Dr. Jan-Hinrik Schmidt
is the new spokesperson of the Hamburg section of the Research Institute Social Cohesion (RISC)
based at the HBI. His predecessor Prof. em. Dr. Uwe Hasebrink
retired at the end of September 2021 after 35 years of research at the HBI.
In an interview with Wiebke Schoon
and Roman Krawielicki, the two spoke about media and research in transition as well as their goals and wishes for the RISC. The interview was published first on the RISC website
Mr Hasebrink, you have been working at the Hans-Bredow-Institut since 1986. At that time, in March of that year, US Secretary of State George Shultz proclaimed the information age at a speech in Paris and predicted that "[t]he information revolution promises to change the routine of our planet as decisively as did the industrial revolution of the past century." First, from your perspective as a media researcher: How has the information age changed us since then? Which processes of this change - if any - have you as researchers, Mr Hasebrink and Mr Schmidt, accompanied in particular?
Uwe Hasebrink: Looking back at the past 35 years, it is striking that what was imagined as a "revolution" back then did not go nearly as far as what we can observe today. The short answer to the question of how the then so-called "information age" has changed us is the profound mediatisation of everyday life, the permeation of social processes and contexts with media. As a researcher, I have always been particularly interested in the intertwining of media and social change. The commercialisation of broadcasting since the 1980s and the spread of digital online and mobile communication since the late 1990s provided the most important media impulses. The turnaround in the Central and Eastern European states at the end of the century with its consequences - such as German unification and the advancing European unification process - as well as the increasing fractures and gaps in most Western societies were the most important social occasions for research at the Hans-Bredow-Institut. The latter then also led to our involvement in the RISC.
Jan-Hinrik Schmidt: As a researcher, I got involved comparatively late in the developments that Uwe Hasebrink describes. In the mid-2000s, at the end of my doctorate, I began to deal with Web 2.0 or social media, as we now call them. Since then, my main concern has been to understand and explain what a simple development actually is. What happens when the media-technical hurdles to sharing information of all kinds with others and maintaining social relationships across spatio-temporal distances continue to fall? It changes structures of public sphere as well as people's everyday routines - and yes, of course, the practices, institutions, modalities and discourses of social cohesion.
Mr Schmidt, in your opinion, what was a particularly important merit of the HBI in researching these connections?
JHS: I have the impression that the HBI contributes valuable input both to the academic discussion and to the practice of media organisations and media policy. Our profile as an interdisciplinary institute that primarily brings together communication science and legal and regulatory studies, supplemented in recent years by the perspective of computational communication science, helps us in this. However, for me, the Institute has also earned its merits by offering an immensely collegial and comparatively hierarchy-free working atmosphere. This has an internal effect above all, but also contributes to the fact that we can set so many impulses externally.
Mr Hasebrink, the HBI is now a member of the Leibniz Association and part of the RISC network. How has the research landscape changed in your eyes? Do you also see difficult developments?
UH: Following a general development in the research landscape, the HBI has undergone an enormous professionalization push. It is no longer the case that research "happens", it is increasingly strategically planned and organised. Excellence, internationalisation, cooperation, career promotion and transfer strategies make up a significant part of the work at scientific institutions and are the focus of evaluation procedures. This leads, as can be observed in the RISC's collaborative research, among other things, to considerable productivity, to enriching co-operations, and to an improved exchange between science and society. The downside may be that occasionally the flexibility to take up new topics, to develop innovative ideas, to "think outside the box" in the good old sense, falls short. The fact that this downside has also been brightened up strategically for some time with the catchphrase "high risk, high gain" does not quite convince me - in my view, good research also needs spaces that are not strategically determined.
Mr Schmidt, you are now taking up your new post after two not so easy years in a global public health crisis. Do you have the impression that you are witnessing a similarly profound change in the media as contemporaries did in the 1980s and 1990s?
JHS: Yes, although I am not at all sure that we can distinguish so clearly between current developments and those of 30 or 40 years ago. After all, then as now, we are concerned with the forms and consequences of digitalisation and automation. What is certainly new about the current situation, however, is that with Google, Facebook & Co. players have grown up that shape, if not dominate, media publicity and the media industry worldwide. In terms of political regulation, but also with regard to the processes of social (self-)understanding, I have the impression that we have not yet mastered or contained this shift in power.
How has the use of media affected social cohesion in your eyes in recent years and most recently since the beginning of the Corona crisis? Is there a noticeable trend?
UH: Currently, under the impression of the Corona pandemic, opposing trends in media use can be identified - which are therefore of particular interest to the RISC. On the one hand, a renaissance of the established journalistic media could be observed in connection with the pandemic; on average across the entire population, general trust in the media increased during the pandemic. On the other hand, however, it is also unmistakable that opinions differ on the topic of Corona. In addition, communicative milieus are emerging in which extreme perceptions of the pandemic and the resulting consequences are developing that combine with other populist currents. Here, social media play a decisive role as an infrastructure for polarisation and disinformation.
Mr Schmidt, what are your plans for the next few years? What are your goals as spokesperson of the Hamburg section of the RISC? Which topic should perhaps become an even stronger research focus of the RISC?
JHS: Like all other sections of the RISC, we are faced with a challenging task in Hamburg. On the one hand, we have to implement our research and transfer programme from the first funding phase. On the other hand, we want to design research priorities and co-operations within the RISC, which we can work on in a possible second funding phase. I will tackle this together with Wiebke Loosen and the other project leaders and participants in Hamburg, and I am very much looking forward to it. I can well imagine, for example, that in the upcoming years we will deal even more with the consequences of automated communication for social cohesion. The pandemic, as well as the increasingly urgent climate crisis, show that it is worth taking a closer look at science communication.
Lastly, addressed to both of you: What do you advise or wish for your predecessor or successor?
UH: Since Jan-Hinrik Schmidt played a decisive role in shaping the considerations of our specific contribution to research on social cohesion already in the application phase and has coordinated the activities of the "TI Hamburg" since the beginning of the RISC, I cannot advise him, but only shout, "Keep up the good work!”
JHS: I sincerely wish Uwe Hasebrink that he will indeed find more peace in retirement than before, but at the same time still be able to accompany the scientific projects that he enjoys.
Mr Hasebrink, Mr Schmidt, thank you very much for the interview!
(12 October 2021)