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Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin - Berlin Graduate School of Social Sciences (BGSS)

Einstein Research Group at the BGSS



Einstein Research Group

Supported by Craig Calhoun’s Einstein Fellowship, the Berlin Einstein Group is a network of young scholars from Humboldt, Freie, and Technical Universities as well as the Max Planck Institute for Human Development. Our researchers, who have disciplinary backgrounds in the social sciences and the humanities, share a common interest in qualitative research methods, social theory, and cities. The Berlin Einstein Group meets every other week to discuss readings in contemporary theory, and often invites leading scholars to take part in our discussions. After focusing on the “good stranger” in 2011/2012, our theoretical interests have moved towards grasping the material, social, political, and economic “infrastructures” that organize urban life. As part of the NYLON network, the Einstein Group participates in an annual conference with colleagues from New York and London and contributes to its working papers series. Group members share ideas developed in the group through external conferences and publications, such as at the RC21 conference on “resourceful cities” to be held in Berlin in August 2013. The Einstein Group is based at the Berlin Graduate School of Social Sciences and strongly linked to the Department of Urban Sociology at Humboldt University (chair Prof. Talja Blokland)  and its weekly Think and Drink Colloquium.



Themes: "Good Strangers" and "The Infrastructures of Social Organization"

Good Strangers
Relations among strangers are crucial to many dimensions of contemporary life. They shape the ways ethnic differences are (or aren’t) bridged in multicultural cities, the social nature of international humanitarian interventions or business collaborations, and the interaction of face-to-face and mediated sociability in the public sphere. They are fundamental to all successful social organization on scales larger than local communities and personal networks. Yet to a large extent, sociology has based thinking about social relationships overwhelmingly on close personal relationships: friendship, family, community. Relationships with strangers are approached as attenuated versions of personal relations. This project attempts to rethink relational sociology with more attention to the implications of relations among strangers. This links questions about the dynamics of interaction to larger scale questions about structural relations, reliance on cultural categories, and demands for different sorts of information, whether in markets, or politics, or even religion. The project thus seeks to integrate a more or less “micro” understanding of the practical accomplishment of such relations with a more “macro” understanding of the contexts larger structures involved. This means asking empirical questions about how relations among strangers are accomplished and organized. The project starts by examining practical norms for “good” stranger interactions – in action, not in abstract deliberations - from what is appropriate to do in a park or discuss in a coffee shop to whether it is legitimate to shoot those stopped at a roadblock in Israel’s occupied territories or Afghanistan. Second, it addresses the work of formal organizations in mediating between groups (e.g., organizations advocating for Turks in Berlin or Catholic churches providing services to Latin American immigrants). Third, it seeks to understand and evaluate efforts to change the deep-rooted production of normative understandings and embodied practices (their habituses) whether in the context of migration, or education, or the training of soldiers or humanitarian workers for international deployment. And finally it asks how people interrelate their use of various media with their face-to-face interpersonal relationships, and how this relates to developing or changing ideas of one’s own group or others.

The Infrastructures of Social Organization

All social life depends on infrastructures – starting with language. “Infrastructures” here means simply the “structures” on which other dimensions of social organization and interaction rest. Once created, infrastructures are one source of the relative stability and autonomy of the social, constraining individual action at the same time that they enable it. But of course infrastructures deteriorate, change, and are sometimes rendered obsolete by innovations. Many of the most basic infrastructures are systems based on material technologies. Familiar examples include transportation, communications, power and energy, and waste. Modern cities, states and “globalization” are inconceivable without such infrastructures. They are basic to material production and circulation of goods, to managing relations with “nature”, and to the interaction of different geographical settings. None of these infrastructures is simply and entirely material, however; all involve socio-technical systems. They depend in varying degrees on culturally mediated human understanding and on socially organized human effort to create and maintain them. In addition, there are a variety of less material or technological infrastructures. We have already mentioned language, and indeed the infrastructure here goes beyond grammar, syntax, and semantics to dictionaries, spell-checkers, and authoritative institutions for determining when a word is “French enough” to be legitimate. We might also think of the monetary and financial systems. These depend to some degree on technology, but also on elaborate cultural understandings, legal conventions, and algorithms enabling semi-automated trading. Infrastructures of knowledge span books to libraries to Wikipedia; scientific laboratories to professional associations to universities. This project seeks first to trace the role of infrastructures in the social organization of the modern era and in contemporary social change. One aim is simply to put the idea and material influence of infrastructures more clearly at the center of social science attention. Clearly, many infrastructures are noticed by social scientists, though not always conceptualized as such. Indeed, infrastructures are relatively easy to ignore when they are stable – and their importance is obscured when technologies are made glamorous by studying them only as technological innovation and not as infrastructures-in-the-making. Complementing the overall account of infrastructures, the empirical focus of this project is on the infrastructures that sustain and help constitute urban life. This means not just cities as distinct formal units, but the relationship among population centers and countryside, and both spatially compact and long-distance connections. Urban infrastructures include the “built environment” but also transformed “nature”. From streets to parks to grand plazas and buildings they offer spaces that enable or constrain social interaction.



