An Interview with Boris Vormann (part 1)

In the final week of the Spring semester, Boris Vormann, Professor of Politics at BCB, agreed to a student interview without being given much warning of the types of questions to be asked. His balanced and insightful answers to questions like ‘what is political science’, ‘is there truth in this inquiry’, ‘is inequality bad’, and others, shed light on these most basic but essential issues while also clarifying why they are important — why he cares for this subject matter and why we should, too. 

M: I think a good place to begin would be at the beginning. So, do you mind telling me about where you were raised, and if you think this had an impact on your choice of study?

B: I grew up in a very small town, which is Bamberg. It’s a very picturesque place which wasn’t destroyed during the war and has about 80,000 inhabitants. There’s always been a strong presence of the US because of the barracks, which is almost a town in a town. It has a grid pattern and, at the time, was like an American city with American fast food chains and shops situated within a German medieval town–an interesting mix. That’s why many Americans actually know Bamberg, even though it’s so small, and many tourists come in. It’s a quaint little town, which provided the backdrop for a very protected childhood, I’d say. My mother is French and my father is from Münster, so I’ve never quite acquired the Franconian accent. Nonetheless it’s a place that’s very important to me. I don’t want to over-emphasize biographical details in my choice of study, but the US presence in Bamberg certainly had an influence. Particularly because the 1990s—the time when I went to high school and became interested in politics—were a moment when the United States exerted a powerful appeal on young people like myself, mostly through popular culture.

M: Funny thing — yesterday I was talking to a friend and she told me you actually studied linguistics at first. Do you mind speaking about why you studied linguistics?

B: I tried to follow what interested me in my studies. I completed an M.A. in American, French and Romance Studies. French Studies because I was brought up half French, so I was interested in the literature and the culture of it, and linguistics was part of that study; the interest in American Studies I think was more related to my interest in the United States, and more particularly in basketball. 

M: You played basketball?

B: Part of the US influence—Bamberg has one of the best basketball teams in Germany. Much of it is due to the impact of US basketball in the barracks, inspiring students and school teachers in the region. I played with those who moved on to actually become successful afterwards…

M: Why did you quit basketball?

B: I was injured too often, and had other plans … but I played for quite a long time, until I was 26 or 27 I played almost every day. 

M: As some background research for this interview I turned to the web. Online it says you are a ‘political scientist.’

B: I like the quotations there. [Laughs]

M: It’s so I can ask the following question —

B: What does that mean?

M: Exactly.

B: I think it’s a very good question. I don’t see myself as only a political scientist. There are some occasions when I put on the hat of ‘political scientist’, but I see myself as more of a social scientist who is trying to tap into different disciplines and methodological traditions, depending on what I’m actually looking at. When I examine urbanisation patterns there is a lot of sociology and a lot of geography involved, while the political science perspective puts an emphasis on institutions — on the institutions that the other perspectives oftentimes ignore. When I look at nation states, that’s certainly part of a very long-standing political science tradition, but much was contributed to this field of inquiry by researchers in sociology, history, and culture. 

For me, a ‘political scientist’ is someone who deals with institutions mostly, and I think sometimes that can become a narrow-minded enterprise. But this is true for every tradition: each and every discipline has certain blindspots and focuses on a particular set of actors, or institutions, or social relations, and in order to reduce complexity it leaves out quite a lot of important things; so I’m trying to think about social relations in a more complex way than political scientists sometimes do. And that comes at a cost, but it’s important for me to do this kind of work. Not for the sake of simply pointing out that ‘things are complex’ but rather for questioning axiomatic assumptions, articulating alternatives, and underlining the importance of context for political decisions and outcomes.

M: Why do you think that you are considered a ‘political scientist’?

B: I think this has to do with the way that academic institutions work: you have to decide at some point or somebody else will decide for you if you are a political sociologist or a sociologist, or if you’re a political economist or something else. At some moment people ask you who you are, and so you put a stamp on yourself and you present yourself as this or that. But I think there are ways to play around with this logic. In Germany, the recruitment procedures are very strict: if you have for example a PhD certificate that says you are a sociologist, then you are a sociologist for the rest of your life. If it says you are a political scientist, then you are a political scientist. I might be caricaturing the situation a bit, but I think this depiction is accurate more often than not. But there are a lot of research fields within these different traditions where you look at the scholars and can’t really distinguish if this person is a sociologist or a political scientist. In other words what exactly is hidden behind that label can be much more flexible and gives you room for more open-ended explorations.

M: So would you also consider yourself a social scientist?

B: Yes! If this rubric existed, or were to be recognised institutionally, I’d rather consider myself a social scientist. 

M: What do you think is the task of the social scientist, or should be the task of the social scientist?

B: It’s an umbrella term for approaches that are trying to understand how social relations and power function, how societies create social stability, how they fragment, what role inequalities play and how they affect spatial arrangements and many other things. It’s trying to think through society from a broad lens that takes into account different dimensions including culture, politics, economic relationships, and space. 

M: … Do you think there is truth to this inquiry?

B: I think we shouldn’t abolish the concept of truth. There are good reasons why truth claims such as the universalisms of the Enlightenment tradition have been critiqued. It is certainly accurate to say that oftentimes such claims have been instrumentalized as a way to maintain power positions. But, if we abandon the concept of truth altogether, then we have a problem. And we’re encountering this problem today in terms of fake news, or of a very blurred understanding of what social relations are. This is why I think that destabilising and complicating every position is not a sufficient research strategy. This sort of destabilisation can be productive and emancipatory at certain moments, but presently we are witnessing some of its shortcomings. I think there should be an attempt to develop positive claims about what society should be and not just complicate existing discourses.

