Ph.D. student, Department of History, University of Bern
Researcher, Swiss National Science Foundation Sinergia-Project Doing House and Family. Material Culture, Social Space and Knowledge in Transition (1700-1850)
Describe your dissertation research. What about it drew your interest?
Thanks to the existence of thousands of bankruptcy records, a fascinating institutional arrangement, the Bernese bankruptcy regime (the Geldstag) can be studied over the course of the long 19th century. My PhD thesis, Failing Households? Credit, Uncertainty, and the Bankruptcy Proceeding of the Bernese Geldstag, 1750-1900, explores how society dealt with individual economic failure in the longue durée. While going through hundreds of bankruptcy cases, I was fascinated by the general lack of moral judgement and fundamental criticism towards the procedure. I set out to investigate how and why the Geldstag seemed to be so widely socially accepted and was replaced only once the Swiss federal bankruptcy law went into effect in 1892. The origin of the so-called Geldstag as a bankruptcy and probate institution dates back to the 15th century. As early as 1614, the Geldstag procedure freed debtors from imprisonment. Since 1761, a law-based institutional way of resolving failed economic relationships through the Geldstag was established. The relating bankruptcy regime can be described as differentiated and inclusionary. A high degree of publicity and solidarity among debtors and creditors was characteristic of the procedure. The resilience of the Geldstag as an institution is remarkable. Noteworthy are striking differences in an international comparative perspective.
The working title of your post-doc project is “Contested Future Imaginations of Urbanization: Tokyo, New York City and Zurich 1960-1990.” What inspired you to bring these three cities into conversation with each other? What commonalities do you see between them?
On a personal level, all three cities hold a very special place in my life. As an object of scientific enquiry, they each are fascinating in their own right. Tokyo and New York City are often mentioned as powerful global financial hubs, for example in the work of Saskia Sassen. Obviously, the size of the population of Zurich excludes the city from ranking among very top Global Cities. Yet, all three cities can be described as benefitting from the processes of globalization in the second half of the 20th century. Most importantly, all three cities perceive themselves as historical actors capable of shaping their own future when faced with the challenging developments of a rapidly globalizing world. Focusing on the future imaginations of urban actors between 1960 and 1990 will allow me to explore how local contexts shaped the different collective ideas of the future. Furthermore, highlighting the radical uncertainties regarding the coming era and including counter culture narratives without relying on explanations based on national or cultural stereotypes will add an intriguing dimension to current debates in global urban history and beyond.
What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars?
As a historian one of the things I wish to avoid is falling into the trap of hindsight bias, also known as the knew-it-all-along phenomenon. Therefore, I have a keen interest in the uncertainties that historical actors face when they think about and try to shape their futures. Against this background, the work of economic sociologist Jens Beckert is absolutely fascinating to me. His earlier work on social embeddedness (for example What is sociological about economic sociology? Uncertainty and the embeddedness of economic action (1996)) as well as his newer studies regarding the role that imagined futures play for the dynamism of capitalism (Imagined Futures: Fictional Expectations and Capitalist Dynamics (2016) and Uncertain Futures: Imaginaries, Narratives, and Calculation in the Economy (2018)) offer a useful conceptual framework for a detailed, empirical analysis of historical developments. I am very much looking forward to new publications relating to the “Imagined Futures”-project as well as the Max-Planck-Institute for the Study of Societies (on “The Future as a Social Fact”, Jens Beckert with Lisa Suckert). I also found Beckert’s article The Exhausted Futures of Neoliberalism: From Promissory Legitimacy to Social Anomy (2019) to be an interesting contribution to the current debate on the future (or lack thereof) of neoliberalism.
What advice do you have for graduate students preparing a dissertation project related to urban history or urban studies?
I will hand in my PhD thesis in around four months and so I am definitely still searching for answers to this question myself. Projects on urban history frequently ask for and profit immensely from interdisciplinary approaches. Keeping your eyes open for interesting concepts and methods which involve other disciplines can therefore be very fruitful, especially at the beginning of a new research project. Engaging with the city of research – in my case Bern – and visiting places I encountered in my sources added an extra layer of interest and sparked curiosity in my work. On a more general level: Setting milestones, working on reviews, presentations, and articles, participating in conferences, and looking for possible collaborations has helped me to stay motivated, stick to a schedule, and observe deadlines.
You have done research in the past on the Swiss embroidery industry. What was one of the best stories (or archival materials) that you uncovered while working on that project? Were there any embroidery trends of the late 1800s that we might find odd or curious today?
The mechanization of the embroidery industry began in the 1820s. The machine embroidery industry of Eastern Switzerland certainly profited from the long tradition of Swiss textile industries yet it can be described as a relatively independent and new industry. Its take-off moment occurred after the end of the American Civil War and the corresponding high demand for Swiss embroideries in the US. From 1865 until 1912, the Swiss embroidery industry experienced a nearly unprecedented boom and became Switzerland’s most valuable export industry. Over this time period, the city of St. Gall was referred to as the embroidery center of the world by contemporary observers. Before the outbreak of World War I, signs of a fundamental crisis emerged and over the course of less than 17 years the industry lost nearly all of its former standing. I was most intrigued by reading the protocols of several conferences that took place in St. Gall from 1913 to 1916, in which politicians, industry representatives, and entrepreneurs discussed what should be done but could not agree on the reasons for nor the solution of the crisis. At the time of the Great Depression, the industry was back to its mid-19th century size and the city of St. Gall, as well as the surrounding cantons constituting the industrial district, took decades to recover. In fact, the industry never recovered. One question I have repeatedly asked myself is why, and especially in the face of dramatic decline, the Swiss embroidery industry consistently and stubbornly addressed the demands of female fashion exclusively instead of turning to fashion for men to gain clients. Why was this venue never explored?