Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin - Science Communication in 20th Century Europe

Popular Science as a Cultural Dispositif

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Arne Schirrmacher (Humboldt University Berlin, Germany)


The German history in the 20th century is characterized by stark changes in the political system and strong consequences from World Wars I and II. However, instead of looking at "Kaiserreich science", "Weimar science", "Nazi science" etc. together with their public manifestations, and in such a way seeking for a narrow link of popular science and political system, this paper starts from the observation of some remarkable stabilities and continuities of popular science of this period. Due to the long history of science popularization, scientific leadership in many fields as well as a population and economy open to scientific progress, the media offered particularly rich content in the field of popular science, which was diversified for various audiences and interests. Consideration of the developments of format, genre, quality and quantity of popular science as well as its audiences reveals certain underlying structures that combine in a systemic way. It is hence argued that in Germany a system of science communication developed, which became a kind of machinery of popular scientific knowledge and which combined audiences of different levels, the powers of different media, and also institutions of various political and economic interests. In order to understand the role of science on the air in Germany radio and television broadcasts on science have to be understood as part of this complex ensemble.

Public(s) after 1900

Dramatic changes in the audience popular science could draw occurred in the years after 1900. Instead of one more or less restricted and general public for science, which was served e.g. by journals that all had circulations of roughly the same order - between few hundreds and few thousands - the readership in in Germany now quickly split into many publics of science of different kind, interest, focus and in particular of different size. It hence makes sense to distinguish at least four levels of audiences for science:

  • mass public
  • (occasionally) interested public
  • attentive public
  • (inner-)scientific public

The developed historically into a complex structure, which neither can be understood to be "linear" in some sense, nor can it be reduced to "key" media nor was it necessarily commercially determined. As the following figure shows, there was a multi-leveled structure that remarkably survives the whole century despite all changes in the political system, in society and also through the wars.


Folie 6w


What is designated as the "Kosmos" level (corresponding the the journal Kosmos that sold 100.000s of copies) may be understood as an early mass public for popular science, while the respective "Umschau" level exhibits an equally persistent attentive public for science. A middle level of various journals reached occasionally interested readers (more and more at the newsstand instead of subscription). Furthermore it is interesting to observe that the inter-specialist communication within the science community - a certain scientific public - never exceeded a few thousand copies, despite the huge growth in the total number of scientists in during the 20th century. (Another important observation is that the Weimar period in Germany between World Wars I and II had twice the amout of popular science (on most levels) as compared to earlier and later times.)


A Cultural Dispositif

These observations may already suffice to motivate a number of theses on science communication in 20th century Germany:

  • it had a complex structure,
  • there was more than a discourse between "science" and "public",
  • there was some kind of a machinery, an apparatus of "dispositif", which determined

- the visibility of topics and problems

- the ability of their enunciation

- the power associated with knowledge claims

- and the subjectivity related to all this

(compare Gilles Deleuze: What is a dispositif?, 1992)


I suggest to employ Michel Foucaults notion of a dispositif to characterise this structure. In short, one may paraphrase his definition as follows: A dispositif is a heterogeneous ensemble comprising, among others, of discourses, institutions, laws, equipment, administrative rules, scientific statements, philosophical propositions and moral judgements, or rather the net connecting all this (cf. Foucault interview of 1977).


From this I put forward:

A historical analysis of the German case of science communication can exhibit the workings of a cultural dispositif or machinery that underlies the cultural interpretation of science in Kaiserreich Germany in the same way as it did in the Weimar Republic and which even remained powerful in the Third Reich as it was still at work in the early periods of both postwar German states.


This may ultimately explain why political changes were less important than cultural ones (to be dated around 1900 and during the 1960s) when it comes to science communication.


Plurimediality or Multimedia?

With this sketch of the complex system I turn to the interplay of different media of science communication. They may be analysed by contrasting two archetypical cases:


Plurimediality Case (just adding up)

Multimedia Case (interactive media)

- popular science in the newspaper, in the journal, on radio, on television ...

- radio was a step back – no pictures, no way to go back and repeat => need to complement?

- different media may provide different aspects of science? / different speed of reporting? / different depth of coverage?

- educational primacy => distribute study material (via Central Institute for Training and Education of the German Radio)

=> transfer of content between different media difficult

- radio university (1920s Weimar Republic, 1950s FRG & GDR)

- more different media means more science communication in total => scientification ?

