Birgit Meyer: „Social Sciences, Humanities and the World“

Birgit Meyers Keynote „Towards New Synergies: Social Sciences & Humanities and the World“ (Originaltitel des Vortrages), gehalten auf der Synergy Conference 2019 der Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) am 7. Februar in Bussum, Niederlande, wurde zuerst auf dem Blog „Religious Matters in an Entangled World“ veröffentlicht.

Birgit Meyer ist Professorin für Religionswissenschaft an der Universität Utrecht. Ihre Forschung beschäftigt sich unter anderem mit dem Verhältnis von Religion und Gesellschaft in der Gegenwart. Sie ist Vorsitzende des Wissenschaftlichen Beirats des Forum Transregionale Studien. Zuletzt erschienen sind von ihr Sense and Essence: Heritage and the Cultural Production of the Real (hrsg. von Birgit Meyer und Mattijs van de Port, Berghahn, 2018) und Taking Offense: Religion, Art, Visual Culture in Plural Configurations (hrsg. von Birgit Meyer, Christiane Kruse, Anne-Marie Korte, Wilhelm-Fink-Verlag, 2018).

Synergy means working together, in such a way that the effects are greater than the sum of all parts. The choice of synergy as title – or motto – for a set of conferences that are to enhance interaction between all the parts and actors in the vast field of social sciences and humanities – SSH – shows great ambition. The two domains were joined together by bureaucratic decision, and now the big question is how to respond to this structural transition intellectually and practically. In my view, this transition could amount to more than a mere low-profile cohabitation of different “scholarly species” within SSH aiming at a fair distribution of scarce funds, although this is also important. This transition could be taken as an occasion for debating and developing our vision what research in the social sciences and humanities is about in our time – against the horizon of the world. This is all the more pressing as we face major transitions on a global scale with strong repercussions for local and national arenas.

Society, just as synergy, is more than the sum of its parts, in that the biological and cognitive capacities of humans are deployed within particular historically situated social-material environments. Referring to the binding, constraining and enabling collective regulations through which people relate to each other and the material world in specific times and spaces, the social is subject to dynamics that can only be grasped through joint efforts from the disciplines in the SSH field. Catchwords as globalization, neo-liberalization and deregulation, mobility and plurality, postcolonialism, identity politics, racism and discrimination, climate change, and digitalization – the main theme of this conference – are prominent in our research agendas and spotlight their global scope.

How to position ourselves as scholars in this dynamic and transforming field? What are the dangers and pitfalls, and what are new possibilities arising? What are our visions for the future of our academic work? How can we contribute to understanding the complexities of our globalized and entangled world and possibly indicate scenarios for policy intervention?

This kind of big questions form the backdrop of this lecture, in which I want to present to you my vision of how to generate more synergy so as to advance new and relevant directions for research.

There are many possibilities to do so in the vast SSH fabric, and my vision is partial and personal. I think that the rise of new synergies across disciplines requires personal reflection, so as to notice what one lacks and thus needs from other scholars, and what one can offer them in return. This kind of exchange is my simple formula for stimulating, mutually exciting and critical interdisciplinary collaboration.

So, let me begin with some brief notes about my background. German by birth, I moved here in 1985 to study cultural anthropology because I was very much attracted by the progressive, cosmopolitan and informal climate of the Netherlands at the time, and found German academia all too narrow. I came to stay, and while I am now again in close contact with German colleagues in my field, I see my scholarship as largely shaped through the possibilities offered via Dutch academic institutions. I am thankful for the generous funding by NWO throughout the years, and have greatly benefited from taking part in such internationally well noted, intellectually exciting program initiatives as Globalization and the Construction of Communal Identities and Sanpad (spearheaded by WOTRO), The Future of the Religious Past and Cultural Dynamics (GW), as well as from the possibility to carry out various projects as PI. As an anthropologist working in religious studies, with a regional focus on Africa, my work was situated in the interface of MagW (Social and Behavioral Sciences), GW (Humanities) as well as WOTRO (initially: Research in Tropical countries; now Science for Global Development).

