The research centre

A science that is "fragmented into individual studies and incoherent no longer forms a solidary whole."
Émile Durkheim

The Social Theory Research Centre facilitates synergies in basic theoretical research as the unifying bond between the social sciences, humanities and cultural studies. Firstly, it complements the research panorama of the University of Innsbruck with its focus on basic theoretical research in the social sciences and thus opens up links to the university's research foci Cultural encounters - cultural conflicts, EPoS Economy, Politics & Society and the research platform Gender studies. Secondly, the research centre promotes awareness of and exchange on the paradigmatic requirements of all research in the various participating faculties.

The research centre, which also presents annual inter-faculty lecture series to the university public, is picking up a positive dynamic that began with the strong demand for theory-based studies at Master's programme in Sociology as well as for theory-oriented dissertations, for which students from all over Austria, our neighbouring countries as well as from further afield come to Innsbruck.

Content orientation of the FZ Social Theory

In times of fake news, media bubbles and widespread scepticism towards truth claims, science is challenged. Every single researcher is faced with the task of contributing to a responsible and reflective approach to knowledge. In addition to expert knowledge, this also requires a broad understanding of epistemological debates. Fake news is not just a problem of false facts, it is an epistemological problem. How do we know what we know? And why does the diversity of theories in our research disciplines not mean anything goes, but is rather a mandate for a disciplined and informed approach to the paradigmatically different epistemological interests of knowledge acquisition?

The linchpin of academic research is, always and independently of the object of research, careful and transparent epistemic reflection on the theoretical foundations applied. Traditions of reflection and basic theoretical research are cultivated in every discipline, but it is a particular concern of the social sciences and humanities that they constantly teach, question, apply and develop their theoretical foundations anew and work multi-paradigmatically. Unlike in the natural, technical and mathematical sciences, the progress of knowledge in the social sciences and humanities is not accompanied by a continuous overcoming of theoretical paradigms, which are replaced by new, more accurate ones, but is based on a continuous co-presence and competition of different theoretical approaches and cognitive interests with which the object - social reality in the past and present - is approached.

The FZ Social Theory looks at the entirety of social science theories and deals with them from (a) historical-sociological, (b) epistemological, (c) research-theoretical and (d) socio-philosophical perspectives. The following exemplary questions and complexes are derived from this:

  1. How, in what historical and history of ideas context and under whose auspices have different theoretical approaches developed? How have they changed over time? Who are their contemporary representatives? The aim of dealing with theories from a historical-sociological perspective is to provide researchers and students with detailed and well-founded theoretical expertise.

  2. Epistemological questions aim to make the components of different theoretical approaches, their concepts, logics and epistemological interests visible and comparable. The theoretical competence mentioned under point (a) is not limited to the knowledge of different theoretical approaches, but also requires a reflective decision-making competence about which theories are adequate for which questions. Numerous disciplines owe important innovations to the interdisciplinary reception of theory; at the same time, the accusation of eclecticism is often levelled against the transfer of theory. For this reason, reflected theoretical decision-making competence is central in the international scientific context and in competitive applications for research projects, because innovative research must be able to demonstrate an overview of a research field in its breadth in order to be convincing in peer review. This overview knowledge is almost always of a theoretical nature and functions as a framework for an infinitely broad range of research topics in the social sciences.

  3. Theoretical research questions are the kind of theoretical challenges that researchers face as soon as they have decided on a subject and a theoretical approach. What are the limits of a theoretical approach in application and where does the link to empirical research processes add new, as yet undescribed theorems to the theory? All research aims to fill a "gap", and in almost every case this gap is both empirical and theoretical in nature. One of the declared aims of the FZ Social Theory is to consistently promote and visualise the gain in knowledge in the latter sense.

  4. In addition, the FZ Social Theory aims to promote interdisciplinary dialogue on the relevance, interpretation and concrete effects of social and societal findings and to look at the entirety of social science theories from a socio-philosophical perspective. Exemplary problems include the significance of individualism and rationalism and their criticism for modernity; the role of religion and secularisation in society; or the role of liberalism and neoliberalism in democratic political systems. The aim is to make explicit which current social challenges we are dealing with theoretically and what contribution the theoretical exploration of contexts can make to understanding or solving these challenges (e.g. social inequality, climate change, migration, etc.).

The FZ Social Theory is open to all interested parties. Open exchange between theoretical schools and across disciplinary boundaries is encouraged. Multiple temporary focal points are possible and likely, depending on existing research projects and interests of the researchers involved. However, the main objective remains the informed, disciplined and responsible handling of knowledge and knowledge generation in research and teaching called for at the outset and a culture of debate promoted in the FC on the entire spectrum of the aforementioned definitions and questions of social theory.

Position and function within the existing research architecture of the University of Innsbruck

All university research aims to gain theoretical knowledge. However, the unique selling point of the FZ Social Theory is (1) to place theoretical work itself at the centre of cooperation and to promote metatheoretical, epistemological reflection and discussion among its members. Furthermore, the FZ Social Theory offers its members a platform to (2) sharpen the theoretical knowledge value of their respective work for concrete publications or project applications in exchange with colleagues and (3) make this visible to the outside world via an assignment in the FLD and listing on the FZ homepage. The FZ Social Theory does not compete with existing research centres, but rather opens up points of contact with other research areas at the university, in particular with the Theory and Methods Forum of the research focus.

Innovative features

  • Strengthens the research architecture of the University of Innsbruck by explicitly focussing on theory.
  • Fills a gap in the FC programme at the Faculty of Social and Political Sciences.
  • Promotes scientific excellence by focussing on epistemological, social-theoretical and methodological questions.
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