New Perspectives on Social and Economic History of Modern Turkey

New Perspectives on Social and Economic History of Modern Turkey

Berna Pekesen, DFG Research Network „Contemporary History of Turkey”, Historisches Institut, Universität Duisburg-Essen
Fand statt
In Präsenz
Vom - Bis
22.06.2023 - 24.06.2023
Tekin Caner, Institut für soziale Bewegungen, Ruhr-Universität Bochum

Like the two previous workshops, the final workshop was dedicated to a highly neglected area of research. This time, the international scholars dealt with the social and economic history of Turkey. In her preliminary considerations, host BERNA PEKESEN (Essen) emphasized the urgent need for a paradigm shift toward a (new) social and economic history of Turkey, which for several decades has been largely eclipsed by discourse analysis focused on elites and high politics.

The opening panel was dedicated to the "Social History of Migrant Organisations in Western Europe". CANER TEKIN (Bochum) discussed the role, share and influence of migrant trade unionists and activists on social and institutional change in West Germany during the 1970s and 1980s. Analysing the May Day marches in Frankfurt in the 1970s and the activities of migrant associations at the DGB headquarters, Tekin argued that the activism of Turkish trade unionists in Frankfurt for participation in German local elections were later accepted by the Frankfurt and Hesse offices of the DGB and IG Metall. According to Tekin the interactions with migrant associations, trade unionists of migrant origin and local trade union branches as early as the mid-1970s played an important role in the acceptance of migrants' political rights by DGB affiliates at the federal level in the 1980s.

In the second lecture of the panel, ELISABETH KIMMERLE (Potsdam) dealt with Turkish women's associations in West Germany. As Kimmerle examined, socialist women's associations from Turkey, which were predominantly active in West Berlin, represented political spaces of local self-organisation and transnational mobilisation, whose political activities were not only, but often strongly, linked to their home country. As illustrated by the example of the "Federation of Turkish Women in Europe" (ATKF), this organisation not only offered sewing courses for women of Turkish origin, but also tried to “raise their consciousness” through political courses. It also used transnational networks to mobilise a wider base of women activists for communist movements. However, it also faced a conflict between the two goals of fulfilling the communist agenda and being funded by the West Berlin Senate.

The last speaker of the panel, HÜSEYIN ÇIÇEK (Vienna), spoke on diversity and Islamic law, and Alevis in Austria. He discussed the conflicts and tensions between Alevis and Muslim groups, as well as the instrumentalisation of the Alevi issue by the Turkish government. What impact these political and institutional developments will have on the Alevi community remains to be seen, Çicek concluded.

CENGIZ GÜNAY (Vienna) problematised the main problem areas of institutional and social change in his commentary. The role of migration in relation to change and the shaping of institutions has so far remained largely unnoticed in migration studies. The connection between activism, empowerment and the actual contribution of people to political-institutional change needs to be studied more closely, according to Günay. Last but not least, he described the inclusion of cross-actor networks, social movements/groups, but also individuals in the bottom-up approach as essential.

The second panel was dedicated to the actors and institutions in social developments. SVENJA HUCK (Berlin) examined the Revolutionary Workers Organization (DISK), founded in 1967, the first left-wing trade union to claim to represent workers as a class in Turkey. Huck assessed the inclusion of the working class as an actor in the Turkish landscape as a step toward the democratization of Turkey. Her presentation focused on DISK's external conflicts with the government, with employers' organizations, with other unions, and fascist organizations. Because of its radical actions in the workplace, its political ties to leftist parties, and its participation in leftist demonstrations, DISK was accused by its political opponents of posing a communist threat to the country and was eventually banned after the 1980 coup.

The second panel's presentations can be seen as a remarkable revival of Turkey's labor history, which has been considered dead during the 1990s. BARIŞ ALP ÖZDEN (Istanbul / Essen) presented a chapter of his forthcoming book on the same topic. Özden gave insights in to the microcosm of workers in Turkey between the end of World War II and the early 1960s. Following Edward P. Thompson, Özden emphasized the need for more historical-empirical research on workers' everyday experiences and the meanings associated with them, which according to Özden, had to be integrated into the analysis of the major economic, social, and political transformations that Turkey has undergone since the second half of the 21st century.

