In Search of the Geopolitical and Epistemic Relocation of Czech Social Sciences

by Tereza Stöckelová

How to avoid the ‘catching up’ framework and participate in contemporary scholarly and political debates as they happen? This is a key issue for the social sciences and societies today in Central and Eastern Europe. Now that the myth about the West being a source of ready-made solutions has been shattered, CEE scholars need to work towards making conceptual and theoretical contributions that draw on the specificity but avoid the essentialisation of the Eastern geopolitical and epistemic location.

After the transformation of the political and economic regime started in November 1989, the country – Czechoslovakia and later the Czech Republic – was searching for a way to articulate its own geopolitical, as well as its epistemic, location. While ‘capitalism’ was not the preferred option of the majority of the population (people favoured more a ‘mixed economy’, as was revealed in a rare public opinion poll on this issue in the early 1990s), the consensus about heading ‘West’ and ‘back to Europe’ prevailed as the desired geopolitical direction. Importantly, this consensus was shared across social classes and regions in the country.

This new situation was of course reflected in and by the social sciences, which have played an important role in this relocation process of the country. Some social scientists and philosophers – who had been part of official research institutions or active in political dissent – became new MPs or even members of government (these were in most cases economists), others worked (part time) contributing commentary to major newspapers, and yet others obtained expert positions in various public bodies. In academia, an influential stream of ‘transition research’ was established, concerned with issues of the country’s ‘distance’ and ‘delay’ behind the developed West and with what was the best course of action to ‘catch up’.

The ‘lagging behind/catching up’ framing was interesting for and supported by a number of Western scholars and foundations and opened up opportunities to publish work or take up research fellowships abroad (i.e. at Western universities and academic centres). The interest in this ‘country in transition’ from some Western scholars drew to some extent on their pre-1989 connections in socialist Czechoslovakia, which they had viewed as a laboratory in which to test the (failings of) socialism (Bockman and Eyal 2002). Conversely, many Czech scholars who had emigrated from socialist Czechoslovakia to the West made their careers in part by providing testimony directly from that ‘lab’. In post-1989 collaborations, the Czech social sciences were then to deliver the data that were to be incorporated into conceptualisations and theories developed in Western academia. And in the wider field of public policy-making and debates, many existing policies were dismissed as socialist and abandoned, with the help of international experts and local ones, newly trained in the West. Interestingly, as Jehlicka and Smith (2012), for example, have argued with respect to practices of self-subsistence and community agriculture, some of the policies and practices dismissed as supposedly “socialist” in the Czech Republic have meanwhile come to be viewed and supported as largely innovative in the West.

The catching-up framing was not without criticism. Feminist researchers and activists in particular had been uncomfortable since the early 1990s with being ‘lectured’ on women’s emancipation and gender equality. They highlighted genuine local histories of women’s rights (the implementation of which in many respects preceded developments in the post-WWII West). However, catching-up framing embraced by the Czech social sciences remained ascendant. In some respects, this was convenient for local scholars, who could use this framing, for example, to position themselves legibly within EU research consortia. While the place of Czech members of these consortia may have varied, it was definitely difficult for a Czech participant to get out of the position of being a kind of pupil whose role is to supply data on a ‘backward/underdeveloped’ country and who herself is supposed to learn the standards of good social research (Stöckelová 2016).

This is not to say there was not much to learn from our Western colleagues. European ideas, initiatives, and resources supported and drove many useful domestic developments, including the support for critical and activist streams of social research. However, the unquestioned equating of quality with the ‘West’, as was witnessed with respect to the criteria used in research assessment, had negative consequences, such as a drift away from locally relevant social research (Stöckelová 2012; for evidence of similar phenomena in Spain, see López Piñeiro and Hicks 2015). In wider social contexts, the uncritical promotion of the West promulgated in the mainstream media and political debates, along with the unequal distribution of opportunities across the country’s regions and social and professional groups to benefit from EU funds surely contributed to the currently very high level of Euroscepticism in the Czech population (CVVM 2018).

No contribution without convolution

As female researchers who entered academia in the new millennia, we definitely belong to a class, generation, and gender that hugely benefitted from the alignment with the West. We have participated in a number of EU projects where we have learnt a lot; and by publishing in impact factor (Western) journals we have managed to secure relatively stable jobs and recognition for what mainstream Czech social sciences would deem our slightly ‘weird’ research agendas. This author is indeed writing this essay during a research fellowship at the Copenhagen Business School, supported by an international mobility grant provided under the EU Operational Programme Research, Development and Education. We feel at home in Europe, as citizens and researchers. However, for us this primarily means that we want to contribute something original and valuable to international debates, which are still largely centred in the West, but are hopefully moving towards becoming more provincialized (Lin, Law 2014; Law, Lin 2017; Stöckelová, Klepal 2018), with less clear-cut borders, centres, and peripheries. To achieve this, we need to appreciate the unique localised experiences that exist in the society we live in, without, on the one hand, seeing the difference as indicative of backwardness in relation to Western Europe or, on the other hand, essentialising it as something incommensurable with the West. This is, of course, more easily said than done.

