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Graduiertenkolleg "Authority & Trust"
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Coordinator: Caroline Walter

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Research Program

GKAT’s interdisciplinary research program focuses on the emergence and transformation of authority and trust in American politics, society, religion, literature and culture from the nineteenth century to the present. We have designed three broad research areas. This tripartite division is pragmatic rather than categorical: The research areas are meant to provide applicants with ideas about how to place and develop their research projects and to offer platforms for interdisciplinary conversation and cooperation.

In recent decades American society and culture have become increasingly polarized. Studies show that American institutions and elites are suffering from a dramatic loss of authority and trust. Economic inequality, social and spatial segregation and a decaying infrastructure have undermined trust in the fairness and efficiency of political processes. Anti-establishment populism and conspiracy theories resonate widely among the general public. Police brutality has reinforced a deep-seated distrust of authorities among minorities.

Commentators and scholars agree that the crisis of authority and trust has been developing for decades and reflects the dissolution of social cohesion and consensus. Many Americans lament the end of the American Dream, the prospect of social upward mobility through hard work and educational achievement. The crisis of authority and trust has also affected U.S. leadership in world politics and the global economy.

Against this background, GKAT aims at a systematic and interdisciplinary inquiry into the emergence and transformation of authority and trust in American politics, society, religion, literature and culture since the nineteenth century. We propose to go beyond popular notions of crisis and decline and probe the complexities and contradictions of authority and trust in American life. Due to its early democratization, its egalitarian and libertarian political culture, its ethno-cultural heterogeneity, and its international predominance, the United States is a particularly interesting case of authority and trust in the modern world. American culture has been shaped both by a profound distrust of authorities and by far-reaching claims of political, social, and cultural institutions to authority and trust (e.g. the military, religious communities, foundational texts, etc.). Authority and trust, we suggest, do not simply decline or disappear but are subject to constant change.

We conceive of authority and trust as dynamic and complementary concepts. Authority pertains to the tension between power and legitimacy and implies the ability to induce voluntary obedience. In contrast, trust often connotes personal and intimate relationships among equals. But trust also extends to larger impersonal entities and institutions. As a social relationship based on voluntary compliance, authority seeks the trust of those who are asked to comply. The relationship and interaction between social and institutional trust, on the one hand, and claims to authority on the other form the key interest of our research training group. How has the United States, as a modern pluralistic and democratic society and as a world power, created authority and trust? How have the sources, functions and manifestations of authority and trust changed over time?

The Authority of the Modern State and Trust in Public and Social Institutions

Authority and trust are essential for the modern democratic state. While the American system of government is predicated upon institutionalized distrust of power, a fundamental critique of government has undermined the authority of and the trust in American political and social institutions, according to many observers. At the same time, the state has withdrawn from social responsibilities for urban ghettos and disadvantaged groups who often experience state authorities as agents of repression, as recent protests against police brutality against minorities bear out. Under the scope of Research Area 1, we are looking for applicants interested in the following topics and questions:

The successful claim to a “monopoly of legitimate violence” forms the core of modern state authority. However, the acceptance of this principle has been comparatively weak throughout American history. No other Western nation entertains such broad tolerance for private violence, self-defense, and unrestricted access to firearms. The armed American citizen, it is said, cannot trust the state but must be prepared to defend him- or herself against both criminals and a tyrannical government. Research projects may pertain to the following topics and themes:

  • The American vigilante tradition, including the history of lynching, the emergence of the militia movement, neighborhood watches, gated communities, etc.
  • Popular and legal notions of legitimate self-defense, such as stand-your-ground laws
  • The impact of America’s gun culture on state authority and social trust

While many Americans see government as a “necessary evil,” they support a very strong state in the realm of criminal justice. The American criminal justice system is the most draconian in the Western world. Because mass incarceration affects minorities disproportionately, critics argue that it represents a new form of racial segregation. Arguably, law enforcement and the administration of criminal justice have greatly contributed to the distrust of the state among African Americans and other minorities. Research projects may pertain to the following topics and themes:

  • Racial discrimination and the criminal justice system
  • The privatization of prisons
  • The authority of and trust in the Constitution and the U.S. Supreme Court

The decline of trust and authority is not limited to state institutions but extends to political parties, the media, educational and economic institutions and to scientific experts. Indeed, there appears to be a broad-based process of “de-authorization” that affects all established institutions. How have technical innovations such as the digitalization of communication affected authority and social trust? Applicants interested in such questions may utilize both quantitative and qualitative approaches. Research projects may pertain to the following topics and themes:

