Cultural Anthropology and European Ethnology is the study of processes of cultural and social transformation as manifested in everyday lifeworlds. The focus lies on ethnography and empirical cultural analysis as well as on the analysis and interpretation of historic change in cultural phenomena. Since a reflexive approach underpins the discipline, cultural analysis is conducted in the knowledge of one’s own subjective participation and cultural partiality.
The discipline’s central focus is on everyday life as the arena of late-modern lifeworlds: that is, everyday life as the site where individual and subjective as well as social spaces are negotiated among actors of different genders, generations or sociocultural groups, each of which has various interests. The gender perspective informs the self-evident theoretical and methodological framework for each instance of empirical cultural analysis.
This approach is embedded in an overarching methodological and theoretical framework, such that integrates the discipline within the cultural sciences. The everyday cultural actions of social groups, along with their interpretations and meanings, are dealt with in terms of their material and immaterial objectivations; further, their mediatedness, their contradictions and how they change are also the subject of critical analysis. From the perspective of the discipline, the word “culture” describes a process that takes place as a direct and indirect result of people interacting with their environment and that, at the same time, has normative implications for people’s actions. Cultural activity is diverse and takes place within technological, economic, religious, social and gender-specific systems as well as within fields of meaning, ideas, values and formations.
Approaches to everyday life
The discipline's methodological approaches provide uniquely microanalytic and detailed insight. They draw upon the repertoire of qualitative methods used in cultural and social research as well as in ethnology: namely, the methods of ethnography as well as the source and discourse analysis used to study all manner of representations, evidence and documents, whether aural, visual or audio, or those relating to material culture. Studies mostly take smaller units as their point of departure: individual actors, situations, cultural phenomena or artefacts. These are interpreted within the diverse contexts of the field of research and then viewed as being embedded in larger scale systems and historical circumstances. The inductive and hermeneutic procedures of cultural analysis stem from the fundamental categories of experience and understanding, with the aim being to scientifically produce or reconstruct meaning. The ultimate goal is not to establish a static notion of what is representative but rather to capture multi-layered meanings.
The European space as the empirical field of European Ethnology is defined not so much in a territorial sense but as a historically established cultural and philosophical horizon. In a similar manner to other cultural and social sciences, the discipline contributes to raising awareness of and solving social problems.
The discipline’s name
The traditional discipline known as "Volkskunde" (directly translated from the English “folklore”) originally referred to the study of so-called popular cultures (that is, the cultures of the lower classes). However, during the 19th and 20th centuries, the discipline’s name was ideologically tainted by the politico-nationalistic sense of the term “Volk”. At the beginning of the 1970s, this led to a resolute reorientation in German-speaking countries and the renaming of the discipline as “European Ethnology”, “Cultural Anthropology” or “Empirische Kulturwissenschaft” (commonly translated as “Historical and Cultural Anthropology”). Associated critical reflection about its identity has shaped the interdisciplinary orientation of the discipline right up until today.
History of the discipline
The history of the academic institutionalisation of Volkskunde in the German-speaking region dates back into the second half of the 19th century. Up until the 1960s, the discipline’s central focus was above all on traditional manifestations of (preferably peasant) folk life. Theoretical reflection on the conditions in which these manifestations emerged and developed had already begun in the first half of the 20th century, providing some of the basis for the debate on “folklorism” in the 1970s. The ideological appropriation of “folk research” during the Nazi period meant that the discipline had to undergo a methodological transformation after 1945. In the postwar decades, the so-called Historical Method was established along with descriptive and typological approaches. Around 1970, the paradigm shift motivated by a far-reaching social critique reached the arts and humanities, and Volkskunde in particular, such that the problem-oriented perspective of the social sciences came to the fore. The focus shifted to cultural processes, their societal causes and effects, and prepared the way for works of cultural analysis that answered contemporary questions posed in the consciousness of international developments.
The history of the Institute
Volkskunde has been taught since 1924 as a stand-alone discipline at Karl-Franzens-Universität Graz. Viktor Geramb received the Venia Legendi as the discipline’s first qualified university lecturer in 1924 and, in 1930, became the first “Extraordinariat for Volkskunde” in Austria. He was among the most important representatives of the discipline during his lifetime and not only established Volkskunde as an academic subject at the University of Graz, but had already founded the folkloric department at the Styrian Museum Joanneum. In 1949, Geramb was promoted to Professor of Volkskunde and, the same year, the Institute for Volkskunde was founded under his directorship. He remained Director until 1955. Thereafter, students of Geramb’s succeeded him, namely Hanns Koren (Chair from 1955 to 1972) and Oskar Moser (1972 to 1984). From 1986 to 2007, Editha Hörandner was Ordinaria for Volkskunde and Chair of the Institute. Since 2009, Johanna Rolshoven (habilitation in Zurich) and Katharina Eisch-Angus (habilitation in Regensburg) have occupied the post. Elfriede Grabner, an internationally significant representative of folk medicine, also habilitated at the Institute, as did Leopold Kretzenbacher. Further scholars to have habilitated at the Institute in Graz include Elisabeth Katschnig-Fasch, Helmut Eberhart, Adelheid Schrutka-Rechtenstamm und Burkhard Pöttler.