Scientific Changes in Times of Political Upheaval: Examples from 20th-Century Germany and Austria in Transnational Context

February 20, 2014 - 17:30 - 19:00
Nador u. 9, Monument Building
Popper Room
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Mitchell Ash

University of Vienna

Research and writing on the relationships of science and politics proceeds from the assumption that the identities of the two “sides” or actors involved are fixed, so that only the relationship changes over time. This talk challenges that assumption, suggesting (1) that in times of radical regime change both science and politics are moving targets – meaning that it is at first by no means clear from the outset what will count as politics, or what will count as science in the new regime, and (2) that answers to that open question are not predetermined or dictated by one side (politics), but rather negotiated interactively. Multiple examples of how such negotiations work in particular circumstances will be presented; these come mainly from the multiple breaks in German and Austrian history symbolized by the dates 1918, 1933/1938, and 1945, but reference will be made as well to regime changes that took place in East Central Europe during the same period and thereafter.  As a theoretical framework for interpreting and comparing such examples, the paper proposes that during radical regime changes science and politics serve as resources for one another. Seen in this light, scientific changes are reorganizations of resource constellations; the term “resources” refers here not only to funding, but also to personnel, institutional support, research practices and claims about the ideological significance or political usefulness of particular sciences.

Mitchell G. Ash is Professor of Modern History, Head of the Working Group in History of Science and Speaker of the multi-disciplinary Ph.D. program, “The Sciences in Historical, Philosophical and Cultural Contexts” (supported by the Austrian Science Fund) at the University of Vienna, Austria. He earned his PhD in History at Harvard University and also studied at Amherst College and the Free University of Berlin. He was a Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study, Berlin, has held visiting professorships in Berlin, Göttingen, Vienna, and Jerusalem and research fellowships in Berlin, Berkeley, and Princeton. He is a member of the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities, and was President of the Society for History of Sciences and Humanities from 2002 to 2008. His research interests include the sciences, politics, culture and society in the 19th and 20th centuries, history of the human sciences, and the cultural history of human-animal relations. Recent book publications include: The Nationalization of Scientific Knowledge in the Habsburg Empire (1848-1918), ed. with Jan Surman (2012), Geisteswissenschaften im Nationalsozialismus. Das Beispiel der Universität Wien (Humanities under Nazism. The Case of the University of Vienna), ed. with Wolfram Nieß and Ramon Pils) (2010); Mensch, Tier und Zoo (Humans, Animals and Zoos) (ed. 2008): Psychological Thought and Practice in Historical and Interdisciplinary Perspectives (ed. 2007); Mythos Humboldt. Vergangenheit und Zukunft der deutschen Universitäten (The Humboldt Myth: Past and Future of the German Universities) (ed. 1999).