Schmitt’s Political Theology as a Methodological Approach

Abstract: In his two essays Carl Schmitt described a specific approach called by him a political theology. The exact interpretation of this method and its limits has not been clearly set, as there are at least two main aspects of Schmitt’s political theology. The first one is his strictly specified view of the relation between theology and the political sphere, which situates him in a long tradition of theologico-political reflection. However, this paper focuses mainly on the second aspect: political theology understood as a theory of conceptual history. Core features of Schmitt’s methodological approach seem promising for research conducted in the different fields of the modern humanities.

What is political theology?

Problems with the exact definition of the concept of “political theology” are gaining more and more attention in the last decades. At first sight they seem to resemble those with all other concepts constructed within the social sciences. Repeated a ttempts to create one, unifying de finition show that the scope of the concept depends on the position of the researcher, and therefore strongly differs in the range of inclusion and exclusion of the phenomena. Regardless of this, in the broadest sense political theology means all possible relations between politics and religion or theology (Hepp 1105), and in this understanding it is independent of the religious commitment of scholars, who equally well can be believing Christians as well as atheists fighting against the “opium of the people”. Hence it can be said that different disciplines are now carrying out research in the field of political theology without even being aware of it. Certainly philosophy, sociology, theology, anthropology etc. are open to those questions. Yet, this broad sense of political theology is not sufficient.

A reflection on the relations and analogies between transcendence and immanence, religion and politics or Church and state in the 20 th century cannot ignore the work of Carl Schmitt, who according to Erik Peterson, a German Catholic theologian and Schmitt’s friend and opponent, “introduced in the literature” the concept of political theology (158). Undoubtedly, he contributed to the revival of interesti n it; however, the does not make him the author of the concept or the pioneer of the type of reflection recognized as political theology.

The word “theology” has ancient origins and appeared long before Christ. The Greek word ϑ εολογία, later translated into Latin, meant initially the speech of the gods (deum loqui), but also the knowledge of the gods and of the things connected with them (Hepp 1080). Research on Greek literature has shown that it appeared for the first time in Plato’s Republic (II 379a) in the phrase τ ύ ροι περ ὶ ϑ εολογίας, “the patterns in the field of theology,” “the patterns, according to which poets should create the poems”. The literary examples of this kind of theology are, of course, myths and works of ancient poets, like Homer’s Illiad and Oddysey, Hesiod’s Works and Days or Ovid’s Methamorphoses, which were so severely criticised by Plato. Greeks pointed out the different ways of praising the gods, what was later expressed in the form of theologia tripertita, the triple theology or three types of theology. This division is commonly attributed to Stoics, but the sources allow us to assume that this scheme was rather an element of common knowledge than specific to Stoic thought (Lieberg 25). The most clear conceptual frame of theologia tripartita was coined by Varro and Quintus Sceavola, which we know from St. Augustine’s Civitas Dei, since the original work hasn’t been preserved: “It is recorded that the very learned pontiff Scævola had distinguished between three kinds of godsone introduced by the poets, another by the philosophers, another by the statesmen” (IV, 27) . However, the classification of different kind of theologies Augustine adopted from Varro: “Now, since there are three theologies, which the Greeks call respectively mythical, physical, and political, and which may be called in Latin fabulous, natural, and civil” (VI 12). “The third kind,” here Augustine quotes the work of Varro, “is that which citizens in cities, and especially the priests, ought to know and to administer.  From it is to be known what god each one may suitably worship, what sacred rites and sacrifices each one may suitably perform” (VI 12). “The first theology,” he states, “is especially adapted to the theatre, the second to the world, the third to the city” (VI 5).

Having in mind this peculiar origin of political theology as a concept, we can move on to its interpretation in 20 th century. Jan Assmann, who analysed political theology in a polemic against Schmitt, suggests that there are two main forms of political theology: “it is used by those who take a concrete stand here, and it is described by those, who are interested in the history of the problem, in views and solutions. This concept circulates then in two forms: as a descriptive concept and as a political concept” (24). Assmann’s proposition includes a meta-level of interpretation, but also evokes further problems, since it is frequently hard or even impossible to make a clear division between the political and descriptive sense of political theology. Even assuming the clarity of the descriptive version, it always appears in a concrete political context. An example of this can be Erik Peterson’s work Monotheismus als politisches Problem published in 1935, which was devoted to early Christian disputes about the nature of God, but at the same time was indirectely aimed at Deutschen Christen, Christians who tried to join faith with Nazi ideology (Nichtweiss 763-775). Obviously, concepts can be used polemically as intellectual weapons (Schmitt, The Concept of the Political 30).