Over the past 25 years there were many transformations concerning the structure and infrastructure of funding in the scientific field. The most relevant for my own scholarship were the gradual withdrawal of WOTRO from larger issues with regard to research on society and culture in tropical countries – or as we say now: the Global South –, on the one hand, and the strong focus on the Netherlands and Europa, combined with ever more emphasis on the importance of societal impact, in SSH, on the other. These transformations made it increasingly difficult to land research projects with regard to the Global South outside of the realm of development issues. In my view this change is a symptom of a deeper problem, and that is: An increasing narrowing down to issues that matter in our own society, whilst knowledge production in the beginning of the 21st century de facto requires opening up towards dialogues among scholars across all disciplines here and elsewhere in the world.

On the level of research policy, internationalization is often taken to merely mean that Dutch research is ranked “top” in anglophone knowledge production and able to attract “top” scholars from abroad. This is flawed, and in need of being revised to live up to the kind of knowledge production needed for the 21st century.

My aim in this lecture is therefore to spotlight zones for synergy in SSH that seek to redress this problem. First, I will situate the field of SSH in the light of the idea of the so-called two – or three – scholarly cultures in the sense of Snow and Lepenies, and point out how and why the apprehension of the cultural dimension has facilitated new synergies across this field that can and should be further deployed. Second, I want to spotlight a salient shortcoming with regard to the horizon and scope of our research. My point will be that in order to fully grasp the social and cultural transformations in our highly globalized and digitized world, SSH scholars have to transcend a lingering epistemological Eurocentrism and methodological nationalism by bringing into conversation sound regionally-based research and general expertise.

SSH – the field

Already in secondary school, pupils in the Netherlands learn about differences between the alpha, beta and gamma sciences, concerning methods and theories, as well as their societal valuation and status, with the alpha sciences alas ranking quite low, and the beta ones on top.

How to situate a coming together of humanities and social sciences in NWO in such as a configuration? An instructive historical reference in this connection is the Rede lecture by British physicist Charles Percy Snow “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution”, delivered in 1959 and published as a book in 1963, in the midst of decolonization and the Cold War. Snow drew a sharp distinction between scholars in the natural sciences and technology, on the one hand, and scholars in literature, philology and related disciplines at the core of the humanities, on the other. Famously, and with a good sense of irony, he claimed that scholars from the two sides cannot talk with each other because they produce their knowledge in distinct “cultures”. His choice for the term “culture” to indicate that knowledge production is grounded in specific shared and binding ideas and regulations – or as I would say a regime – is well taken.[1] But his identification of only two opposed and mutually incomprehensive cultures is wrong.

For Snow, the culture of the natural and technical sciences was far superior to that of the “literary intellectuals”; progress and development in the world were to be expected via the scientific insights of the former. His essay has generated an ongoing debate up to our time and was included by The Times in 2008 in a list of the hundred most influential books since WWII.[2] Obviously, Snow’s take on the literary intellectuals is a caricature of the much broader field of the humanities, and his optimistic idea of natural science and technology as ensuring progress and security is dated, to say the least. He suggested in passing that sociology and social history might be taken as a third culture that is on speaking terms with that of the scientists.

The idea of the three cultures was deployed systematically by sociologist Wolf Lepenies in his sophisticated analysis of the relations between the natural sciences, humanities and sociology in France, UK and Germany. Published in 1985, his study Die Drei Kulturen focuses especially on the relation between sociology and the humanities, unpacking the competing aspirations of social scientists and literary scholars in explaining the modern condition and offering normative directions for life in highly technological and science-driven societies in the early 20th century.[3] This competition involved disputes over the role and value of rationality versus vitalism and the experience of life itself. It is clear that sociology adopted a view of modern society as being increasingly rationalized. However, this did not mean that it understood rationalization and modernization as a conduit to happiness. This is, for instance, emphatically shown in Weber’s gloomy image of the iron cage at the end of the Protestant Ethic, according to which modern humans carry the burden to struggle for meaning, and are enveloped in a destructive capitalist logic “until the last ton of fossilized coal is burnt”.[4] The focus on rationalization implied that mainstream sociology long had little analytical use for the domains of the senses, emotions and aesthetics – themes which had a longstanding prominence in the humanities. As a third culture, the social sciences oscillate and mediate between the natural sciences and the humanities.

