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To Whom Belongs the World? Volume 1: To Whom Belongs the Sleep?

Our summer topics this year are all about property. To whom do belong e.g. air, water, climate, our cities - or our sleep? HU-scientists are doing research in these topics. Volume 1 with the historian Dr. Hannah Ahlheim.

Dr. Hannah Ahlheim
Dr. Hannah Ahlheim. Foto:

Sleep, time and work – these are the research topics of the historian Dr. Hannah Ahlheim. She is just finishing up her fellowship on the history of working time in the re:work program at the HU. During about a year – released from her teaching responsibilities – she was able to examine the transformation of the predominant concepts of time and work. Her new book, Der Traum vom Schlaf im 20. Jahrhundert: Wissen, Optimierungsphantasien und Widerständigkeit [The Dream of Sleep in the 20th Century: Knowledge, Optimization Fantasies and Resistance], was recently brought out by the Wallstein Verlag.

In the interview, she explains why our sleep is externally determined and why flexible working time does not necessarily make one happier.

One of your research topics is sleep. Why?

We spend one-third of our lifetimes sleeping, after all. That is a whole lot. Sleep makes us who we are as people, just as much as being awake does. If we lack sleep, including chronically, we lead a different life, we are different people. Thus, the way we sleep determines our social existence – and also our history.

I am, above all, interested in the sociological and economic perspective on sleep. This interest has made me aware that the individual experience of sleep is not as individual and private as one usually thinks. Most of us are subject to a sleep-regime and have to use and protect their sleep as resource. Work and our social existence set the rhythm.

Since when has this been so?

The demands of technology, capitalism and warfare have massively de-individualized sleep since the second half of the 19th century. With the increasing availability of electric light, factories could be constantly lit: virtually around the clock. The machines simply did not sleep, and thus workers also had to sleep differently.

In the 20th century, one discovered sleep and wakefulness as strategic resource and began deliberately to conduct research on sleep and to manipulate it. There followed the development of chemical sleep aids and stimulants for staying awake – among other things, by way of tests on soldiers. One needed precise factory workers and soldiers that were alert and healthy.

What have you been working on during your re:work Fellowship at the HU?

At re:work, I have begun a new project, in which I deal with the history of working time in the second half of the 20th century: to begin with, in the Federal Republic of Germany. I am interested here in how power structures function in society: who and what in fact determined time, the interplay between the economy and everyday culture. In 1984, the social philosopher Oskar Negt described the individual’s possibility of disposing of his or her time as “the core of freedom and unfreedom” in a society. For me, this was a very inspiring idea to use as a point of departure.

In the new project, I also look at whether and how the temporal structures of society have changed. When time since the 1970s is being discussed, there is always talk of acceleration and flexibilization in “Post-Fordism” and “Postmodernity” – but what does this actually mean for everyday life? What exactly is changing and what perhaps is not? What times and structures remain inflexible and give us very clear specifications about how we can and must structure our day?

How do you assess current models of work (and working time)?

Flexible working time models – “flextime,” for instance, “trust-based working time” or “home office” – and the possibility of disposing over one’s “own time” that is acquired with them require a high degree of self-management and responsibility. I have to “optimize” myself, in order to be successful on the market.

These models also demand a higher degree of self-control and pressure to fit in. The employee precisely does not work at a given place and time in front of the boss’s eyes, but has now to show self-discipline at home or in the allocation of his or her free time, in order precisely to satisfy the required flexibility and to deliver results “just in time.” It is thus possible that we have only seemingly become freer and more self-determined with the advent of the flexibilization of work and working time.

Moreover, certain models, like so-called flextime, have not only been created for the benefit of the employee – but rather, for example, to manage movements. A given infrastructure precisely cannot handle everyone going to work at the same time.

What influence does digitized life have on our working life?

The emergence of smartphones and co. has made the boundary between work and free time even more fluid than it already was with the spread of the internet. Work is reaching into the private sphere. But many people no longer see any problem with this. It is a new normality – which, moreover, also influences sleep and further subjects it to external determination. We could speak here of work becoming unbounded.

What developments do you see in the future?

It is difficult for me to say. What we can see, however, is that the constant pressure to optimize does not function easily and without creating friction. Flexibility that does not lead to more autonomy, but rather demands more fitting-in and efficiency is a burden for people. Sleeping disorders have become a serious problem in recent years.

When it comes to dealing with time and work, social inequality is also increasing: some can allocate their time entirely as they wish (or are unemployed); others work in rigid systems of night work and shift work or are continually working overtime – they do nothing but work anymore.

I think we need to become conscious of these conflicts, to enjoy our “own” time, to defend it uncompromisingly and to distribute it more fairly. The history of sleep shows us that unproductive time is also a large, but, above all, an important and beautiful and “dreamy” part of our life.

The interview was conducted by Christin Bargel.

Weitere Informationen

The fellowship of Hannah Ahlheim and of two other fellows was funded by the Institut für die Geschichte und Zukunft der Arbeit (The Institute for the History and Future of Work). The scholars for the coming re:work fellowship year 2018-19 have already been selected.

For more on Hannah Ahlheim’s re:work Fellowship

The International Research Center on “Work and Human Life Cycle in Global History” or, in short, re:work was founded in 2009 and is one of the Käte Hamburger Centers for Research in the Humanities. It is thus part of the “Freedom for Research in the Humanities” funding initiative of the German Ministry of Education and Research.

Since 2009, around 130 scholars have been recipients of a re:work fellowship. The overriding objective of research and discussion at re:work is to explore, comparatively and in their historical interdependence, the relationship and interaction between work and life cycle, conceptions of work and conceptions of the life cycle, and working orders and life cycle orders, in order to elaborate a typology of work, influence major trends, and historically, so to say, to isolate the present situation.

Each year re:work hosts 10-15 researchers coming from different academic disciplines and of different origins, in order to provide them a forum to exchange ideas on the central questions of the Center’s topic for the period of an academic year (October - July), as well as to promote exchange between more established and younger scholars. re:work organizes workshops, international conferences and summer schools; and fellows, moreover, present their work for discussion at various institutions in Berlin.


Dr. Hannah Ahlheim