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Lost in Transition: Social Sciences, Scenarios of Transformation, and Cognitive Dissonances in East Central Europe after 1989

Duration: 2019 – 2023

The project seeks to place the current anti-liberal and anti-democratic backlash in Eastern Europe, arguably manifesting the all-European socio-political and ideological crisis in its most acute form, into a comparative historical perspective. It raises fundamental questions concerning the intellectual contribution and responsibility of those local and international actors (scholars, experts, think-tanks, NGOs, public intellectuals, etc.) who devised roadmaps for the transition to liberal democracy and market economy, and the interplay of these roadmaps and the realities “on the ground”. Drawing on the rather divergent experiences of three Central European (Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland) and three Southeast European (Bulgaria, Romania, and Serbia) countries, it aims at unravelling the various scenarios of post-socialist transition projected by local and external social scientists and experts and how these scenarios themselves became actors in the very process of transformation.

Historicizing this period necessarily entails a reflection on the “pre-history” of the transition, focusing on the different projections of regime change elaborated and debated by the dissident and technocratic expert circles during the 1980s, and tracing the way the very narrative of transition became a key component of the political struggles. Thus, the project entails not only the analysis of policies and societal reactions but also that of the immense corpus of knowledge which shaped these policies, starting with the very model of transition which was transferred from the academic sphere to the political one. Obviously, an engagement with different social-scientific knowledge-regimes and methodological specificities requires the cooperation of different disciplines.

The historical reconstruction of “what went wrong” is meant to contribute to the rethinking of the modalities of interaction of academia and politics in a moment of deep moral, institutional and epistemological crisis. In order to understand the current situation and draw some lesson for the future, we need to reflect critically on the contribution of academic knowledge to facing societal challenges. The analysis of paradigms of transitology offers ample food for thought. Hence, the participants in the project will critically reconsider the various scripts of post-socialist social, economic and cultural transformation as formulated by scholarly and expert communities, focusing especially on cognitive dissonances among the different actors, which shaped the process of transition and led to increasing gaps between spaces of experience and horizons of expectation.

The project will be implemented between 1 November 2019 and 31 October 2022, and envisages the following activities: regular workshops, individual and team research work, international conferences, preparing research results for publication, other forms of dissemination reaching broader public and higher education institutions (web-based and media platforms), curriculum development on contemporary history of the region.

The direct beneficiary group is a cohort of young social scientists from six countries in East Central Europe, who will be brought together to develop, under the supervision of a group of established scholars, the analytical instruments to interrogate critically the capacities of their disciplines to meet the challenges of our future. The indirect beneficiaries are a number of interest groups – academics, public intellectuals, NGOs, participants in public debates and politicians – who possess the authority and resources to bring their knowledge to bear on societal decision-making and raise public awareness on major critical issues of our time.

Senior Facilitators of the project thematic sub-groups:

Selected Junior Fellows:

  • Vitezslav Sommer, Institute of Contemporary History, Prague: tbc;
  • Ondřej Slačálek, Charles University in Prague: From Communist Past to Declinist Future? Temporal and spatial aspects;
    of formations and transformations of post-Communist identities in Poland and the Czech Republic;
  • Anna Calori, University of Leipzig: From NIEO to the Washington Consensus: Debating economic reforms between globalisation, development, and third way socialism;
  • Georgi Medarov, Institute of Philosophy and Sociology, Bulgarian Academy of Sciences: Racialization and the Interplay of Roma Inclusion / Exclusion in Post-Socialist Bulgaria:
  • Adela Hincu, independent researcher: Making the Poor in Social Science, Policy and Activism in Romania, 1980s-2000s;
  • Peter Wegenschimmel, University of Vienna, Department of East European History: Economic Heterotopias in Central and Eastern Europe: Shipbuilding, Mining, and the Emergence of National Champions;
  • Bogdan Iacob, Institute of History in Bucharest, Romanian Academy: Peripherality in the European Union: Romania’s Post-Accession Identity Struggles;
  • Endre Orban, National University of Public Service, Budapest: From Legal Classicism to Political Romanticism;
  • Ivaylo Dinev, School of Advanced Studies, Pisa / Institute for Social and Trade Union Research, Sofia: Dynamics of New Civil Society Mobilizations in Bulgaria and Serbia: explaining the up-scaling of anti-regime protest actors;
  • Anna Radiukiewicz, Institute of Political Studies, Polish Academy of Science: Civil Society as a Limit? Discourse on Civil Society in Poland after 1989;
  • Jelena Vasiljević, Institute for Philosophy and Social Theory, University of Belgrade: “How have we come to this?” Tracing Competing Narratives about Identity and Transition in present day Serbia;
  • Gergő Pulay, Centre for Social Sciences, Institute for Minority Studies, Budapest.
The project is funded by the Porticus Foundation.