flyer (PDF)

Flyer 2. Phase (PDF)

Flyer 1. Phase (PDF)