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Political Epistemics

The Secret Police, the Opposition, and the End of East German Socialism

What does the durability of political institutions have to do with how actors form knowledge about them? Andreas Glaeser investigates this question in the context of a fascinating historical case: socialist East Germany’s unexpected self-dissolution in 1989. His analysis builds on extensive in-depth interviews with former secret police officers and the dissidents they tried to control as well as research into the documents both groups produced. In particular, Glaeser analyzes how these two opposing factions’ understanding of the socialist project came to change in response to countless everyday experiences. These investigations culminate in answers to two questions: why did the officers not defend socialism by force? And how was the formation of dissident understandings possible in a state that monopolized mass communication and group formation? He also explores why the Stasi, although always well informed about dissident activities, never developed a realistic understanding of the phenomenon of dissidence.

Out of this ambitious study, Glaeser extracts two distinct lines of thought. On the one hand he offers an epistemic account of socialism’s failure that differs markedly from existing explanations. On the other hand he develops a theory—a sociology of understanding—that shows us how knowledge can appear validated while it is at the same time completely misleading.


“This is a wonderful book that at long last explains the epistemological reasons behind the collapse of Eastern European state socialism. Through Glaeser’s intensive case study, we learn how socialist party-states cultivated particular modes of understanding the world whose inflexible, self-referential character eventually contributed to an enormous gap between the political imagination of the party-state and that of its citizens, which led to popular discrediting, cynicism, and collapse. Along the way, he introduces us to a pioneering theory of how institutions and understandings co-constitute one another. There is, in sum, no shortage of genius in Political Epistemics—it is a magnificent testimony to the resurgence of the sociology of knowledge and its provocative arguments and conclusions will be debated widely for years to come.”--Dominic Boyer, Rice University

Dominic Boyer

“This is nothing less than a Summa Sociologica masquerading as a masterful ethnography of the collapse of East German socialism. Political Epistemics will further establish Glaeser’s reputation as one of our leading scholars, one whose far-reaching vision will take the field in important new directions. Its achievements are monumental and it will surely be a landmark work for readers serious enough to take it seriously.”--Jeffrey Olick, University of Virginia

Jeffrey Olick

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations



Introduction: Understandings, Politics, and Institutions

I Socialism as a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy—The Party’s Project

1 From Marx to Conscious Social Transformation

2 Aporias of Producing Right Consciousness

II Contingencies and Dynamics of Understanding—The Theory

3 Constituting Understandings through Validations

4 Dialectics in Spaces of Validation

III Becoming Socialist Men—The Stasi Officers

5 Guardians of the Party State

6 Stasi Culture—Authority, Networks, and Discourses

IV Disenchantment, Disengagement, Opposition—The Dissidents

7 When Someone’s Eden Becomes Another’s Purgatory

8 Forming Groups, Organizing Opposition

V Policing Understandings—Reproducing Misunderstandings

9 Attempting to Know and Control the Opposition

Conclusions: Paralyzing Uncertainties




The University of Chicago Press: Gordon J. Laing Award

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