Craig Calhoun
London School of Economics (LSE)

Professor Calhoun is a world-renowned social scientist whose work connects sociology to culture, communication, politics, philosophy and economics. He took up his post as LSE Director on 1 September 2012, having left the United States where he was University Professor at New York University and director of the Institute for Public Knowledge and President of the Social Science Research Council. Since October 2010, Craig Calhoun is Einstein Visiting Fellow at Humboldt Universität zu Berlin.

After receiving his doctorate from Oxford University, Calhoun taught at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill from 1977 to 1996. He was Dean of the Graduate School and the founding Director of the University Center for International Studies. He has also taught at the Beijing Foreign Studies University, the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, and the Universities of Asmara, Khartoum, Oslo, and Oxford. Calhoun's own empirical research has ranged from Britain and France to China and three different African countries. His study of the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 resulted in the prize-winning book, Neither Gods Nor Emperors: Students and the Struggle for Democracy in China (California, 1994). Among his other works are Nationalism (Minnesota, 1997), Critical Social Theory: Culture, History, and the Challenge of Difference (Blackwell, 1995), and several edited collections including Habermas and the Public Sphere (MIT, 1992), Hannah Arendt and the Meaning of Politics (Minnesota, 1997), Understanding September 11 (New Press, 2002), and Lessons of Empire (New Press, 2005). He was also editor in chief of the Oxford Dictionary of the Social Sciences. In more than ninety articles, he has also addressed the impact of technological change; the organization of community life; the relationship among tort law, risk, and business organizations; the anthropological study of education, kinship, and religion; and problems in contemporary globalization. Calhoun's work has been translated into more than a dozen languages.



Organizing Team

Hillary Angelo | hillary.angelo (at) nyu.edu

Hillary Angelo is a PhD candidate in New York University's Department of Sociology. She is currently a visiting scholar at the Technical University in Dortmund, where she is completing a dissertation on the role of nature in urbanization in the Ruhrgebiet. In addition, she is a researcher and co-coordinator for the NYLON/Einstein group and project editor at the journal City. Her research interests include concepts of nature, urbanization, and infrastructure, and her recent articles include "Bird in Hand: How Experience Makes Nature" (Theory and Society, forthcoming), and "Urbanizing Urban Political Ecology: A Critique of Methdological Cityism" (with David Wachsmuth, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, forthcoming).


Natalia Besedovsky | nbesedovsky (at) hu-berlin.de

Natalia Besedovsky is a PhD candidate at Graduate School of Social Sciences (BGSS), Humboldt University in Berlin, Germany, currently funded by the Einstein Foundation. Her research interests include financial markets, knowledge and knowledge production in society, epistemology, and theories of empirical research. Her dissertation project focuses on the credit rating industry. More specifically, she studies how innovations in rating methodology and the incorporation of credit ratings into the financial infrastructure transformed the role of credit rating agencies in financial markets and the meaning of credit ratings.
In 2011, Natalia was a visiting scholar at the Institute for Public Knowledge, participating in the Cultures of Finance Working Group. She was on the editorial board of BGSS Online Publications and co-organized the first two Berlin Summer Schools in Social Sciences: “Linking Theory and Empirical Research”. Prior to joining Humboldt University, she was a Fulbright scholar at Princeton University and research assistant at the Max Planck Institute for the Studies of Societies in Cologne, Germany.


