Sociologist Nico Stehr has held the Karl-Mannheim Chair of Cultural Studies since 2004 and he is the founding director of the European Center for Sustainability Research at ZU.
In his position at the Karl-Mannheim Chair, Professor Stehr has continued to address the problems of knowledge and the question of the social role of knowledge; issues that he has been researching at renowned US-American universities for many years. He is interested in the social effects that the increased importance of the role of knowledge has in modern societies. For on the one hand more and more knowledge is available and usable by means of media, on the other the hopes once invested in such a progress in knowledge have seldom been fulfilled. The concept of knowledge and the theory of a "knowledge society" Professor Stehr has developed together with philosopher Gernot Böhme are more relevant than ever.
Professor Stehr also intensively addresses the research on the consequences of climate change, especially in the areas of adaptation and precaution. In the fall of 2011, he founded the European Center for Sustainability Research that is supported by renowned companies such as Tognum and AUDI AG. The aim of the Centre is to become a research hub with a national and international standing; to establish academic thinking in the area of sustainability even more; and to help implement current academic findings into practice.
In addition to his activities at ZU, Nico Stehr is a member of the Royal Society of Canada, and the European Academy of the Sciences and Arts. He was also a member of the expert panel "Global Governance of Science" of the European Commission.
The era of industrialization, of the social order of industrial society and the abilities and skills needed to manage them, is coming to an end. The new social order appearing on the horizon is based on knowledge. Knowledge societies are increasingly fragile societies, because they are experiencing the decline of the large social institutions that governed over the course of the 20th century.
We are in the middle of a transitional phase between two social formations. One can only be impressed by the growing contingency and fragility of modern societies. The future of society is less and less a replica of its past. The increasing opagueness and indefiniteness of modern life is the immediate consequence of the burgeoning (and by no means one-sided) role that a highly differentiated social institution, namely the scientific system and its products, plays in the culture and structure of our society.
The extensive circulation of knowledge into all corners of modern society, and the knowledge of this extensive circulation, both obfuscates and opens up the possibilities for action and interpretation. Paradoxically then, instead of reducing differences in opinion or creating a basis for a more efficient governance of central social institutions, the growth in knowledge and its increasing social availability produce a higher degree of social insecurity and contingency.
This insight into the simultaneous power and fragility of scientific knowledge suggests that the growing social significance of knowledge will go hand in hand with the breakdown of the intellectual authority of experts and a growing skepticism towards the impartiality and objectivity of their opinions. It will become harder and harder for scientists and experts to maintain their cognitive authority as the trust placed in their professional activities diminishes.
And yet, the dependency on knowledge will surely increase further. For in spite of the demystifying of knowledge, the alternative cannot be to trust more or less arbitrarily in any kinds of beliefs. We have to become familiar with the idea of the contingency of knowledge and give up the illusion that this state is merely temporary.
History is by no means coming to an end, but it has changed fundamentally. The old rules, securities, and developmental schemes no longer fit. The future no longer mirrors the past. The fragility of knowledge society grows. Experience of fundamental shifts in expectations and perspective becomes more widespread. Perhaps a quiet confidence will replace the ebullient hopes and deep depressions of the past.
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