For Research. For Berlin.

Craig Calhoun

Craig Calhoun's research is dedicated to the public in all its facets: Over the past 30 years, the American sociologist has shaped research about political protest, nationalism and power structures. As Einstein Visiting Fellow, Craig Calhoun has set up two working groups in the Berlin Graduate School of Social Sciences. From 2012 to 2016, Craig Calhoun was director of the London School of Economics and Political Sciences (LSE), one of the top five British universities.

»Understanding the big social issues of our times«

It’s not just the intellectual pull. I have always had an emotional connection to my work that drives me. Emotionally, a pivotal project was my study of the Tiananmen Square protests in China in 1989. I was there; I was able to talk with students and interview them. I felt a kind of personal connection and a strong ethical obligation to give an accurate account of what was happening. I wanted the world to understand their movement. Ever since then, I have strived to make my work accessible to a wider public.

I learned an important lesson in this regard after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001. I was involved in organising a group of the world’s leading social scientists to write concise essays based on their individual expertise to help people understand the events and their implications. How did the clandestine Al-Qaeda movement operate? What were the risks of an invasion of Iraq? What about the nature of war today and the role of the media? More than 1.5 million people on average downloaded these essays.

That was the catalyst for our work on what we coined “real-time” social science. The goal is to understand public issues as they happen, for example the social circumstances of Hurricane Katrina. I want to motivate social scientists to contribute their knowledge to public debates as they unfold. Of course, that does not mean giving up on long-term research. Sometimes we need to get our knowledge where it’s needed more quickly.

My passion in research is to understand the ways in which people try to translate their personal desires and values into collective action, and why that is so hard. For example, why is it so difficult to get our governments to eliminate poverty or respond to climate change? I have studied this topic in areas ranging from radical politics to the financial crisis. My current work is informed by my Einstein research group in Berlin. We focus on how strangers organise their interactions and how physical places play a role in shaping these social processes. We want to extend this topic to cover contemporary issues such as migration, both locally in Berlin and on a larger European scale.

I am convinced that we need the contributions of social scientists. However, social scientists could do a better job in improving the quality of public debate. They could also contribute to stronger, more empirically informed public understanding of the big issues in our time. It is our professional responsibility to reach a wider audience.


Video: Mirko Lomoth

This page will not be updated after the end of the fellowship.