In the third presentation of the session İSMET AKÇA (Istanbul) examined the relationship between military interventions and the "question of the social and political movement of the working class" from a “neo-Marxist” perspective. Akça argued that, in contrast to the widespread hegemonic state-centered analyses, the social question in Turkey should be analyzed in terms of the domination, disciplining and pacification of working-class social and political movements as the main reason for military interventions and the establishment of military regimes since 1960.

In his commentary, NIKOS CHRISTOFIS (Xi´an) emphasized the central importance of research on labor politics in Turkey. After a critical appraisal of the talks of the panel, he pointed out the serious research gaps in the field of Turkish social history. He criticized the shortcomings of the prevailing structuralist-modernist, and state-centered paradigms as well as the rather residual view of older social history. This type of social history, concerned with the history of manners, leisure, and a whole range of social activities, was in danger of being trivialized by the exclusion of politics and economics. He pointed to the possibilities of recent social history, which combines cultural anthropological approaches ("history from below") with social history. According to Christofis, such approaches could provide important insights, reveal unspoken norms, and uncover layers of the past consciousness of historical subjects.

The third panel on poverty and welfare politics dealt with genuinely social-historical topics such as poverty, family, gender, work, religion and health. BÜŞRA HANUSRICHTER (Bochum) explored the social phenomenon of poverty in the recent history of Turkey. The starting point of her considerations were first the economic and political backgrounds of the growing poverty since the end of the Second World War as well as the state policies to cope with the poverty problem. She then discussed the different facets of poverty from an intersectional perspective (age, gender, regional inequalities) and then presented some practices of social exclusion and marginalization of some poor groups. Her approach had the great advantage of not falling into the traps of a purely cultural analysis, but of combining it with an economic understanding.

LÉA DELMAIRE (Paris) addressed the anti-tuberculosis campaigns in Turkey. She gave an overview of the governmental and non-governmental actors involved with tuberculosis control. State actions ranged from education, moralizing, and information gathering to the establishment of specific antituberculosis facilities (dispensaries and sanatoriums). A distinctive feature of Turkish antituberculosis efforts was the special emphasis on individual responsibility. Comparatively, there was little emphasis on desolate working conditions; tuberculosis was understood more as a social disease, as Delmaire explained.

CEREN DENIZ (Halle) focused on the economic development of the Central Anatolian city of Çorum in a long-term view since the First World War. Çorum along with other Anatolian cities, has long been considered an example of the supposedly miraculous rise of “Anatolian Tiger” cities. Turkish and international observers of the time were inclined to see in this phenomenon the successful fusion of Islam (Muslim entrepreneurship) with Western economic values (“Islamic Calvinists”), which Deniz deconstructed as a state-sponsored myth. In her presentation Deniz explored the dynamics of growth and continuance of medium-sized enterprises from the dual perspectives of political and moral economy. Through several illustrations, she gave insights into the role of kinship, religion and social values in some of the workplaces of Çorum.

In her critical appraisal of the panel's presentations, JENNY WHITE (Stockholm) highlighted a common denominator: the deconstruction of official or state-sponsored myths. The propaganda of the Anatolian “tiger cities”, with its underlying pseudoscientific assumptions, had sought to obscure the fact that the alleged miraculous economic development was deliberately brought about by state and state-sponsored networks. The ethos of individual responsibility in the fight against tuberculosis and the downplaying of poverty as the cause of tuberculosis also coincided with state propaganda of the supposed "classless society." Last but not least, White argued for an actor-network analysis that focused more on the beneficiaries of particular state policies.

