Political cultures of heroism. Adult Development Theory perspectives on the politics of identity in Germany and Russia

Dr. Elke Fein

University of Freiburg nd Institute for Integral Studies (IFIS) Freiburg


The presentation introduces the basic ideas and methodological approach of a research project currently in preparation as part of a larger research network on “heroes, hero constructions, heroisms” which is presently initiated at the university of Freiburg/Germany.

My project is based on three claims. First: the construction of heroes always arises from some kind of social need for role models, objects of identification, projection screens and positive visions. Second, the way in which heroes are and have been constructed in particular societies at particular times, is an expression of the self images, self conceptions, identities and value structures of the societies in question or those of relevant groups of actors. Third, empirical changes in concepts of heroism can thus, to a considerable extent, be explained by structural changes in collective self images and political identities.

Socio-psychological research on adult development has been engaged for a long time in a systematic analysis of the genesis, consolidation and change of identities and self images connected to basic social and cognitive developments. Therefore, it provides a rich, differentiated and empirically well sustained set of tools, types and models for describing phenomena of identity construction and change. The aim of my project is, first, to verify the epistemological value and, on this basis, the methodological connectivity of models of social and cognitive psychology, in particular of self, ego and identity development as provided by the international scholarship on adult development. Second, on this basis, I wish to carry out a number of intercultural empirical case studies, dealing with both past and present constructions of heroes in Germany and Russia in order to test the explanatory value and potential of adult developmental perspectives in the social sciences.

One of the main research questions in this respect is whether and to what extent social identities and collective self images as discernable in particular forms of heroization can be analyzed by using the structuralist approaches, tools and even types (stages) proposed by adult developmental psychology.

In view of the cross-cultural focus of the larger research network mentioned above, this would allow, first, for more clearly identifying culture-independent structures and thus, commonalities between phenomena of hero construction across time and space, and second, for a better understanding of their culture-specific contents as due to local contextual factors. With respect to the structural dimension of social transformation and learning connected to processes of cognitive differentiation as social actors broaden their perspectives on the world, I expect to find important differences between the European middle ages and modern times, as well as between industrial modernity and post-modern societies and their respective hegemonic cultures. For example, the growing significance of post-national, post-modern values in general, and so-called “post-heroic” discourses in particular can most probably be connected to the rise of post-formal cognition in many (western) societies of our times.