> Yearbook 2021 > Research Profile

Orders & Transfor-mations


This profile area analyses central social, economic, cultural and political dynamics, transformations and upheavals – such as are triggered by climate change, pandemics, financial crises, digitalisation, migration, growing inequality and the rise of populism. Upheavals occur when existing structures and orders can no longer accommodate social change. How does the architecture of the national and international financial markets react to the challenges of our time? What new forms of digitality are emerging that are substantially changing social processes? How are democracy, justice, cohesion and international cooperation imaginable in the future?

Two main research foci are addressing these questions from the perspective of normative and empirical research: Normative Orders and Financial Market Research.

Rainer Forst and Nicole Deitelhoff

“There is a lot of potential in conflict”

What role does trust play in conflicts? The “ConTrust” cluster project explores the interaction of trust and mistrust in crisis and conflict situations. A discussion about milestones and slaughtering sacred cows.

If your research topic were called “Mistrust in Conflict”, everyone would say “A fitting title!”. But it is called “Trust in Conflict”. Why?

Nicole Deitelhoff: When people think of conflict, most of them think of mistrust. We try to point out that even in conflict trust can be preserved, and even new trust created. Especially at a time when we are having to deal with so many conflict situations, we must still be able to create trust in conflicts.

Rainer Forst: It is not that we are claiming that trust only develops in conflicts. But we think it is wrong to assume that trust only arises in social forms in which people know each other well and where those involved have a largely identical background. This assumption is widespread in the social sciences and philosophy, for example. But if you think like that, you cannot explain why generalised trust is not completely absent in modern societies.

So does trust get a raw deal in conflict research?

Deitelhoff: Indeed, conflict research is more about the absence of trust. The question is always: How can we end conflicts in order to restore trust afterwards? In times of numerous crises and conflicts, this is not enough anymore.

Through the Ukraine war, we are experiencing a conflict in Europe in which trust seems to have hit an all-time low. Is that making you think differently?

Deitelhoff: It naturally confirms some of our assumptions. For example, that it takes a long time to build up trust and that it is quickly destroyed, for example by deliberate betrayal. But at the same time, it also encourages us to understand: Why were institutions unable to channel the conflict in such a way that trust was stabilised? It is also an incentive for us to think about how things can continue after this war, about how we can envisage the institutions involved so that they can act in a way that ensures trust in the future.

Forst: Our theory is not, of course, that every conflict generates trust. We are interested in the conditions under which conflicts can be productive, that is, where a reliable form of communication is upheld despite tough altercations. In the case of the Ukraine conflict, we are asking ourselves: If trust were destroyed once and for all, what kind of mediation could ever lead us out of the situation? Possibilities for mediation presuppose that there is still some potential for trust lying dormant somewhere among the conflicting parties.

Deitelhoff: The exciting question for us is how orders can be established so that it does not come to such ruptures in the first place. We are seeing now that relationships are disconnecting in the conflict, but at the same time we need connectedness. Only through connectedness can we understand why the other side is doing something. This basic empathy helps us namely to “read” the other person, as it were. It is then possible to base something like reliability on what we have read, and this can in turn be institutionalised. However, this connectedness must not be allowed to become too asymmetrical.

The subtitle of your cluster project is: Political Life under Conditions of Uncertainty. What role does uncertainty play?

Forst: We don’t conduct research primarily on international conflicts. We have five working groups, one of which is dealing directly with conflicts of such nature. The others are dealing with democratic and civil society forms of trust building in conflict, with economic forms of conflict, with trust in knowledge and the media. Where epistemic trust is concerned, uncertainties obviously come into play. Which information can we trust? Which media? However, the question of uncertainty is also fundamentally important for us because trust is only needed where we cannot control what others are doing. But at the present time, there is also something new. As the pandemic, the climate crisis or now the war shows, we are living in times of such grave uncertainties that a fundamental distrust ensues, which often turns into a search for simple “truths” as far as trust is concerned. These irrational dynamics of trust are interesting.

You also want to combine normative thinking and empirical methods in a new way in your research. How exactly?

Forst: We are trying to revisit interdisciplinarity. The disciplines should challenge each other. Occasionally, people think that trust in economics and trust in moral philosophy don’t have that much to do with each other. We assume, however, that at the end of the day they are talking about the same thing in (very) different ways – or at least they should. So we are trying to develop a method to turn that into something productive. To this end, we make a distinction between one concept and various conceptions of trust (in conflict).

Deitelhoff: We are also trying not only to link these very different types of data acquisition with different evaluation methods together but also to combine them in a fruitful way. From experimental game theory to ethnographic field research. Sometimes we start from ethnography and transfer its findings to other methods, sometimes our starting point is game theory. We have set up a task force for this, which is endeavouring to define these combinations more precisely.