In my everyday life as a scholar in the SSH field I can still note some repercussions of the tensions between social sciences and humanities spotlighted by Lepenies and others.

These repercussions come to the fore, for instance, in fights over the adequacy of quantitative versus qualitative methods (Methodenstreit, especially within sociology) or in occasional sighs about mutual incomprehensibility between “tellers” and “vertellers” (counters and narrators), and the lingering relatively low valuation of humanities research in certain strands of public opinion. However, in the meantime the spectrum of disciplines in the alpha, gamma and beta sciences has become more differentiated and complex, and the two or three cultures model is of limited use in mapping it.[5] Thanks to a healthy dose of pragmatism typical for the research climate in the Netherlands, we have opened doors within and between the social sciences and humanities, and have even ventured into new interdisciplinary conversations with scholars in the natural sciences – e.g. around climate change, the anthropocene, new materialism and digitalization.

One reason for the opening of doors and increasing transdisciplinary collaboration is a more and more widely embraced understanding of scholarly knowledge production as being dependent on and relative to human procedures and observations; the scholarly striving for “truth” grounded on “facts” is located therein. Far from implying idiosyncrasy and an “anything goes” attitude, the point is that knowledge production takes place in agreed-upon regimes that authorize choices for themes, appropriate methods, data analysis and management, ways of reporting, ethics, modes of use and so on. As scholars we are to be aware of differences between regimes for knowledge production in various disciplines, and debate the implementation of large transformations that concern us all, such as the turn to “big data” or possibilities for publishing “open access” that come with an increasing digitalization of our scholarly working conditions.

One important factor for the creation of synergy between scholars from many disciplines within the humanities, and to some extent the social sciences, is a broader appraisal of the cultural dimension in the anthropological sense of human practices of meaning-making in all spheres of life.[6] At stake here is a take on culture not in the sense of a separate domain – with a big C – that would exist next to societal domains as the economy, politics, law, religion, but rather as a crucial aspect relevant to the study of all these domains. This so-called “cultural turn” yielded a transformation of the various disciplines in the traditional Geisteswissenschaften towards a broader, interdisciplinary Kulturwissenschaft. This is not confined to Germany, I recognize the same trend in our humanities in the Netherlands, and I also see religious studies as part of this broadened field.

In the meantime, the apprehension of the cultural dimension in the sense of meaning-making was further expanded by a focus on the body and the senses, affects and emotions, images and objects as being key to living together in society and in dynamics of power. I notice that much research in the humanities gets closer to the themes addressed in the social sciences, while in turn many social scientists move beyond the initially strong focus on rationalization in their domain into the direction of the humanities. For me, the point in incorporating the corporeal, aesthetic and material dimensions into social-cultural analysis is not a vitalist or even romanticist striving to at long last capture life itself, but to contribute to a multi-faceted conceptual repertoire and methodological toolkit which is more adequate to explore and analyze dynamics of gathering, synchronizing and mobilizing humans with and against each other in their full complexity.[7] This is the background of my work on religion from a material and corporeal perspective,[8] which focuses on the enduring relevance of religion, albeit in new forms, for processes of binding and bonding, and hence its potential to trigger conflicts but also to allow for conviviality. Studying religious matters such as buildings, objects, images and food and the commotion around them in religiously plural societies in Europe and Africa leads me into fruitful interdisciplinary conversation with scholars across the humanities and social sciences, so far including art history, Islamic studies, cultural memory studies, gender studies, urban studies, cultural sociology, and of course anthropology.

So, in my view and experience, over the past years many possibilities opened up in the SSH spectrum for fruitful interaction across various disciplines and with regard to different themes. Against this background, digitalization is an excellent theme that calls for a crosscutting analysis by scholars from various angles. Digitalization is so interesting – and exciting and to some extent scary – because it involves a composite of technological devices and societal applications that facilitates and requires new social formations, forms of civic participation, labour relations and ways of working, consumer choices, political protest, religious encounters and spiritual experiences, and modes of being in the world, in which people are ever more singular and networked at the same time.[9]

Horizon world

While I appreciate and participate enthusiastically in new interactions emerging within the humanities and across SSH along these lines, with my research focus on religion in Ghana, I also at times feel peripheral in these interactions. This may be due to my own incapacity to make regionally grounded expertise relevant to ongoing debates. But I think that it also implies an underlying structural issue: the preponderance of epistemologies that situate certain regions at a temporal and spatial distance from the presumed center which is the West, as pointed out by Johannes Fabian in his book Time and the Other.[10] The problem is, in other words, a tenacious Eurocentrism enshrined in a great deal of mainstream SSH thinking in the Western world.