The fourth and final panel of the workshop was devoted to the topic of social developments and political participation. NILAY ÖZOK-GÜNDOGAN (Florida) drew attention to the regional disparities in general “Turkish” historiography and, in particular, to the lack of social historical studies on Kurds and Kurdish regions. Even the growing field of Kurdish studies does not remedy this situation. Özok-Gündogan elaborated on current research, which focuses primarily on issues related to the current political conflict and its social, economic and cultural implications. Studies on contemporary issues have mostly approached the history of the Kurds from an instrumentalist and presentist point of view and have contributed to reproducing conventional ahistorical representations of the Kurdish past, Özok-Gündogan criticized.

In the second lecture, KEREM GÖRKEM ARSLAN (Strasbourg) and SAMIM AKGÖNÜL (Strasbourg) presented their reflections on contemporary history of Tengrism in Turkey. They explained how neo-pagan religious movements are spreading or reviving, aiming at a return to ancient beliefs, customs and values in contemporary Turkey. The speakers elaborated on the "Hekate cult" and Tengrism, a new but unrecognized, even secret, religious minority in Turkey, and what role they play within identitarian movements in Turkey today.

In his commentary, CHRISTOPH RAMM (Bern) supported Nilay Özok-Gündogan's argument for a decolonising perspective on Kurdish history and studies. He pointed out that many scholarly works of the past were produced uncritically from a colonial context. Area studies in Switzerland as well as in other Western countries still reflected the colonial division of academic disciplines in the 19th century. Referring to nationalism as a modern phenomenon, he argued that the emerging field of Kurdish Studies should not only be decolonised but also denationalised.

The workshop had the merit of addressing an increasingly marginalised or almost non-existent field of research in the social and economic history of Turkey. At the same time, the event clearly demonstrated the possibilities and limits of interdisciplinarity as well as the dominance of political history. As one workshop participant critically remarked, most of the discussions at the workshop would end up in discussing political issues. It is an urgent desideratum that social sciences and the historical discipline in particular, engage in the study of this highly neglected research field.

Conference overview:

Berna Pekesen (Essen): Opening address and introduction

Panel 1. Social History of Migrant Organizations in Western Europe
Chair: Berna Pekesen (Essen)

Caner Tekin (Bochum): Social History to explain Migrant Trade Unionism in West Germany

Elisabeth Kimmerle (Potsdam): Turkish Women's Associations in West Germany (1975-1990). Migrant Self-Organizing and Gender from a Social History Perspective

Hüseyin Çiçek (Vienna): Navigating Diversity: Islam Law, Islamic Religious Community, and Alevites in Austria

Comment: Cengiz Günay (Vienna)

Panel 2. Actors and Institutions in Social Developments
Chair: Kerem Öktem (Venice)

Svenja Huck (Berlin): The threat of a political union - the confederation of progressive trade unions of Turkey DISK

Barış Alp Özden (Essen): Paths of working-class formation in contemporary Turkey

Ismet Akça (Istanbul): Social history of the military interventions in Turkey

Comment: Nikos Christofis (Xi'an – via zoom)

Panel 3. Poverty and Welfare Policies
Chair: Alp Yenen (Leiden)

Büşra Hanusrichter (Bochum): The State of Need and the Experiences of Poverty in Turkey

Léa Delmaire (Paris / Istanbul): "If I had money, would I be sick?" Tuberculosis, poverty, and social classes in 1950s-1960s Turkey

Ceren Deniz (Halle): Immediate Struggles - in the formation of Çorum's industry between 1960s to 2000s: A Culture of partnership or necessity and livelihood?

Comment: Jenny B. White (Stockholm)

Panel 4. Social Developments and Political Participation
Chair: Sevil Çakır (Göttingen)

Sedat Ulugana (Berlin): DP döneminde Kürt aşiretlerinin ekonomik dönüşümü (Cancelled)

Nilay Özok-Gündoğan (Florida): Beyond a “usable past”: An Agenda for a Contemporary History of Kurds and Kurdistan (via zoom)

Kerem Görkem Arslan (Strasbourg) / Samim Akgönül (Strasbourg): Why the ancient becomes “modern”? Contemporary “story” of Tengrism in Turkey (via zoom)

Comment: Christoph Ramm (Bern)