Bielefeld, Thursday/Friday, 19/20 October 2023
Organizers: Franz-Josef Arlinghaus, Eleonora Rohland und Andreas Rüther
With this conference, we would like to explore two theses: First, we assume that pre-modern societies share common structural elements that continued to represent drivers of change. To capture this, we adapt the theoretical concept of 'momentum of its own' (‘Eigendynamik’) or ‘inherent dynamism’ for our period of investigation. Second, we postulate that such a momen-tum was inherent in many pre-modern societies. In this way, we question the widespread and politically relevant view that, in the pre-modern period, there were fundamental differences in the affinity for change in one region of the world or another. Further on, we would like to stimulate research towards a change of perspective: It is less a development converging over centuries culminating in the present that emerges then. Rather, in pre-modern societies similar impulses for change seem to be detectable, which first of all further shaped the structures of these societies themselves.
The concept of the conference is essentially based on the cooperation of eight scholars who have been discussing these theses for Ethiopia, Europe, and East Asia and have already held two conferences. The explicit aim of this conference is now to trace the meaning of 'momentum of its own' in pre-modern Latin America. The Americas are of particular interest because this region of the world has to reckon with special historical constellations, both, before and after European conquest and its forced inclusion in the economic and cultural exchange with Africa and Europe. So, the question arises whether the concept of 'momentum of its own' applies here as well? Where would adjustments have to be made?
With "momentum of its own" the conference mobilizes a widely discussed theoretical concept (initially developed in the context of 'Western modernity'), which, however, has experienced little application in the pre-modern era in or outside of Europe so far. The basic idea of this approach is that processes drive change out of themselves, without however, affecting the underlying structures of society. Our understanding of the concept leans on suggestions made by the German sociologists Renate Mayntz and Bettina Nedelmann who state that social processes can be “described as inherently dynamic [if] they continue to move ... out of themselves and without further external influence, thereby producing and reproducing a pat-tern characteristic of them” (Mayntz/Nedelmann 1997, p. 87). According to the first characteristic, the ‘intrinsic’ feature of dynamics is that the decisive drivers for change arise from the processes themselves. Of course, momentum of its own also rests on the actions of actors; however, momentum processes are able to motivate individuals to participate in and sustain these very processes.
The definition aims at identifying a certain number of relevant processes for a given situation, which together carry a concrete momentum of their own. These processes can be located both inside and outside a geographical or social unit. What is particular in this conception of ‘momentum of its own’ are not the social or geographical spaces, but the processes yet to be concretely identified. The latter need to be determined for each object of investigation. Evidently, the concept of 'momentum of its own' needs some adaptation to the specifics of the societies existing during the period and presumably in the geographical spaces under investigation. In line with the relevant historical research, we identified three structural elements: 1) estate-based hierarchical order of societies with group orientation, 2) culture of presence, and 3) consensus orientation.
1) Estate-based hierarchical order and group orientation: we assume that the efforts of indi-viduals as well as groups to constantly assert their own position in the status-oriented, estate-based hierarchical structure and, if possible, to improve it, constituted an essential element of self-dynamic processes. At the same time, the establishment of groups, (whether noble familia, clan, religious communities or guilds), is a process in the course of which, for example, forms of demarcation and outdoing were repeatedly renegotiated. In this process, the estate-based hierarchical order of society, which was transcendentally legitimized, formed the hardly changeable structural principle along which the historical actors oriented their actions. Where, however, the individual person or group was to be placed, who belonged to this or that association, was repeatedly retold and performatively determined. Thus, group dynamics are fed not least by the tension between an ideal, fixed, hierarchical order and the openness of its daily implementation.
2) Presence culture: In the joint presence of the actors, processes of change acquire their own specific form, because the perception of body and clothing, especially when combined with performances and rituals, shaped communication in a special way. Historical research on rituals as well as on the use of media in premodern times has gained a broad international basis over the last few decades. However, research so far has hardly addressed the connection between a culture of presence and social change. On the one hand, copresence is itself susceptible to its own dynamics. On the other hand, gatherings are able to put their own stamp on momentums of its own. What is more, literacy is not in contradiction to this, but in a productive relationship. As recent research has shown, in our period of investigation it can be seen as an enrichment of the modes of communication of the general culture of presence.
3) Consensus orientation: Unanimity seems to have a normative character in most European pre-modern societies. Tolerance for dissenting positions was very low; against the background of a general drive towards consensus orientation, they could hardly claim legitimacy for themselves. Often, 'rebellion' or 'tyranny' were the dominant categories with which controversies were mapped. Thus, neither the absence of conflict nor the ideas of a 'harmonious society' are meant by 'consensus orientation'. The dispute, to which Simmel already assigned a momentum of its own, was virtually framed by a consensus orientation, because dissent was hardly considered legitimate. In this respect, consensus orientation is to be taken into account as a parameter, for instance, in negotiations as well as in the case of aspired increases in status. It did not prevent conflicts that tended toward inherent dynamism; rather, it drove them forward and imposed a certain form on them.
Recent research on the European nobility emphasizes that positioning oneself and outdoing others as a practice was inherent in rank society sui generis (Peltzer 2015). The fact that momentum of its own form patterns, the second characteristic, does not mean that processes would always run identically. To stay with positioning: Those who sought to consolidate or improve their position vis-à-vis others around 1500 used different performances and semantics, needed different skills than around 1300 (cf. Morsel 1997). Nevertheless, the need to position oneself within the estate-based hierarchical order was still required; the impetus and result of the changes resulted from the same processual foundations that drove momentum of its own.
With this conference we aim to take the concept of ‘momentum of its own’ out of its so far mostly European context of application in order to test its productivity and explanatory value in the societal context of pre- as well as post-Columbian South America. We are hoping for new empirical but also theoretical insights with this setup and for exciting – and possibly controversial – discussions.
The conference will take place in Bielefeld; travel and accommodation costs will be covered. We plan to have 30-minute presentations followed by approximately 45 minutes of discussion.
If this aim appeals to you, please send an abstract of 500-800 words to firstname.lastname@example.org until March 25, 2023.
Mayntz, Renate & Nedelmann, Birgitta, Eigendynamische soziale Prozesse. Anmerkungen zu einem analytischen Paradigma, in: Renate Mayntz (Hg.), Soziale Dynamik und politische Steuerung. Theoretische und methodologische Überlegungen (Schriften des Max-Planck-Instituts für Gesellschaftsforschung Köln 29), Frankfurt/M. 1997, S. 86-114 (Erstaufl. 1987).
Morsel, Joseph, Die Erfindung des Adels. Zur Soziogenese des Adels am Ende des Mittelalters - das Beispiel Frankens, in: Otto Gerhard Oexle & Werner Paravicini (Hgg.), Nobilitas. Funktion und Repräsentation des Adels in Alteuropa, Göttingen 1997, S. 312-375.
Peltzer, Jörg, Introduction, in: Jörg Peltzer (ed.), Rank and Order. The Formation of Aristocratic Elites in Western and Central Europe, 500-1500, Ostfildern 2015, S. 13-37.