Political Sociology

The working group Political Sociology studies the manifold entanglements and interrelations between politics and society with a particular focus on the implications of processes of digitalisation and transnationalisation on regimes of government and citizen-state relations. One particular concern of the working group is to overcome the traditional division of labour along national demarcation lines between sociology and political science (whose research focuses traditionally on issues inside the nation-state), on the one hand side, and anthropology and International relations (which are traditionally concerned with ‘foreign policy’ and ‘foreign cultures’ outside the nation-state), on the other hand side. Through the study of relations, practices, connections and phenomena that criss-cross geopolitical borders and operate transversal to the local, the national and the global the working group tries to transcend this deeply entrenched methodological nationalism of the social sciences. In conceptual terms, the working group therefore tries to bring into dialogue and possibly combine insights, approaches and methodologies of these disciplines to contribute to the emerging field of an international political sociology.

Thematically, the research and teaching of the working group is located at the intersections of border, migration and citizenship studies as well as critical security and data studies and STS (science and technology studies). At present, the working group is primarily concerned with the following two lines of research:

(1) Cultures and Politics of Nonknowledge

This line of research combines material-semiotic approaches from STS with insights and concepts from the field of ignorance studies to study, expose and critique cultures and politics of nonknowledge. It presumes that (1) the relationship between knowledge and nonknowledge is not a zero-sum game; (2) that there operate different kinds of nonknowledge ranging from secrecy to the active production of ignorance, doubt and uncertainty as well as tacit social and cultural taboos; and (3) that nonknowledge – just like knowledge – is both productive and produced. Starting from these premises, this line of research is concerned with the following research questions: What kind of cultures of nonknowledge operate within particular professions, epistemic communities, political institutions and so forth? How does the circulation of different types of nonknowledge shape our understanding of particular objects of interest and matters of concern such as migration or identity? How do particular forms and modes of nonknowledge affect and reconfigure contemporary regimes and practices of government?

(2) Citizenship and Sovereignty in the Digital Age

Starting from the observation that processes of digitisation alter the material and socio-technical conditions for the enactment of citizenship and sovereignty, this line of inquiry investigates how the practical meaning as well as conceptual understandings of citizenship and sovereignty are reshaped in the digital age. One important analytical entry point for investigating these reconfigurations is offered by the digitisation of statist identification practices which are studied in context of the DigID-project. The project’s central question is how the turn towards digital identification practices affects the relations and transactions between citizens and state authorities (see below for further details). Based on empirical insights from this study, this line of research will also engage with the following, more fundamental question: How do we need to adapt and rethink central concepts of social and political theory such as citizenship, sovereignty or territory – which have been shaped during the formation of the modern nation-state – in the digital era?


DigID – Doing Digital Identities

DigID is an ERC-funded, five-year collaborative research project. It is concerned with the turn towards digital identification devices which are increasingly used and implemented by state institutions, private entities and international organisations in many countries around the world. This shift constitutes the most significant change in statist identification practices since the consolidation of the international passport regime in the 19th century. Digital ID devices like electronic ID cards providing access to government services via PINs, biometric databases, and blockchain-secured digital identity wallets are increasingly complementing, or even replacing, paper-based means of identification.

Yet so far, the implications of digital ID devices have mostly been studied in relation to criminal suspects and migrant ‘others’, not the normalized majority of citizens. This project uses this unique moment of change to assess how material citizenship—i.e., the technologies and infrastructures used to enact citizenship as a political subjectivity and a formal relation to the state—is reshaped in the digital age. Its principal research question is: How does the digitization of identification practices reconfigure relations between citizens and state authorities?

The project investigates transformations of citizen-state relations through digital ID devices at three sites: birth registration, citizen-government transactions, and border controls. Theoretically, the project draws on citizenship studies, science and technology (STS) and data studies to propose a conception of material citizenship as performative and sociotechnical and to advance a research agenda that focuses on the practical, epistemic, political, and ethical implications of digital identification. Methodologically, the project combines multi-sited ethnographies, textual analysis, and mapping to study the design, implementation, and use of digital ID devices in one international and five national case studies (see the brief descriptions below). In this way, DigID sheds light on the much-neglected material dimension of citizenship and shows how digital ID devices reshape the lived experience of citizenship—understood as a legal status, a form of membership in a political community, and a set of bottom-up practices for enacting social and political rights.

A team of five researchers (besides the PI, 2 Post-docs and 2 PhD-students) will engage with these questions through multi-sited, collaborative research in five national and one international case study. Each of the five country case studies is unique but is also indicative of larger developments, changes and transformations regarding the digitization of statist identification practices.

