April 2010 Issue • Volume 38 • Issue 4

download pdfDownload full issue pdf

International Perspectives

Sociology in Germany:
The Social Science Research Center Berlin

by Max Haller, Karl Franzens-University Graz, Austria

From October 2008 to January 2009, I had the opportunity to work as a guest researcher at the Social Science Research Center Berlin (Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin für Sozialforschung, WZB). I hope that my experiences and some information about the WZB might be of interest to U.S. sociologists. During residency at the research unit "Inequality and Social Integration" headed by Jens Alber, I worked on my ongoing project, "Social Classes in the Ethnically Heterogeneous Milieu." It is a study that attempts to explain patterns of economic inequality in different countries of the world by focusing on the interaction between class stratification and ethnic differentiation. In addition, I presented my book European Integration as an Elite Process (Routledge) to a broad audience from within and outside the WZB and attended several internal scientific colloquia and lectures by visiting researchers.

The WZB was founded in 1969 by members of the German federal parliament. The idea of the bipartisan initiative was to have a science center conducting research that did not exist at this time in the universities, namely large-scale, empirical projects with international reach. Due to the interruption by National Socialism, sociology in Germany was only re-established as an academic curriculum at most universities in the 1960s. At this time, only a few universities (such as Cologne, Muenster, Frankfurt and Mannheim) carried out empirical social research. By the late 1960s and early 1970s sociology became well-known throughout German society as a consequence of ardent debates between representatives of different theoretical strands (e.g., Frankfurt school, critical rationalism, system theory).

Research at the WZB is intended to contribute to theory development while also being oriented to address the problems modern societies are facing. The research is primarily empirical and comparative. The organization offers many opportunities for interdisciplinary exchange. Today, the WZB is funded by the federal government (75%) and the local government of Berlin (25%). In addition, project-based funding is obtained from foundations, the European Union and, in some cases, from federal or state governments.

The WZB is one of the largest social scientific research institutes in Germany (and probably in Europe), structured into four large research areas (Education, Work and Life Chances; Markets and Politics; Society and Economic Dynamics; Civil Society, Conflicts and Democracy). These areas are further sub-divided into research units and groups, working on various topics, such as skill formation and the labor market; public health; demographic change and the welfare state; innovation; migration and integration; international institutions; democracy and civil society; governance; and behavior of markets.

About 150 social scientists (mainly sociologists, political scientists, economists, historians, and legal scholars) including research professors from around the world and outstanding international social scientists who work for a number of years at the WZB, conduct their research here. The president of the WZB is Jutta Allmendinger, a German sociology professor at the Humboldt-University Berlin, formerly president of the German Sociological Association and director of the Institute for Labour Market Research in Nuremberg.

The WZB is located on one of Berlin’s many canals and accommodates offices for individual scientists, an excellent library, highly efficient administrative and technical offices, a lecture hall, and seminar rooms. The results of its work are published in scientific publications and discussion papers. The public beyond the scientific community is actively informed by a monthly newsletter, a quarterly journal (WZB Mitteilungen), about new research findings, a thematic electronic information service ("WZBrief Bildung"), on education and training, and "WZBrief Arbeit," on labor market issues. All are available electronically. The WZB cultivates close links with the universities in Berlin and cooperates with research institutions throughout Germany, the European Union, and beyond.

Sociology’s Image

Importantly, WZB has contributed significantly to the establishment of high-quality, policy-relevant social research in Germany. Thus, it has also helped to promote a positive image of sociology, which—especially after its role as a "fashion" science in the times of the student movement—had the image among many of a somewhat problematic leftist science. Today, sociology is well accepted among political decision makers who regularly use sociological research as well as among the general public.Some sociologists — such as Ulrich Beck, Juergen Habermas, Niklas Luhmann or the now-deceased Ralf Dahrendorf, who recently held a research position at WZB—are among the most prominent, widely cited "public intellectuals." The strength of the academic discipline of sociology is documented at the biannual conferences of the German Sociological Association (Deutsche Gesellschaft fuer Soziologie), and is sometimes organized in collaboration with the Austrian and Swiss sociological associations, gathering together several thousand German-speaking sociologists. These are probably the second largest meetings of national sociological associations after the ASA.

A stay at the WZB is also rewarding because Berlin has become a vibrant city since 1989, when the Berlin Wall came down and Germany was unified. During the first phase after unification, issues of economic, political, and social transition were analyzed, often in cooperation with researchers in Central and Eastern Europe. Over the past decade, the perspective has evolved further: Problems of trans-nationalization, and global governance have become an important focus, while aspects of social inequality and societal coherence remain to be studied. These themes are reflected in the programs of two new graduate schools in Berlin in which the WZB is a cooperation partner—the Berlin Graduate School of Social Sciences (BGSS) and the Berlin Graduate School for Transnational Studies (BTS). Providing excellent support for young talent is a top priority for WZB. Many of its former junior researchers now hold chairs at German or international universities or senior positions at other research institutes.

Back to Top of Page

Print this article share this article discuss this article

Featured Advertiser:


Back to Front Page of Footnotes