We have taken two steps in this respect. The easier one, at least conceptually though not necessarily politically, was to reshape the way we relate to the West in domestic discussions. This is what we have been striving for ever since the KNOWING project.[1] The internationalisation (i.e. Westernisation) of research has been seen as a desirable aim for science since the 1990s – first by a group of, mainly, natural scientists (many of whom had experience abroad in the 1990s or even before 1989) and later by policy-makers and in research policies. This largely manifested itself in the imperative of IF publication as an unquestioned proxy for quality. Western academia tended to be idealised as a utopian place where quality science is produced and research policies work smoothly to support excellence. These policies were referred to as a model to be imitated, and were imagined as a source of ready-made solutions to adopt. With this image paving the way, quantitative, IF-centred research evaluation started to be implemented in the 2000s. When, a little later, players in local industry succeeded in influencing research policies and evaluation frameworks in favour of ‘applied research’ and ‘innovation’, to the detriment of more fundamental research projects in universities and public research institutions, the academic community protested by pointing to local parochial interests and, again, citing Western standards (Linková, Stöckelová 2012). All sides in this dispute, however, kept referring to the West as a model, and international actors, such as Technopolis Group, were invited to serve as supposedly disinterested and most competent arbiters. The dispute then was basically over different interpretations of Western research policies, which were imagined by all as unproblematic.

We set out to elaborate a different position. Based on our research experience from the KNOWING project and current STS literature, we have been well aware of many problems, tensions, and struggles that exist in Western academia and we looked for and experimented with various ways in which to make these a part of the Czech debate. Our book, published in as outcome from the KNOWING project, titled Czech science in flux: the ethnography of making, administering and enterprising knowledge in the academy (Stöckelová 2009), is intended to do just this: to situate Czech developments and disputes over research policy within the context of wider international questions and struggles. In 2009 we also organised a half-day conference in the Senate of the Parliament, where we invited our British colleague from the KNOWING project, Lisa Garforth, to give a keynote – not on the ideal British model but on the problems and tensions surrounding research assessment! However, we were (then) regarded as too junior and perhaps too (female) gender-marked to attract serious attention from senior policy-makers and research managers. Even today our mission is an ongoing exercise, and, somewhat paradoxically, the biggest impact is still made by ‘importing’ senior Western scholars to talk about problems (we have hosted, for example, Paul Wouters and Sarah de Rijcke, Alan Irwin and Maja Horst or Barbara Adam). It is only recently that the Czech academic community started to acknowledge (with the help of such initiatives as the San Francisco declaration and the Leiden Manifesto) that the West is not a source of ready-made solutions or salvation but is a dynamic space of experimentations and struggles that we have no other option but to join.

The second, more difficult step has to do with developing analytical languages and research strategies that can actively engage with (Western) social theory and conceptualisations in critical terms, while avoiding the traps of the supposed incommensurability and essentialisation of our location (which, in our view, to some extent happened to Law and Lin (2014) when they tried to draw ‘lessons from a Chinese Medical Practice’ for STS; for more on this, see Stöckelová and Klepal 2018). This requires steering clear of grand explanatory schemes (about Socialism, Postsocialism or even Totalitarianism, as well as Democracy and Capitalism) and meticulously attending to the empirical specifics of and similarities and differences between various socio-material, political, and discursive terrains. Applying symmetrical analytical vocabularies to supposedly incommensurable realities is a classic strategy of actor network theory (and after), and this strategy definitely proved useful in our studies.

But this is not enough. Our aspiration has been to derail and rephrase some of the social sciences’ established concepts in the light of our empirical material and also to perhaps come up with new ones, which would not, however, thereby lose their potential to speak to international audiences. Speaking from one of the ‘other epistemic places’ (Garforth and Stöckelová 2012), we tried to critically reappraise the notion of immutable mobiles (Stöckelová 2012). We argued that science policies and science studies largely share an understanding of scientific knowledge and objects as immutable mobiles, and an analysis of research assessment in a non-Anglophone country and its effects on the social sciences can shed new light on this shared notion. The preference for immutable mobiles in assessment regimes pushes social scientists to publish in specialised, usually Anglophone journals, which can have the effect of diminishing the local relevance of the knowledge they produce and contributing to the global convergence of societies (Stöckelová 2012).

We also sought to relate a conversation about the phenomenon of ‘predatory publishing’ in so-called ‘developing research systems’ to the ongoing debates about and concerns with the research assessment, publication productivity, and audit culture that currently preoccupies Western academia, and argued for the need for translocal and inclusive open-access collaborations and initiatives extending beyond the West (Stöckelová and Vostal 2017). Most recently, based on our study of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) in the Czech lands in the 20th and 21st centuries, we also reconsidered the notion of biomedicalisation. We argue that the CAM practices we examined can play a pioneering role in advancing some of the processes described as ‘biomedicalisation’ by Clarke and colleagues (2003, 2010) and that the concept of biomedicalisation may thus be misleading in how it explicitly links significant transformations in current health-care practices to biomedicine alone (Klepal, Stöckelová, forthcoming).

It is interesting to observe that such efforts resonate in some ways with wider political developments in the country. After years of a deadlock between two rather extreme, though in fact passive positions of either preaching for or rejecting the EU (with the rejection side receiving a huge boost from the recent ‘immigration crisis’), the current Prime Minister set out to articulate a different position and relationship to the EU – one of actively engaging in and shaping the EU’s agendas. Such an active stance and sustained efforts aimed at the sensible use of incoming EU funds, which would clearly benefit a wide share of the population, are the only long-term and robust ways of getting away from Czech Euroscepticism. We indeed believe that articulating a location outside the dichotomy of either ‘catching up with the West’ or essentialising ‘our’ Post/Socialist (Czech or Central European) difference and claiming exceptionalism is crucial not only for intellectual reasons but also in wider political terms.


This essay was written with the support of a grant for the project ‘The international mobility of researchers of the Institute of Sociology, Czech Academy of Sciences’ (no. CZ.02.2.69/0.0/0.0/16_027/0008471) awarded by the EU Operational Programme Research, Development and Education.

[1] KNOWING was a project conducted within the 6th Framework Programme with partners from the AT, CZ, FI, SK, UK (project no. 17617). For more information, see the preceding text in this section.