Behavioral Knowledge. Scenes of writing and observing behavior at the Zoological Institute of the Humboldt University in Berlin (1948–1968)

Since the end of the 19th century, ‘behaviour’ has become an almost self-evident topos in the anthropological discourses of almost any discipline, from philosophy, biology and sociology to ethnology and economics. Concepts of behavior often serve as tools for predicting the future and preventing danger. However, an analysis of the respective historical conditions for this knowledge of behavior, one that serves as a descriptive category and definition of the living has yet to be written.

This first investigation of the history of knowledge and cultural history of behavior is concerned with the discourse on behavior in the 1950s and 1960s. The PhD project focuses on a paradigmatic ‘scene of writing and observing’ behavior, in which the disciplinary potential of knowledge about behavior, its socio-political implications, and how it was conditioned through material cultures and media procedures intertwine. In particular, it explores the scientific legacy of the East German behavioral biologist Günter Tembrock (1918–2011), who conducted behavioral studies on red foxes between 1948 and 1968 in the working spaces and outdoor enclosures of the Zoological Institute on the site of today’s Natural History Museum in Berlin.

With perspectives from media studies and cultural history, the material culture of experimenting on zoo animals as well as animals found in the institute's workspaces are analyzed. Beyond the institute's confines, the explosive scientific-political context of behavioral science in the GDR and the anthropological consequences of Tembrock’s theses are read against the background of more broad socio-political debates in the SED dictatorship and the Cold War. In addition, the study addresses to the difficulty of writing—between perception and text and between politics and biology—which in Tembrock’s case was at times reflected in fictional texts.

The doctoral project used literature from biology, psychology, cultural studies, history of literature, media and knowledge. In addition, it essentially processed sources (written material, photographs, films and audio documents) from the as yet untapped estate of Günter Tembrock, kept in the archive of the Natural History Museum Berlin.


Program funding through the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) 2019
Head researcher(s): Sophia Gräfe


Sophia Gräfe

  • Review of: Carlo Thielmann: Tier und Film – Zur Modellierung anthropologischer Differenz. Marburg: Schüren Verlag 2018, in: MEDIENwissenschaft: Rezensionen | Reviews 37 (2020), 68–70
  • Der Verein für Museen. Gelehrte Fiktionen des Biologen Günter Tembrock, in: Ulrike Vedder, Johanna Stapelfeldt, Klaus Wiehl (eds.): Museales Erzählen – Dinge, Räume, Narrative. Paderborn: Fink 2020, 297–318
  • Review of: Martin Böhnert, Kristian Köchy, Matthias Wunsch (eds.): Philosophie der Tierforschung. 3 Volumes. Freiburg/München: Karl Alber Verlag 2016–18, in: Journal for General Philosophy of Science 51 (2020), 503–506


26 Sep 2019 · 3.30 pm

Sophia Gräfe: Material werden – Filmische Ökologien des Verhaltens

Universität zu Köln, Philosophikum, Universitätsstraße 41, 50931 Köln, Raum S56

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27 Jul 2019 · 10.45 am

Sophia Gräfe: Behavior (Un-)Archived. Research Films in East German Bioacoustics

Universität Utrecht, Drift 21, 3512 BR Utrecht (NL)

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Lecture in the context of the exhibition »Gesten – gestern, heute, übermorgen«
18 Jun 2019 · 6.30 pm

Sophia Gräfe: Verhalten oder Zeichen? Zum Verständnis von Gesten in der Biologie

Museum für Kommunikation, Leipziger Str. 16, 10117 Berlin

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24 May 2019

Sophia Gräfe: Ecologies of Behavior. Media and Politics in Early Bio-Acoustics

Marburg Centre for Canadian Studies, Philipps-Universität Marburg, Biegenstraße 10, 35037 Marburg

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15 Mar 2019

Sophia Gräfe: Listening to Foxes on Film. Sonic Images in East German Bioacoustics

60th Annual Conference of the Society for Cinema & Media Studies, Sheraton Seattle Hotel, 1400 6th Ave, Seattle, WA 98101 (USA)

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