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The Thematic Network Principles of Cultural Dynamics (PCD) – Concept and Aims

The Thematic Network Principles of Cultural Dynamics, based at Freie Universitaet Berlin is funded by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD). It aims at strengthening transnational cooperation in humanities research between Freie Universitaet Berlin and the Mahindra Humanities Center at Harvard University, the Department of Comparative Thought and Literature at The Johns Hopkins University, the Research Institute for the Humanities at The Chinese University of Hong Kong, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS), Paris.

We are very happy to welcome the following institutions as associated partners within the network for the second funding period (2017/2018):

  • The Australian National University
  • University of California, Davis
  • National Research University/Higher School of Economics, Moscow

Thematic Focus

The choice of the network’s thematic focus, “Principles of Cultural Dynamics“, is based on the observation that the dynamics of processes of cultural change and innovation have varied considerably across historical time periods and places. The PCD network aims to research factors that may account for what triggers processes of cultural innovation, what respectively accelerates and hinders them, and what may cause them to subside entirely. Regarding the dimension of time, this research agenda potentially includes the entire history of the human species. Antiquity, the Middle Ages, the early modern age and modernity are historical periods of special research interest, as differences regarding the rhythm of innovation are particularly prominent considering the past two/three millennia, while a transition from a phase of high dynamics to a phase of relative stagnation is observable at the same time.

The second funding period’s focus is broadened on the basis of previous research results: Interdisciplinary studies beyond humanities are achieved by taking into account social studies’ viewpoints. Objects of material quotidian culture are being examined with additional emphasis. Further aspects concern the research methods. Relations between hermeneutic and empirical methods as well as their possible retroactive effects on descriptive models are to be considered. The third factor concerns the epistemological level. More stress is being placed on questioning the relevance of model building categories for process descriptions, such as the categories of causality or of contingency.

Temporal and Spatial Framework

In a topographic and ethnographic perspective, this research frame potentially includes all geographic areas and cultures. The inclusion of a renowned Chinese research institution as part of the network takes especial note of the fact that high civilization was created at least twice, and autonomously: in today’s Middle East – more specifically, in the Eastern Mediterranean region – and in East Asia. These aspects invite investigation of whether cultural dynamics follow universal or culturally specific patterns.


One may plausibly hypothesize that the entire breadth of humanistic disciplines will be able to generate substantial insights regarding the network’s research question at large – which, it may be assumed, addresses an issue humanistic research is centrally concerned with. More specifically, the network’s thematic framework stimulates an investigation: of changes in (economic and geopolitical) power structures; of influences on the natural habitat, as well as changes in the latter; of the diversity of world views and religions and their authoritativeness; of the existence and effect of what the West has been calling art for three millennia; of the impact of institutional structures (of a political, but also of an educational nature); of coerced or freely chosen mobility – to name a few thematic complexes.


On an analytical level, the network’s thematic framework encourages questioning whether a different logic of cultural dynamics exists for different subfields of the realm one may term cultural activity. For instance, do economic dynamics function differently or similarly when compared to innovation in the realm of the arts? If focusing solely on the latter realm, how do dynamics tied to different sign systems (languages) behave – for example, the dynamics of literary texts – when compared to the development of forms of artistic expression whose mediality is less fragmented when globally perceived (fine arts, music)? How might dynamics in the field of popular culture be compared to those in the realm of high culture?

Transnational Approach

The thematic framework is ideally suited for study within a transnational humanistic network; these research questions, transcending space and time, virtually call for being investigated cooperatively, and in a transnational context: the network offers the opportunity to integrate individual case studies with a strong local and temporal focus; it likewise opens up a space for larger, interdisciplinary research projects, thereby laying groundwork for a theory of cultural dynamics.

Research Cooperation

The PCD network’s concrete measures include a mobility initiative that allows Freie Universitaet Berlin scholars at various career levels to conduct research at the partner institutions, while scholars from the partner institutions are invited for research stays at Freie Universitaet Berlin. In addition, an annual two-week summer school is organized, allowing graduate students from all partner institutions to study with leading humanities scholars. Moreover, the PCD network organizes workshops in which distinguished humanities scholars and junior scholars from the partner institutions will discuss pertinent paradigms in cultural dynamics and develop fruitful research partnerships.