Which topics are difficult, where do you see obstacles?

Deitelhoff: There are a lot of hurdles! It already starts with the language we speak. If we want to explain how trust comes about in a conflict. Certain project members would say: It's not about explaining, it's about understanding. It's very important to get people talking to each other and to get each other out of our comfort zone.

Forst: The point about explaining and understanding is very important because in our interdisciplinary projects we not only look at what people are doing but are also interested in what they believe they are doing. And then we also dare to issue judgements on what we believe they are doing – or whether it is a good thing.

Have you set yourselves a milestone?

Deitelhoff: Yes, for us developing a common language is essential. This is then, to some extent, an artificial language in which no one will feel completely at home. This already gives us a personal opportunity to experience, analyse and solve a conflict. The next milestone is then to reach common understandings on the basis of such a language. In which conflict situations do we learn which kind of trust? The third milestone is understanding how certain conflict situations affect the willingness of those involved in the conflict to approach each other. From an internal perspective, these steps look like a huge gamble.

Forst: It all boils down to the one question: How can conflicts in the state or in supranational domains be mediated in such a way that these conflicts generate rational trust? Because, as we see, not just in Russia, demagogy and ideology also lead to trust.

No natural science disciplines are involved in your cluster. Is interdisciplinarity easier when humanities and social sciences are a closed shop? Or does proximity only feign understanding?

Deitelhoff: I would subscribe to the latter. We often think that we are talking about the same thing. Then we realise – when the discussion becomes controversial – that we are not. Then there is also a bit of a fight. In the natural sciences, there do seem to be very clear lines separating the languages.

Forst: As far as the natural sciences are concerned, we have to look beyond our horizons, of course, but at the same time keep the project, which includes very many disciplines, manageable. So it is important to be able to define and keep open the connecting points for other research, such as brain research. Incidentally, we also have researchers on board who are studying the effect of hormones on people’s level of trust.

Is there something that has had a major effect on you and that you are contributing to the project?

Deitelhoff: For me, I can say that it is the experience of working in the “Normative Orders” excellence cluster. This experience was very, very formative for me and made me realise that the effort is worth it. Until then, I was purely a political scientist and did the “housekeeping” nicely in my own house. Then I learnt that there are other houses and whole landscapes to visit. Since then, my house looks a lot prettier. This is an immeasurable treasure that I do not want to give up again.

Forst: I can only agree because we look back on a very productive time in the former excellence cluster; very many of those whom we appointed back then are now taking the lead. We are also seeing that Goethe University Frankfurt is still the place that attracts the finest minds for such projects, at different career levels and internationally speaking.

What do you personally care about most as far as your cluster topic is concerned?

Deitelhoff: For me, it would probably be that I would like to rescue conflict. It really bothers me a lot that conflict is always seen as something dangerous and negative. Yet I have the impression that there is a lot of potential in conflict. It also stimulates innovation. That is why I would like to anchor it more firmly in the public consciousness: you don’t have to fear conflict, you have to learn how to handle it properly.

Forst: I am particularly interested in questioning a few sacred cows in some of our disciplines. For example, the premise that trust is a value. If you think about it, you can see that trust is not valuable at all if it is poorly justified, such as authoritarian trust. Then people also like to say that trust is an expectation of morally motivated action on the part of others. But that is not the case at all with trust in the market or in (some) political contexts. Asking these questions is important and also fun, the fun of science.

Political scientist Professor Nicole Deitelhoff and political philosopher Professor Rainer Forst are, together with Professor Vinzenz Hediger (Film and Media Studies), the spokespersons for the ConTrust cluster project.

ConTrust. Trust in Conflict. Political Life under Conditions of Uncertainty

Goethe University Frankfurt and Peace Research Institute Frankfurt (PRIF)

Participating partner institutions:

Forschungskolleg Humanwissenschaften (Bad Homburg), MPI-LHLT, MPIL (Heidelberg), MPI-MMG (Göttingen), TU Darmstadt, Centre Responsible Digitality, (Darmstadt), University of Mannheim

Starting school, the first job, retirement – the Research Training Group “Doing Transitions” is exploring how transitions in life come about and how they are shaped. The RTG was approved in 2021 for the second time.

