Immigrant Entrepreneurship meets Cosmobilities: Impressions from a Workshop at Mainz, Germany

In 2013, the Leibniz Institute of European History in Mainz, the Ludwig-Maximilians University of Munich, and the Chair for Media Informatics at the University of Bamberg cooperated in examining “Cosmobilities” – the analysis of individual border-crossing with the help of modern digital technology. The explorative phase of the research project was financed by the Thyssen Foundation to examine whether and how such ambitious goals are manageable. To discuss the challenges related to a larger research project, project heads Johannes Paulmann (Mainz) and Margit Szöllösi-Janze (Munich) invited a large number of scholars to share their experiences with biographical research projects at a workshop in Mainz, organized by Sarah Panter (Mainz).

After a warm welcome and a brief introduction by Johannes Paulmann and Margit Szöllözi-Janze, the first panel dealt with Historical Sciences and Digital Humanities. In her talk on “‘Cosmobilities’ – New impulses for researching trans-border biographies in the 19th century?” [“‘Cosmobilities – Neue Impulse für die Erforschung grenzüberschreitender Lebensläufe im 19. Jahrhundert?”], Sarah Panther presented the biographies of two revolutionaries, Lorenz Brentano and Peter Joseph Osterhaus, to exemplify the problems of identifying cross-border lives. Individuals were mostly identified as members of nation states, while their mobility between spaces and cultures often remained hidden, most notably in 19th-century national biographies. The Cosmobilities Project will focus on four groups (entrepreneurs, revolutionaries, theologians, and musicians) to analyze the transnational dimension of the economy, politics, science, and art. A Wikidata-based search tool—CosmoSearch—has already been developed and provides more detailed biographical information. Michael Piotrowski (Mainz) and Tobias Gradl (Bamberg) added information on “Cosmobilities” as DARIAH-DE-“Use Case.” Both are part of the Digital Research Infrastructure for the Arts and Humanities, an ambitious German collaborative research project interested in the correlations of people, spaces, data, and events. Data from Wikipedia/Wikidata was used for an analysis and for a search tool, allowing to establish biographical profiles and improve the data quality on border-crossing careers and lives.

While this was predominantly work in progress, the second panel on Multilingualism and National Belongings discussed the experiences of two well-established or even finished projects. Marco Jorio (Bern) presented The Historical Encylopedia of Switzerland [Das Historische Lexikon der Schweiz]. This 106 million-Francs project was published in thirteen volumes in four languages with 36,000 articles. Nearly three thousand authors wrote on individuals, families, spaces, events, and definitions. Jorio noted how, surprisingly, neither money nor the recruitment of authors caused many problems. More complicated was the planning and coordination of the whole endeavor. Although the encyclopedia has a heavy emphasis on the Swiss elite, it also covers many transnational biographies of people either living in or shaping Switzerland. With this, it sets a benchmark for any future biographical projects. Jürgen Warmbrunn (Marburg) focused on The Herder Institute’s bibliographical portal for the history of Eastern and Central Europe [Das Bibliographieportal zur Geschichte Ostmitteleuropas des Herder-Instituts]. Although organized in bibliographical form, the online platforms and the printed materials of the Herder Institute and its Eastern and Central European colleagues give a detailed overview over biographical information published in the recent past. An additional collaborative platform, GeoBiB, is currently combining biographical information on the Holocaust.

While these two presentations concentrated on biographical information in a national framework, panel three on Networks and Group Relations focused on two research projects of a quite different scale. Alix Heiniger (Lausanne) gave insights into “Geneva’s Philanthropists around 1900: A Field Made of Distinctive but Interconnected Social Groups.” Based on Geneva’s 1900 Annuaire Philantrophique, the “philanthropic field,” i.e. relations between individual actors, was visualized with advanced graphics. These showed how four groups of philanthropists (patricians, driving forces, outsiders, and women) interacted in separate but connected ways. In contrast to this microstudy, Nico Randeraad (Maastricht) focused on the global scale in his talk on “Managing and Visualizing Data Related to Participation in International Congresses, 1880-1910.” Interested in the actors of social reform, he has developed an advanced online tool where the participants of a large and still growing number of international congresses can be found. Again, advanced visualizing techniques allow to map and examine the global networks of social reform in the late 19th century.

The fourth and final panel, Networks and Transnationality, combined three different biographical projects: Rainer Liedtke (Regensburg) presented “The Rothschild’s European Agent Network: An Inside into Academic Practice” [“Das europäische Agentennetzwerk der Rothschilds: ein Einblick in die Praxis”]. Based on correspondence with family members and agents, he not only examined individual and family networks but also gave answers to a core question of business: How did the Rothschilds get the information necessary for successful banking? Uwe Spiekermann (Washington), in his talk on “Immigrant Entrepreneurship: German-American Business Biographies 1720 to the Present,” condensed and shared the experiences of the GHI’s flagship project over the last five years. Precise research questions, clear definitions of terms and types, advanced knowledge of methodology, and a user-friendly digital infrastructure are crucial for successful research in the field of digital humanities. Finally, Simone Derix (Mainz) gave inspiring insights into “Network Analysis and a Family Biographical Approach: Thyssen as a Case Study” [“Netzwerkanalyse und familienbiographischer Ansatz – das Fallbeispiel Thyssen]. She showed how the ultra-rich Thyssen family has to be understood not only in terms of steel production, money-making, and German entrepreneurship. Instead, the Thyssens were a global family, owning very different kinds of properties and engaging in many additional fields of business, arts, and science.

The lively discussion focused on the needs of the Cosmobilities project but also went far beyond this. Questions of data quality and representation, new database technology and visual techniques were discussed as were problems of language, categories, terms, and standardization. The functionality of historiographic core concepts, such as nationality, locality, and transnationality was problematized. With this the representatives of the Cosmobilities projects seemed to be pleased—a lot of food for thought for an ambitious biographical research project.

The Leibniz Institute for European History in Mainz – located in a former Jesuit college