The Centre of Excellence in Cultural Theory is a successor to the Research Centre of Culture and Communication of the University of Tartu, established as an interdisciplinary research institution in 2005. The Centre united nine research groups from the Humanities and Social Sciences, and in 2005-2007 successfully carried out a research project called “Methodological Problems of the Integration of the Culture and Communication Studies” (which resulted in 218 publications). This project demonstrated the great potential of research groups representing different disciplines for sustainable methodological and theoretical endeavours in studying the same object – culture. Relying on this experience, it is a natural step forwards to focus the research efforts of 8 of the most successful groups (see the list of research groups) on the task of elaborating a synergetic interdisciplinary research model in culture studies that we call the Chronotopical Theory of Culture.

The proposed Centre of Excellence aims at:

• Studying culture as a space-time continuum and its change by applying diachronic and synchronic approaches.
• Creating a theoretical explanatory model regarding cultural memory and the long-term developments of collective identities reflecting its historical continuity.
• Achieving a qualitatively new level in Estonian cultural studies in researching the mechanisms of cultural dynamics operating among the diverse groups of multicultural societies and between different levels of society.
• Developing complex methodology for successful research of culture systems and processes from an interdisciplinary perspective.
• Increasing synergy among various disciplines (that focus on similar research problems and objects, have coherent strategic aims and partly also analytical tools), achieved by combining different approaches originating from humanities, social and natural sciences.

The centre combines the knowledge and experience of 8 research groups representing different disciplinary backgrounds: human geography, cultural and biosemiotics, media studies, archaeology, sociology, folklore studies, ethnology, social anthropology, religious studies, but sharing the same study object – culture.

Theoretical Background, Objectives and Methodology

The joint research domain for the Centre of Excellence is comprised by the interpretations of cultural processes through the general conceptions of identity and memory.

Memory. Within memory research, differentiation is being made between social and cultural memory, collective and communicative memory, narrated and material memory, public and private memory. We study how the understanding of memory has altered in the course of time, respectively of how changes have occurred in disciplines and theoretical streams of thinking. (Thompson Klein 2000; Mittelstrass 2001; Plotkin 2001; Rastier 2001; Posner 2005; Agar 2006; Krotz 2006; Merz 2007; Silber 2007) Social communities allegedly generate a mechanism, for recording and transmitting the knowledge, skills, value attitudes, behavioural patterns, etc., acquired from their real-life experience, which can be referred to as collective memory. Collective memory (Olick 2003; 2007; Kivimäe 1999; Tulving 1983; van Dijk 2005; Lotman 2000) comprises symbolic manifestations and jointly conducted forms of ritual behaviour by way of which the community creates and upholds the feeling of togetherness or identity. Collective memory is always of a particular nature and expresses a mode as to how the given group of people wishes to deal with their experience of the past and that of the present in an acceptable way (usable past). The regimes regarding the arrangement of time, reflecting not only the stability but also the ambiguity and dangerousness of social life, are being echoed in collective memory (Ricoeur 2000).

Identity. A novel approach to the identity of different ethnic groups may be achieved by applying a flexible model of identity. In general, earlier studies have concentrated on describing and interpreting determinants, some core values or key symbols of the culture and identity of different groups (see Mauss 2000 [1938]; Benedict 1947; Mead 1963; Sapir 1993). Our basic idea is that identity does not depend solely on a set of stable elements that are anchored in the “core” of culture; instead, the identity of people is more flexible and continually changing due to unstable political, social and ideological environments and the inner development of local communities (Mukherji, Hurtado 2001; Turner 2006; Bazin 2006; Bennett 2007). We shall follow the ideas drawn from recent theories that interpret identity as discourse (Bhabha 2000; Chun 2005; Doja 2006; Gannon 2006), plastic, variable, complex, reflexive (Cohen 1995; Ortner 2005; Luhrmann 2006), multi-local, contemporary (Marcus 1998; Portis-Winner 2002), close to the native point of view (Geertz 2001 [1973]; Marcus & Fischer 1999) and subjective (Derrida 2000; Strauss 2006). Identity functions on many levels. Identities can be seen as processes that “weave together” multiple elements such as “fragments of discourses and images, spaces and times, things and people” (Edensor 2002: 29-30).

A pattern, of how the different disciplinary topics are woven into an interlinked theoretical framework, is presented in Fig 1:

Specification of Activities, Ways of Achieving Them and the Relevant Content

Aiming at the collection of the research data, the following speciality-specific and interdisciplinary methods will be implemented: sociological questionnaire polls, interviews, participant observation, visual documentation, archaeological excavations and landscape surveys, archival work. Regular seminars, held between research groups, are regarded as a substantive coordination of collection work, in order to find the potentially most fruitful cooperation opportunities for devising databases in accordance with the aims and subject matter of the project (see Fig. 1) and enabling interdisciplinary disquisitions.

The analysis of cultural systems and processes takes place within the framework of three major research complexes. The focus is on the cultural environment, self-descriptions of cultures and on the treatment of models explaining culture (see Fig. 1). In particular, the applied methods of analyses encompass speciality-specific and combined interdisciplinary ones, for example qualitative analysis of narratives, discourse analysis, frame-analysis of life stories, social networks analysis, genre and motif analysis, chronotopical analysis, etc.

Foreseeable Outcomes

The outcomes of the activities carried out by the Centre of Excellence will be as follows:
1. Complex methodology for research of culture systems and processes from interdisciplinary perspective.
2. Preservation of the collected empirical material (in the Estonian National Museum, Estonian Literary Museum, in the collections of the University of Tartu and these of the Institute of History at the Tallinn University, in the archives of the National Heritage Board) and making it publicly accessible pursuant to international rules.
3. Devising of interdisciplinary interpretation models regarding the cultural dynamics operating within the cultural groups and among the various societal levels in different multicultural societies and regions (in the given case, primarily Estonia and northern Russia).

