Call4Papers (BGHS) „A ‘New Social Question’ or ‘Crisis as Usual’? Historical and Sociological Perspectives on Inequalities“ (4.-06.06. 2014, Bielefeld)

Social inequalities, injustices and crises have always been major topics of historical and sociological research, and they have been back on the agenda of public and scientific debates since the beginning of the latest financial crisis, if not longer. However, a very important question remains unanswered: Under what conditions do social inequalities become an issue of scientific consideration, public attention, protest or political intervention?

The prime example of social inequalities becoming important was the ’social question‘ in the 19th century. ln the wake of industrialization, the ’social question‘ concerned social injustices such as poverty in emerging national welfare states. Sociological perspectives on today’s inequalities and conflicts are different in that they focus on a broad spectrum of aspects such as class, gender, ethnicity, legal status/citizenship, religion and many other characteristics. However, historians point out that not all of these perspectives are new. The consensus appears to be that the ‚old social question‘ and today’s social problems are due to normative evaluations of the illegitimacy of social inequalities.

The 6th Annual Seminar of the Bielefeld Graduate School in History and Sociology (BGHS) is calling for papers on the conditions and mechanisms that Iead to the problematization of social inequalities in a historical or a contemporary perspective, with the main question being: Are we facing a ’new social question‘, or can recent developments be better understood if they are regarded as ‚crisis as usual‘?

As our aim is to develop an interdisciplinary understanding of the meaning of social inequalities, we find the following topics to be crucial for theoretical and empirical consideration:

Social lnequalities and Forms of Protest: To foster an understanding of inequality, it is necessary to address the relationship between inequality and equality, and to answer such questions as: How are normative evaluations of the illegitimacy of social inequalities undertaken against the backdrop of social rights? What are the conditions and mechanisms of the mobilization of protest against and criticism of social inequalities? How do processes of transnationalization influence forms and modes of protest and criticism? What roles do social movements, organizations and institutions play in these processes?

Social lnequality through the Lens of Politics: Social inequality has been the subject of political rhetoric and an instrument of political struggle between competing parties since the end of the 18th century. How did the notion of inequality come to the forefront of social and political attention? How have political parties and actors such as the 19th century Tories, the New Left of the 1960s and the social democrats of today been dealing with inequalities in their political agendas, and how have they been using them for their own purposes? What political strategies have been deployed across the world to prevent social inequality and social tensions in times of crisis?

Social lnequalities and Different Scientific Viewpoints: Scientific research and theory have effects on how social inequalities are perceived, dealt with and, perhaps, mitigated. Different scientific theories cause those who adhere to them to focus on different key aspects and provide specific suggestions for improvement. Someone who applies economic standard theory, for example, is likely to see inequalities as a problem of optimization, thereby accepting unequal starting conditions as a given. Pertinent questions that should be addressed in this context include: How do different scientific viewpoints shape the perception of inequality? What are the mechanisms of, and the relationships between, science and societal problems, crises and times of breakdown? What do the various theories focus on, and what do they ignore?

Social Inequality, Crisis and Historical Turning Points: Narratives of transformation resulting from crises, rebellions and revolutions often include an element of a ‘turning point’, of an event known as ‘the point of no return’ or of ‘the straw that broke the camel’s back’, and so on. Famous examples of historical events that have been described in this way include the storming of the Bastille, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the default of Lehman Brothers. Do turning points have a historical significance beyond that within their narrative? What constitutes a turning point? How can we identify them, and what roles do inequality and crisis play? How can we look at them from a theoretical perspective?

Crisis as Usual? The Financial Crisis of 2007: The economic downturn of 2007, considered by many scientists to be the worst crisis since the Great Depression, appears to be an apt background against which to discuss the general topic of crisis. The main question is whether we can identify societal structures which contributed to the outbreak of the financial crisis of 2007. Crises are well-analyzed phenomena of modern society, so why was it not possible to prevent this particular one? If indeed crises are a recurring feature of modernity, then what learning effects can be expected, given this background?

Social Inequalities in Migratory Contexts: International migration is often related to notions of social inequalities. Different structures of social inequalities appear to intersect in migratory processes. The aim here is to shed light on the interrelationship between theories of social inequalities and empirical research on migration. What theories can be fruitfully used to understand the importance of migration with regard to social inequalities? How can empirical research be linked to social theory? How are social inequalities identified by scientific research, for example by focusing on particular migrant groups?

The conference welcomes papers that address one or more of these topics from the perspectives of different social scientific disciplines.
The conference language is English.
Proposals of no more than one page in length (600 words) may be submitted to by 15 January 2014. Authors of selected proposals will be notified no later than 15 February 2014.
The BGHS will pay for accommodation and cover a portion of the travel expenses, depending on the total travel expenses of all participants. Speakers will be responsible for their own personal expenses.
For further information on the BGHS, please visit our website at

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