Hammer and Nails
Elena M. E. Kiesel

by Elena M. E. Kiesel

Elena Marie Elisabeth Kiesel is a historian and Research Associate at the University of Erfurt.

The concept of Eigen-Sinn is neither a theory nor a method. It is a conceptual approach to research that shines an analytical spotlight on human actions. Through this emphatically subject-focused perspective, in the late 1980s historian Alf Lüdtke opened up conceptually novel ways of investigating individual motivations for action. In the spirit of the cultural turn within the humanities and social sciences, which was associated with a shift away from the antiquated understanding of the term “culture as high culture,” the Eigen-Sinn approach to research focuses on the everyday.

Eigen-Sinn is not originally a scholarly term, but a word found in everyday German (as an English equivalent, albeit one with a vague meaning, Lüdtke suggests “self-reliance”). Primarily used in newspapers’ culture pages and the like or in literary works, today the word has a positive connotation, somewhere between appealing contrariness, charming eccentricity, and refreshing creativity. In addition, Eigen-Sinn crops up in contemporary articles on individual psychology and is often touted as the “royal road” to individual and collective resilience, that is, to persistence in the face of one’s powerlessness. The positive qualities ascribed to this “non-conformity” are rooted in the modern “ethical and aesthetic valorization of the individual” (Thomas Lindenberger) in view of social and political expectations and demands. According to Hegel (Phenomenology of Spirit), Eigen-Sinn is a “freedom that remains bogged down within the bounds of servility.” But Eigen-Sinn did not always have positive connotations. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the term “eigensinnig” meant something like “stubborn” or “intransigent,” and sometimes even “naturally driven” (in other words socially incompatible), as illustrated satirically by Kafka in his “A Report to an Academy” of 1917.

As a research approach in the discipline of history, Eigen-Sinn embodies a proposal as to how we might conceptualize (historical or contemporary) actors’ everyday action as a concrete object of investigation. In this context, acting subjects are envisaged neither as autonomous nor as subjugated. Instead, the subject-focused approach scrutinizes individual interpretations of human action, including how actors interpret their own action, within a variety of relations and structures of domination. For example, extending a contractually agreed break by a few minutes does not constitute a rebellion against the factory owner’s authority. It does create some personal breathing room (however limited) within a clocked working rhythm. Here the term Eigen-Sinn refers to the discrepancy between the meaning of a given order as intended by the powerful and the meaning actors attach to their actions within this order. Historian Thomas Lindenberger emphasizes that an outward congruence between ideological meaning and the individual ascription of meaning does not necessarily signify that the two are identical.

This research approach can enhance our understanding of both resistant and system-compliant action. Prior to the cultural turn and Lüdtke’s intervention, the scholarly focus was chiefly on the study of fundamental, ideologized drivers of human and social action. The practical and emotional dimensions of historical processes were considered only superficially, if at all. In contrast, Lüdtke’s focus was on the personal, individual motivations of historical actors—on what people “actually do” and their own perspective. By the late 1980s, he was already investigating eigensinnig behavior in the everyday factory life of the German Empire and, finally, individual attributions of meaning to system-compliant actions by workers under National Socialism. He pointed out that Eigen-Sinn means to be “with and for yourself” (following Hegel), to create “niches of space and time for yourself.” During the 1990s, this approach was implemented in research on the GDR by a group of scholars associated with Thomas Lindenberger. Since the early 2000s at the latest, the concept has also been deployed in the research design of other disciplines in the humanities and social sciences.

Further Reading

Suggested Citation: Kiesel, Elena M. E.: “Eigen-Sinn”, Voluntariness: History – Society – Theory, April 2021, https://www.voluntariness.org/eigen-sinn/

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