However, Schmitt did not take over the concept of political theology from the ancient or early Christian period, but from Mikhail Bakunin, who aimed it against Giuseppe Mazzini (Bakunin) . Nevertheless, “at the end of the 20 th century it can be said that he [Schmitt] helped it in its career, regardless of different disciplines and state borders, political and theological views” (Meier 3). Nowadays the question of political theology is mostly raised in the context of Schmitt, but the problem of the relation between religion and politics “goes beyond the polemic with Schmitt” (4). Nonetheless, there is no agreement among the scholars about what Schmitt’s political theology means. Although discussing all views might be fruitful and could give insight into the very core of the political theology, here the starting point will be the classification of “political theology within the Christian religion”
proposed by Ernst-Wolfgang Böckenförde.

Böckenförde divided political theology into three types. Juridical is best represented by Schmitt’s political theology and means a “process of transfering theological concepts into the field of state and law”. It is the sociology of concepts, as Böckenförde emphasises, and not a theological statement. Juridical political theology “transfers the concepts”, what “at the same time [is] a transfer of positions”. Therefore this kind of political theology is a historical hypothesis on the process of emerging concepts, and will be discussed further at a later point. Institutional political theology is “an essence of the faith in God in the form of statements on status, legitimation, aim and structure of political order, including the relation of this order to religion”, it is a “science of life” including “the interpretation of the reality that surrounds men.” In the long history of institutional political theology the prime examples of this type of political theology are Augustine, Thomas, Luther, Hobbes, Hegel, Leon XIII and Vaticanum Secundum. They concentrate on the “(theological) status, legitimization and objectives of political order, but also on the relation between church authorities and political authorities”. The vision of social and political order is a reflection of the interpretation of Revelation. Close to institutional is appelative political theology, based on “the interpretation of Christian revelation, assuming the necessary involvement of Christians and the Church to sustain (or change) the socio-political order comprehended as a realisation of Christian existence”. It gives the theological justification for “concrete initiatives and political actions”, with liberation theology, popular especially in South America, being its prime example in contemporary world. The common ground for institutional and appelative political theology is of course faith. As a result they differ from the juridical, which is based on science and human reason.

Schmitt’s political theology as a sociology of concepts

Political theology, understood as a history of concepts and changes in their meaning (what Schmitt called a sociology of concepts), “is the core of Schmitt’s theoretical project” (Meier 3). Exclusion of this aspect of his oeuvre often leads to misunderstandings because political theology is the underlying principle of his understanding of the socio-political world.

This method is easily visible in all his works; however, only two of them are dedicated directly to this issue. These two essays, Politische Theologie (1922) and Politische Theologie II (1970), make a chronological frame for all of his works: Politische Theologie was published during an intellectually intensive period in the twenties,[1] when his most important prewar essays were written, whereas Politische Theologie II was Schmitt’s last essay, an answer to criticisms of the first Political Theology.

The full title of Schmitt’s crucial work – Politische Theologie. Vier Kapitel zur Lehre von der Souveränität – puts forward a thesis on the relation between the concept of sovereignty and political theology, which was also clearly emphasized in his earlier essays. Analogies between theology and jurisprudence are already present in the short essay on the relation between state, law and individual ( Der Wert des Staates und die Bedeutung des Einzelnen ), written in 1914. Three first parts of Politische Theologie were published in a Festschrift for Max Weber under the title Soziologie des Souveränitätsbegriffes und politische Theologie (Schmitt, “Soziologie des Souveränitätsbegriffes“). The core of Schmitt’s program was sketched in the third part of the essay. Interestingly the very phrase “political theology” occurs rarely and never describes his own theory, but the theories of the so-called “doctors of counterrevolution” from the period of the Restoration, i.e. Ambroise de Bonald, Joseph de Maistre and J uan Donoso Cortés, and the changes in jurisprudence which resulted in the normativism of Hans Kelsen.

