Mission Statement

categories_contested basisRecent political, social and cultural tensions in and beyond Europe amply demonstrate the recurring inclination of politicians, journalists, scholars and all sorts of different citizens to identify themselves and others with quasi self-evident categories and binary category systems, such as ‘us’ versus ‘them’, elite vs  the people, men vs women, autochtones vs allochtones, higher vs lower educated, hetero- vs homosexuals, white vs black, muslims, jews, christians etc. – up to more specific labels such as the ‘forgotten middle class’.

While most of these labels are obviously cultural constructions , in often long term processes they  may have become quasi ‘real’ or ‘natural’.  Identity categories find their origins in political language, administration practices, visual stereotyping, scientific and other readings of physical differences and/or ritual performance, but because they organize people’s social, political, economic and  lives and personal selve, so that, interestingly these categories eventually took the shape of ‘real’ social and cultural groups indeed. In many ways these processes of group formation have contributed to societal stability, but at the same time they have fueled social tensions, especially because categories often involve power differences through dynamics of inclusion and exclusion, dominance and submission, and/or normalization and deviance. Therefore, definitions, limits and moral qualities of these categories have nearly always been contested.

Inspired by the theoretical notion of ‘dynamic nominalism’ (Hacking) and Joan Scott’s landmark article ‘The Evidence of Experience’, this research group aims to get a better historical understanding how stereotypical, naturalised and contested categories get ‘real’. The group, consisting of cultural historians, genderstudies experts and socio-economic and demographic historians, will particularly address the first of the two overarching research questions of the RICH research institute: ‘How and under which conditions do different kinds of loyalties, communities and categories of people emerge and disappear’ (and ‘how did people and their communities respond to their categorization?’). In the second subproject on high and popular culture we will also focus on and integrate the second overarching question about the meanings of art and creativity in society. Working in an academic context in which so-called ‘big data’ are hot, this group questions and historicizes the very categories on which many of these data are built.