Award Holder: Vita Peacock
University: University College London
Title of Research: The last big-man standing: hierarchy and personhood in Germany's Max Planck Society

Bildung or 'personal culture': reflections on fieldwork in Germany

I would like to distil my own experience of fieldwork in Germany by using the cultural apparatus of the region itself: the notion of Bildung or, as the German scholar Walter Bruford translated it once, ‘personal culture’. Partly, this is a choice designed to show the exquisitely syncretic character of anthropological research, that it enables us to bring the perspectives of other cultures to bear on our own understanding. In any event, Bildung, is as the anthropologist Louis Dumont described, a cultural ‘institution’ in Germany. Not the familiar kind with walls and windows and ways of behaving (we will come to that next), but an institution of a noumenal sort, one which silently inscribes the boundaries of practical activity and sense-making, in which all human beings are engaged. For comparison, in a British context, one might talk about the institution, which comes to maturity in the 18th century, of ‘politeness’, and has a bearing today with how we comport ourselves with regard to one another, and what we feel to be proper, indeed polite. The word Bildung in fact emerges during the same epoch. Although its roots precede the late 18th century, it is during this moment and after, through the works of the ‘German Idealists’, that its meaning settles into a form recognizable to us today.

The philosophy of Bildung holds that the purpose of existence is to cultivate the self, indeed to ‘self-educate’ (today the word Bildung is identical to the German word for education). However, this is not simply through reading, or even specific goal-directed learning, but rather through the inherent indeterminacy of praxis. In this logic, the ultimate source of both knowledge and understanding lies in the realm of the experienced, and as such Bildung, like Wissenschaft (knowledge), is a process: never complete. Etymologically, Bildung originates from the word Bild, meaning ‘image’ or ‘form’. Through our experiences we are gebildet, or ‘formed’, a notion anthropomorphised in Goethe’s protagonist Wilhelm Meister, who by passing through a variety of cultural contexts is imprinted, and thus comes to understand himself and the world in a deeper, fuller way. However, this emphasis on self-education is not simply self-serving, by incorporating the world into oneself, the world is also changed therein. Through cultivating the self, society benefits, a two-pronged effect evident in Bruford’s seemingly oxymoronic translation: personal culture.
Bildung was a word I learned during fourteen months of fieldwork inside the Max Planck Society in Germany, a world-class knowledge factory which calls itself ‘Germany’s most successful scientific research organisation’. It is an organisation in some ways similar to my own of University College London (at least among the graduate community), with its huge hive of researcher-bees, buzzing away with relative independence, carefully adding their own little segment to the collective honeycomb of ‘current understanding’. It was a not a word people necessarily used (during the innumerable interviews I conducted and events I observed) but it was very much present in the ‘boundaries or practical activity and sense-making’ I mentioned earlier. For one thing, the Society, although accommodating students from undergraduate to PhD level, very self-consciously avoids any formal teaching (other than that which its employees choose to orchestrate). Instead, the ethos is ‘learning by doing’: which as I am told with much enthusiasm, is the ‘best way’ of accumulating expertise. Even the technical staff within the Society, learn their skills by means of a ‘practical training course’ or Ausbildung, which prioritizes autonomous, individualised, project-based learning, only intermittently supplemented by the necessary theoretical pedagogy.

Bildung was also a philosophy I came to understand doing fieldwork. Having arrived at one particular Institute of the Society in Berlin, with the intention of studying the kinds of activities these scientists were engaged in, I began to grasp the meaning of what is the dominant anthropological maxim, that its knowledge is produced through the experiences of its practitioners. After a month or so, I began to realise that the project I had oh-so-carefully designed prior to my arrival, did not map onto the passions and concerns of the participants I was speaking to. Through my experience of emotional disconnect, I came to apprehend those aspects of social life which mattered most, and thus were the most 'anthropologically interesting'. The themes (which we will come to shortly) were there in my fieldnotes within the first two or three weeks, but in fact it took me many months to recognize their real import, demonstrating how ferociously we are able to cling onto a priori assumptions, but also that with enough cognitively dissonant empiricism, we can elude imprisonment within the ‘hermeneutic circle’ (that external phenomena simply reconfirm pre-existing ideas about them).

The mental structure of my ‘pre-conceived ideas’ snapped one day with the immediacy of a thunderclap. Having spent an extensive amount of time with researchers within this institution, I had taken an increasingly profound interest in the institution. This is because it has a rather special social structure. Every Max Planck department is set up around the scientific vision of one particularly exceptional scientist, who has 'made his name' elsewhere (generally in the public education system) and at the point at which she has proven her potential, but has not yet fully realized it, is given the financial and material resources to carry it through. A Max Planck Directorship usually lasts from between twenty to thirty years, an extraordinary temporal commitment (the MPS is funded largely from taxation) in the era of five-year funding grants and political myopia. While the Director is a member of the Society for life (it is often referred to playfully as a 'club'), his staff, those scientist researcher-bees, usually run on short-term contracts of five years or less. So while the Director is invited to remain in his position for decades, the scientists occupy a labour role much like the class of medieval stonemasons, skilled and specialised, what today would be called 'knowledge-workers', and lodged in situ for a limited time only (until the cathedral is built / the experimental programme is concluded). Meanwhile, holding this Society together are the technicians, who like the Director, are also on life-long contracts. As one could imagine, while the scientists descend on the Max Planck from every country under the sun, the technicians are almost unanimously German, and very often come from the region where their respective institute is located. It is these employees who have spent several years completing their Ausbildung, an apprenticeship programme in which they learn to become a 'fine mechanic', or a 'laboratory technician'. The thunderclap came, when I realized how important this three-tier structure was to the social life of the organisation.

