A Moment in Time: Venia Legendi for Frank Gadinger

Research Group Leader Frank Gadinger, a member of the Centre's scientific leadership since its foundation in 2012, successfully completed his habilitation process with a lecture on 'Donald Trumps Präsidentschaft: Einzelfall oder Krisensymptom der liberalen Demokratie?' ['Donald Trump's presidency: isolated case or symptom of crisis in liberal democracy?'] at the Institute for Political Science, Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Duisburg-Essen.

In Gadinger’s view, populism gives reason for self-critique in the realm of political science:

My impression is that the focus is more on root causes and consequences for liberal democracy and less on how populism itself works.

However, he clearly sees a chance for advancement. Many sub-disciplines have developed an awareness of the performative dimension in politics:

From my point of view, a new field of political science research is developing with populism research, which can no longer be assigned to any sub-discipline (political theory, government systems). 

Frank’s lecture asked a simple question: Why is Trump still important for our research?

His thesis:

Trump's style of governing exemplifies how the erosion of democracy works in the supposedly irrelevant everyday practice of tweets, visual self-dramatisation and masculine poses beyond state-supporting forms and speeches, creepily eroding the certainties of liberal democracy such as equality or the protection of minorities.

Beyond the thesis, the central message of this habilitation lecture can be described in this way: New and possibly offensive phenomena are not to be understood by recourse to preconceptions. One has to ‘zoom-in’ and meet the practitioners, or at least look at their performative output (which can turn ugly, of course). Only then will it be possible to identify structures, repetitions, similarities, and initiate a scientific understanding.


Gadinger was interested in the politics of media representation and media impacts early on. As sometimes happens during study, observations and explanations of political processes had to be transformed into communicable methodologies within the discipline. The toolbox of international relations theory at the time seemed limited and Gadinger’s transdisciplinary openness – while clearly committed to the home zone of political science – enabled him, together with colleagues, to search for and finally present an expansion of the toolbox for discussion. This is a process that developed over the years and is ongoing. Gadinger did extensive research on political narratives, a field already reflected in his dissertation at the University of Frankfurt ('The Justification of Foreign Policy - The Cultural Negotiation of the "War on Terror" Narrative in the U.S.'). Gadinger’s first Postdoctoral position was at the Institute of Political Science, NRW School of Governance, University of Duisburg-Essen, where he was a team leader in the research Group ‘Political Narratives’. He then signed on to the newly founded Käte Hamburger Kolleg / Centre for Global Cooperation Research, leading Research Unit 4: 'Paradoxes and Perspectives of Democratization'. Political narratives became a recurrent topic at the Centre and a group of like-minded researchers had already formed, visible for example during a 2015 workshop entitled 'Building Stories – Building Cooperation: The Role of Narrative and Fiction as Constitutive Elements in Politics'. A strong reference has long been literary scientist Albrecht Koschorke (University of Konstanz) and Gadinger made that influence visible when Leibniz Prize Laureate Koschorke was invited as a keynote speaker to the conference, ‘Wettbewerb der Narrative: Zur globalen Krise liberaler Erzählungen / Competing Narratives: On the Global Crisis of Liberal Narratives’ in 2017 (Berlin, a cooperation with Goethe Institute, Heinrich Böll Foundation and BDI The Voice of German Industry).

The need for a broader theoretical and methodological framework united quite a few young scholars at the time. The focus on narratives triggers an interest in the analysis of visual representations and seems quite compatible with the later approach. The study of emotions–their motives and effects– adds another lens of growing significance. International Practice Theory, by Christian Bueger and Frank Gadinger was published in 2014 and received a second printing in 2018. With a strong reference to Luc Boltansky's pragmatic sociology, this publication reads like a manifesto for researchers to open their toolboxes and to overcome methodological blinders. Contemporary issues in globally-mediated political discourses are fluid, marked be multiple cross-dependencies, and are bound to material and media conditions; the actors are far from the clear rational manifestations that science might normally scrutinize. The object of research may have an effect on the method (or combination of methods) applied. Practice theory is still dealing with this provocation.  An online conference in February this year presented and reflected on 'New Voices in International Practice Research'. Frank Gadinger is an already well established voice in this discourse and his scientific companions are never far away: Sebastian Jarzebski, Christopher Smith Ochoa, and Taylan Yildiz (NRW School of Governance), Katja Freistein and Christine Unrau (GCR21), and more could be named.

This is also a moment to celebrate the beauty of the shared intellectual process in scientific research. We wish Frank Gadinger further zoom-in / zoom-out experiences on his scientific journey and hope that he preserves this flair for tools that are more than nice to have.