Englishmen read "Sunday Dispatch" in the subyway (1935); bpk / Erich Salomon
Project (2011-2023)

Translating Everyday Experience into Social Knowledge: Central European Feuilleton Culture around 1900

This project is dedicated to exploring the links between the history of the feuilleton and knowledge production from the end of the nineteenth to the middle of the twentieth century. In this period, often described as the “feuilletonistic age,” the feuilleton became an established section of Europe’s daily newspapers. The feuilleton was a space within the newspaper devoted to commenting and reflecting on cultural phenomena, such as art exhibitions, inventions, literary novels, and musical events, but also social phenomena such as ethnic diversity, changing social mores, and class fragmentation. It gave rise to novel styles of reporting that went beyond the attempt to factually report events and rejected claims to objectivity. Instead, contributions to the feuilleton were intentionally engaged in subjective meaning-making. Coinciding with the more general growth of print journalism and the height of cross-national newspaper consumption, the feuilleton itself achieved broad popularity and created practices of reading and talking about its contents. At the same time, it was lamented as being superficial, unserious, and having only entertainment value.

The aim of this project is to show that the history of the feuilleton cannot be reduced to a literary genre, to a footnote of press history or, even, to the beginning of “newstainment.” It has, instead, to be located within a cultural history of knowledge production. The feuilleton is of interest as a formal venue for discussing and processing social and cultural information; it provided methods and tools that allowed readers to form judgments and make sense of contemporary social and cultural issues before this knowledge was transferred into disciplinary social science.

A central question to be investigated, then, is what methods of observation and writing techniques were used by feuilleton journalists to create social knowledge? How did these differ from those of news journalists? In other words, how did feuilleton writers move from the ephemeral details of everyday life to larger claims of social truth that were then received as forms of social knowledge? How did they negotiate the tensions between short newspaper deadlines, transient everyday subjects, and the aspiration of writing enduring analysis? What were the personal aims and social backgrounds of feuilleton journalists and their readers? Finally, the project investigates to what extent feuilleton writers anticipated, and perhaps even contributed to, the emergence of the academic disciplines of sociology and contemporary history.

The project takes as its starting point a group of journalists in German-speaking Central Europe, from the 1890s onwards, who developed novel reporting styles and who devoted themselves to the observation of the social world. They found their topics in multifold occasions and locations such as exhibitions, concert halls, travel experiences, street life, and many more. The project applies the approach of historical anthropology to this heterogeneous group and places the feuilleton in its immediate material and social culture.

News & Press

Research Scholar Hansjakob Ziemer quoted in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on the history of music