An Interview with Martina Löw Sociology Infiltrates Our Everyday Lives

Martina Löw; Photo: private
Martina Löw | Photo (detail): private

Since the public and loud sociology debates of the 1970s and 1980s the realm of sociology seems to have receded more and more into the background. Does this mean it has lost its significance? spoke to Martina Löw, Chairwoman of the German Society for Sociology (DGS).

Professor Löw, the motto at this year’s 36th Congress of the German Society for Sociology (DGS) is “Diversity and Cohesion”. This automatically conjures up the debates on the “Leitkultur” (dominant culture) that returns to the public debate every now and then. This term seems to touch a raw nerve, above all when it comes to people’s concern about social cohesion.

The thing we have lost is the feeling that our society has a clearly defined focal point. The “dominant culture” is an attempt to find a means to combat insecurity. It is quite clear however that this symbolic focal point does not actually exist. We cannot even keep it going as a myth. This new diversity we are all experiencing however is a spectacular opportunity for us all. The reason for this being that social homogeneity has always been an illusion. It is now time to come to terms with reality.

What might the concrete effects of this be?

The question now arises – how can we call it politics when we no longer know which main group of society is being represented? Here we only have to think of people’s disenchantment with politics – this discussion is long overdue!

In the highly differentiated societies of today’s modern world how can something like cohesion come about?

It is in fact this differentiation in particular that brings about cohesion – i.e. we no longer think that everybody has to be the same, that cohesion comes about from uniformity as is the case in a tribe. These days our entire lives are based on the division of labour and that is why we are all dependent on each other. Cohesion comes about from this dependency on each other.

Diversity, so to speak then, produces cohesion?

Exactly! It is quite possible, for example, to maintain that a mega-city in all its diversity can develop something like cohesion. A hundred years ago we were discussing whether people could identify at all with big cities like Chicago – today Chicago has grown immensely and people can still identify with it. It is a learning process which can be built upon, and a binding structure.

A city absorbs us into its rhythm

The “intrinsic logic of cities” that you examined is also a kind of binding idea. In your opinion it is not a coincidence that many people associate Frankfurt am Main above all with bankers and finance.

The intrinsic logic of the city of Frankfurt implies a strong culture of efficiency, and this includes, for example, clearly defined ideas on time and money. This is then reflected in the social discourse on the city that promotes this way of thinking.

Does a city’s intrinsic logic then influence the people living in it?

Yes, a city impresses its views of the world on us and absorbs us into its rhythm. You cannot run faster than the speed the city’s residents are running at. Copenhagen, for example, is one of the leaders when it comes to speed – something one would not really expect to hear about Copenhagen. Furthermore cities impose certain conventions on us. Inside the small unity of a city this leads to homogenisation, but on a regional or federal German level it leads to a heterogenisation within the concept of identity known as “deutsch” (German).

“Deutsch” then is not always “deutsch”?

No, “deutsch” is not as homogeneous as has often been thought. In some respects Munich, for example, has more in common with a city in South America than with Berlin or with another German city. This is why at this point I do not think we are going to get very far with such broad concepts as “Europe” and “South America”.

For quite some time now the concept of globalisation has been more and more relativising such ideas as “national state” and, consequently, “society”.

Yes, this is because societies are simply more comprehensive than the previous identification of societies with national states implied…. Nevertheless I do not believe that the concept of society has died out completely – even if that is being discussed at the moment. There might well be better terms for the concept, but that has to be discussed, not only in the field of sociology, but by us all. Since: Just try to have an everyday life conversation without the term of “society” …!

One common question is the connective element in the realm of sociology

The German Society for Sociology, which you preside over, embraces as many as 36 sections - many among them are known as the “hyphenated sociologies” like sport-sociology, European sociology, religion-sociology, sociology of space ... Where is the cohesion among all these different elements?

The one thing that connects them all is the common question on the social order of our coexistence. How does it come about? The question can be asked in sport or also in relation to war. That is why it is always quite a good idea for the sections to communicate with each other. For example, when the sport-sociologists cooperate with a group that is researching the sociology of war, the results can turn out to be really quite astounding.

One of the major criticisms aimed at present-day sociology is that it has become too self-referential. Not so long ago your colleague Ulrich Beck called it “scientific autism”. Do you think sociology these days should have more of a say, as it did in the 1970s and 1980s?

Sociology does in fact have quite some say in many different areas - areas however that are not classed (anymore) as sociology. You will find all kinds of sociological findings on the cultural pages of newspapers, in reporting and commentaries - this is where they speak of “globalisation” and “individualisation”, but they no longer call it sociology. When it comes to the field of economics however the subject is much more removed from our daily lives - the subject in this case, we know, is a knowledge of economics. I therefore do not get the impression that sociology is not present anymore. On the contrary - sociology infiltrates our everyday lives in such a way that we are no longer aware of it.

At this year’s sociology congress in Bochum there will be about 2,000 of your colleagues from the faculty taking part. What do you hope to get out of this “get-together”?

I hope to find as many answers as possible to the question of which new diversities we will be dealing with. What the problems are, the challenges, and where the opportunities and possibilities are. How can cohesion be reconceptualised? And I hope that the congress, which was organised along intercultural lines, will turn out to be the congress we had in mind when we were planning it. And that there will be a lot of contention and dispute. I feel arguing with each other is the best way to make progress.

Martina Löw is a professor of sociology at the Technische Universität Darmstadt (Darmstadt University of Technology) and Chairwoman of the German Society for Sociology. Her main fields of research are the sociology of space and urban sociology, women’s and gender studies, as well as sociological theory. Her most important publications include Soziologie der Städte (2008) und Prostitution – Herstellungsweisen einer anderen Welt (2011).

The 36th Congress of the German Sociological Association (GSA) is on "Diversity and Cohesion" and is taking place in Bochum from 1st - 5th of October 2012, organised by the Ruhr-Universtität Bochum and the Technische Universität Dortmund. About 2.000 Sociologists are expected to participate, amongst others well-known figures such as Richard Sennett, Agnes Heller, Armin Nassehi, Renate Mayntz and Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim. This year’s host country is Turkey.