M:  It seems like what you’re talking about is that you see what you are doing as important for social cohesion, or that this could be a ‘good’ of the social sciences. What would you consider the goal of political sciences and the social sciences in society, and for you, personally? Why is it valuable?

B:  For me it is valuable because I’ve always had an interest in how society works, and how we came to the place that we’re in, and how the kinds of social relations and dominant institutional landscapes, notably shaped by nation states, came about. To return to your first question: Maybe the bicultural background that I have played a role in this — so how did these divisions come up? How did different languages come into being? How did different national identities emerge? These are the questions that I dealt with in my Master’s thesis a long time ago, and I’m returning to them now. For me, the social sciences are about gaining an understanding of the world, and trying to get a better sense of what’s going on. Also, what drives me is an interest in teaching and thinking about these things with students, and having to interrogate my own position. 

In turn, the role of the social sciences, or of political science for society, is more difficult to answer. I do a lot of interviews for the media on current events because I think it’s important that there is a broader context given to a question of everyday politics or a current event. Oftentimes for journalists — well, not for all of them — there is a very short time window within which a given theme is being discussed; oftentimes the time window doesn’t last longer than two weeks. I think it’s important from a social science perspective to give a broader context to a question and to maybe even ask it differently and not just follow every volatility or every speculation. But then once you’re in a studio, once you’re giving an interview, it’s not so clear that you can actually do that, because the questions are being posed and you’re responding to the questions that you are confronted with. Especially when it’s not a live interview, it feels there are certain snippets that are taken out of context. 

In these moments it seems that what the news channel is interested in is not so much your own take, but rather your title and your institutional affiliation, which gives credibility to what they wanted to say in the first place. You become, basically, a cog in this machinery… and this is not necessarily where I see my task. But, at the same time, it is important that we have different voices in media discourses and that it’s not just the political anchors and journalists discussing these things. And it’s also a check for myself on not becoming too distant from everyday life and hiding away in the ivory tower. It’s also a way not to unlearn a certain language and make sense of what’s going on in the everyday world. In other words, I think that this contribution to public debates is an important task of the social sciences, and our work as researchers actually benefits. But it’s difficult to do justice to that role.

M: You try to tie the everyday political happenings to a broader context, but you seem cynical about it being actually effective. Do you think it’s actually effective when you make these media appearances?

B: I don’t know if it is effective. For a long time I’ve done media appearances with Die Welt, which was called N24 at the time, and I thought I shouldn’t just be talking to those who read the feuilleton, so to speak, but that I should be talking to a broader audience. But then it comes in a strange, awkward kind of context, and there’s only so much you can do… I’m wondering how effective it is and haven’t come to a conclusion yet. 

This is perhaps an ambivalent or undecided position, but not a cynical one, I think. Mark Blyth has a great way of using humor to drive home his points. In the introduction to one of his books he says that what political economists do is check whether certain ideas that are used in practice actually pass the sniff test. I agree with this notion of academia as an arbiter, and I think what underlies this idea, even though it might sound somewhat pathetic, is that academia should be interested in the public good, not private interests.

Having said all this, I believe that teaching is certainly the most effective way of having an influence on society. We often think of our publications as something which people read, which is not or only rarely the case. We have certain citation circles where 10 people worldwide are citing each other and reading each other’s work, but normally that’s the extent to which we have an impact through our publications. And the media are also very evasive, and I think it’s important that there is a certain deep discussion of contemporary issues going on in the media, on TV, and so on, so that people can actually get involved without being in a university setting. But I don’t think that this is fundamentally going to alter someone’s position who is from the start of a very different opinion. It can only go so far. But when it comes to teaching and the discussion with students, this seems different. 

When I think back to my own time as a student, there were a couple of professors who profoundly shaped my thinking. I had a course this past semester where my PhD academic supervisor gave a presentation, and I realised that much of what I’m working on is actually her field. So there are interesting path dependencies. Though I would think of myself as an individual thinker, we come through certain social contexts and academic traditions, and we are shaped by them. 

M: When I asked my question if these media appearances are effective, I didn’t really specify in which direction. So, how did you answer that question— what were you thinking? 

B: I should ask you the question what you had in mind! Well, it would be effective if these appearances contributed to starting a process of reflection about societies, or about politics — not as a series of spectacles that happen one after another, but of citizens actually reflecting on what’s going on in the world, what policies do, what the effects of these policies are, and taking a stance on these positions. It’s an engagement with a discussion.

Probably when you’re being perceived in an interview you are seen as the expert on this or that, but that’s the kind of thing that is problematic because it is not really an empowering position, but rather one that might reinforce technocracy or ‘rule by experts.’ 

M: So then you are trying to increase the mindfulness of people, to get them to be aware of what is really happening, rather than just stating your own opinion?

B: I wouldn’t think it is an arrogant position to say ‘I think this is important and you should also think this is important’, but I know that from my teachers — those whom I admired the most or whose research subject fascinated me — they were the ones who actually thought themselves that this was an important subject and were trying to learn in the process, not talking from the altar but trying to grapple with the issues at stake.

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