In the course of their lives, people move between different phases – these include not only established and clearly marked transitions, such as from school to further education or entering working life. “More and more processes of social change are perceived as individual transitions,” explains education scientist Professor Andreas Walther, who heads the Research Training Group “Doing Transitions” in Frankfurt and Tübingen, together with his colleague in Tübingen, Professor Barbara Stauber. They say that less obvious or self-evident transitions are becoming the focus of attention – such as learning to walk in childhood, becoming a parent, rejecting your assigned gender, living alone in old age after the family has left home, integration as a migrant, and staging your own progression from adolescence to adulthood on the internet. In the past, research was particularly interested in the conditions under which transitions take place successfully or under which they “fail”. “Transitions seemed like hurdles that had to be overcome, that fall over or remain upright,” says Walther. For this reason, he says, transitions – such as from school to job – often came into view as problems: they were seen as insecure and uncertain, as triggers for social inequality, and as a risk of being socially excluded. And something else united these conventional research approaches: that transitions appeared “natural”.

Since its launch in 2017, the Research Training Group “Doing Transitions”, which is funded by the German Research Foundation, has marked a new approach: its focus lies on the question of what various transitions actually respond to, how they come about, how and under what social conditions they are shaped – and, above all, how transitions are redefined again and again in the process. The group is studying transitions from the perspectives of educational science, psychology and sociology. In this context, the “transition” itself is questioned in the micro perspective, looking closely at movement between life phases. “What exactly transitions are seems to us to be increasingly complex,” says Walther. “What we can say is that they are movements between positions in a social space.”

That this social space is also shaped by historical and temporal perspectives is to be illuminated in more detail in the second funding phase of the Research Training Group up until 2025. And other dimensions will be added: What happens when several people experience different transitions at the same time, for example, when a parent changes jobs and that results in the family moving elsewhere and the children changing schools? What temporal dimensions do transitions have, such as the institutionally and subjectively “right” time for a transition? Is there a “too early” or “too late” for education or parenthood, for example?

According to Walther, the doctoral candidates in the Research Training Group are adding numerous, illuminating pieces to the “5,000-piece puzzle of transition research” through their quantitative and above all qualitative microanalyses. Transition research is becoming more nuanced. Sociologist Luisa Bischoff is conducting quantitative and qualitative research into transitions into life as a single person, that is, after divorce or separation or life as a widow or widower in old age. As an education scientist following the tradition of anthropological field research, Jana Heer is looking at how young people make the transition from adolescence to adulthood a topic in collective online practices, especially in the tension with normative expectations. And in a sociology project, Louka Maju Goetzke is exploring the everyday practices by which gender transitions come about, such as trying on clothes, experimenting with first names and observing one’s own feelings. All work examines from the perspective of different disciplines the discourses used by participants to describe processes, whether there are institutional mechanisms or socio-cultural rituals and, last but not least, how learning and educational processes are individually experienced.

All members of the Research Training Group, as became abundantly clear during the discussion, value the collective, intensive, interdisciplinary research process. “Even during the lockdown, we exchanged information regardless of where we were, for example in online working groups,” the doctoral candidates recall. In each cohort, eleven or twelve doctoral candidates and one or two postdoctoral researchers are funded and can devote themselves entirely to their doctoral or postdoctoral degree. A further five or six doctoral candidates are associated to each cohort. The status quo of the research work is also discussed in depth in four interdisciplinary workshops per year. “This is a very lively, collective research process,” says Walther, “both for the theoretical development of transition research and for everyone involved.” Everyone – that is not just the doctoral candidates soon totalling 30, whose third cohort will start in 2023 and be financed above all from funds amounting to €9 million. Everyone – that is also the supervising professors, who receive new input for their research through the wide-ranging work performed by the group – from educational science in Frankfurt, apart from Andreas Walther, Professor Sabine Andresen, childhood and youth researcher, Barbara Friebertshäuser, Professor for General Education, Christiane Hof, Professor for Adult Education, and Frank Oswald, Professor for Interdisciplinary Ageing Research; and from sociology, Professor Birgit Becker, Professor of Sociology with a focus on empirical educational research, gender researcher Professor Sarah Speck and Anna Wanka, Professor for Ageing Studies.

Transitions in life

Andreas Walther

Doing Transitions

Which problem do you want to understand better through the Research Training Group?

We want to understand how transitions come about in the course of people’s lives, who and what is involved, and how the emergence of transitions is also constantly changing as a result.

What is important about it for you personally?

It is particularly important to combine the scientific advancement of transition research with support for early career scientists. On the one hand, this allows us to apply our Doing Transitions perspective to many different transitions, and on the other hand, it also enables us to develop this field of research in terms of human resources and career prospects for the scientists in our RTG in an interdisciplinary field of research that is developing very dynamically.

What is your milestone?

Current milestones are the selection of the third cohort of RTG researchers in the autumn of 2022, completion of funding for the second cohort and of their theses in the first half of 2023 and our next major international Doing Transitions conference on 10-12 May 2023 at Goethe University Frankfurt.