At the same time I collaborate with, for instance, historians, sociologists, political scientists, philosophers and religious studies scholars at various universities across Africa. In their work these colleagues pay much attention to colonial and postcolonial relations and, in order to grasp the predicament their societies are in, have to take Europe into account, albeit by calling for its “provincialization”. They know much more about us, than vice versa! The idea that Europe has become provincialized goes back to Hans-Georg Gadamer, who noted that while the “natural sciences can call forth a quick international echo”, the predominant role of Europe in world history has declined in favour of other regional configurations. This insight was further developed by Dipesh Chakrabarty in his book Provincializing Europe.[11] He argued that the phenomenon of political modernity that was distributed across the globe with European colonial expansion and came to stay in the aftermath of decolonization is inadequate and yet unavoidable and to some extent indispensable for scholars working in the Global South. This is so, Chakrabarty argues, because it is impossible to think of modern state institutions, bureaucracy and capitalism without referring to concepts as citizenship, state, civil society and so on that are rooted in the intellectual traditions of European Enlightenment. But at the same time, analyzing formerly colonized societies with these concepts marginalizes local, traditional vocabularies for organizing political rule and social life. Hence his plea to provincialize Western thought, by bringing it back to its historical roots and the conditions of its global spread. I found this very useful in my own attempt to decenter the study of religion, so as to move beyond the Western – and de facto Protestant – concepts that shaped our approaches to religion.[12]

But at our end, such reflection happens more or less in the margins of SSH, in certain postcolonial research initiatives.[13] By and large, scholars here – exceptions granted – tend to be much less interested to take into account a region and its academics beyond Europe in their conceptual reflexion, thereby perhaps unwittingly “provincializing” and isolating themselves. Less than a month ago, during my visit to the Institute for African Studies at the University of Ghana the director Prof Dzodzi Tsikata (PhD from Leiden University) sighed that Europe is more and more centered on and preoccupied with itself. To grasp the complex entanglements of our current world, however, we need another attitude. As my friend and colleague, the Ghanaian historian Samuel Ntewusu (PhD from Leiden University), put it: “we need new interpretations for old things” – a point he made in the context of our joint research project (involving scholars from the University of Ghana, Utrecht University and the African-Studies Centre Leiden), such as the modalities of the co-existence of Muslims and Christians in Madina, a suburb of Accra.[14] So far forms of knowledge production that criticize and seek to transcend a European bias tend to occur in the context of regional studies, that is, African studies, Asian Studies, Latin American Studies, and the like, but much less in the echelons of general SSH.

Often anthropologists feature as interlocutors who converse and collaborate with scholars from multiple disciplinary backgrounds in these fields. This is, of course, not surprising, given that anthropology initially was defined as the study of other cultures and societies, and assembled holistic knowledge about these cultures and societies that were classified as being located on presumed earlier stages of human development; this was a long prevailing way of ordering the diversity of societies, cultures and religions encountered with colonial outreach into a hierarchical evolutionary scheme, even though they were all co-present at the same time. But certainly since the 1960s, in the aftermath of decolonization, anthropology engaged in critical self-reflection about the epistemologies employed to “make its object” (Fabian 1983, see note 10) and broadened its scope towards an anthropology at home in Europe. A lot could be, and has been, said about the role of anthropology in the configuration of SSH disciplines and its relation to regional studies. But my point here will be a different one.