Estonia: The Baltic country is often cited as an example to follow in terms of digital identity and e-government. Today, two-thirds of Estonia’s citizens regularly use their eID-cards to access more than 2000 e-government services. Estonia’s government continually initiates new projects to refine and advance the country’s eID infrastructure to maintain Estonia's status as an unchallenged pioneer in terms of digital ID. Estonia’s unique e-residency program even makes a range of government services available to non-citizens. The Nordic Institute for Interoperability Solutions (NIIS) develops Estonia’s ‘X-road’ system into a cross-border e-government infrastructure with Finland and other EU member-states, which could evolve into a blueprint for a European Digtial ID Ecosystem.

Germany: As ‘Europe’s economic powerhouse’, Germany promotes EU standards for digital identities to realize the ‘digital single market’. Domestically, the government tries to increase – at times against the resistance of civil society actors – the use of e-government services, for instance through an app to make eID-card functions available on mobile devices. In its IDunion project, the Federal Printing Office develops blockchain-secured digital ID wallets in collaboration with 12 private entities. The federal police promotes, in turn, its EasyPass project as a European solution for automated border controls, while Germany's Chief Information Officer leads a program that aims to develop a ‘European ecosystem for digital identities’.

Indonesia: In Asia, Indonesia is an early adopter of digital ID devices, improving citizen-state transactions in a geographically complex environment. For instance, the country's Population and Civil Registration Agency already began to issue its citizens chip-equipped biometric eID-cards in 2011. To date, it continues to strive for full coverage of its eID-card system, which also plays a key role in ambitious plans to harmonize Indonesia’s fragmented ID program. Meanwhile, the National Team for Accelerated Poverty Reduction (TNP2K) runs pilot projects to improve access to vital social benefits in remote areas via digital ID devices, such as facial recognition and digital ID wallets.

Malawi: Led by the UNDP and support by the World Banks' ID4D initiative, the Malawian government managed to biometrically register 9 million people in the record time of 180 days in 2017 and to issue the same number of national ID-cards in 2018. Widely celebrated as a success story, the country's ambitious digital registration and identification system is supervised by the newly founded National Registration Bureau (NRB). Since its existence, a range of private actors and development agencies, such as banks, the NGO GiveDirectly or UNICEF run programs that build on the country new centralised civil registration system. Malawi’s Ministry of Home Affairs tries, in turn, to mobilise the new biometric ID cards for building a digital border management solution for the country.

Sierra Leone: The West-African country an important target country of the World Bank’s ID4D initiative. The country's National Civil Registration Authority (NCRA) has implemented a national eID-card program that links multi-modal biometric data with a unique national identity number (NIN). It provides the foundation for the plans of the Directorate of Science, Technology and Innovation (DISTI) to integrate datasets from various government information systems, including voting, tax, social service registers. The rollout of the eID-card program is ongoing and the government aims to achieve a coverage rate of 90% by 2025. The eID-card program is also meant to provide citizens with freedom of movement as well as access to government services across the 15 member states of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). In addition, through continued efforts by the NGO Plan International, the NCRA tries to increase birth registration rates in remote rural areas with the help of digital mobile devices.


  • Prof. Dr. Stephan Scheel

    Supervision of BA & MA Theses

    In the research group Political Sociology we are happy to supervise theses that deal with problems and issues at the crossroads of politics and society. In particular, we are happy to supervise theses on the following topics:

    - Flight, migration and citizenship
    - Border sociology and racism research
    - Science and Technology Studies (STS)
    - Critical security research
    - Production of non-knowledge (ignorance studies)
    - State production of knowledge (especially quantification and categorization)
    - Effects of digitalization processes on regimes of governance
    - Preparation for writing a scientific thesis

    The following questions are designed to help you prepare for your first consultation session regarding your thesis. Please try to answer the following questions as best you can. Then send your answers in a 1-page document in Word/Open-Office format by e-mail to Prof. Scheel at least 24 hours before your first consultation hour. Your answers will serve as a basis for discussion during the consultation hour and thus as an introduction to the supervision of your work. This means that you do not have to answer the questions conclusively. However, it should be clear from the answers that you have independently thought about the topic, the question and problem as well as the epistemological interest of your work.

    Thank you in advance and good luck with the first steps towards your thesis!

    (1) What is the topic of your thesis?

    (feel free to formulate it as a working title - 1 line/ 1 sentence)

    (2) What is the problem on which your thesis is based?

    (What do you find in need of explanation about the topic you have chosen? What is the mystery, so to speak, that you want to get to the bottom of in your paper? - 2 to 3 sentences)

    (3) What is the exact research question of the paper? (1 sentence)

    (Try to formulate it as precisely as possible. Even a first attempt is ok)

    (4) What is the (personal) motivation of the work? Why is the question you have chosen of sociological interest or socio-political relevance? (2 to 3 sentences)

    (5) Which theoretical approaches do you want to use and why?

    (2 to 3 sentences or possibly already concrete literature references)

    (6) How do you want to proceed methodically?

    (e.g. pure theoretical work or theoretically based hypothesis generation and confrontation with empirical findings or own data collection (qualitative/quantitative) etc.) (2 to 3 sentences)