The core part can be summarized as a set of the following hypotheses:

  1. “All significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts” (Political Theology 36).
  2. In order to understand the changes in politics and law we need a new, sociological approach (sociology of concepts = political theology).
  3. The social structure of society is analogous to its metaphysical vision of the world (Political Theology 42-43, 45).

As Schmitt states, “all significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts”. This analogy has a sinchronic and diachronic character – on the one hand, it means the historical evolution of concepts (history of concepts); on the other, the similarity of the structure of concepts in both fields (Mehring 146). An example of this kind of analogy is the “exception”, which was transferred to law from the miracle in theology. “Only by being aware of this analogy can we appreciate the manner in which the philosophical ideas of the state developed in the last centuries”, especially the concept of sovereignty (Schmitt, Political Theology 36).

Schmitt begins the description of his approach with two critital steps, rejecting earlier attempts. This polemical attitude is very characteristic to Schmitt’s way of thinking and writing, when his views often are expressed in confrontation with another standpoint. The polemical character of the concept is of interest also for the sociology of concepts, as “all political concepts, ideas and descriptions have a polemical meaning. They concern the concrete situation of conflict”. Schmitt begins then with decribing what sociology of concepts is different from.

Firstly, it differs from materialism and spiritualism, both of which make the same mistake of assuming that two spheres, the spiritual and the material, in the end reduce to one another. In Schmitt’s view it would be equally impossible to reduce all phenomena to the material, what is done by Marxists, or to the spiritual, what was tried by German idealism.

Secondly, Schmitt’s sociology of concepts is not like Max Weber’s theory presented in Rechtssoziologie. Weber’s sociology aims at indicating “the typical group of people who arrive at certain ideological results from the peculiarity of their sociological situations” (Political Theology 44). Schmitt thinks of this as psychology. While ascribing a concept to a specific social group is a sociological problem, “this is still not a sociology of a legal concept” (44) because it is based on human motivations rather than on the concepts themselves.

The third step is positive. The aim of sociology of concepts is to find the basic radically systematic structure of legal concepts, which could be compared to the social structure of an epoch and its conceptual changes (45). Although Schmitt spent almost the whole of his life fighting against the conception of law represented primarily by Hans Kelsen, he also appreciated his observations showing the “methodological affinity” between theology and jurisprudence (Schmitt, Political Theology 40, Kelsen 208). Schmitt seems to leave aside the question of whether concepts are the reflection of reality or reality is created by concepts. He states “only” that both spheres are analogous or – strictly speaking – that “the metaphysical image that a definite epoch forges of the world has the same structure as what the world immediately understands to be appropriate as a form of its political organization” (Schmitt, Political Theology 46). A sociological approach to the concept is to define this identity.

For example, a good sociology of concepts would never state that “the monarchy of the seventeenth century is characterized as the real that is ‘mirrored’ in the Carthesian concept of God” (45), but that “the historico-political status of the monarchy correspond[s] to the general state of consciousness that was characteristic of western Europeans at that time” (45) . In the first case the direction of the relation is clearly indicated, whereas in the second it is not. The practical dimension of Schmitt’s approach is to “compare the lexicons and always ask: what does this term mean in this moment, where and for whom?” (Koselleck 187).

In Politische Theologie Schmitt sketches the main transformations in understanding God, state and law since the 17 th century, which were reflected in changes within the system of concepts. In the theory of state of 17 th century sovereigns, “the state has a position exactly analogous to that attributed to God in the Cartesian system of the world” (Political Theology 46). This idea was modified when the place of a theistic approach was taken over by the deistic, which resulted in the image of ruler who sets the machine of laws and then does not interfere. Even during the Enlightenment, the vision of a sovereign dominated, although it gradually had been losing its influence. While for Hobbes the personal and decisionistic aspect of the sovereign was crucial (Leviathan), for Rousseau only the people could be sovereign. This meant the destruction of the theological justification of political power, as power was thought to come from below and not from above (i.e. from God). Since the 19 th century, we have been witnessing, as Schmitt says, the process of immanentisation, which comes out in two characteristic elements: the removal of all theist and transcendent ideas from politics and the introduction of a new understanding of legitimacy. When all transcendent references are excluded, then legitimacy based on the will of God, where God is the ultimate source of political power, has to be modified and transformed into an immanent version.

