— Cultural Sources of Newness

Crossfertilization, transcendence, and newness

Crossfertilization is a recognized source of new ideas and products. Companies create multifunctional teams and move employees around the organization and the world so that their knowledge and competences can mingle with those of others and, hopefully, spark off new ideas to explore together. Crossfertilization is also used in laboratories in experiments to create products, for example in the agricultural and health sectors. Academia is replete with publications about the benefits of crossfertilization, but is not very good at putting it into practice. Instead, this world has increasingly tended towards structuring itself in disciplinary and sub-disciplinary silos with their own norms, languages, and reward systems.

Last year two colleagues at the WZB launched an unusual initiative for crossfertilization at the WZB when they invited people throughout the institution to share their thoughts and findings on the theme of Religion and Society. It was fascinating to see how a topic that has no official home in the institution attracted people from many different units and diverse disciplines. When asked why they came to the meeting on this topic, many said this was a personal intellectual interest for which they had not yet found an outlet or platform in their academic setting. The organizers invited people to use the new platform to present research ideas, whether in the earliest stage of development or in advanced paper form.


Silke Gülker presenting at WZB April 2016

Silke Gülker presenting at WZB April 2016

This week Silke Gülker  (WZB research group Science Policy Studies) presented findings from her current project, conducted with support from the prestigious Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, on “Science and (Religious) Culture: Identity Constructions in Stem Cell Research in Germany and the USA”.  She wanted to try out her ideas on us before presenting them at the upcoming conference of the German Sociological Association (Division for the Sociology of Religion).

Silke quoted two very different positions expressed by respondents explaining how they see their role as researchers: One said: “I am here on this earth to fulfill some sort of duty and just saying God, please, put me on the right path… I really feel that my role in this life is to be a healer…” whereas another said: “I think the best satisfying thing is to try to be the God himself. You are not, you are a mortal person, but still you can, in a way of doing things that so many presumed only God can do and that’s very satisfying.” The analysis she offered us, mapping different responses, overcame the usual dichotomies of “religious/not-religious”, showing us a much more intriguing picture.

Silke’s material is very rich, and her objective is very high, namely to stimulate a shift in the field from asking “what is the significance of religion in modern societies” towards asking “how are uncertainties handled in modern societies”? She is working with the concept of transcendence constructions as a generative way forward by building on the work of sociologists of knowledge Schütz & Luckmann, and on an 18th century German philosopher, Friedrich Schleiermacher.

The value of the academic crossfertilization at this session was evident: the participants in this discussion came from 7 different units at the WZB and two people from other universities. They all expressed intense interest in the project, raised conceptual questions, made suggestions for additional theoretical frameworks, and brought in their experience from other relevant settings.

Nevertheless, as one of the participants from Italy pointed out, a hurdle Silke faces in achieving her objective of generating new understanding of these modern phenomena is that she is drawing on literature and terminology that have not yet traveled into the Anglo-Saxon discourse. Schleiermacher may be in the German Who’s Who because he played an important role in the Englightenment, but he has not yet arrived here today. So she has yet more crossfertilization to achieve: bringing ideas conceived in 18th century Germany into international modernity.