What is the biggest obstacle?

In terms of science, one challenge is our aspiration to conduct reflexive transition research, that is, to continuously reflect on the contribution of research to the creation of transitions. In terms of organisation, one hurdle was and is the pandemic and the fact that – despite all the generosity and flexibility of the German Research Foundation and university administration in compensating the researchers in the RTG – it was not possible to adjust the overall funding period. This means that in the first half of 2023 we will have two cohorts at the same time to supervise and accommodate.

Have you discovered anything that has particularly influenced you?

Apart from all the scientific excellence and an efficient organisational structure, social interaction is a constantly underestimated aspect for a large collaborative project, which is why space and time for informality are necessary.

Professor Andreas Walther heads the Research Training Group “Doing Transitions” in Frankfurt and Tübingen, together with his colleague in Tübingen, Professor Barbara Stauber.

In the 2021/22 winter semester, Goethe University Frankfurt opened its doors again. But after the intense digital experience during the pandemic, nothing there is like it was before. The Faculty of Economics and Business, for example, declared an experimental year.

“Be creative and don’t be afraid of failing.” Rarely have the teaching staff at the Faculty of Economics and Business been called on so clearly and bluntly to improvise as they were in a specially convened Town Hall Meeting. “We have declared an experimental year,” said Dr Lars Pilz, Deputy Dean for Study Affairs, summing up his faculty’s initiative. “That means things are allowed to go wrong.”

Pilz was voicing what went through the minds of many teaching staff before returning to in-person teaching. For although teaching on site was keenly awaited, the experience with digital teaching and learning formats had left its mark. “In my team, there was a conscious decision not to return to the way things were before.” Not everyone expressed it as clearly as economist Professor Bernd Skiera. But the vast majority had clearly thought it.

Bernd Skiera was inspired by the flipped classroom models of online teaching for his new lecture format. In his “Marketing II” course, students can now watch explanatory videos at home in preparation for in-person classes. This consists of exercises that students solve in groups, similar to virtual breakout rooms. Skiera and his tutors walk through the rows in the lecture hall and help if questions arise. He finds it “delightful” that he can see directly in live discussions where students are having problems – and helpful for preparing the rest of the course. Skiera introduces the participants to the new format in advance, which places more responsibility on them.

It is above all the nine large and popular orientation courses, with around 800 new students, such as economics and accounting or statistics and mathematics, “where using digital methods can lead to greater learning success,” explains Pilz. This is not something only thought about since the coronavirus pandemic. However, the university has become increasingly digitalised since the outbreak of the pandemic, and for the first time there are technical possibilities that offer alternatives: recorded lectures for sharing information that students can watch “asynchronously”, that is, whenever it suits them. Case studies can then be discussed in the lecture theatre interactively, in an exchange among students and with teaching staff.

Experimenting welcome

Many teaching staff now have a relaxed routine when handling online teaching tools – also thanks to the Virtual Teaching Working Group hastily convened during the lockdown with staff from studiumdigitale (the central eLearning facility of Goethe University Frankfurt), the Interdisciplinary College for University Didactics and the University Computing Centre, which provided teaching staff with a lot of comprehensive materials. Those wanting to dare something new in teaching will continue to receive individual advice.

Professor Matthias Blonski’s many years’ experience with the reactions of economics students to grade incentives had already prompted him before the pandemic to supplement the big final exam in “Microeconomics 1” with graded and mentored assignment sheets during the semester – and in this way do something about bulimia-like learning prior to the end of the semester. Since 2019, his colleague Professor Anna Rohlfing-Bastian has made available a learning app to accompany her lecture on accounting, which students use to monitor their own learning experiences and progress. This, too, is a method aimed at supporting learning during the semester and reducing exam stress towards the end. Rohlfing-Bastian already knew (through a research paper by Julian Langenhagen, a member of her staff) that the app would be used more during the pandemic.

The internationalisation of teaching is another goal, says Pilz, towards which the university is moving through hybrid teaching. “It’s easy for us to invite experts from abroad to a course on special topics once in a while.” Why didn’t this happen earlier? “We didn’t have Zoom.”

Things are also allowed to go wrong: Lars Pilz has already experienced something in his own courses that he won’t repeat. “I put all the lecture recordings online – with the result that fewer students came on campus.” In future, he says, he will continue to put his lectures online, but only for a limited time. “We want our students to attend in person, to discuss topics together. It’s more effective and also simply more fun.”

By the way, Lars Pilz emphasises that the experimental semester was declared jointly by teaching staff and students alike. As a result, the students welcomed many of the initiatives. The aim is to take stock together in the summer of 2022.

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