Research Program

Decision-making and the problems related to it play a significant and (in recent years) increasingly important role in the self-perception of (Western) societies. We are experiencing more than ever the impositions represented by decision-making. More and more decisions have to be made, of ever greater magnitude, while at the same time it is becoming more discouraging to consider all the relevant circumstances. Additionally, the consequences of decisions are increasingly difficult to evaluate.

The virulence of this topic suggests that greater reflective distance can be obtained when we undertake cultural-scientific and historical analyses on the subject of decision-making. Yet decision-making has seldom been reflected on in a conceptual or multidisciplinary manner within the cultural sciences and especially within history. Rather, it continues to be tacitly assumed that actions are based on decisions and that these are made (in normal cases) by the actors on the basis of rational, or at least comprehensible, motives and considerations. It is hardly ever considered that decision-making is an highly contingent form of social action.

This was the point of departure for the SFB/ Collaborative Research Centre 1150. Its long-term research goal was thus twofold: Firstly, based on a research programme that structures its analysis according to a historical-comparative and interdisciplinary perspective, it seeks to examine: how decision-making is framed, modelled, produced, and reflected in diverse historical contexts; how decision-making is based on specific cultural conditions; how decision-making shapes the institutional structure of society and social relations of power; and how and why cultures of decision-making have changed over the long term. Secondly, the Centre is meant to provide a motivation for rendering decision-making a central concern of the historical cultural sciences. Not least, it does so in order to offer a different perspective on discourses of decision-making from that of the present day, which tends to be detached from history. Given the widespread reductive understandings of decision-making in politics and daily life, it seems to us that such an approach demonstrates the vital contribution that historical cultural studies makes to self-reflection in society.

Decisions and Decision-Making

The SFB/ Collaborative Research Centre 1150 understands decision-making not as a mental process that precedes the actions taken by individuals but instead as a (by no means obvious) form of social action, a contingent and historically variable activity that arises from the need to cope with social complexity. We comprehend decision-making as a procedural form of action, which is oriented towards a decision not yet taken and in which varied actors are involved. Under decision we therefore understand the contingent act in which one of the decision possibilities generated in the process of decision-making is selected and fixed. At the same time, decision-making must not necessarily lead to or ends with a decision. Rather, one can evade reaching a final decision and its related impositions by acting dilatorily or refusing to commit to an alternative. Reaching a decision can be avoided, postponed or shifted; the process of decision-making can end with an explicit non-decision or simply fizzle out. As a result, the SFB 1150 focuses on investigating decision-making as a social process and the historically variable forms of decision-making; it is less interested in the decisions themselves and their content.

Cultures of Decision-Making

We presume that it is not obvious that social action is framed and modeled as decision-making. In fact, that is the case because of diverse demands that, in addition to making and reaching decisions, are linked on account of their contingent character. In reality, it is a culturally conditioned matter to what extent social action is framed as decision-making and decision-making can be differentiated from the flux of everyday action. Accordingly, speaking of “cultures of decision-making” means not only that the question how and on what decisions are made is modeled differently, but instead something more fundamental: What can be identified as decision-making and a situation of decision, what is considered decidable or in need of a decision and, most particularly, what is considered a correct or rational decision: all that is a result of historically generated and culturally variable circumstances. Decision-making can therefore be properly understood only in the context of those specific structures of social order, constellations of power, and semantics to which it is reacting. By means of such an approach, aspects of decision-making become visible which have eluded conventional approaches or been dismissed as unimportant – aspects such as space, materiality, visuality, mediality, expressivity, or language.

Our premise is that how social action is perceived, described, and shaped as decision-making is a result of processes of social construction and attribution. In other words, it is dependent on culture and history. With respect to cultures of decision-making, this means that the practice of decision-making is in each instance following diverse cultural patterns, i.e., specific institutionalized expectations of behavior, attributions of meaning and programs of action that are more or less stable but subject to historical change. “Culture” is thereby not understood as a separate social field among others (in contrast to politics, economy, etc.), or as a sphere of “ideal validity” that is deprived of or superior to social action. Nor is it to be grasped as an unchanging condition in some essentialistic sense. Instead, we assume in accordance with constructivist approaches that cultures—here, cultures of decision-making—are formed, reproduced, and transformed in and through social practices and discourses.

Dimensions of Decision-Making

In order to work out in detail the ways that cultures of decision-making differ and develop, we take a look at the following five interconnected dimensions:

  1. The constitution of decision-making. If it is not self-evident that decision-making has to be distinguished as a separate form of action, then that raises the question of how this differentiation takes place, i.e., how decision-making is grasped conceptually, how the necessity of making decisions is identified, and what exactly can be an object of decision-making as well as how it becomes one.
  2. Modes of decision-making. The process of decision-making can be institutionalized in varied ways, taking place in various formal and informal modes. Here, a firm distinction should be drawn between the process and its outcome. The question is: how decision options in each case are generated, evaluated, and selected; how decidability can (or cannot) be guaranteed; and how decision-making and decisions interrelate.
  3. Resources for decision-making. Normative and cognitive resources which can be mobilized in the process of decision-making include: everyday knowledge, experience, information, expertise, normative consensus, historical exempla, transcendent revelation, emotions, and so on. The question remains: in different historical contexts, what can be brought to bear in explaining decisions that are seen as “good”, “correct” or “rational”, as well as what are social consequences of doing so?
  4. The representation of decision-making. Every social action always has a symbolic-expressive dimension. That in turn raises the question, in which ways and with which effects decision-making is being staged as a “social drama”.
  5. External observation and narrations of decision-making. Decision-making is generally observed, described, and reflected from the outside. The questions to be asked are: how culture-specific (e.g., literary and scientific) narratives shape the perception of decision-making, what is the repertoire of “decision stories” available to a society; and to what extent do they affect social practice?