Christine Hentschel | christine.hentschel (at) hu-berlin.de

Christine Hentschel is a postdoctoral fellow at the Department of Urban Sociology at Humboldt University and currently coordinates the Berlin Einstein group. Her research interests are spatial theory, political and urban anthropology, as well as postcolonial theory and governmentality studies. Her work on cities revolves around urban change and the interplay between material, social and affective infrastructures. After completing her PhD thesis (The spatial life of security: Durban, South Africa – University of Leipzig, 2010), Christine has taken her interest in cities from downtown Durban to her own neighborhood of Berlin Neukölln with postdoctoral fellowships from the ICI Berlin and the Forum Transregional Studies of the Wissenschaftsskolleg zu Berlin. Her most recent articles are “City ghosts: The haunted struggles for downtown Durban and Berlin Neukölln” (Routledge Studies in Human Geography, 2012) and “Postcolonizing Berlin” (under review).



Einstein Research Project Members

Anna Aceska | aaceska (at) gmail.com

Ana Aceska is a PhD student in sociology at Humboldt University, Berlin. In 2005 she completed her Masters degree in sociology and social anthropology at the Central European University, Budapest and in the period 2007-2009 she was a researcher at the Karman Center for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Bern, Switzerland. Her PhD project examines the ways boundary-work is constituted, represented and reproduced in the urban context in divided cities. Her research interests include urban and regional development, urban planning and policy work in divided cities, ethnicity and nationalism. Ana’s particular geographical focuses are Bosnia-Herzegovina and Macedonia.


Jan Dohnke | jan.dohnke (at) fu-berlin.de


Nihad El-Kayed | nihad.el-kayed (at) student.hu-berlin.de

Nihad El-Kayed is a phd-candidate in sociology at Humboldt Universität zu Berlin and an associated member at the Berlin Graduate School of Social Sciences (BGSS). Her research interests include citizenship and migration, urban citizenship, social and political inequality and local context effects. In her phd research she uses a mixed methods design to examine neighborhood effects on political participation of immigrants in Berlin. She receives a scholarship from the Heinrich-Böll-Foundation.


Francesco Findeisen | findeisf (at) cms.hu-berlin.de

Francesco Findeisen is a scholar of Social Sciences at Humboldt University of Berlin. He studied Sociology, Political Science and Philosophy in Berlin and at New York University (NYU). His research interests include critical social theory, comparative historical sociology, materialities of modernity and social inequalities. His current research project reconstructs the roots of the 2008 financial crisis.


Fritz-Julius Grafe | fritz-julius.grafe (at) hu-berlin.de

Fritz-Julius Grafe is a human geographer at Humboldt University Berlin. The main theme of his research is how different theories on urban issues integrate into systems analysis frameworks in order to help facilitate sustainablity transitions. Here especially questions pertaining to systemic risk and the finance sector are of interest. He is currently involved in the publication process of a book on institutional and social innovations for sustainable urban development, which is based on a workshop that took place at the Institute of Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS) in Potsdam. Furthermore he participates in a research project for Malik Management Zentrum St. Gallen, which evaluates the benefits of the application of a cybernetic communication process to city systems.


Stefan Hoehne | hoehnestefan (at) yahoo.de

Stefan Höhne is a teaching and research fellow at the Institute for Cultural History and Theory at the Humboldt University Berlin. From 2008 to 2010 he was a fellow at the Transatlantic Graduate Research Program Berlin – New York at the Center for Metropolitan Studies, TU Berlin. His research interests include historical anthropology, urban studies, and cultural theory.
Recent publications include “Tokens, Suckers und der Great New York Token War,” in Zeitschrift für Medien- und Kulturforschung (1/2011) and “An Endless Flow of Machines to Serve the City – Infrastructural Assemblages and the Quest for the Machinic Metropolis” in Thick Space: Approaches to Metropolitanism (edited by: Dorothee Brantz, Sasha Disko, and Georg Wagner-Kyora, 2012).


Joanna Kusiak | jkkusiak (at) gmail.com | Web

Joanna Kusiak is a PhD candidate in sociology at University of Warsaw. In year 2012/2013 she was a Fulbright Advanced Visiting Researcher at The Graduate Center, City University of New York, with Neil Smith as her main supervisor. She studied sociology and philosophy at the University of Warsaw and the Humboldt University of Berlin. Her PhD project investigates the dialectics of chaos and order in post-socialist transformation of Warsaw as well as the use of the notion of "chaos" as an ideological keyword for the cities of Global South and Eastern Europe. Together with Monika Grubbauer she published a volume "Chasing Warsaw. Socio-Material Dynamics of Urban Change after 1990" that appeared in Campus in 2012. Beyond her academic work Joanna is also an urban activist in Right to the City movements in Poland as well as the Program Consultant for the emerging Museum of Warsaw.


