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A Commuter between Cultures – 2015 Max Planck Research Award recipient Prof. Bryan S. Turner to research in Potsdam

Prof. Bryan S. Turner. Photo: Karla Fritze.

Prof. Bryan S. Turner. Photo: Karla Fritze.

On a proposal of the University of Potsdam, the 2015 Max Planck Research Award, one of the most highly endowed and prestigious academic prizes in Germany, has been awarded to internationally renowned social scientist Bryan S. Turner from the City University of New York. Turner intends to use the prize money of €750,000 to raise the level of cooperation with the University of Potsdam to an institutional one. A “Centre for Citizenship, Social Pluralism and Religious Diversity” will be set up to involve more young academics.

“When I was researching the significance of Islam in the work of Max Weber in the 1970s, I was considered exotic. Students were also not interested in the topic. But this all changed abruptly after 9/11.” The 71-year-old New Yorker, thus, felt particularly gratified to receive this award, also as an acknowledgement of his perseverance as a researcher.

His books and essays now fill bookstore shelves, and new ones are constantly being published – on the relationship between religion and modernity as well as medical sociology, economics, and philosophy. Turner’s main research interest is secularization in pluralistic societies. He has worked on this topic not only in the US and Germany, but also in Singapore, Australia, and the Netherlands. “I have also been able to accumulate cultural experiences in everyday life,” says the ever-curious researcher.

Civil rights as an instrument of social closure?

“This is another highlight in my international research cooperation with the University of Potsdam,” Turner said at the award ceremony held in Berlin in early December 2015. “It comes at an ideal time given the refugee crisis and all the challenges facing modern pluralistic societies ever since religious issues regained prominence in public debate.”

Jürgen Mackert, Professor of Sociological Theory at the University of Potsdam, nominated Turner for the Max Planck Award. Mackert first encountered the issue of civil rights while working with refugees in the 1980s. As a sociologist, he wanted to find out why refugees were being treated differently. “Some are permitted to work; others aren’t. Some are granted a status that allows them to bring their families; others aren’t. I then developed an interest in discussing civil rights mainly as an instrument of social closure,” the researcher explains. He found an open ear in Turner, who also likens civil rights based on national sovereignty to “some sort of exclusive club membership”. Those who already belong have little interest in increasing the membership. Mackert received fruitful insight for his Ph.D. thesis from Turner. A lively exchange between the two researchers continues to this day. 

The Potsdam sociologist is very happy that “as a result of this 20-year cooperation, a new institutional level will be established at the University of Potsdam”. It will also allow him more face-to-face discussions with the CUNY social scientist on religious, social, and cultural pluralism in modern societies. 

Sharia and Pegida as research fields 

In the years to come, Mackert and Turner, together with both young international social scientists and young researchers from Potsdam, will be exploring the relationship between civil and human rights to determine the extent to which they contribute to current conflicts. The focus of last year’s Max Planck Research Award was “Religion and Modernity – Secularization, Social and Religious Plurality”. There could not have been a better link to Turner’s research interest. What is the significance of religion today? How can the universal validity of human rights be justified? What ensures cohesion in multicultural societies? Turner has been addressing such questions for decades.

The research of Turner and his team at the University of Potsdam will focus on comparative analyses of Islamic law as well as right-wing populist movements like Pegida to shine a light on their social repercussions. Turner will be working in Potsdam predominantly in the early summer, since he will be keeping his position as Presidential Professor of Sociology and Director for the Study of Religion at the City University of New York.

“I am a commuter between cultures,” he says cheerfully. “After all, we want to link our research activities with existing centers worldwide from the get-go. The US remains an interesting society to compare with, due to its heterogeneity.” Turner also does not want to be separated for too long from his wife and their newborn child.

The Project 

The Max Planck Research Award is funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research and is awarded annually by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation and the Max Planck Society to one researcher working in Germany and one working abroad. In 2015, the second award went to Hans Joas of Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. 

The Researchers

British-born Bryan S. Turner holds the position of Presidential Professor of Sociology and Director for the Study of Religion at the City University of New York (CUNY). His career path has taken him to the University of Essex and the University of Cambridge in the UK, Utrecht University in the Netherlands, Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia, the National University Singapore and to the renowned Wellesley College and then CUNY in the US.

Prof. Dr. Jürgen Mackert studied sociology at the universities of Heidelberg, Berlin (FU), and Frankfurt on the Main. He has been Professor of Sociological Theory at the Faculty of Economics and Social Sciences of the University of Potsdam since 2009.


Universität Potsdam Wirtschafts- und Sozialwissenschaftliche Fakultät
August-Bebel-Str. 89
14482 Potsdam 
E-Mail: juergen.mackert@uni-potsdam.nomorespam.de

Text: Silke Engel
Translation: Monika Wilke
Published online by: Agnetha Lang
Contact for the online editorial office: onlineredaktion@uni-potsdam.nomorespam.de