Research Unit 4

Paradoxes and Perspectives of Democratization

More information on Unit 4

The Contested Nature of Democracy in a Globalizing World

How do we need to think about the nature of democracy when the absolute ban on torture is breached under the pretext of the ‘war on terror’, EU member states are not willing to cooperate to address the urgent problem of refugees in the Mediterranean, or an enlightening figure such as Edward Snowden, who has exposed the intrusive system of global surveillance, is only able to receive asylum in Russia? As this rather brief overview demonstrates, the lofty expectations of liberal democracy as the ‘end of history’ (Francis Fukuyama), which would naturally lead to political stability and cooperation, have led to much disappointment in the age of globalization. Many examples of challenges within global cooperation, such as climate change agreements, global finance, interventions and aid policies, or peacebuilding efforts, can neither be explained using the simple antagonism of democracy and autocracy nor remedied with the presumed cooperative behavior of democratic leaders. Instead, democracy proves to be a multifaceted, ambiguous concept. As the past decade has shown, it can be used to justify both war and peace, enable participation and absorb critique, quell resistance, and promote cooperation efforts. This research unit therefore claims that democracy is not a fixed model, but rather an enduring historical experience of 'exploration and experimentation' (Pierre Rosanvallon). It needs to be examined on a global scale by taking into account its plurality of meanings and the underlying normative tensions between the present and the past. This perspective consequently not only disregards the modernist dream of democratization solely achieving political progress and cooperation, it also seeks to foster a shift in thinking and doing research on the paradoxes and ambiguities of democracy in a globalizing world.

The objective of the Unit’s research is to consider the complexity of political disputes in modern democratic governance. It confronts this challenge both conceptually and empirically. Contestation and diverging claims are taken as the starting point for analysis and are not regarded as inevitably destabilizing forces. Instead, they are considered inherent elements of politics. This perspective does not assume that cooperation can never be reached. However, it submits that attempts by various international authorities to address complex issues of global governance have become more fragile and increasingly challenge established procedures of democratic legitimacy. Cooperation is therefore the result of practical and situated achievements and does not evolve from an overwhelming normative consensus, which is already fragile on the national level and even harder to achieve on the global level. The ambivalent relationship between plurality, contestation and resistance as the main drivers of politics can be observed in different fields, among others: peacebuilding, conflict resolution and transitional justice; processes of democratization and resistance; surveillance and civil liberties, changing international governance practices with regard to climate change and financial crises.

The empirical scope of the Unit’s research is broad. The main criterion for relevant research is that projects should provide new insights into various understandings of democracy in its broadest sense while addressing their political effect on issues of global cooperation. In tackling these challenging questions, researchers attempt to avoid essentialist notions in their conceptual vocabulary and mainly follow the tradition of interpretive research methodology in the social sciences and humanities. In order to capture the manifold links between democracy, democratization, and cooperation, the Unit’s analytical focus travels from the macro to the micro and back again. The goal of these research efforts is therefore to identify dominant interaction patterns in practices, narratives, and discourses to come to sound conclusions on whether willingness or refusal to cooperate relates to the changing conditions of democratic governance.