The logic of hierarchy thus became the central focus of my project. Indeed the word hierarchy in its earliest appearance literally means 'to divide into three'. This is no coincidence. The French student of myth Georges Dumézil, argued that 'tripartite division' is in fact a social morphology common to much of Indo-European culture. At this point one might be reminded of the British medieval notion of the 'three estates' (the clergy, the nobility and the commoners), or Plato's three-fold division of his Republic. There is something in Indo-European civilization which favours a trinity, the 'holy' kind being but one example of this. Yet while being comparable across a region, this hierarchy is also very peculiar to Germany. Firstly, the startling prominence of the Director exhibits an unusual faith in an exceptional personality, a hero of sorts much like the protagonists of Romantic novels (again, no coincidence), who do not know exactly where they are headed, but have the skill and the courage to proceed with an abstract confidence. Likewise, I was fascinated by the relative status of the technicians. While other 'anthropologists of science' had carried out their fieldwork in Britain and America, and had discovered, perhaps unsurprisingly, that technicians were at the bottom of the hierarchical heap, their counterparts in Germany did not fit this model at all. The explanation for this I would proffer, directs us again towards the logic of Bildung. It stresses that knowledge is acquired through praxis, thus as these technicians have been working on a similar range of problems since the age of sixteen when they begin their apprenticeships, they are considered extremely knowledgeable. As a consequence of being embodied within persons, this is knowledge which cannot simply be substituted for by another employee, but comes and goes with individuals. This is something one technical worker who has been at the same institute for 40 years as her Erfahrungswert, the 'value of her experience'.

This brings us to my penultimate point, and back to the start from which we began, that Bildung prioritizes the cultivation of the self. I will now touch on another aspect of fieldwork not yet fully drawn out. Phillips and Pugh in their self-help guide How to get a PhD, argue that a significant element of the doctoral experience which is frequently overlooked, is that a PhD involves not one but two types of creative production: the subject-researched (the PhD thesis) and the researching-subject (me). It must be said that much of fieldwork is characterized as an extended period of profound confusion. As the Dictionary of Anthropology states, it is a process akin to those initiation-rites anthropologists themselves often study, moments of important transformation where one is passing from one social status to the next (from childhood to adulthood, from student to teacher). However, it is a form of confusion from which one emerges blinking into a richer and more complex clarity. In a multitude of ineffable ways, fieldwork in Germany has altered the lens through which I view the world, an alteration like all those that experience produces, which is irreversible. In analysing a German institution in depth, I have come to see my own cultural context (the UK) in a different light. Anthropologists, as Marilyn Strathern argues, should take up their mantle as a 'community of critics'. Arguably it is only through the distancing effects of fieldwork, that one is able to do this.

I would like to end this short essay by taking up one final element of Bildung again in conclusion (and demonstrate the value of anthropology to the practical realities of everyday life): the idea that, through cultivating the self, society benefits. As I was carrying out fieldwork in Berlin, I observed my home-country from afar, gripped to my computer-screen as the social contract snapped, when the British government raised university tuition-fees to £9000-a-year, and my scholarly friends fell under baton charges when responding in protest. The contrast with my then location could not have been starker. At the same time, the various regional jurisdictions of Germany were actually progressively banning the charging of university tuition-fees altogether. Meanwhile those who do not attend university in Germany (some 67%) are provided with these 'practical apprenticeships' already discussed. This shows so clearly how national philosophies impact directly on the lives of their citizens; by retaining an emphasis on Bildung, on the cultivation of millions of German ‘selves’, they realize that society at large is enriched. In Germany there is not (yet) the selfish supposition that an individual’s education benefits only its recipient. They are fully cognizant that in cultivating oneself through education, one is better able to serve society. One final aspect of fieldwork, is that it is the primary route towards decades of teaching, surely a good example of this social philosophy.


Barfield, T., (ed.) (1997). The Dictionary of Anthropology, Oxford: Blackwell.
Bruford, W.H., (1975). The German tradition of self-cultivation, London: Cambridge University Press.
Dumont, L., (1994). The German Ideology: from France to Germany and back, London: University of Chicago Press.
Phillips, E., & Pugh, D., (2010). How to get a PhD: a handbook for students and their supervisors, Maidenhead: Open University Press.
Strathern, M., (2009). A community of critics,
Vierhaus, R., (1972). Bildung. In Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe 1: 508-51.