Our Blog

Voluntariness is more than voluntary civic engagement. Appeals for voluntary self-conduct, compliance, and sacrifice permeate our daily routines. For instance, we are called upon to take good care of our bodies and make the best of our lives, work overtime (because we love our jobs), or use a Corona tracing app and thus be a responsible citizen. Voluntary practices such as these are performed as acts of freedom, yet are enabled, endorsed, and sometimes demanded by manifold expectations and conditions beyond our reach.

This blog explores the power structures and practices of voluntariness, while examining how people and societies are governed through it. We probe the conditions under which this operates and how voluntariness has changed over time and in different places. Our blog is made up of individual contributions by a variety of authors. Each has their own perspective on voluntariness, and they evaluate and discuss the term in different ways. Contributions by members of the research group provide an insight into how we ourselves seek to understand voluntariness as a multifaceted analytical concept and which methodological tools we consider crucial in this regard. At the same time, we want to highlight as many perspectives on voluntariness as possible while also enabling external authors to have their say. The range of our own topics and approaches is already highly diverse and is tailored to the specific foci of our projects. Guest contributions broaden our field of vision even further, helping us to engage in critical dialogue with each other and to compare contrasting approaches. We invite you to follow our monthly contributions and to participate in the debate on our key themes by leaving a comment.

All Posts

Joys and Challenges of Researching Voluntariness II

By Mitchell Dean and Jürgen Martschukat

In Summer 2023, Australian sociologist and Foucault expert Mitchell Dean joined our research unit as Mercator Fellow. Since then, he and our group stayed in contact and he also participates in a workshop with former Mercator Fellow Alexandra Oeser in Paris-Nanterre this month. In the meantime, he and Jürgen Martschukat once more talked about joys and challenges of researching voluntariness in our second interview with visiting scholars in Erfurt.

Joys and Challenges of Researching Voluntariness I

By Alexandra Oeser and Jürgen Martschukat

In Summer 2022, sociologist and historian from the Université Paris-Nanterre, Alexandra Oeser, joined our research unit as Mercator Fellow. Since then, a rather long-term exchange has been established. She and Jürgen Martschukat recently took the time to reflect upon the opportunities and challenges of interdisciplinary and international cooperation.

Voluntary Urban Art Practices

By Pia Herzan

Several research trips for her project brought Pia also to Philadelphia, not just nicknamed as the “Cradle of Liberty” but also famous as the “Mural Capital of the World.” Read – and see! – more about the (re-)claiming of public space by voluntary urban art practices in Philadelphia.


By Florian Wagner

*** This post is currently only available in German ***

Voluntary Policing vs. Police Violence

By Mara Albrecht

The Central Citizens’ Defence Committee emerged in Belfast at the beginning of the conflict in Northern Ireland in 1969. It provides a case study in voluntary policing from a politically left position and in opposition to the state and official law enforcement.

Committing to Civic Education Voluntarily

By Pia Herzan

Self-government is one of the most crucial practices in a liberal democracy. Pia takes a look at the status quo of democratic knowledge and practices in the U.S. and how people as well as institutions are committing to it.

Twilight Areas of Voluntariness

By Meike Katzek

On December 6, 2022, our project team working on voluntariness and dictatorship organized a panel discussion with fellow historians in Erfurt. The discussion revealed some powerful possibilities as well as some grey areas of voluntariness as theme and concept.

Castles of Sand?

By Philipp Schink

Practices of voluntary cooperation might be perceived as castles made of sand. With time, however, they are being destroyed by the sea, according to a train of thought by one of our group’s philosophers. Is voluntariness waning as soon as state enters?

Voluntariness As a “Necessary Evil”?

By Elena M. E. Kiesel

“Mach Dir einen Kopf, Kollege!” – an appeal to potential “Neuerer” to participate in the workplace suggestion scheme of the GDR. Abaut what it meant to be a “Neuerer” we talked to contemporary witnesses in Eisenach last September.

Voluntariness and Love

By Christian Bock

What is voluntariness? Difficult to answer, but perhaps some brief observations in light of the ideas of Harry G. Frankfurt might help. On desires, love and voluntariness.

Who Dat in Lower Nine?

By Pia Herzan

Seventeen years ago hurricane Katrina had shown that man-made and natural disasters pose a particular risk to the vulnerable city of New Orleans. This post will take a closer look at New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward, Katrina’s aftermath and the role voluntariness played in it.

Voluntariness, Positive Action, and Neo-Colonialism

By Carolyn Taratko

On April 7, 1960, African leaders from across the continent converged on Accra to attend the conference on “Positive Action for Peace and Security in Africa.” In the shadow of the Sharpeville Massacre and French…

Óláfr Haraldsson - Olav der Heilige

Did Ǫlvir Die For Faith?

by Markus Dolinsky

When Norway’s Christian king, Óláfr Haraldsson, received a tip-off at Easter 1021 that his vassal Ǫlvir was presiding over a pagan feast of sacrifice, he dispatched his troops to summarily slay him and his…

War and Voluntariness

By Matthias Ruoss

When it comes to war, Brecht helps. In particular, his play Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder, written in 1939 during his Swedish exile and premiered in 1941 at the Schauspielhaus Zurich, with its ambivalent characters…

syringe, mask and vaccine

Voluntariness, COVID 19, and a Vaccine Mandate

By Jürgen Martschukat

Those satisfied with a cursory glance or who like to think in clear-cut categories are quick to view voluntariness as the core political principle of a society that privileges the autonomy of the free individual, a …

live life art

Voluntariness at End of Life

By Ben Colburn

I am a political philosopher by training. Most of my work has involved developing our understanding of individual autonomy. Joseph Raz uses the phrase ‘self-authorship’ to capture this core liberal ideal: my goal…


Doing Voluntariness in Empires

By Florian Wagner

To this day, empires seem to be everywhere. Scholars argue that the continuity of empire is due to its ubiquity, since empires covered most of the world, and due to its performativity, since most people…

Blue Ocean Wave

Living with Shockwaves

By Stefanie Graefe

When southwest Germany was hit by the “flood of the century” this summer, two aspects initially dominated media discourse: shock and dismay. Readers and TV viewers in Germany are accustomed to footage of…

aerial view of new york city and the world trade center

Uncle Sam’s (Post-)9/11 Calling

By Pia Herzan

Almost exactly twenty years ago, I set off on what was, at the time, the biggest adventure of my life—my high school exchange year in the United States. The first couple of weeks were spent soaking up the last…

woman with backback walking in a forest

Into the (Urban) Wild

By Pia Herzan

Walking differs cross-culturally, in its manifestations, and in the specific distances covered. As a habitual practice, the bodily technique of walking exists in different forms, depending on the society and social…


Are We Fated?

By Elena M. E. Kiesel and Markus Dolinsky

Pagans against Christians, brothers against brothers, free will against fate: in the Canadian-Irish television series Vikings viewers are immersed in a conflict-laden world characterized by a search for religious…

Of Voluntary Submission to the Power of Fitness

By Jürgen Martschukat

For weeks, I have been suffering from a leg injury. Nothing serious, but it keeps me from cycling, at least as much as I would like to. I miss my exercise, feel slightly off-balance, and fear getting out of shape. Yet…