The Institute for European Ethnology
The Institute for European Ethnology
Metropolises such as Berlin are very particular spaces, wherein are condensed societal processes and cultural developments. For ethnographers, they might be said to embody a kind of laboratory, because they are at the same time places of life and spaces for research and work. Many topics and questions that we encounter in our science are at the same time part of our everyday urban life. Berlin is thus an extremely exciting and inspiring everyday place, and an unusual location to do science.
Our Institute, located in Berlin’s historic centre, is a stimulating place for students and researchers alike. More goes on behind the pillars of the Mohrencolonnades, built by the same architect as the Brandenburg Gate, than just lively teaching. In fact, the Institute also serves as a kind of “research workshop”. Students and teachers, doctoral researchers and visiting academics together conduct their research in the city, organise seminars and conferences, realise exhibitions and monographs. This allows students and doctoral researchers to decide on their own knowledge interests and research profiles. They are aided in those decisions by options courses (BA) and autonomous research projects (MA), where teaching is combined with research, theoretical knowledge with social commitment, scientific writing with accessible presentation.
The Institute for European Ethnology was founded in 1994, a step that concluded the long process of the subject’s realignment both in conceptual terms, and with regard to staffing, at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. It was established in 1936 as the Institute for Folklore Studies, reopened in 1952 as the Institute for Ethnology renamed in 1953, as the Institute for Ethnology and German Folklore Studies, and since 1968 associated with the faculty for history as the “Section Ethnography”.
European ethnology as understood and practised in Berlin aims to develop, by way of the empirical analysis of phenomena and processes of late modern societies, new theoretical framings of ‘culture’ as well as analytical approaches to ‘culture’.
European ethnology in its current form is the result of a critical engagement with folklore studies on the one hand, and non- European ethnology on the other. The classical distinction between these two subjects had long taken the form of a simple opposition, according to which folklore studies dealt with one’s ‘native culture’, i. e. the culture of a nationally defined society located in the centre of Europe, while ethnology engaged with ‘foreign cultures’, that is, the cultures of those societies that had been rendered Europe’s ‘others’ in the colonial context. This distinction, which long determined the division of labour between the different ethnologies, has long been untenable. The ‘native culture’ of modern Western industrial societies – usually understood as located within certain linguistic and politico-national borders – turns out to be anything but autonomous, nationally homogenous, familiar and ‘native’ once its social hierarchies, as well as its embeddedness in global cultural processes and migratory movements are taken into account. At the same time, modern societies outside of Europe are highly integrated into the same global processes that shape Western industrial societies. They follow their own paths to modernisation that are ambivalently tied to the West itself. To summarise somewhat, European ethnology may be understood as seeking to observe and investigate the relevance of respective Others both within the ‘native’ and the ‘foreign’ culture. This Other, however, is always being constructed as well as reflected by the investigative gaze: people, groups, modes of behaviour, values, symbols, things only become recognisable as ‘other’ when they are being subjected to a gaze that seeks to understand them.
To be sure, ‘culture’ is not understood here as a stable system of traditions, values, patterns of behaviour and symbols that simply perpetuates itself, nor can it be made into a kind of map of the world that simply defines political-geographic-linguistic units as ‘national cultures’. Rather, ‘culture’ refers to the constant process of practical negotiation of the rules according to which people, groups and societies interact, communicate, and also distinguish themselves from each other. How people organise their conviviality; the relations they enter into with their social and natural environments; how they represent these relationships to themselves – these are the apparently simple questions about everyday culture and its structures that are at the forefront of our work. Topics range from Internet culture to the culture of the Sami, from corporate culture to the techno-scene, from migrant cultures in Berlin all the way to the gentrification of Moscow. We investigate processes of ethnic identity constructions as well as cultural consequences of economic globalisation or the ways in which the local and the regional are represented; we engage with gender studies as we do with science and technology studies. It is not the particular topics that define the field, but the perspective we apply to them.