Economics and Culture (E&C)

We humans live in complex ecological systems whose material flows provide us with drinking water, food, and the air we breathe. But as people we also live in complex social systems in which we organise ourselves, learn, and create meaning. In the Economics and Culture programme we understand the transition to sustainability holistically and enquire into what it means to achieve both ecological and social sustainability. 
 
We are especially interested in two sub-systems within the social system: the economic and cultural systems. In the economic system, goods are produced and services are provided, resulting in more or less material prosperity for the people who live there – depending on the performance of the economy. This performance depends in turn on the capabilities that people can develop and the resources at their disposal in the form of land, housing, raw materials, machines and tools. The credit sector plays a decisive role as a control system that steers economic activities. The cultural system refers to the ways in which we acquire our worldviews – starting with language and the terms people use and extending to the values, routines and norms that guide us. The emotional ‘investment’ in these guiding values can in turn be read and represented in ‘culture’ in the more narrow sense, i.e. in the arts. 
 
So in the Economics and Culture programme we are interested both in the internal dynamics of these systems and their interactions with each other – and in the ways they encourage or hinder transformations towards sustainability. Albert O. Hirschman’s idea of trespassing informs our linking of cultural and economic research interests. It refers to a conscious encroachment on and integration of various social sciences in order to explain economic matters. In this way, we can meet the challenge of establishing culture as a fourth dimension of sustainability, alongside the three more familiar dimensions: the economy, the social sphere, and ecology. And even for questions of little immediate economic relevance – such as that of natural conditions in the Anthropocene – we believe it is helpful to include a comparison of cultures (in the broader sense) and sciences of culture (in the narrower, artistic sense) in our work.
 
The research questions currently addressed by our programme include:
 
  • What reforms of the global finance system are required to mobilise large-scale investment into green infrastructure? 
  • How do economic policymakers deal with situations of ‘deep uncertainty’, where they are basically unable to predict future developments, or, rather, how should they deal with such situations? What role does this play for the coordination of expectations? 
  • What leeway for reflection on fundamental questions do people involved in the daily business of economic policy have?
  • How should incentive-based economic instruments for sustainable agriculture be designed? 
  • Is the concept of ‘environmental consciousness’ still viable, applicable and relevant in the Anthropocene?
 
In addition to the above questions that are firmly situated and investigated in the area of Economics and Culture, the programme also has links to other IASS programmes. Examples include the search for an alternative electricity market design and the question of what conditions favour a culture of participation in public administration (in the Transformation of the Energy System programme); the investigation and promotion of an economic and cultural appreciation of soils (in the Sustainability Governance programme); or the role of economic and cultural factors for sustainability research in the Arctic (in the Air Quality in the Context of Global Change programme). 
 
The research activities we are currently engaged in include:
 

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