Research Initiative “ConTrust: Trust in Conflict – Political Life under Conditions of Uncertainty”


Social conflicts are unavoidable, but they do not make it impossible for human beings to live together. But how can we be certain that conflicts will not escalate, that the other parties will abide by the rules, that institutions will protect us against transgressions and that the social world as a whole is sufficiently stable so that we can orient our actions in it in meaningful ways? The answer to these questions is trust. Trust creates a form of ‘insecure security’ that can never be fully redeemed and yet it holds the secret of social cooperation. But how is trust being formed, what are its sources?

As a joint research initiative between Goethe University and the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt, ConTrust will adopt a different approach to the dominant trends in research on conflict and trust. Firstly, it is not based on the assumption that the notion of trust is opposed to that of conflict, but instead that trust only manifests itself, takes shape and demonstrates its value in conflict: trust in and through conflict. Secondly, the initiative aims to develop methodologies which transcend conventional disciplinary boundaries of research on trust and conflict, as well as the gulf separating empirical and normative analyses. Thirdly, the research of the initiative will frame the ‘question of trust’ as one that enquires into new qualities of uncertainty (and insecurity) which did not become apparent for the first time in the corona pandemic (but there especially). This includes reflection on the changing media in which trust and mistrust are communicated and constituted and conflicts are represented. Fourthly, in contrast to the majority of alternative approaches, its research will make it clear that the notion of trust should not be viewed in an exclusively positive light. Rather, trust can also assume authoritarian forms which are politically destructive and deny freedom. Finally, the project aims to draw practical conclusions concerning possibilities of shaping conflicts to promote productive ways of generating and stabilizing trust. Fostering dialogue with society is thus integral to our research.

These assumptions and intentions will inform our joint, interdisciplinary empirical and normative research on the dynamics of trust in central conflict situations, ranging from democratic structures to international politics, markets, discourses of knowledge and the media. Over the next four years, we plan to develop instruments for diagnosing the dynamics of trust and distrust in typical constellations of conflict and to form an international centre for research on trust and conflict. Key measures for achieving this goal will be the targeted recruitment and promotion of outstanding early and mid-career-level researchers to complement and strengthen existing expertise. In addition, the alliance plans to establish several new professorships to enhance the diversity and heighten the profile of research in Frankfurt. The directors of the program, located at the Normative Orders Research Centre of Goethe University Frankfurt, are Prof. Nicole Deitelhoff and Prof. Rainer Forst.

Working Groups

The researchers of the initiative form five interdisciplinary working groups, each of which analyzes a politically and socially relevant context of trust and conflict in times of uncertainty and develops its own work program.

Working group 1: Democracy

The working group focuses on how democracies manage conflict in productive ways. It investigates the question how democratic processes and structures enable a positive interplay of trust and mistrust in situations of conflict. The aim of the joint research of the group is to identify components of a specific democratic conception of trust in conflict and to distinguish negative or pathologic forms of political trust from it.

Principal Investigators:

Professor Dr. Beatrice Brunhöber, Professor of Criminal Law, Criminal Procedure Law, Philosophy of Law and Comparative Law at Goethe University Frankfurt

Professor Dr. Nicole Deitelhoff, Professor of International Relations and Theories of Global Orders at Goethe University Frankfurt & Director of the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt

Professor Dr. Rainer Forst, Professor of Political Theory and Philosophy at Goethe University Frankfurt

Professor Dr. Vera King, Professor of Sociology and Psychoanalytic Social Psychology at Goethe University Frankfurt & Director of the Sigmund Freud Institute Frankfurt

Professor Dr. Ayelet Shachar, Professor of Public Law, Philosophy of Law, Citizenship and Migration Law & Director of the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity Göttingen

Dr. Greta Wagner, Sociology, Technical University of Darmstadt

Working group 2: Coercion and Sanctions

In all systems of political rule, coercion is used to manage conflicts. Against this background, the working group asks how coercion contributes to the production of trust or mistrust in and through conflicts. It studies how selected forms of coercion (legal, military, etc.) stem from positive as well as negative experiences of conflict, impact the course of conflicts, and thus shape trust in and through conflicts over time.

Principal Investigators:

Professor Dr. Armin von Bogdandy, Professor of Public Law, Philosophy of Law, International Law at Goethe University Frankfurt and Director of the Max Planck Institute for Comparative Public Law and International Law

Professor Dr. Christoph Burchard, Professor of German, European and International Criminal Justice, Comparative Law and Legal Theory at Goethe University Frankfurt

Dr. Irene Weipert-Fenner, Comparative Politics, Peace Research Institute Frankfurt

Dr. Tobias Wille, International Relations, Goethe University Frankfurt

Working group 3: Market

The working group analyzes the complex relationship between trust and economic forms of conflict. While markets are generally seen as a guarantor of economic trust, most decisions are not made in an institutional vacuum, but in the shadow of formal and informal institutions. At the core of the empirical work program of the group are two projects, one on how the COVID-19 pandemic reorders the relationship between the state and the economy and one on how crises transform the gendered division of labor in the household.

Principal Investigators:

Prof. Dr. Thomas Biebricher, Professor of Political Theory and Political Economy at Copenhagen Business School

Professor Guido Friebel, Ph.D., Professor of Management and Microeconomics at Goethe University Frankfurt

Professor Nicola Fuchs-Schündeln, Ph.D., Professor of Macroeconomics and Development at Goethe University Frankfurt

Professor Dr. Daniela Grunow, Professor of Sociology with a focus on quantitative analyses of social change at Goethe University Frankfurt

Working group 4: Knowledge

The working group investigates the role of knowledge and knowledge-based institutions (epistemic authorities) in the emergence of trust and mistrust in social conflicts. Knowledge about the preferences of others, as well as about the social and natural world, is an essential resource for managing conflict productively. Where knowledge is shared, trust emerges and stability is generated. However, this stabilization itself depends on epistemic trust, the exact form and role of which remains to be determined through the research of the group.

Principal Investigators:

Professor Dr. Christopher Daase, Professor of International Organizations at Goethe University Frankfurt & Deputy Director of the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt

Professor Dr. Hanna Pfeifer, Professor of Political Science at Goethe University Frankfurt and the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt

Professor Dr. Martin Saar, Professor of Social Philosophy at Goethe University Frankfurt

Professor Dr. Richard Traunmüller, Professor of Empirical Democracy Research at the University of Mannheim

Working group 5: Media

The working group investigates how media in pluralistic societies create trust and mediate conflict and reflect these processes at the same time. Taking into account the increasing pervasiveness of digital media, the working group studies the operational and aesthetic aspects of mass media (press, TV), film and literature, telecommunications, and social media, as well as functional media in law, economics, governance and politics and their formal and informal uses. The methodological approach of the group goes beyond content-, text-, and technology-centered analyses and takes aesthetic, legal and economic factors into account.

Principal Investigators:

Professor Dr. Vinzenz Hediger, Professor of Film Studies at Goethe University Frankfurt

Dr. Pavan Malreddy, Comparative Anglophone Literatures and Cultures, Goethe University Frankfurt

Professor Dr. Alexander Peukert, Professor of Civil and Commercial Law with a Focus on International Intellectual Property Law at Goethe University Frankfurt

Professor Dr. Indra Spiecker genannt Döhmann, Professor of Public Law, esp. Administrative Law, Environmental Law, Information Law and Legal Theory at Goethe University Frankfurt

Professor Dr. Johannes Völz, Professor of American Studies, Democracy and Aesthetics at Goethe University Frankfurt