Natalie Mevissen | natalie.mevissen (at) wzb.eu

Natalie Mevissen is a PhD candidate in Sociology at the Humboldt Universität zu Berlin, an associated member of the Berlin Graduate School of Social Sciences, and member of the Science Policy Studies research group at the WZB Berlin Social Science Center. Her research interests are science studies, innovation studies, sociology of knowledge, and organizational sociology. During the last years, she worked in different research projects on questions about the relationship of science and society. Together with Dagmar Simon she recently published the paper ‚Vielfältige’ Organisationen: Wissens- und Technologietransfer außeruniversitärer Forschungseinrichtungen im Spannungsfeld zu exzellenter Forschung (Multifaceted Organizations: Knowledge and Technology Transfer Challenging Non-university Research) in the Journal ‘Soziale Welt’.  In her PhD she addresses questions about objectivity and normativity in sociology. She examines how sociology deals with those issues and how this affects the relationship of sociology towards its own research topic, society.


Julia Nast | julia.nast (at) staff.hu-berlin.de

Julia Nast is a PhD candidate at the Berlin Graduate School of Social Sciences at the Humboldt University Berlin. She has studied sociology and political sciences at Humboldt University Berlin, Germany, Université Libre de Bruxelles, Belgium, and at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, U.S. Her research interests include relational sociology, network analysis, neighborhood change and urban inequalities. Her current research project examines institutional neighborhood inequalities by focusing on the interplay of network structures, symbolic meanings and boundary work in schools and youth clubs in middle-class and disadvantaged neighborhoods in Berlin and London.


Joseph Prestel | prestel (at) mpib-berlin.mpg.de

Joseph Ben Prestel is a PhD candidate at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, where he is part of the Research Center for the History of Emotions. He is currently working on a dissertation about emotions and urban transformation in Berlin and Cairo during the second half of the nineteenth century. His research interests include the history of emotions, urban studies, Egyptian and German history. Joseph’s article on notions of the body and the city within the Cairene middle class around 1900 is forthcoming in Body Politics. Zeitschrift für Körpergeschichte.  


Ismael Puga | ismael.puga (at) gmail.com

Ismael Puga is finishing his PhD in sociology at the Berlin Graduate School of Social Sciences in the Humboldt Universität zu Berlin. His research focus includes social inequalities and their legitimation, protest and social conflict, ideology theory, social class and stratification, and quantitative analysis of textual data. His current project deals with the legitimation of social inequalities in Chile and the distinction between different legitimating mechanisms.


Leslie Quitzow | quitzow (at) youngcities.org

Leslie Quitzow is an architect and urban planner (Berlin Technical University) with a postgraduate degree in international development cooperation (Humboldt University Berlin, SLE). She has worked for the postgraduate Master’s degree programs “International Cooperation and Urban Development” at Technical University Darmstadt and ”Urban Management” at TU Berlin. Currently she is a researcher with the BMBF funded German-Iranian research project “Young Cities – Creating Energy Efficient Urban Fabric in the Tehran-Karaj Region, Iran” at TU Berlin, which investigates sustainable urban development paths for emerging megacities under the pressures of climate change. Further research interests include urban poverty, urban housing policies and the dynamics of informal settlements.


Julie Ren | julie.ren (at) hu-berlin.de

Julie Ren is a doctoral candidate at the Department of Geography at the Humboldt University Berlin. She received her B.A. from the College of Social Studies at Wesleyan University and a Master of Public Policy from the Hertie School of Governance, where she wrote her thesis in partnership with the Berlin Senate for Urban Development. Her research interests include migration and mobility as well as comparative and qualitative methodologies. Her doctoral dissertation is a comparative study of art spaces in Berlin and Beijing, which is supported with a scholarship from the Institute for Urban and Regional Research.


Andreas Schäfer | andreas.schaefer.1 (at) sowi.hu-berlin.de

Andreas Schäfer is a PhD candidate in political science at Berlin Graduate School of Social Sciences (BGSS), Humboldt University, and was a visiting scholar at the Institute for Public Knowledge, New York University, where he became a member of the Nylon research network. His research interests include political communication, deliberation and decision making, and the linkage between democratic theory and empirical research, as well as the philosophy of the social sciences. His current research project focuses on the role and impact of deliberation in parliamentary decision making. Andreas has been the program coordinator of the Berlin Summer School in Social Sciences since 2011 and research assistant at the Social Science Research Center Berlin (WZB) since 2012.


