Towards a New Cultural History of Eastern and Central Europe. Critical Issues and Reappraisals


DisciplineHistory, Cultural Studies, Sociology, Cultural Anthropology
ProjectProject Period June 2011 - May 2013
Region/countriesBelarus, Moldova, Russia, Ukraine
Hosting institutions Institute for Historical Research, Ivan Franko National University of Lviv Research Center 'Borderland Society: Past and Present'.

1. Introduction

One may argue that after several conceptual "turns" a cultural history became one of the most innovative, interdisciplinary and, also, most attractive fields of historical studies. However, in the universities of post-Soviet countries, anthropological and poststructuralist approaches in historical studies are still rather broadly neglected in the university curricula. As a rule, courses on the "History of culture" (e.g., "History of Ukrainian and foreign culture") and "Cultural anthropology" are taught in the first year of the undergraduate studies. Yet, in many universities "history of culture" is usually conceived as history of artistic and intellectual activity that is reduced to a sphere of a high, elite culture, and in this way cut off from everything which does not belong to it (thus, narrowed to the history of arts or history of cultural institutions). Even though such courses sometimes imply a broader definition of culture seen in terms of value systems and cultural processes, still they are analyzed only as a subordinated addition to the political and social ones. Also the theme "Theory and history of culture" is often taught as a unit within a course "Culturology" and approached in terms of the out-dated morphological and evolutionary concepts of culture with a focus on its genesis, development and decay. In addition, culture is understood primarily in such courses as the sphere of artistic creativity and "spiritual life". There are also normative courses on the "Historical anthropology" that are taught at several leading universities in the region. They most closely correspond to the conceptual agenda of the current Project, yet they are mostly confined to the theoretical heritage of the Annales school and following trends in cultural anthropology and microhistory and do not take into account the innovative character of poststructuralist analysis. Courses on "Cultural anthropology", in their turn, are often taught merely as a theoretical addition to the courses on the Archeology or Pre-historic societies, while the application of anthropological concepts to the studies on early modern (15th-18th centuries) and modern (19th–20th centuries) European societies is normally not discussed. On the other hand, the new courses on the Cultural studies that began to develop in many universities in the region do not seriously engage with the analysis of historical materials, and thus do not provide adequate methodological approaches for the students of history. Therefore, our main aim is to introduce approaches that have been mostly developed within the field of the "new cultural history" into the existing general ("normative") courses on history. It will help to redesign existing "normative" courses on cultural/historical anthropology, history of culture, sociology of culture and cultural studies in the undergraduate curricula in the region. Taking into account that cultural history is rapidly developing and dynamic research field that integrates numerous theoretical approaches and deals with a wide variety of historical phenomena, it can also be effectively introduced into the university curricula in the form of "disciplines of the free choice of students" (speckursy) that are normally taught in the third and fourth years.

