Humanities in Motion: Circulation of Knowledge in Postwar Sweden and West Germany

In the research project “Humanities in Motion” we—Johan Östling, Anton Jansson and Ragni Svensson—examine the circulation of humanistic knowledge in postwar Sweden and with West Germany as a point of comparison. The purpose is both to develop the circulation of knowledge as an analytical approach and to provide concrete contributions to the exploration of knowledge in postwar society. The project runs from 2019 to 2021 and our goal is to write a joint monograph that highlights a wide range of aspects of our topic.

The project has been designed within the framework of the history of knowledge. It is inspired by new tendencies in the history of science, global history, media history, the history of the book, the history of the humanities and other adjacent fields. A key analytical concept is circulation of knowledge—in other words, how knowledge is set in motion and how it is transformed in the process. This can mean investigations of how knowledge has been popularized, translated or disseminated, but also of the actors, arenas or media formats that have been instrumental in processes of circulation.

One of our ambitions is to develop the analysis of circulation in general terms. We do this by introducing the concept of “knowledge arena”. This can be understood as a place or a platform that within its given framework offers opportunities and sets limits for the circulation of knowledge. It serves as a meeting point for certain types of knowledge actors and audiences. In order for it to be an arena that promotes the circulation of knowledge in society at large, it must usually have a measure of stability and persistence.

Our empirical research comprises comparative studies of public arenas of knowledge. Johan Östling will analyse humanistic knowledge in postwar mass media. In a first study, he takes his point of departure in the newspaper Svenska Dagbladet’s daily essay-page “Under strecket” and its leading actors. Based on this, he expands his scope to the role of the press as an arena for the circulation of academic knowledge. In another study, he focuses on certain dimensions of broadcast media, especially early television. Several of the leading figures who appeared here in the 1960s had a solid academic background and were instrumental for promulgating scholarly knowledge.

Anton Jansson in his first study investigates the postwar Christian public sphere. This period is often regarded as relatively secular, but there were strong Christian movements, opinions and institutions. This is thematised as a specific segment of the public sphere with its own actors, arenas and audiences. In focus in this study is Christian cultural journals, wherein humanistic knowledge had an important function. In Jansson’s second study, focus is shifted from a specific form of arena to the circulation of a knowledge object in different arenas. Studied here is the secularization thesis, that is, the theory that religion is necessarily disappearing from modern societies. This theory is today challenged, but had a strong position during the 1960s. The secularization thesis was discussed in the Christian public sphere, but will also be studied in other arenas, connected to politics, culture, and education.

Ragni Svensson’s two contributions to the project examine the circulation of humanistic knowledge from a book market perspective. The first study analyses the popularization of the humanities through the so-called paperback revolution in the 1960s and 1970s. Particular attention is paid to Bonnier’s popular science series, Aldus, published between 1957 and 1977. Aldus is one of the most important Swedish examples of a paperback publication with a popular-educational ambition, partly based on patterns from West Germany. In her second study, Svensson examines the circulation of humanistic knowledge within the Swedish book cafe movement during the 1970s. The socialist book cafes were examples of how a knowledge arena can act simultaneously as an outward-looking activity with the purpose of influencing a public opinion, and inwardly as part of a kind of counter-public, or alternative knowledge arena.

All in all, the research project “Humanities in Motion” has several overarching purposes. Firstly, we strive to develop the discussion on the circulation of knowledge in theoretical terms, not least by introducing the concept of knowledge arena. Secondly, we hope to offer empirical concretion to the often general and programmatic statements that so far have characterized the history of knowledge. Thirdly, we would like to challenge the recurrent notion of “the crisis of the humanities” during the postwar period and instead demonstrate the importance that humanistic knowledge had in the public sphere. Finally, we believe that with our focus on the pre-digital world of the 1960s and 1970s, we can help to put today’s increasingly digital existence into a historical perspective.

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