Those general remarks were applied to the analysis of the changes in the concept of “dictatorship”, which Schmitt had realized in a book-length work, Dicatatorship. In this book, he examined dictatorship from antiquity until the turn of 18 th and 19 th centuries, with special attention to the period between the 14th and the 19th century. The history of dictatorship began in ancient Rome when, during times of danger and riots that could threaten the state, the Senatus Romanus appointed a dictator, who was an institution within the republican system designed for its defence. He was appointed for a defined period of time (up to six months), but usually the person resigned earlier, in order to remove the threat. His position was based on the existing law; he could neither revoke the laws, nor enact his own. It was therefore clearly an instrument designed to protect the political order of the Roman republic. This understanding, which prevailed until the Renaissance, was not applied to the political orders of early modern states, but existed within the history of ancient civilizations. Scholars and glossators saw dictatorship rather as a historical institution than a problem in the field of law. Nonetheless, Machiavelli observed the crucial aspect of dictatorship in his commentary on the History of Rome by Titus Livius, although he still declared dictatorship an institution typical of the Roman republic.

Schmitt’s suggestion that dictatorship is strongly connected with the concept of sovereignty had been taken from Bodin’s description of the duties and nature of the office of “commissar”. Schmitt takes over this observation, but goes further. The first commissars were sent in the 13 th century by the pope. All acts of the commissars were regarded as acts of the pope himself and were based on a special task (commisio), unlike the acts of ordinary church officials, which were based on law (lex). During the 14 th century the idea of “commissar” was taken over by the late medieaval states, and already from the 15 th century on, dictatorship was understood as a kind of commisio given by the ruler or king. In those cases commisio was about the highest war command during campaigns (e.g. Wallenstein, who fought for the German emperor during Thirty Years’ War) . It was commonly accepted that God is the source of all power, constantly intervening in the world, so the king in the state had the same position and his commissars were only the instruments of intervention.

With the coming of the Enlightenment, the vision of God has been steadily changing towards the deistic view (Descartes, Malebranche): God created the world, set its laws, and since then the world has been functioning independently as a great and complicated machine. With this rationalism in the metaphysics, the vision of the state and dictatorship also changed. As a consequence, the idea of despotisme rational came into existence. If the enlighted knew the truth, they should bring real (!) freedom to those who would never achieve it by themselves, with the help of violence when needed. In this regard the division between the legislative and executive (the balance of powers) made no sense, since it put an obstacle before reasonable actions. At the turn of the 17 th and 18 th centuries in France the classical understanding of dictatorship had moved from the commissar type to the sovereign type. According to Mably, a commissar is not bound by the laws, and during his activity “laws are silent”. Rousseau claimed that volonté générale (general will) had a moral, not a real nature and that the people are the real sovereign. It can of course happen that the will of most of them is not in conformity with the “general will”. During the French Revolution, the difference between the commissar dictatorship, which was based on the existing laws and constitution, and the sovereign dictatorship became clearly visible. Sovereign dictatorship denies the value of the existing political and social order and aims at
introducing the new, true and right one, which would make possible the existence of a real constitution. The real constitution exists therefore only in the future, but at the same time is the basis for the actions of a dictator. The shift from this kind of dictatorship to a dictatorship of the proletariat postulated by Marxist theory was possible because of Rousseau, who in the place of one dictator put the people as a whole. The people are the real sovereign, who can always in every given moment change the political order; they are pouvoir constituant, not pouvoir constitué (this idea is cleary the secular copy of natura naturans and natura naturata). The image of God from the 19 th century was – in contrast to the earlier, rational version – more “objectively unexplained” and the same fell to pouvoir constituant of the people. Although during the French Revolution the word “dictatorship” was not used (since it belonged to the old terminology), the National Assembly is a typical example of sovereign dictatorship, seeing its task in introducing a new political order.

