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DFG Research Unit

Rules for a better life in the city

München, 12/19/2014

A new DFG-funded Research Unit at LMU will focus on the kinds of ethical conflicts that can arise between the diverse and divergent lifestyles found in modern urban settings.

Foto: air /

The overarching theme of the work of the new DFG Research Unit is encapsulated in its title: “Urban Ethics: Lifestyle Conflicts in the Cities of the 20th and 21st Centuries”. Its members will be looking at matters such as sustainability and affordable accommodation, with particular reference to ethical stances and arguments, and how conflicting viewpoints can be reconciled through processes of negotiation. “Certain problems are endemic to cities, but they have always been debated in the light of norms and possibilities that are specific to the era considered. For example, the issue of affordable living space has until quite recently been viewed primarily in political and economic terms. Nowadays the question is more likely to be considered from an essentially ethical perspective,” says Johannes Moser, Chair of European Ethnology at LMU and Spokesperson for the Research Unit, as an instance of the type of comparative approach the new venture will take.

The collaboration will use the example of Munich itself to inquire into the formation and evolution of protest movements directed against high rents, the demolition of existing housing and the conversion of affordable residential accommodation into luxurious homes for the affluent. “We are interested in how the inhabitants of the city go about finding effective ways to voice their objections to such developments,” says Moser, and points specifically to the imaginative actions carried out by the Goldgrund Initiative, whose members – often outfitted in gorilla costumes – renovated an apartment in a building that was scheduled for demolition.

Members of the Research Unit will carry out a number of thematically related case studies focused on specific cities, all of which will attempt to elucidate the values and visions that inform the aspirations of urbanites worldwide. Urban communities are increasingly confronted with appeals that are fundamentally ethical in character, such as calls to alter their lifestyles and behavior in an ecologically responsible manner, in the interests of sustainability. This provides the context for a planned study by a team of ethnologists and anthropologists which is devoted to the city of Auckland. The project will try to tease out how its citizens conceptualize their notions of cleanliness and dirt, and respond to efforts to influence their behavior by means of both regulative and participatory measures.

Another case study deals with Tokyo, and asks the question whether the Japanese capital is “on the way to the Slow City,” to cite the project’s title. In cooperation with the Institute for Japanese Studies, the researchers involved will look at initiatives designed to reduce the pace of everyday life in the metropolis. Further projects in Bucharest, Istanbul and Moscow will look at models of urbanity, the ethics of town planning, urban renewal and the preservation of architectural heritage, and how creative forms of urban protest evolve under the constraints imposed by authoritarian regimes.

The interdisciplinary Research Unit, which has been funded for three years in the first instance, brings specialists in the fields of Ethnology, History, Japanese Studies, Turkic Studies, European Ethnology and Economic Geography from LMU together with colleagues from the Institute of Urban Development and Regional Planning at the Technical University of Munich (TUM).