Max Planck Research Group - Alpine Histories

Alpine Histories of Global Change: Time, Self, and the Other in the German-Speaking Alpine Region

This independent Max Planck research group aims to make sense of the increased importance of questions of belonging, place-attachment, and alienation at the crossroads of Europe. It does so by paying attention to the role of local, everyday engagements with history in rural, "forgotten" places that are frequently denounced for being backward, traditionalist, and "stuck in the past". By looking at mountain communities in the German-speaking Alpine region that are characterised by long histories of global exchange on the one hand and support for anti-cosmopolitan political movements on the other and studying the ways that the inhabitants of these communities experience, narrate, perform, struggle over, and grapple with the past, the group attempts to shed light on the role of everyday engagements with the past in an era of accelerated change and insecurity.

Research Questions

One of the core tensions the group addresses is the potential of history as a "social glue" that binds communities together and as a means of excluding "others" by placing them outside of a shared time. The project is guided by the question of how people living in rural villages actively claim ownership over history, and it takes a close look at the social work such local, everyday histories do: When do they become a means for creating social closeness and when are they used to exclude and "other" individuals and groups? How do local readings of the past become normalised and woven into the texture of the everyday? And what do they have to say about the anxieties of living in a globalised, "overheated" (Eriksen 2016) present?

Composition of Research Group

The research group aims to address these questions by zooming in on social life in four mountain communities in the Austrian, Swiss, Italian, and German Alps. The group is headed by Annika Lems, who conducts research in the Austrian state of Carinthia. It is further comprised of postdoctoral researcher and visual anthropologist Christine Moderbacher, whose research focuses on South Tyrol, and PhD candidate Antje Berger, who looks at the Berchtesgaden area in Bavaria. At a later stage the group will be joined by Danae Leitenberger, whose research is set in the Berner Oberland in Switzerland. To foster the debate and communication of research results with a broader, non-academic audience and to develop visual research tools, the group collaborates with Paul Reade, an anthropologist and filmmaker.

Village Ethnographies

Focusing on the everyday production of history through in-depth participant observation in amateur historical clubs and heritage organisations and at commemorative events, the team investigates the political and experiential ways in which Alpine communities negotiate their placement in time. Juxtaposing these shared/communal histories with individual life histories as well as with historians’ accounts of the region, the project explores the ways official, communal, and personal histories form and transform each other. Through creative approaches, such as film, photography or co-creative storytelling, the group hopes to gain deeper insights into the ways people relate to the past in affective, bodily, and non-narrative ways.

By comparing socio-cultural practices in four Alpine communities with distinct histories of global interconnection and anti-cosmopolitan sentiments, the research group can show the complex and often contradictory ways people create temporal continuity amidst the reality of a fast-changing world. In revalidating village ethnography as a crucial tool for understanding the reality of living in a hypermobile and interconnected world, it aims to overcome the neglect of rural life in studies of globalisation and bring people and places that have been consigned to the periphery back into the centre of global processes.

Cited Literature: Eriksen, Thomas Hylland. 2016. Overheating : An Anthropology of Accelerated Change. London: Pluto.

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