— Cultural Sources of Newness

Repeating the new

There were two good reasons to go to the WZB last Wednesday: to walk under the blossoming cherry trees and to attend the science slam. Although the trees bloom every year, each time their appearance transforms the garden, and indeed the blossoms change from day to day. The phenomenon repeats itself and yet is new each time I see it. The science slam idea was first launched at the WZB on January 23 2013  and this week we had the second event with a different set of participants and a few changes in the process. So it, too, was a repetition and a new experience.

Cherry blossoms at WZB, May 8 2013 (Photo ABA)

Cherry blossoms at WZB, May 8 2013 (Photo ABA)

Repetition can in and of itself consist of newness and it can be part of a process of valorizing a new practice as an innovation worth pursuing. The cherry blossoms speak for themselves, but what can be said of the value that the second science slam at the WZB added?


Participants at WZB Science Slam May 8 2013 (photo ABA)

Participants at WZB Science Slam May 8 2013 (photo ABA)

One new feature was that the master of ceremonies was no longer an external expert but rather a colleague: Christian Rauh, the researcher with experience as a poetry slammer who performed at the first WZB science slam. We have learned we can handle the process ourselves.

What we academics apparently have not yet learned, however, is how to write clearly. Paul Stoop, director of information and communication at the WZB, made the point very effectively and humorously in his slam about critical junctures in the writing process. He diagrammed a sample complex German sentence that required significant paring down for the message to become clear to the reader. Paul explained the “omelette problem” that he often finds when editing texts: many ingredients go into it, but they cannot be seen in the final product. We have probably never enjoyed being corrected and told how to improve our writing as much as in this 10-minute slam!

Paul Stoop  (photo ABA)

Paul Stoop
(photo ABA)

The next speaker, Christian Brzinsky-Fay, was introduced as having earned “a black belt in sequence analysis.” (I later found a blog post that Christian wrote with Ulrich Köhler about the method, in case you want to learn more.) Christian first captured our attention by offering to draw connections between Max Weber, Piet Mondrian and Persian carpets. He showed his mass of data on 100 school leavers and their transition into the labor market, then walked us through how sequence analysis techniques had helped him identify “ideal types” and country clusters.

Christian Brzinsky-Fey (photo ABA)

Christian Brzinsky-Fay
(photo ABA)

Ryan Finnigan shared some of the findings from his recently completed PhD thesis on the problem of income inequality in the United States. “It’s a real thing, it totally happened, and it is a big deal!” He found that some cities have greater disparities between incomes of whites and blacks, other cities between those of whites and Latinos, and he wondered why anyone would want to live in places with such disparities. He found some small cities with low opportunities for change, some larger cities with lots of amenities to make life attractive despite the income gaps. One city, Stamford, CT, had the highest gaps both between whites and blacks, and whites and Latinos, and Ryan could not find any reason people were staying there, so he has 2 patterns and Stamford CT. Christian Rauh honored Ryan’s admission that “there is no answer for Stamford, CT” with the comment “wow! That shows real scientific courage!”

Ryan Finnigan  (photo ABA)

Ryan Finnigan
(photo ABA)


The fourth slammer was Sascha Kneip, who had created a funny slide show with faces of well known political figures in Germany in order to address the role of the German Supreme Court and its relative power and standing vis à vis other organs in the democratic system. I have to admit being so amused by the pictures that I did not note down enough of the results to report here.

Sascha Kneipp (and members of the German Supreme Court) (photo ABA)

Sascha Kneip (and members of the German Supreme Court)
(photo ABA)

Similar to the first science slam, there was just one woman performer this time, Nona Schulte-Römer. She drew on her current doctoral research on LED-lighting in urban contexts to talk about the tug of war for and against the new that is being waged by different stakeholders in Berlin. Her performance included an LED-active T-shirt that responded to ambient noise levels. Nona’s case illustrates how we social scientists need to develop a very solid understanding of the context we are studying: she has evidently grasped the highly technical aspects of LED and other modes of lighting, as well as the interest positions that characterize the diverse stakeholders in the field. What we learned from Nona in these 10 minutes: a socio-technical compromise has been reached in Berlin with the invention of LED lights that look almost exactly like the old gas lanterns that Berliners did not want to give up. In other words, “the LED revolution makes it possible for things to stay the same.” (Mit der LED-Revolution bleibt endlich in Berlin alles beim Alten.)

Nona Schulte-Roemer (photo ABA)

Nona Schulte-Roemer
(photo ABA)

But at the WZB things are not likely to stay the same. When management launched the first science slam in January, it planned a series of 3 events. Judging from the enthusiasm with which the first two were greeted by colleagues from all generations and groups as well as top management, the method has been successfully valorized.

Enthusiastic audience at WZB Science Slam May 8 2013  (photo ABA)

Enthusiastic audience at WZB Science Slam May 8 2013
(photo ABA)

Next steps may include extending the series and/or bringing the method into other contexts (doctoral summer schools, conferences, research planning or evaluation procedures…).

At the end of the session Christian Rauh commented that he had learned from Paul Stoop’s input that actually a good article is like a good science slam. Indeed, our readers would probably greatly appreciate seeing us transfer into our written publications the ability to express our research questions, methods, and findings clearly and enthusiastically! (Although a key success factor in the science slam is the use of humor, the transfer of such an ingredient is probably too much to ask of the world of academic publishing.)

Another new feature of this second science slam is that it was filmed. However, it is only available on the intranet. People who do not have access to the intranet will just have to come to the next session: Monday, June 17 from 13:30-14:30.