09.11.2017

Crises Redefined: Historical Continuity and Societal Change

The departments of History and Ethnology, Social Sciences and Philosophy, as well as that of Music, Art and Culture Studies host a considerable number of research projects that fall within our profiling area. These projects showcase our strong methodological expertise, interdisciplinary cooperation, and the high international quality of our research. Our researchers have combined perspectives from history, politics, social sciences and the arts in research that is currently being conducted within the CoE “The History of a Society“, as well as in the recently ended CoE “Political Thought and Conceptual Change”.

Our profiling project builds upon a solid foundation that is a result of the close collaboration between these three departments. The project combines the empirical and methodological strengths of human and social sciences into a multidisciplinary study of crises, continuity, and change. This genuine multidisciplinarity, which combines historical, politological, social, philosophical, linguistic, cultural, and ethnological research, effectively sets this project apart from the human and social sciences of other Finnish universities.

The Department of History and Ethnology is recognized for its accomplishments in the research it has conducted on the global processes of change, the comparative and transnational histories of societies, early modern Finland, ethnography, political cultures and discourse, as well as economic history. The Department of Social Sciences and Philosophy is internationally renowned for its expertise on the history of political ideas and concepts, the history of philosophy, the philosophy of mind, phenomenology, as well as political theory.

The Department of Music, Art and Culture Studies is a multi- and cross-disciplinary teaching and research unit. The department hosts e.g. the Research Centre for Contemporary Culture (RCCC), which is known for its interdisciplinary reception research as well as its analysis of contemporary cultural phenomena, such as digitalization, popular culture, and life narratives.

Research and focus areas

Crisis is a central concept of modernity. The digital history of concepts, based on big data analytics, demonstrates that, historically, the concept has had a wide range of meanings and connotations. While between the 16th and early 20th centuries, ‘crisis’ typically referred to various political events, conflicts, and states of emergency, its emphasis in contemporary discourses is predominantly on economic problems, natural disasters and catastrophes. Over time, all of these varying definitions have merged into a single concept of ‘crisis’, as something antonymous to stability, security, and continuity.

Despite being, by definition, abnormal states or states of emergency, crises seem to have become embedded into the routine condition of life. They appear to be constantly present in the contemporary world, and their presence has even become characteristic of it. The root causes for crises vary from ecological to man-made, (geo)political, and socio-economic ones, and their consequences often appear as more or less unpredictable and unstable.

Accordingly, the very definition of crisis is in itself complex and problematic. Thus, the leading objective of our research, within the profiling area, is to understand various, competing definitions of crisis; how crises come about and how they evolve; how they are defined and understood; and how they relate to global, national, and local physical environments, as well as human and collective action. Our project will concentrate especially on the historical and societal changes that precede, concur with, and result from crises, while simultaneously exploring the relevance of the historical continuity that comes to play both in and after crises.

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Crises are concrete and real states of affairs. However, they are also subjectively experienced and discursively constructed, and can sometimes be purposefully created and maintained. The empirical, the experienced, and the discursive levels of the concept will all be taken into account in our research. The complexity of the topic will be tackled by drawing on the existing empirical, theoretical, and methodological expertise of our researchers in art, culture, ethnology, history, politics, social sciences, and philosophy.

The profiling area is divided into three focus areas:

The first focus area introduces the level of individual actors; the second area the level of collective political action; and the third area the level of institutions. These focus areas bring together the interdependent cultural, social, political, societal and macro-structural dimensions of crises into the research. The research in each focus area is penetrated by the investigation of the causes and effects of crises, their discursivity and material reality, their historical continuity and contemporariness, as well as the stability of socio-cultural macro-structures in relation to their states in crises. Research on all these areas is conducted collaboratively between the three participating departments.

Focus area 1: Displacement and Belonging

One of the most fundamental effects of political, economic, cultural, environmental, and humanitarian crises is the displacement of people. Displacement produces diverse struggles related to the concept of belonging that focus both on a) personal, intimate feelings of being ‘at home’ in a certain place (place-belongingness) and to b) belonging as a discursive and political resource which constructs, claims, justifies, and resists forms of socio-spatial inclusion/exclusion (politics of belonging). Research in this profiling area emphasizes crises of belonging as triggering forces of broader social, political, and societal crises.

The innovativeness of our research lies in our approach, in which we apply the theories of belonging as the explanatory framework for the emergence of crises. The research focuses particularly on emotional attachments and the affective sense of belonging, as well as on their role in the politics of belonging, i.e., topics that are seldom explicitly analyzed in academia. The objective of our research is to explore and explain the anatomies of crises from the bottom-up: how do a) the feelings of displacement, non-belonging, and exclusion, as well as b) the experienced rupture of the foundations of identities in modern nation-states produce both personal and communal crises?

Focus area 2: Politicized Crises: Discourses and Practices

Social and political crises have deep-rooted causes. They are a result of complex historical processes in which political discourses and practices play a significant role. Therefore, in order to understand the nature of contemporary crises, we will be investigating the history, development, and structure of those political and administrative ideas, discourses, thought patterns, modes of collective action, and practices that have paved the way for modern and late modern political crises. We will be focusing on phenomena such as the rise of political and religious extremism and authoritarian tendencies in political thought and administrative practices that pose a challenge to modern liberal-democratic political systems.

The innovativeness of our research lies in our comparative, transnational, and historically sensitive approach, which combines our expertise on the history of political thought, social and political theory and cultural studies. We will be drawing on the methodology of conceptual history and the history of political thought, research on social movements and activism as well as that of narrative and rhetorical analysis, which are all among the core strengths of the research that is conducted in JYU. Our objective is to achieve a deeper multidisciplinary understanding of the long-term causes of modern political crises, as well as the complex processes of constructing, maintaining, and challenging political legitimacy in democratic societies.

Focus area 3: Institutional restructuring and path dependence

Institutions are not objects: they are systems of formal and informal rules as well as normative practices (e.g. laws, contracts, chains of command, guidelines), that can be discursively redefined. They offer both opportunities and constraints for human interaction. Moreover, they reduce uncertainty by providing a structure for everyday life. Path dependence, in turn, is a structural explanation of how and why historical processes determine the range of alternatives for these processes.

However, during critical junctures, such as wars, revolutions, and economic depressions, the inertial properties of institutions are potentially lower, which then might allow radical change in path-dependent systems and institutional structures. In other words, radical institutional changes are often the outcomes of exogenous shocks, and in such contexts, the periods of change differ considerably from “normal” path-dependent institutional developments.

The innovative aspect of our research in this focus area is our attention to the paradox of simultaneous change and continuity, as well as our aim at identifying the factors that create continuity during a longer time period. Our objectives are to study crises in their various political, economic, and social contexts as well as the mechanisms that result in institutional continuity and change. For example, in the field of economics, the study will focus on macro-economic crises, decline of industry, and business failures. We will also employ international and regional comparisons into the study, and work closely with the Jyväskylä School of Business and Economics, whose micro-econometric research on e.g. the drivers of macroeconomic turbulence and institutional change complements the profiling area of our project.