How are sustainable institutions possible?
Under the impression of environmental threats, migration and populism, this question currently draws more attention than in earlier years. I started to think along these lines around 1992 and the Rio conference of the environment. In 2002, I completed a political science Ph.D. dissertation that delved into the math of individualizing democracy. Afterwards, I was offered an assistantship at SUZ and forced to work on social inequality. Who would have imagined that studying the dynamics of inequality would bring me back to the reasons why individualizing democracy is a necessity? But it did.
The institutions of industrial society are meaningful but not sustainable: From 1938 onwards they have ended war and Shoah and allowed for prosperity. Their problem is that they pressed individuals into social categories while individualization is possible and continues to unfold. From that perspective, I am skeptical with regards to the performance of current institutions in the future – less so for Switzerland, but very much for other European societies. Understanding what was different in 1950 compared to 1930 and hence the relevant mindset changes in the 1940s allows however to envisage what should be different in 2035 compared to now, and work for such changes.
My current research continues about these thoughts. My working hypothesis is as follows: The world is structured through institutions that have been shaped in 20th century industrial society. In these institutions, a specific European tradition of a partitioning mapping of individuals to groups (where every individual belongs to exactly one group) plays an important role. But the social structure of the world does not comply with this partitioning logic. I aim to understand potential institutions that are sustainable without it.
Especially, I currently work on making Civil democracy real. For my empirically oriented colleagues (and funding bodies), only existing social facts are worth being studied, and for the real world, better institutions are worth being implemented.
To be part of the SUZ implies a methodological rigor of both analytical theory and quantitative empirics that has helped me a lot in streamlining wild thoughts. In my teaching, I aim to encourage both in my students, wild thoughts and methodological rigor.