In the end, the growing influence of the liberal view of the state led to the restriction of dictatorship by means of a law describing both the conditions of a state of exception (which replaced the concept of dictatorship) and all means that might be used when it is proclaimed. This vision is far from the earlier version that assumed the impossibility of specific regulations because it is impossible to predict all the situations that could pose a threat to the state and political order.

This short description of Schmitt’s line of thought gives us the opportunity to see the core idea of the sociology of concepts. He traces the changes in meanings of words and puts them in the context of shifts in the metaphysical view of the world. This approach inspired Reinhart Koselleck, now considered the most important representative of Begriffsgeschichte (differences between Begriffsgeschichte and Ideengeschichte are extremely interesting on the methodological level, but will not be discussed here).


In 1970, Schmitt published Politische Theologie II with the subtitle Die Legende von der Erledingung jeder Politischen Theologie, which directly refers to his work from 1922. During the almost fifty years after its publication, Schmitt’s Political Theology received a lot of criticism from different standpoints. The essay from 1970 appears to be an answer to many of them under the guise of a dispute with Erik Peterson and Hans Blumenberg. It is, however, not certain whether they are the real target of his reply. Schmitt stated in a note in Politische Theologie II : “Everything I have said on the topic of political theology is the statement of a jurist about the obvious theoretical and practical legal structural resemblance between theological and juridical concepts. This belongs to the research area of the history of law and sociology” (Schmitt, Political Theology II 148). Although his theory can be seen in that way, it is certainly not the whole truth about his theologico-political position. In Politische Theologie II, Schmitt analyses the legend of the destruction of political theology which come into existence because of a 1935 work by Erik Peterson, Monotheismus als politisches Problem. Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der politischen Theologie im Imperium Romanum . Peterson claims that political theology – because of its origins as an element of pagan theologia tripartita – is imposible for Christianity and every attempt to create it is a kind of heresy. The debate between Schmitt and Peterson refers rather to the theological aspect of this method and will not be further discussed here.

In the context of political theology as a sociology of concepts the last, extremely short part of the book, which was added later, is an answer to Hans Blumenberg and seems to be more important in the context of conceptual history. In 1966 Blumenberg published Die Legitimität der Neuzeit, his opus magnum in which he tried to defend modernity against the accusations raised by the theory of secularization. Among the representatives of this theory he saw also Carl Schmitt with his famous statement that “ all significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts”. According to Blumenberg, the concept of secularization includes “the moment of illegitimacy” [Moment der Unrechtmäßigkeit] (Schmitz and Lepper 20), and is in this regard a “category of historical injustice”. The process of secularization is “a paradigm of expropriation” (21), from which modernity should be set free. He tried to solve the problem with the concept of reoccupation (Umbesetzung), which meant that the new concepts which came into existence in modernity took the functions, not the content, of the previous theological concepts.

Schmitt replied arguing that the title of Blumenberg’s work includes category, which is associated with all that Blumenberg wants the modernity to be freed from – legitimacy (Political Theology II 116-130). He should have used the concept of legality [Legalit ät ], which excludes those connotations with the dynastical right to rule. For Schmitt legitimacy is based on law (ius, Recht), wheras legality on the act of the law (lex, Gesetz) and modernity characterises itself as a resignation from the former. In principle, Blumenberg is interested in the self-authorization of man and his desire to know (Schmitz and Lepper 39; Schmidt, Political Theology II ), which is fundamentally immanent. But the question raised by Schmitt is, “Why does this new real need to justify itself in front of the old, which stands in its way?” (40).


The way Schmitt understands political theology as a method of the sociology of concepts, or rather, history of concepts may provide helpful insights into the differenct disciplines, both in the humanities as well as in the natural sciences. Regardless of the theological aspects of this method, the demand to always have in mind concepts and the context of their deployment is the key to understanding our life-world as well as earlier historical periods. It could enrich the work of scholars working with different problems, especially connected with the socio-political sphere. Schmitt’s influence on Koselleck’s conceptual history, Begriffsgeschichte, has not always been stressed, even though the author of Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe himself never neglected to mention it. This approach proved to be fruitful for the analysis of crucial modern concepts carried out by the scholars gathered around Reinhart Koselleck’s venture and seems promising in regard to future research.