Hannah Schilling | hannah_schilling (at) gmx.de

Hannah Schilling is a Master student in social science at the Humboldt University Berlin and affiliated with the Ecoles des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (EHESS), Centre Maurice Halbwachs, Paris. She is currently writing her master thesis on the (un)making of the stranger in the urban space, where she compares two west-African religious congregations in Berlin and Paris. Her research interests include immigration policies in Western Europe, citizenship and the power of lines of difference in class, gender, race and religion. She hereby looks at their discursive embeddings, their effectiveness in the production of inequalities and at counter-practices which emerge from them. Her work’s geographical focus lies on France, postcolonial spaces and the making of the “West”. Hannah Schilling is working in the project “Immigration Policies in Comparison” of the Emmy-Noether-Junior-Research Group at the Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin (WZB). Moreover, she is assisting Prof. Blokland in settling the research project “Resourceful Cities” at the Institute of Urban and Area Studies of the Humboldt University Berlin.


Patricia Schulz | pschulz (at) wzb.eu

Patricia Schulz is a science studies scholar at Bielefeld University and a member of the Research Group Science Policy Studies at the Social Science Research Center Berlin (WZB). Her current research project concerns the improvement of science communication and is conducted as part of the National Academy of Science. Her dissertation analyses the construction of science and scientific knowledge in scientists' public communication in the cases of anthropogenic climate change and the theory of evolution.


Lisa Vollmer | lisa.vollmer (at) metropolitanstudies.de

Lisa Vollmer is a DFG-fellow and phd-student at the Center for Metropolitan Studies at the Technical University Berlin and associate researcher at the Department of Urban and Regional Sociology of Humboldt Universität zu Berlin. Her research interests are urban history, urban activism and political theory. Her current research project examines the process of politicization in the current tenant protest groups in Berlin and New York.


Boris Vormann | boris.vormann (at) fu-berlin.de

Boris Vormann has completed his doctoral studies in political science at Freie Universität's Graduate School of North American Studies (publication pending). He is currently a lecturer at the John-F.-Kennedy Institute for North American Studies in Berlin and associated researcher at the Chaire de Recherche du Canada en Études Québécoises et Canadiennes (CRÉQC), Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM). His research interests include urban and regional development, nationalism, international security, and socio-economic inequalities. His work's focus lies on North America and transatlantic relations. Boris Vormann has recently published the book 'Zwischen Alter und Neuer Welt. Nationenbildung im transatlantischen Raum' (Synchron 2012) and has co-edited the volume 'Québec. Staat und Gesellschaft' (with Ingo Kolboom and Alain-G. Gagnon, Synchron 2011). His dissertation project examines the impacts of neoliberalization processes on global port cities in North America.


Stefan Wellgraf | wellgraf (at) europa-uni.de



Priska Daphi | p.daphi (at) hu-berlin.de

Priska Daphi is a PhD candidate at the Berlin Graduate School of Social Sciences (Humboldt University of Berlin, Germany) and holds a scholarship by the German National Academic Foundation. She has a MSc in political sociology from the London School of Economics and Political Science and a BA summa cum laude from the University College Maastricht in the Netherlands. Her research interests include conditions of cooperation across geographical distance and socio-cultural difference. Her current research examines processes of collective identity construction in the Global Justice Movements in Italy, Poland, and Germany. Her recent publications include: “Collective Identity Across Borders: Bridging Local and Transnational Memories in the Italian and German Global Justice Movement” (in: Laurence Cox & Cristina Flesher Fominaya (eds.). Understanding European movement; Routledge 2013) and “Images of Surveillance: The Contested and Embedded Visual Language of Anti-surveillance Protests” (with Anja Lê & Peter Ullrich in: Research in Social Movements, Conflicts and Change, volume 35; Emerald 2012). She is a founding member of the Institute for Protest and Social Movement Studies at the Social Science Research Center Berlin (WZB) and the Technical University Berlin.


Bettina Wagner | bettina.wagner (at) gmail.com

Bettina Wagner ist a PhD candidate at the Berlin Graduate School of Social Sciences in the associated European PhD Programme for Socio-Economic and Statistical Studies.  Her thesis focusses on the social dialogue from the firm level to the national level in the newest member states of the European Union. Due to her personal and academic background she is strongly interested in South-Eastern Europe and its poltical and economic inter-relations with the European Union. Her research interests include labour migration, industrial relations, undocumented and invisible work as well as formal and informal institutions. She is currently working as a research associate at the Hertie School of Governance and as a consultant at the Consultation Office for mobile workers in Berlin.