2. Intellectual Rationale, Grounding and Thematic Focus

The aim of the Project is to discuss new teaching and research agendas in humanities that have been opened due to the progress of a cultural history in recent decades and their application to the historical studies on the region of Eastern and Central Europe. During the period of 1980s and 1990s a new cultural history has developed as one of the most dynamic fields of historical studies. A rise of the cultural history is usually considered as a sort of epistemological response to the dominance of the social history in the 1960s and 1970s. It is argued that a new cultural history has challenged a dominant social history paradigm with its strong emphasis on the investigation of big social structures and long-time processes, the application of social scientist and especially quantitative techniques and the search for the general causes, laws and trends in historical development. By concentrating on the macro-social processes and by seeking for the nomological explanatory models a traditional social history mostly failed to account for the contingency, raptures, fragmentations and contradictions, which are so central to the human experience. This is exactly all what the proponents of a new cultural history have sought to bring back by emphasizing the crucial role of discursive and symbolic elements in the constitution of the culture and society. One of the main tasks of a new cultural history is thus to explain how cultural symbols and discursive formations framed and mediated human behavior and social process. It would be a mistake however to present the expansion of a cultural history in terms of the new dominant paradigm in historical studies. From the very beginning, a new cultural history has grown into a highly de-centered academic field which has encompassed a wide range of different and often incompatible epistemologies, research practices and experiences. The methodological equipment of the new cultural history has been built on such diverse theoretical and intellectual backgrounds as a semiotic conception of culture as formulated in the interpretative anthropology of Clifford Geertz; Michel Foucaut's ideas about the interrelation of knowledge, discourse and power, Pierre Bourdieu's concepts of practice and habitus; Norbert Elias' theory of civilizing process; a feminist and post-colonial theory, etc. The resulting effect of the application of those various currents of social and cultural thought was a widening methodological pluralism and growing interdisciplinary 'hybridity' of the historical cultural analysis. What can be seen as a common ground for the new agenda of a cultural history is the fundamental reconsideration of the notion of the 'social' in history. The main goal of the new cultural history is to investigate how social hierarchies and systems of social classifications are constructed, objectified, reproduced and changed through the incessant process of the acquisition and transformation of cultural meanings, representations and practices. This attempt at reconfiguring the social has been obtained on the road of discovering 'new territories' of research and by introducing new analytical concepts such as body, gender, human emotions, identity. It is also important to add that the epistemological challenge of a cultural history has been accompanied with the radical shifts in methods: the preference has been given to blurring casual explanation, interpretation and story-telling; the focus of research has shifted to the local and individual experiences instead of the analysis of large-scale social phenomena. We realize that it would be impossible to discuss within the Project the development of the present-day cultural history in its numerous versions. Thus, the Project is rather designed to focus on a selected set of analytical concepts and areas of research, which, in our opinion, render the best the idea of what the practice of a cultural history is today. Another major task of the Project is to consider how a conceptual equipment and new modes of interpretations offered by the new cultural history can help to reassess traditional historical narratives of Eastern and Central Europe. First, the Project participants will try to delineate general contours of the field of the cultural history by discussing its guiding ideas, conceptual premises, major achievements, theoretical dilemmas and debates. Those theoretical and methodological issues have already been briefly described above. In a series of round tables the Project will discuss the place and meaning of cultural history/history of culture in the current university curricula and strategies of their reform. Following this general outline of major trends in the cultural history, the Project sessions will then deal with some distinct problems. The opening session will concentrate on the problem of cultural symbols and representations in historical analysis. The Project participants will discuss how realms of cultural symbols are interwoven with the social practice by means of collective performances and ritual actions, and how ritual and its enactment offer a basic channel through which various cultural metaphors and meanings were articulated and actualized in the social life. The participants will be welcomed to ponder upon the wide spread popularity of research on ritual in recent historiography. The Project will tend to sharpen participants' awareness of contextual and fluid meanings of cultural symbols which can be comprehended only in relation to particular and changing contexts in which they operates. This observation will lead us to the topic of the next session, on which participants will be proposed to reflect upon the problem of reception and invention in the cultural history, especially as it is seen through the prism of cultural encounter and transfer. The Project is also going to raise another fundamental issue of how the practice of a new cultural history reshaped historians' visions of and approaches to the individual in history in comparison to the paradigms of social structures and grand political narratives that dominate today's university curricula. The Project also intends to call attention to the uses and misuses of concepts and categories such as symbolic violence, cultural hegemony and resistance which point to the interrelation of culture and power in history. By utilizing all these categories historians has attempted to locate culture, its resources, institutions and actors at the center of power relations, to show how a culture operates to produce and maintain various sorts of hegemonic social formations and disciplinary regimes such as early modern confessions, absolutist states and bureaucracy, modern social classes and nations, etc. Here, the power is understood primarily in its Foucaudian version as a micro-physics of power, that is as the exercise of control and discipline that penetrate in and therefore is detectable at all levels of human communication. On the other hand, it seems important to stress that the culture cannot be reduced to the forms and mechanisms of cultural hegemony only. Instead, a culture can be approached as a symbolic space which is open for the contest and struggle between various historical actors, and which provides possibilities for the empowerment of the oppressed and weak. The discussion of the interrelation of power and culture in history will be pursued further by focusing on the problem of confessionalization and the formation of confessional identities in East-Central Europe during early modern and modern times. The session will discuss mainly how changing political regimes tried to handle with the religious and confessional diversity of the region, and how resources of the state including various types of cultural institutions were used to forge confessional identities and maintain regimes of religious discipline. Finally, the Project is going to highlight the role of culture as a powerful gear of change in history. This question will be approached from the institutional perspective by discussing the role of cultural institutions as agents of change in urban context. It aims at showing how new cultural institutions such as operas, café, etc. transformed a public urban space and worked to facilitate the emergence of new sensibilities and new styles of urban life during the period of the transition to the modernity in the region.

3. Main Project Activities

The project will mostly consist of four sessions that would cover seven thematical units; and of inter-session collaboration of project participants and faculty via the Project's web-page.

Preliminary Schedule of Sessions:

1)Summer session. July 2011 Theme 1. Beyond all possible "turns," or What is a cultural history today? Theme 2. "The Forest of Symbols:" rituals, symbolic actions and representations

2)Winter session. January 2012 Theme 3. "Liquid cultures:" cultural transfers, invention, and reception Theme 4. Individual as a problem of cultural history: ego-documents, biography and individual

3)Summer session. July 2012 Theme 5. Reassessing Power, Resistance and Negotiation: Cultural Hegemony, Social Discipline, and Technologies of Power Theme 6. Religious Identities and Confessionalization in Early Modern and Modern East-Central Europe

4)Winter session. January 2013 Theme 7. City and Cultural Change

4. Expected outcomes:

The planned Project shall produce the following results: 1. Further development of a sustainable network of advanced university lecturers working in the field of cultural history of the region. 2. A number of departmental curricula currently used in participant's home institutions will be revised and improved throughout the Project duration. 3. New optional or mandatory courses will be designed and taught by the participants of the Project. In some institutions, where strictly defined curricula does not allow to introduce new courses or possibilities for this is strictly limited, we would propose our participants to design some modules within defined courses, specializations or disciplines that would introduce students to the concepts of cultural history. 4. The existing web-site of the 2006-2009 ReSET project ( will become on-line resource center in the field of the cultural history of the region that will serve needs not only of participants, but also of much wider circle of interested in a topic faculty; 5. Participants will acquire crucial resources (including syllabi, reading packets, books, digital materials, CDs, etc) to cover existing resource gaps at their institutions, which will enable them to establish mini-resource centers in their home institutions and continue development of the field and curricula revision process in a future. 6. In addition to above-listed resources a CD will be produced by the end of the Project. This CD is envisaged as a result of collaborative effort of resource faculty and Project participants to produce a teaching device that would include research-based articles of the participants, selected readings on the subject (to be used as student reading materials), collection of revised or newly designed courses/modules, handouts, electronic documents, data bases, and other materials.