  • The changing patterns of trust in and authority of experts (policy advisers, academics, public intellectuals, pundits, political consultants etc.),
  • of expert bodies (study commissions, think tanks, advisory councils, philanthropic foundations, consulting firms etc.),
  • of old and new media, political parties, interest and advocacy groups as well as in educational institutions

The crisis of authority and trust has also raised doubts about U.S. leadership in world politics and the global economy among America’s partners, clients, and rivals. Research questions may relate to the ability of the United States to create legitimacy and compliance for its international actions and to the domestic sources of authority and trust which influence American leadership in the world. Research projects may pertain to the following topics and themes:

  • How far is the authority of the executive in defining the U.S. global leadership role contested domestically?
  • How far are other actors, i.e. followers, partners, rivals and enemies, willing to ascribe authority and trust to the U.S. global leadership role in order to stabilize and transform the current international order?
  • How far is U.S. global leadership being transformed in economic, developmental, environmental and security affairs by peaceful or conflictual strategies pursued by significant other actors?
  • Changing patterns of trust in the use of hard, soft and smart power, respectively, and of public diplomacy by the United States

The Urban Dimension of Authority and Trust

Authority and trust are key factors in the creation and social construction of urban spaces. Research Area 2 focuses on the tensions between institutional power and everyday life in American cities which have been subject to profound social and economic changes, such as the rise of the service sector, immigration, gentrification, segregation, and branding strategies. Inquiries into the ways in which people of different ethnic and social backgrounds employ authority, trust, identity, and power in urban spaces open up numerous new interdisciplinary perspectives from geography, linguistics, and cultural studies. Under the scope of Research Area 2 we are looking for applicants interested in the following topics and questions:

American culture has nurtured a traditional distrust of cities as opposites of Thomas Jefferson’s ideal of the virtuous agrarian republic. Nevertheless, American cities grew at a rapid pace and became subject to careful spatial planning. Planers claimed trust and authority by virtue of their expertise and by the promise to create urban “unities” as the basis for self-governing communities. In reality, American cities became fragmented and disintegrated while trust and solidarity eroded. In the late twentieth century neoliberalism has prompted both the retreat of the state as an urban planner and structural changes in the economies of American cities. Global market forces have replaced local and national policies while government has been reduced to the function of law and order, exercising authority without trust. As a consequence, cities have become spaces of vast socio-economic inequality where residents retreat to protected areas, such as shopping malls, gated communities, and “creative neighborhoods.”

As a countermovement to the decline of state authority and social trust, civil society claims a “right to the city” and “urban citizenship” based on comprehensive concepts of inclusion and participation. To what extent urban governance will be shaped by civil society, private business interests and elected officials and how urban governance will create authority and trust among city residents are still open questions. Research projects addressing those themes could thus be analyzed through methods and perspectives of urban and human geography touching upon the following possible topics:

  • Power relations and governance questions of different actors in urban development and planning (such as the state, private economy, civil society) from a historic and contemporary perspective
  • Polarization and growing inequalities in cities as a consequence of shifting dimensions of authority and trust
  • Different constellations of and reactions to authority and trust at the neighborhood level. These include daily practices of residents in marginalized neighborhoods (e.g., ghettos, public housing projects), forms of protest and resistance against discrimination and the segregation of particular ethnic, racial, economic and social groups, but also “voluntary” forms of seclusion in, for example, gated communities, homeowner associations, gentrified neighborhoods, creative enclaves, or ethnoburbs.

Cities are also spaces of imagination, cultural representation and aesthetic experiences and practices. The city as metropolis has often been associated with uniquely modern notions of cultural authority. In fictional narratives, e.g. literature and film, trust and distrust in the “anonymous” jungle of the big city have been leitmotifs of narration and shaped the aesthetics of genres such as crime stories. Both as specific localities and global icons, American cities play a key role in popular culture. Thus, research topics in this area could revolve around the following themes:

  • The representation of particular cities in literature and visual media (cultural authority, global and transnational impact and authority, etc.)
  • The artistic interpretations of social and cultural symbolic practices in cities
  • The (historical) reconceptualization of  urban spaces within new media and technologies
  • The role of cities for early feminism; authority of women in American cities
  • Authority and trust with respect to the racialized body in urban environments
  • The authority of literature (and other expressions of "high culture") in urban environments

Because cities are social spaces where people enact authority and trust within their everyday lives, the urban dimension also includes linguistics. Language and semiotic systems are neither static nor necessarily consensual but change and rearrange according to different contexts of social interaction. How people employ language to claim authority and trust in diverse and contested urban landscapes is a question that requires an interdisciplinary linguistic approach, displayed by the following possible research questions and themes:

  • Arrival cities in the USA and discursive variational place-making
  • Metrolingualism and superdiversity: global cities in the U.S. from a historical perspective
  • Authenticating authority and trust in the city
  • The creative power of semiotic (re-)presentations in/of the city.

