People have long been living under the conditions of global interdependence, but always in very specific places. Cultural Anthropology sees itself as a discipline of the wide world, which is, nevertheless, always searching for an anchor in the region in which it is practiced. In culturally diverse Thuringia there has been - as in all parts of Europe and in the German-speaking world - an interest and activities in Folk Studies since at least the times of Enlightenment and Romanticism. For a long time, however, it was not practiced as an academic science, but outside of universities, and it was Johann Gottfried Herder who brought to our attention the "culture of the people". With Romanticism, an interest in folk songs, fairy tales and legends was awoken and - as with Ludwig Bechstein - the passion to collect such folk tales was also born.
Around 1800, knowledge about "country and people", as well as popular and mainstream culture rose in status. This was helped in part by the establishment of Homeland and history associations, as well as collection and knowledge repositories, such as museums, which promoted projects such as the "Thuringian Dictionary" and many others. In the nineteenth century, the age of national movements, Folk Studies with its interest in popular life and popular culture (customs, clothing, buildings, etc.) increasingly served as a means of interpretation to answer the question of what holds together and characterizes nations in cultural terms. The institutionalization of the discipline around 1900, and even more so during the National Socialist era, saw the boundaries between ideology and science become even more permeable. Works such as Martin Voerker’s "Thuringian Folklore" (1940) provide testimony to how deep the complexities ran between National Socialist misrule and the self-mobilization of sciences for political intentions. This may also be one of the reasons why after 1945 Folk Studies was one of the first scientific disciplines to look critically into the history of National Socialism. Contentions about the National Socialist past led to a substantial reorientation, in the course of which Folk Studies became a cultural science focused on the analysis of modern and complex contemporary cultures. External expression of this can be highlighted by the renaming of the discipline in German in various ways from "Volkskunde" ("Folk Studies") to "Empirische Kulturwissenschaft" ("Empirical Cultural Studies"), Kulturanthropologie ("Cultural Anthropology") or Europäische Ethnologie ("European Ethnology"), as it has been implemented at other universities since 1970. The question of the name remains an open one with no one term providing fully satisfying definition for this field of study. The term "Volkskunde / Empirische Kulturwissenschaft" (Folk Studies / Empirical Cultural Studies), which is perhaps the best fit to date, is intended to take into account both historical cultural traditions and their present day manifestations and identity.
The scientific discipline was established in Thuringia as a fully recognized university subject only in 1997/98 when a course in Cultural Anthropology was established (Christel Köhle-Hezinger) along with a chair in Cultural History (Michael Maurer). This combination of the two pillars of Cultural Anthropology and Cultural History in the Jena course is a special hallmark in the German-speaking world. This reflects the essence of culture, which can only be adequately understood and perceived as something relevant historically and in our time.
Cultural Anthropology at the University of Jena is anchored in the network of cultural activities and the regional museum landscape in Thuringia, and interwoven with the work of non-university institutions, such as the Thuringian Ethnological Museum, the Folk Studies Advisory and Documentation Centre for Thuringia (Erfurt), or the Folk Studies Commission for Thuringia.