The social sciences and the humanities in Europe emerged as a set of disciplines that were oriented on nation-states in Europe. In disciplines as, for instance, history, art history, law, sociology, economics or political science, we still find remnants of what Ulrick Beck aptly described as “methodological nationalism”[15] – a scholarly attitude that takes the modern nation-state for granted as the natural social and political form, and fails to pay due attention to complex connections and movements across nations and regions. Though a flourishing critical literature emerged to redress this problematic orientation, especially in the field of migration studies and global history, the problem of a limited focus on the nation-state as central unit of analysis still lingers on. Concomitantly, there has been much critique of the Eurocentric bias that still informs concepts and methods of the social sciences and humanities, resulting in a view of European history as the universal model for development and progress. For some years now, this Eurocentrism has been criticized from the angle of postcolonial studies, and attempts to articulate a “theory from the South” and decolonize Western academia.

In our ever more connected, but also pluriform and multipolar world, it is necessary to critically rethink the divide between “West” and “Rest” and the ways in which it is mapped on the division between the universal and the regionally specific which still underpins our knowledge production. As an anthropologist and religious studies scholar working in Ghana for 30 years and deeply involved both in African Studies and thematic debates in SSH, I am convinced of the need to critically rethink the well-trodden trajectories in which current knowledge production occurs. In this context I find it quite puzzling that the Western model of the university has spread across the world, and yet most disciplines in SSH barely engage with scholarship in the Global South “on eye level”. This is not to say that each and every individual scholar should engage in regional studies outside of Europe, but the point is the need for another mindset.

But there is some light. And, alas, I have to say that especially in Germany, over the past 15 years there have been various initiatives that strive to create synergies between so-called systematic disciplines in SSH and area studies. The aim is to develop innovative, transregional or transcultural approaches that seek to reconfigure such generalizing disciplines as, for instance, law, art history, history, philology or urban sociology by making scholars aware of the specific, European and thus regional roots of these disciplines as a condition to embark on a truly universalizing production of knowledge.[16] I serve for instance on the advisory board of the Forum for Transregionale Studien, Berlin, which over the past decade has taken various initiatives in the interface of regional studies and systematic disciplines, including long term research projects, summer schools, workshops and public events.

As is stated on the website of the Forum: The “world” looks different, depending on where one views it from. Knowledge is tied to position, so transregional studies must take into consideration a wide variety of perspectives. The goal is not a German or European view of the world, but dialogue with differing interpretations and exchange with researchers from other parts of the world. Not only the objects of study are “transregional”, but also the process and personnel of its study.[17] I find this kind of initiative, in line with the recommendations of the German Wissenschaftsrat for internationalization of the universities,[18] refreshing and stimulating, and see it as a lab for developing scholarship in SSH for the 21st century.

For me it is intriguing to note that in Germany there now is quite much attention for scholarly exchange with and in various regions of the world. This is somewhat ironic, for at the time I left Germany I found it quite self-centered and closed, whereas the Netherlands were so open then for such exchanges and knew certain programs to sponsor them, next to the much wider scope of WOTRO across SSH and the natural sciences at the time. In a way I feel somewhat awkward in pointing to such initiatives launched in Germany right now, as I really do not want to come across as someone suggesting that things are better over there. Many things are not, of course. And it is for good reasons that German academic institutions like to collaborate with scholars in the Netherlands, and admire the Dutch successes in international arenas, including the capacity to achieve ERC grants.

But what strikes me in comparing the frameworks in which academic work unfolds in both countries is that here in the Netherlands there is a marked refocusing of scholarly research on the Netherlands and to some extent Europe; tellingly the Nationale Wetenschapsagenda privileges themes and questions defined as relevant for and by Dutch society.[19] This raises the question how we conceptualize “national” and “Dutch”. I would insist that even though in public debate often a distinction is affirmed between “native” and thus “really” Dutch people and all kinds of (relative) newcomers, as SSH scholars working on our highly diverse society we cannot afford to reiterate a Eurocentric or nationalistic perspective in our analysis of the current diversity or plurality. In the light of our well taken and necessary attempts to prove our importance and usefulness to politicians and policy makers, I see a risk of increasingly narrowing down the focus of SSH research and our mindset to the level of (a narrow understanding of) Dutch society and culture, whereas we should seriously think about how to broaden our horizon towards the world epistemologically and methodologically, as well as in our practical research collaborations and in our teaching.

