Failure – A Desideratum of Modernity (International Conference, 15.-17. September 2011 at Leibniz Universitaet Hannover)

As I mentioned before, I am currently organizing a conference with three colleagues of mine in September 2011. I promised to post the cfp, too (I thought it would be nicer to post the text and not the document).



Call for Papers and invitation to an international conference


Failure – a Desideratum of Modernity“


at Leibniz Universitaet Hannover, 15.-17. September 2011

in cooperation with ISInova

Failure is one of the basic everyday life experiences. When performed by the mass media, it even serves as a crowd puller. Failure by itself appears in many kinds of forms: as a loser in competition, deranged and precarious persons, divorce, insolvency, catastrophe, misconduct, as a chance for a comeback and even as an epistemic formula of continuity, namely as corruption. Failure, albeit clandestinely, consists of a certain prominence, in that failure hides behind success. It is the ever present and possible threat of failure that lends success its fascination.

Contrary to the prominence of success, the concept and empirical description of failure in the social sciences suffer from inadequate attention. Only in the field of Sociology of Organization one systematically addresses the issue of failure. Yet even here failure merely serves as a negatively emphasized background for detecting fitting solutions. Obviously the impact of failure can be identified only in connection with the respective definition of success. Keeping in mind that success is naturally preferred by society, conversely the meaning of success can only be specified in conjunction with a reflection of failure. In this respect, it seems to be advisable to transcend a simple opposition of the notions of success and failure. Besides the search for a substantial notion of failure, it is important to develop a differentiated notion of success and to point out the interaction between both concepts. From this perspective, it can be observed that a structural arrangement such as the financial market partially fails and at the same time is nevertheless able to hide its failure (for a short period) behind a rhetoric of success. Reversely the maintenance of routines and the establishment of everyday organization do not count as `success stories` that one could proudly refer to. This distinction unveils a curious paradox; a constellation of success and failure. In this context, one can think of the successful failure and of the failing success (pyrrhic victory).

The promising character of failure reflected in this light is not merely betoken by the prominence of this topic in mass media and by its everyday occurrence. It can also be identified in the complex cross references that arise when questioning conditions of failure and success of individual vita, organizational change and social structure. The potential capacity of a perspective of failure is founded in the possibility to mark the chances of success of planning, of control and of reduction of complexity ex negativo. This is because only by retracing the processes of collapsing structures and failing intentions is it possible to elaborate the conditions of success on different levels of analysis.

Therefore the main aim of the conference is to discuss failure as a context in three aspects: first, it is necessary to define a notion of failure against the background of social change, while simultaneously considering the notion of success as an opposite concept. Secondly, the notion of failure is to be explained in reference to its structural, normative and semantic implications. As a result, one can gain further capabilities of analysing. Finally, the conference aims to pick out various empirical observations of failure.

Key questions of the conference are:

  • What
    kinds of notions of failure can be defined and how can success be
    understood in contrast to them? What kinds of relationships exist
    between those concepts?

  • What
    capabilities of sociological analysis can be drawn from a
    perspective of failure? In this context, a perspective shall be
    highlighted that does not focus exclusively on successfully solving
    problems and does not turn away from failing aims or collapsing
    processes of structure-building.

  • How
    can one define different constellations of consistent and
    inconsistent relations of failure and success theoretically? By
    which kind of methods can the plurality of forms be adequately

The conference trails these questions by plenary meetings and panel sessions.

For the panels, it is kindly requested that speech outlines be sent in by the 15th of June 2011.

Hosts are:

René John (ISInova, Institut für Sozialinnovation).

Jens Bergmann (Leibniz Universitaet Hannover), Antonia Langhof (Universitaet Bielefeld), Gabriele Wagner (Leibniz Universitaet Hannover).

Key note speakers are:

Holger Braun-Thuermann (Universitaet Hamburg), Nils Brunsson (Uppsala Universitet), Giancarlo Corsi (Università degli studi di Modena e Reggio Emilia), Birgit Geissler (Universitaet Bielefeld), Ursula Holtgrewe (FORBA Wien), Matthias Junge (Universitaet Rostock), Morten Knudsen (Copenhagen Business School), Stefan Kuehl (Universitaet Bielefeld), Klaus Schlichte (Universitaet Bremen), Stephan Voswinkel (Institut für Sozialforschung) and Tricia Wachtendorf (University of Delaware, requested).

Conference languages:
German and English

Registration for the conference: 15th of
August 2011

Submission for Call for Papers: 15th of June, 2011

Please send outlines to the following address:

Contact: René John (

Conference fee:
85 Euro to be remitted upon confirmation of registration.






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About Nicholas

Associate Professor of Sociology, Environmental Studies, and Science and Technology Studies at Penn State, Nicholas mainly writes about understanding the scientific study of states and, thus, it is namely about state theory. Given his training in sociology and STS, he takes a decidedly STS-oriented approach to state theory and issues of governance.

One thought on “Failure – A Desideratum of Modernity (International Conference, 15.-17. September 2011 at Leibniz Universitaet Hannover)

  1. Antonia, this is an intriguing idea — in addition to failure, which organizational analysis, to some extent technology studies, and to an even less extent policy studies/public administration have attempted to articulate and gain some conceptual leverage over, there is another idea that I have been trying to deal with that sociology and the other social sciences give me little help with: non-events (i.e., something not happening). .At, I once wrote a little something about it: had not thought about putting a small conference up, but think I will take a chapter from the book and Antonia and consider it.


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