Kinga Marulewska is currently Bronisław Geremek Junior Research Fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna. She is finishing her doctoral dissertation on Carl Schmitt’s theory of sovereignty in the context of political theology and has translated Schmitt, Peterson, and Taubes. Her main fields of interest are political theology, political philosophy, and German and Austrian philosophy and literature.

Works Cited

Assmann, Jan. Politische Theologie zwischen Ägypten und Israel . Münich: Carl-Friedrich-von-Siemens-Stiftung, 1992.

Augustine. City of God [De Civitate Dei]. The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers. Ed. Philip Schaff. Vol. II. Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1956.

Bakunin, Michail. “ Mazzini‘s politische Theologie und die Internationale.”Freiheit. Internationales Organ der Anarchisten deutscher Sprache 26-33 (1891).

Blumenberg, Hans. Die Legitimität der Neuzeit. Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 1966.

Böckenförde, Ernst-Wolfgang. “Politische Theorie und politische Theologie. Bemerkungen zu ihrem gegenseitigen Verhältnis.” Religionstheorie und Politische Theologie, ed. Jacob Taubes. Vol. 1. Der Fürst dieser Welt. Carl Schmitt und die Folgen. München: Fink, 1983. 16-25.

Hepp, Robert. “ Theologie, politische.” Historisches Wörterbuch der Philosophie. ed. Joachim Ritter. Vol. 10. Basel: Schwabe 1998. 1105-1112.

Kelsen, Hans. Der soziologische und der juristische Staatsbegriff . Tübingen : J. C. B. Mohr, 1922.

Koselleck, Reinhart. “Begriffsgeschichte, Sozialgeschichte, begriffene Geschichte. Reinhart Koselleck im Gespräch mit Christof Dipper.“ Neue Politische Literatur 43 (1998).

Lieberg, Godo. “Die theologia tripertita als Formprinzip antiken Denkens.” Rheinisches Museum für Philologie. Neue Folge, 125.1 (1982): 25-53.

Mehring, Reinhard. “Begriffsgeschichte mit Carl Schmitt.” Begriffene Geschichte. Beiträge zum Werk Reinhart Kosellecks. ed. Hans Joas and Peter Vogt, Berlin: Suhrkamp, 2011.

Meier, Christian. Was ist politische Theologie? in: J. Assmann, Politische Theologie zwischen Ägypten und Israel. Munchen 1995. 3-18.

Nichtweiss, Barbara. Erik Peterson : neue Sicht auf Leben und Werk. Freiburg im Breisgau; Basel; Wien: Herder, 1994.

Peterson, Erik. Monotheismus als politisches problem. Ein Betrag zur Geschichte der politischen Theologie im Imperium Romanum. Leipzig: Hegner, 1935.

Schmitt, Carl. “Soziologie des Souveränitätsbegriffes und politische Theologie.” Hauptprobleme der Soziologie: Erinnerungsgabe für Max Weber. ed. Melchior Palyi . Vol. 2. München: Duncker u. Humblot, 1923. 3-35.

. Der Wert des Staates und die Bedeutung des Einzelnen. Tübingen: Mohr, 1914.

— . Dictatorship. Cambridge: Polity, 2014.

— . Die Diktatur. Duncker & Humblot, Berlin: 1921.

— . The Concept of the Political: Expanded Edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008a.

— . Political Theology. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT, 1985.

— . Political Theology II: The Myth of the Closure of any Political Theology, New York: Wiley & Sons, 2008b.

Schmitz, Alexander and Marcel Lepper, Eds. Briefwechsel 1971 – 1978 und weitere Materialien. Hans Blumenberg, Carl Schmitt . Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 2007.

1. The works written during the 1920’s included Die Diktatur; Römischer Katholizismus und Politische Form; Die geistesgeschichtliche Lage des heutigen Parlamentarismus; Verfassungslehre; and Der Begriff des Politischen.

What Do Ideas Do?

IWM Junior Visiting Fellows’ Conferences, Vol. XXXIII
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