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International Sociological Association

Zeitgeist: The media of time-specific cultural patterns
Zentrum für Interdisziplinäre Forschung, Bielefeld, Germany
September 19-21, 2013
Abstracts: November 15, 2012

This conference at the Zentrum für Interdisziplinäre Forschung (ZiF), Bielefeld brings together perspectives and cases from a broad range of disciplines to explore the potential of the concept of Zeitgeist as a tool for the comparison of social forms and forms of mediation.

The way the term zeitgeisthas travelled from its native German to everyday uses in other languages is evidence both of its specific place in the history of ideas and the way in which it resonates with more widespread understandings of a specific dimension of cultural processes.

In some disciplines, the term is part of the taken-for-granted repertoire of modes of explanations, but its theoretical status has rarely been explored explicitly in the context of alternative approaches to describing and explaining societies and cultures.

A few cases can illustrate the descriptive power of the term: How can we theorise the rapid spread of Gothic art or the fascination with death in Baroque art across geographic contexts? How do we make sense of the emergence of the idea of the unconscious in the late 19th century, beyond the focus on the individual Sigmund Freud? How exactly do we imagine the link between nuclear deterrence as a political phenomenon and its echoes in popular culture?

Zeitgeist not only describes distinctive ideas, but also specific practices and forms of knowledge. Zeitgeist refers to cultural patterns that are temporally specific, cross-over different areas of social life, and extend across space. The term zeitgeist gains its distinctive edge partly by what it is not: zeitgeist describes something that is rooted in temporally specific circumstances, while not being entirely fleeting or contingent. If we describe or explain something by zeitgeist we are usually saying that it is not fully explained by functional necessity, by the economic base of a society, or by institutional and organizational factors. While zeitgeist is clearly a cultural phenomenon, it is in tension with anything one might assume as constant properties of culture (such as Levi-Strauss’ structuring binaries or of cognition. Neither is it cultural in the sense in which distinct separate (national, class-based, ethnic or sub) cultures are traditionally theorised in social anthropology and which, even in reactions against it still dominates debates about culture.

We welcome contributions from scholars from a range of disciplines across the humanities and social sciences. Relevant disciplines include history, archaeology, anthropology, art history, architecture,

sociology, science studies, literature, cultural studies, and media studies. Contributions are invited to consider the following questions. The list of case studies is not exhaustive and is intended as an inspiration and starting point for discussion.

-Guiding Questions

·What links elements of zeitgeist? How does zeitgeist travel between people and across space? How can we explore the symbolic and the material dimensions of this process? What are the material carriers that help zeitgeist travel? What kind of media and forms of mediation matter in different historical periods? How do phenomena of zeitgeist vary across different social forms and historical periods? Are modern zeitgeists different from medieval ones? If so, how? What do we learn about different social forms by examining the way their zeitgeists operate? How is zeitgeist transmitted in the in the pre-modern era?

·How can we theorise the relationship between phenomena of zeitgeist and other cultural phenomena? How can we think about the relationship between zeitgeist and social groups?

-Examples and case studies

·the emergence of megalithic architecture across Europe in the fourth millennium BC

·the revival of human representations in the Iron Age after a complete break throughout the Bronze Age

·the link between stoicism and early Christianity

·common notions of kingship in early medieval Europe

·the Gothic style

·the Reformation

·modernist architecture

·the spirit of 1968

·the “1980s”


Please submit a long abstract of 300 to 500 words by 15 November 2012, to the organisers by email. A limited budget to help with travel expenses is available. Accommodation and meals will be provided. Invited presenters will be notified by 1 December 2012. Please be prepared to share your paper by August 15, 2013 as papers will be circulated before the workshop. The workshop will be reserved for intensive discussion of papers.


The ZiF - Bielefeld University's Institute for Advanced Study - supports and funds outstanding and innovative interdisciplinary research projects. Founded in 1968 as Germany's first institution of its kind, the ZiF became a model for numerous Institutes for Advanced Study throughout Europe. Open to any research topic, the ZiF welcomes scholars from all academic disciplines and countries. It offers the opportunity to realize interdisciplinary academic projects with international colleagues by means of providing residential fellowships, grants, and conference services.

-Contact details

Dr. Monika Krause

Department of Sociology

Goldsmiths College

University of London

New Cross

London, SE14 6NW

Dr. Susanne Hakenbeck

McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research

University of Cambridge,

Downing Street,

Cambridge CB2 3ER
International Sociological Association