Expediency of the Cooperation between Research Groups and the Added Value Born from Thereof

Overview of Disciplinary Approaches

In cultural geography, C. O. Sauer (1925) and later D. Cosgrove (1998) have described the temporal sequence of landscapes; landscape is here understood as manifestation of culture and not only nature; while every new societal system tries to create its own landscape by introducing its own symbols and value systems. Cultural geography also explains physical borders and mental barriers in the physical setting and conceptual understandings.

Archaeology gives us an 11,000-years perspective to compare and study the cultural processes of today, at the same time asking for present-day theories of culture and communication to interpret its materials.

In the field of Ethnology and Social Anthropology, we study the challenges and interpretation models regarding the cultural development of different ethnic groups, national minorities and regional groups, both at collective and individual levels.

Upon the elaboration of the interdisciplinary domain of Religious Studies, the focus of activities is on ritual, genre-specific and discursive social practices, in the course of which the religious understandings and fundamental values are moulded.

In Folkloristics, the relevance, within the given subject matter, lies in the connections of folklore and society within the context of mutual and concurrent impact of narrated memory and creativity. The research encompasses the social functions of folklore genres as the rethinkers of societal changes, their effect as the connectors and separators of lore groups and communities.

The contribution of Sociology to the current project is to analyse the smooth and abrupt social and cultural changes. First and foremost, the focus is on the treatment of the ways of coping, related to abrupt societal changes.

The contribution of the Media Studies will be in the analysis of the cultural function of mass communication especially in the times of rapid changes and ruptures in society, the media as a carrier of collective memory and experience.

The main domain of interest for Semiotics, in the given context, comprises the methodological analysis of the creation of meaning and cultural communication processes, theoretical analysis of cultural self-models and the Estonia-centered empirical analysis.

Expediency of Interdisciplinary Cooperation

1) For the first time in the history of Estonian humanities and social sciences, the focus is on the conceptual and content-wise points of contact between the social realities (as, e.g., ancient social and cultural systems, folklore-related heritage, everyday life practices, databases of human geography and sociology, life history narratives, media discourses, worldview-related developments, etc.) dealt with within the given disciplines;

2) Upon the analysis of the developments in culture, within the perspective of 11, 000 years, a new synchretic approach will be developed in order to describe the mechanisms of cultural memory and for explaining the developmental phenomena of culture; a methodology will be devised for the interdisciplinary analysis of the referred cultural phenomena;

3) Intensification of communication between different disciplines with an aim to create heuristic moments and also to increase the mobility of researchers and doctoral students participating in various target-financed research subject matters;

4) The strengthening of cooperation between different disciplines facilitates an increase in the level of post-graduate studies in the field of Humanities at the Universities of Tartu and Tallinn;

The cooperation between the different research groups is shown in Fig. 2 (see below, Appendix).

The Expected Importance for Science, Socioeconomic and Cultural Development of the European Union and Estonia

The subject matter of the Centre of Excellence is in compliance with the challenge of the principles of European cultural politics for promotion of multicultural diversity and cultural identity (see Intercultural Dialogue 2007: online). Corresponding principles have also been formulated in the UNESCO Universal Declaration of Cultural Diversity (see UNESCO Universal Declaration: online).

This Centre aims to analyse the areas that have traditionally been the focus of interest for Estonian archaeology, ethnology and social anthropology, folklore studies, human geography, semiotics, and other social and cultural studies but the innovativeness of the project lies in the fact that for the first time, these disciplines will be combined to achieve an interdisciplinary synergy and a qualitatively new level in the research of culture as a space-time continuum.

This Centre also attempts to examine thoroughly, among others, different aspects of identity formation in a multi-cultural situation in which the sustainability of cultural and ethnic groups on the level of both the group and the individual depend considerably on their potential for innovation. The goal of this research is to identify the application of these potentialities in changing social and cultural situations. Previous work done by the members of the workgroups allows us to switch from our previous research topics to considering these timely and relevant issues.

This research project will be of remarkable social significance that eventually involves a larger socioeconomic potential by indicating particular social and cultural networks that implicitly reflect on economic practices. The management of identity politics will eventually influence the human potential in marginal rural territories as well as urban areas with multicultural population, which will bear a direct impact on the development of economy in different regions of Estonia.

Explanation as to how the Centre of Excellence Considers the Priorities of Estonian Research and Development Strategy

The activities of the Centre of Excellence in Cultural Theory are directly targeted at the fulfilment of the 3rd national research and development programme, stipulated in the Estonian Research and Development and Innovation Strategy 2007-2013, within the domain of research related to Estonian national culture, language, history, nature and the Estonian state. The main object of research for the Centre of Excellence is culture in its space-time continuum, encompassing, as a practical outcome, the generation, history and development of Estonian national culture. In addition, the research theme of the Centre of Excellence interrelates with the 2nd development programme of the above-mentioned Strategy, targeted at the solving of socioeconomic problems in today’s Estonia: by way of general and theoretical study of the mechanisms regarding the genesis of cultural traumas, it is possible to offer socio-political solutions for overcoming of the former in contemporary Estonian society. On one hand, this comprises the so-called horizontal conflicts of different cultures – between Estonians as the indigenous nation and the representatives of various ethnicities who arrived during the second half of the 20th century in the course of large-scale migration – at a general culture-related level, and, on the other hand, the vertical (social) problems that emerged within the course of the cultural trauma that took shape since the 1990s, during the transfer from a pseudo-egalitarian socialist society to a free market economy.


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