Applicants are strongly encouraged to submit projects that are conceived from a trans- or interdisciplinary perspective.

Authority and Trust in Culture, Literature, and Religion

In American culture, literature, and religion, authority and trust relationships radically changed towards the end of the colonial period with the modernization processes of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In the field of cultural production, relevant structural shifts concern the nineteenth-century emergence of mass reading, professionalization of authorship and industrialization of the book market, and the twentieth-century pluralization of cultural forms, education and media revolutions, and the rise of social movements. In the field of religion, the nineteenth century brought a radical transformation of religious institutions, denominational pluralization, and a reorganization and diversification of religious practice (including broad-based lay participation) in the wake of disestablishment and the rise of new evangelical movements. In the twentieth-century, the democratization of religion was compounded by the rise of individualized “seeker religion” that often seems at odds with traditional forms of clericalism, Christian morality, and confessional authority.

Modernization theory has tended to misconstrue the decline of particular sources of authority and trust as a general decline: in religion, a decline of “churchliness” and an erosion of the sacred or gradual disappearance of religious sensibilities (“secularization”); in literature and culture, a breakdown of value hierarchies that could be celebrated as an achievement of freewheeling democratic “countercultures” or critiqued as a symptom of an expanding “culture industry”. As recent approaches suggest, however, the weakening of traditional formations must be considered in the context of new sources of religious and cultural authority and trust.

In the field of religion, the challenges of modernization (the tendencies towards democratized religious practice, anti-clericalism, and individualization) have led to a highly diversified “religious marketplace” whose players (ranging from “spiritual-but-not-religious” seekers to evangelical fundamentalists) continue to make strong claims for religious and moral authority. Moreover, as a line of research following Robert Bellah has stressed, the disestablishment of churches in the U.S. went hand in hand with the emergence of an institutionalized “civil religion,” with the result that religious and cultural forms of the sacred increasingly overlapped or stood in competition to one another. Possible research projects in the field of religion could revolve around (but are not limited to) the following topics or themes:

  • Responses to the challenges and problems of an individualized and democratized religion since the nineteenth century, e.g. the development of new religious movements with charismatic forms of authority and new revelations; the rise of Biblicist fundamentalism; the turn to non-Christian spiritualities as a search for alternative sources of religious authority (e.g. Westernized Buddhism or esotericism)
  • How does the formation of “ethnic” or African-American churches and religious styles relate to a loss of trust in the authority of WASP-dominated mainstream churches?
  • What new forms of religious authority are generated by the dramatic rise of “seeker spirituality” since the 1960s?

In the field of cultural and literary production, the rising commercial turnover since the nineteenth century has not just weakened traditional value hierarchies and sources of trust but also created new spaces of consecration in literature and the arts (museums, literary-artistic establishments in the public sphere, literary canons, art worlds, academic and middlebrow “gatekeepers”, etc.) that have developed considerable cultural authority. There has been a “sacralization of culture” (Levine) that polarized literary production into two coexisting forms of exchange: on the one hand, the extending print markets turned literary artifacts into commercial objects that serve large readerships for quotidian purposes (entertainment, education, etc.); on the other hand, the rising commercialization of literature produced “symbolic” or “sacralized” economies that elude simple market rationalities and connect literary practice to hierarchies of value that can strike their readers with an affective intensity that recalls strong moral convictions. Possible research projects in the field of literature and culture could revolve around (but are not limited to) the following topics or themes:

  • How does literature and culture provide trust? How does authority and trust relate to cultural institutions? How are the professionalization of cultural production and the rise of new patronage systems (art worlds, creative writing programs, academic avant-gardes and scholarly consecrators) relevant to this? Which reading practices are given special legitimacy, and which institutional spaces – national and transnational – are involved in this?
  • How does the production of literary-aesthetic authority or trust hinge on identity questions (“recognition”) and questions of social equality (stigma, elitism)? How do cultural hierarchies relate to social and political power?
  • How do literary or cultural artifacts register the shifts and tensions between religious and cultural authority? In how far can we compare sacralized atmospheres and trust relationships in the fields of religion and cultural-literary consumption?
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Last modified: 2024-05-16
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