- reproductions pictures and introductory texts in radio magazines

German popular science had aspects of both cases, however, probably more important were some features from multimedia. While the plurimedia case explains how it was possible that different media could develop distinct political and economical patterns (e.g. West German television is regarded much more politically conservative than more left-wing radio or state-run broadcasting evaded largely economic pressures that print faced), multimedia opened the real frontier to new ways of science communication. 

Examples for this are the following

  • 1920s "Kosmos": public talks, society activities, Kosmos journal, Kosmos broadcasts
    (similar case: 1950s "Urania" in GDR)
  • Deutsche Welle (educational station) = idea of radio school/university
  • informal education in many local programmes: (single) radio broadcast + pictures in radio magazine
  • disregard of technological edge: radio could be the quicker medium, but did not enter this (commercial) competition

The main problem for a thorough multimedia character of the science communication system in Germany was the the incompatibility of state-run radio and television v. private and commercial popular science in print. The radio magazines are a particularly interesting hybrid. The picture below is a double page from the radio magazine Der Deutsche Rundfunk presenting the pictures ahead of the broadcast about the moon in 1924.


Folie 14


Genres of Radio Science

The possibilities of the new media (and the multimedia combination) gave rise to new genres of science communication. The following candidates I found for the German case:

  • Plauderei = chat, causerie ...
    interestingly, an adaption from print, cp. newspaper "Plauderei" from Hans Dominik around 1900
  • Hörbericht = audible report
    early form of reporting, though not live
  • Mikrophonstreifzug = microphone excursion/expedition
    a kind of an "expedition" into unknown continents as the scientific laboratory
  • Funkuniversität = radio university
    pedagogical, vocational or general educational programmes, often with additional material in booklets, radio magazines etc.

It would probably be a good field of international comparison to see what genres were particularly related with the new possibilities of broadcasting.

Gradual shifts in radio culture

While in the field of popular science a strong continuity seem apparent in the German case, nonetheless things were changing over the decades, although rather gradually. One of these developments relates to the time science and technology were presented on the air. As there was no particular season for popular science programmes and also the distribution over the week was often rather balanced, the distribution over the day did change. Basically, this can be summarised as

  • 1920s science in "prime time"  = 6-9 pm
    (corresponding to a promotion of science as central cultural good),
  • 1950s science as late-night show = 9-12 pm
    (corresponding to an understanding of science as a field of philosophical consideration rather than applicable knowledge).


Folie 20

Factors that Eroded the Cultural Dispositif

In the East party politics took over the organization of radio in the same way as print media after World War II, eventually leading to a centralist structure controlled by the Society for the Dissemination of Scientific Knowledge, which produced the public science programs for the radio of the GDR. Here not few philosopher scientists but armies of science workers – at least rhetorically – took the scene, trying to paint a positive picture of the scientific potential of the socialist project.

Science remained also an integral part of the general program of all federal stations in West Germany, only it moved more and more to late night hours and mixed with philosophy and discussions of world view. The scientists on (or in) the Western air celebrated their universal knowledge – untainted by inferior politics. It would take roughly until 1960 that radio would turn to science as a process and the worker in the laboratory, when eventually a more critical approach was on the rise.

From a structural perspective, the two German offerings exhibited a very similar mechanics, which, in addition, opened a natural field for competition, as air waves moved more freely than printed paper. A typical format both sides aired was the radio university with weekly broadcasts of talks on select fields. In particular in times of intensified confrontation as after Sputnik, more programmatic lecture series were launched.

In the East, state-control blocked again much dynamics for a further evolution of science communication in all media, while West German popular science eventually developed a closer relation to the American model.

The remarkable the structural stability was hence eroded mainly be the following factors in the West (and applied for all Germany after German reunification in 1990):

  • politics (instrumentalise media)
  • programme structure changes
  • pluralistic developments
  • commercial radio and TV (1980s)
  • turn to edutainment


Further Reading

  • Arne Schirrmacher: From Kosmos to Koralle. On the Culture of Science Reading in Imperial and Weimar Germany, in: Carson, Cathryn/Kojevnikov, Alexei/Trischler, Helmuth: Quantum Mechanics and Weimar Culture: Revisiting the Forman Thesis, London 2011, p.433-452.
  • Arne Schirrmacher: State-Controlled Multimedia for All? Science Programs in Early German Radio, Science and Education 21 (2012), p.381-401.
  • Arne Schirrmacher: Popular Science as Cultural Dispositif. German Systems of Science Communication in the 20th Century, to appear.

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