The world, obviously, is not just elsewhere and far away, it is present here in our increasingly plural and diverse cities and entangled society.[20] Grasping the tensions and possibilities of these complex plural configurations requires concerted efforts of scholars knowing the languages, history and culture of people originating from Asia, Africa, the Caribbean, Latin America or the Middle East who are here, and scholars of other SSH disciplines who conventionally focus on the Netherlands. Practically, making new connections between these fields and striving for collaboration with scholarly colleagues in the Global South “on eye level” requires facilities, including possibilities for more PhD positions and fellowships for scholars from the Global South in our universities.

In sum, in my view the big challenge for us is no longer to get on speaking terms with each other across the old divide of the different scholarly “cultures” of the social sciences and humanities. We collaborate quite well already with regard to many themes and use crosscutting approaches. The big challenge we face as SSH scholars is to move beyond the divide between presumably universal knowledge and regional research located in certain areas in the world, and to develop forms of internationalization that bring Europe back to its right proportion.

[1]  See also Rudolf Stichweh, 2006, Die zwei Kulturen? Gegenwärtige Beziehungen von Natur- und Humanwissenschaften. Luzerner Universitätsreden Nr. 18, 7-22.


[3] Wolf Lepenies, 1985, Die drei Kulturen. Soziologie zwischen Literatur und Wissenschaft. München: Hanser.

[4] Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (orig 2005), Chapter 5.

[5] See Stichweh 2006: 13-17 (see note 1).

[6] Michael Lackner & Michael Werner, 1999, Der cultural turn in den Humanwissenschaften. Area Studies im Auf-oder Abwind es Kulturalismus? Herausgegeben vom Programmbeirat der Werner Reimers Konferenzen, Bad Homburg.

[7] E.g. Mattijs van de Port & Birgit Meyer, 2018, Heritage Dynamics: Politics of Authentication, Aesthetics of Persuasion and the Cultural Production of the Real (co-authored with Mattijs van de Port), in: Sense and Essence. Heritage and the Cultural Construction of the Real. Co-edited with Mattijs van de Port. Oxford/New York: Berghahn. 1-39


[9] See e.g. the recent works by Felix Stalder (2016, Kultur der Digitalität, Frankfurt: Suhrkamp; ) and Andreas Reckwitz (2017, Die Gesellschaft der Singularitäten, Berlin: Suhrkamp; ).

[10] Johannes Fabian, 1983, Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes its Object. New York: Columbia UP. For a summary see:

[11] Dipesh Chakrabarty, 2007 (orig 2001), Provincializing Europe. Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference. Princeton: Princeton UP;

[12] See Birgit Meyer, 2012, Mediation and the Genesis of Presence, Inaugural Lecture, Utrecht University;

[13] For instance, the Postcolonial Studies Initiative at Utrecht University:


[15] E.g. Ulrich Beck, 2007, The Cosmopolitan Condition Why Methodological Nationalism Fails, Theory, Culture & Society 24(7–8): 286-290.

[16] See e.g. the Forum for Transregionale Studien, and its vibrant blog, which brings together various initiatives for transregional and transcultural research: The Forum also organized a seminar reflection about „Der cultural turn in den Humanwissenschaften. Area Studies im Auf-oder Abwind des Kulturalismus?“ by Lackner and Weber (see above), 20 years after the initial publication:




[20] See e.g. my recent article on Europe as a new “frontier zone”: Birgit Meyer, 2018, Frontier Zones and the Study of Religion, Journal for the Study of Religion 31 (2): 57-78;

Citation: Birgit Meyer, Social Sciences, Humanities and the World , in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 25.03.2019,

Diesen Blogbeitrag zitieren
Forum Transregionale Studien (2019, 25. März). Birgit Meyer: „Social Sciences, Humanities and the World“. TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research. Abgerufen am 18. Mai 2024, von

Forum Transregionale Studien

The Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien promotes the internationalization of research in the humanities and social sciences. It provides scope for collaboration among researchers with different regional and disciplinary perspectives and appoints researchers from all over the world as Fellows. More...

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  1. 5. Juli 2022

    […] to represent the Other. But finding this alternative has been elusive. In a recent reflection, Birgit Meyer lamented the fact that the humanities remain Eurocentric. One of the challenges of decolonization is to […]

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