February Issue • Volume 44 • Issue 2

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International Perspectives:
Austrian Sociology in the Dawn of the ISA Forum 2016

Rudolf Richter, Chair of the Local Organizing Committee of the ISA Forum of Sociology 2016 at the University of Vienna, Austria

Austrian Parliament Building

Austrian Parliament Building

Austrian sociology renewed itself significantly over the last 10 years, mainly due to the faculty retirements and the hiring of new professors in all departments of sociology across Austria. Despite recent changes, sociology in Austria continues to build upon a long-standing tradition of empirical social research.

In the last few years, the university system in Austria as a whole has experienced a tremendous generational shift, which goes hand in hand with a reorganization of universities that made them more autonomous and self-reliant. To give you an example, in 2004 the Department of Sociology at the University of Vienna had two project assistants whereas today the same department has 30 young scholars working in internationally funded projects albeit with fixed-term contracts. Of the five full professors currently within the Department, there is only one (myself) who was awarded the position in the early 90s, with the others being employed within the last two years and one seven years ago. The same is true for most departments of sociology throughout Austria. This has brought fresh enthusiasm to Austrian sociology.

Despite the fact that there are national traditions, in my opinion there is no such thing as a national sociology. This might be even more true in a small country such as Austria, with 7 million inhabitants, than it would be in large nations such as the United States. In Austria, recently hired professors and young researchers mostly come from neighboring countries such as Germany and Italy and from further away. Professors who are by origin Austrian are in the minority, which does not constitute a regret but rather shows an open and internationally oriented university system.

Changing While Holding onto Tradition

Though it is in the process of renewing itself, sociology in Austria builds upon tradition. We are all standing on the shoulders of giants, as Robert Merton once put it. The Marienthal study by Paul Lazarsfeld, Marie Jahoda, and Hans Zeisel are the best symbols of this tradition. The study carried out in the 1930s analyzed a situation where an entire village near Vienna became unemployed. The authors called it a “sociographic” study as it combined multiple research methods, including quantitative and qualitative approahes and even participatory action research (for example, a team helped organize a local flea market), in order to obtain a fuller and more detailed picture of the behavior of people in long-term unemployment. What I find most impressive is that the findings regarding the impact of the collapse of daily time structures on unemployed individuals’ lives holds true even today. For students studying sociology in Austria today, this classic study is required reading.

The Marienthal study illustrates two principles typical of Austrian sociology, namely: an empirical orientation with emphasis on developing methods appropriate for the theme under research; and what might be called a “public sociology orientation” that aims to have a positive impact on current societal issues

The strong empirical orientation of Austrian sociology is reflected in its curricula. Across the country, students in sociology are trained in both quantitative and qualitative methods.

The variety of subjects Austrian sociologists deal with creates opportunities for conversations and maybe even new collaborations.

One topic of great interest for Austrian sociology is social inequality, especially structural analyses of inequality in work situations and regarding poverty and migration. With the current refugee problem in Europe, it is not surprising that sociologists appear frequently in the media.

Another strong tradition is life-course research, mainly addressing sociology of family and aging but also looking at youth and children and focusing on child-parent relations. These endeavors can be subsumed under the umbrella of generational relations research. Current trends suggest that urban sociology will become more important as new full professors are employed in this area at the two universities in Vienna. A prominent network of Austrian sociologists concentrates on gender, dealing specifically with gender as well as intersectionality. In Vienna, we have a special department for sociology of music, and the sociology of culture is an important field in Austria as well, researching the role of culture in society in lifestyles, cultural milieus, new media, art and design. Visual sociology, artifact analysis, and working with non-verbal methods are all applied in analyzing symbolic representations. Research is not only concentrated on national issues; it is comparative as well, using primarily European databases, but also worldwide ones. In qualitative research where large data archives are missing, research groups from different countries work together.

Most of the sociologists researching in these areas have not only published in scientific journals, but have also contributed to regional, local, or national government reports and can be found in newspapers, on television, radio, or the Internet, furthering the discipline’s societal impact. Austrian sociology has always valued applied orientations and continues to do so today.

The ISA Forum

This is where the connection to the ISA Forum comes in.

The ISA Forum 2016 with its theme, “The Futures We Want: Global Sociology and the Struggles for a Better World” fits perfectly into the academic work and atmosphere of sociology in Austria. It can be characterized as applied and relevant for today’s problems, and it has a comparative perspective as well. Three plenaries organized by Austrian sociologists will address issues of center and periphery, sociological thoughts on the struggle for a better world, and facing the multiple crises currently present in Europe. You may, should you wish, join the debate. To do so, please visit the blog of the ISA Forum (isaforum2016.univie.ac.at/blog/) where, in addition to international authors, you will also find numerous contributions from Austrian sociologists. The blog can be the starting point for the many interesting conversations you may have when you visit us in Vienna. 

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