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Think dissertations are dry and don’t make good small talk at a party? These five dissertation topics will prove you wrong.
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Computer games in religious instruction: creating dialogue with youth lifestyles

Thimo Zirpel, University of Münster. The dissertation is available for download here.

Thimo, you worked with “World of Warcraft” in your dissertation. How can the game help get young people interested in religion?

“Watching this video was one of the key experiences that made me want to write this dissertation. Virtual worlds—especially MMORPGs (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games) that are designed for long-term collaboration—are a way to expand your own reality. They often bring people together who never would have met otherwise. That is why these worlds have things like initiation rituals, weddings, and burials. One extreme example is when the world itself “dies” because the provider turns off the server: Apocalypse Now! These kinds of situations can make players reflect to a greater or lesser extent. They can help people meditate on their own ephemeral existences in a way they usually would not do in everyday life, and may not be able to put into everyday words. They engage in spontaneous religious activity, even if they do not always see it that way. In short: For children and young adults, these games cover a lot of ground that would have historically fallen under the rubric of religion.”

And speaking of religion: When it comes to games with religious connotations, “The Binding of Isaac” is my personal favourite. Are you familiar with it?

“Yes. As the title says, it has a lot to do with the story of the same name, “The binding of Isaac” in Genesis 22:1–19. The game play reflects Isaac’s internal struggle against his repressive mother, his self-doubt, and the accusations made against him. I find it especially interesting how the multiple endings generated so much speculation among players: What is really going on with Isaac? Surprisingly, despite the framing story most people don’t consider it to be a declaration of war against religious fanaticism; instead, it is a way to work through some meditations on destructive relationships. That is not very far from the original Biblical story. In the Bible, the focus is primarily on breaking away from old views of humanity’s relationship with God, where God is a ruthless, demanding, and repressive ruler. Ultimately, Abraham realises the God of the Bible doesn’t want human sacrifices; instead, God loves humanity.”

You are a teacher. Do your students give you the excuse that they didn’t finish their school work because they spent hours yesterday gaming and wrestling with difficult ethical questions? Does it work?

“Gaming would be the perfect excuse, but I don’t accept it. My goal instead is for my students and me to learn something about these questions by playing together and through our discussions. As an English and religion instructor, ‘Life Is Strange’ is the best example in my opinion. It contains so many exciting issues for students who are 14 and older. They are a great way to start a discussion during a religion or English class: bullying, suicide, stress about school, first love. The point is to encourage them to never stop learning and not to nag them to stop playing.”

Transferring licensed football players and insurance policies

Jonas Stadtmüller. This book was published by the Dr. Kovač Verlag.

Jonas, are professional football players really just normal employees?

“Lawyers dispute that question. The Federal Labour Court, and the vast majority of the legal literature, treats licensed football players as having employee status.”

If a Brazilian player is traded to Germany by Spain, which national law applies?

“This is a question that doesn’t generally come up in real life. Transfer contracts contain what is called a choice of law clause, which is a clause stating which legal regimen applies. The regulations of the FIFA—the International Federation of Association Football—which the participating clubs are subject to, outline obligatory rules of procedure and stipulate which chambers will settle disputes regarding international transfers.”

Do professional football players really insure their own legs?

“Many professional football players do have speciality insurance policies tailored to their specific needs. According to media reports, some of them have insured their legs. They are not part of the rank and file, of course.”

How many lawyers does a football club usually employ?

“The numbers can differ widely. Some Bundesliga teams have multiple lawyers on staff, while others don’t employ any. Instead, they just get legal advice from speciality law firms as needed.”

The social logic of the like: A Twitter ethnography

Johannes Paßmann, University of Siegen. The dissertation was published by Campus in 2018.

Johannes, tell us what your dissertation is about in 280 characters or less.

“Our modern social media platforms have grown big and stayed that way because they have ‘platform units’ like likes, followers, and retweets that often work almost like a currency. My dissertation researched how these platform units are utilised.”

What is fieldwork like out in the Twittersphere?

“The dissertation starts from the premise that you can best research practices like ‘liking’ by learning how to use them yourself. To do my research, I started a pseudonymous Twitter account that I used to participate in the German Twitter community. There, the goal is to get as many likes as possible for a tweet. My ethnographic research at Twitter community in-person meet-ups was particularly interesting. In-person meetings can sometimes create a crisis for online interactions, since they take place in a different medium. Something might seem prestigious online, but in person, you can see what the participants find annoying or what makes them nervous. Since I was part of these meet-ups myself and of the feelings they generate, that really affected my interviews with the other participants.”

After working so intensively with Twitter, are you still active on the platform? Or would you rather write letters nowadays?

“I think that, in some ways, Twitter is similar to sugar or caffeine, which are drugs, but which are totally acceptable in everyday life. In his essay ‘Becoming a Marihuana User’, Howard S. Becker explains how learning to use a pleasurable drug also involves a kind of social learning. In addition to the ‘social high’ of writing, using emojis and getting likes, Twitter serves as a way to process users’ daily lives, which in turn shapes their perception. However, these social practices of pleasure do change. At some point, the experience can turn on its head, and you realise that it is impossible for you to read an article without wondering what you should comment on it. That is why I decided to subscribe to the newspaper again after ten years. When I read my first issue at home by my coffee table, I thought, ‘How great—just me and this piece of paper. No rankings, no messages, just a well-thought-out position I get to think about on my own’.”

Debating vegetarianism in ancient times

Pedro Ribeiro Martins, University of Göttingen. The dissertation was published in 2017 by De Gruyter.

Vegetarians, vegans, fruitarians—did people have a concept of these different kinds of meat-free eating in ancient times?

“Yes. Although the terms vegetarianism and veganism were invented in the modern era, there were different approaches to abstaining from meat even in ancient times. Most of these were practised by ‘barbarian’ peoples—or non-Greeks, from a Greek perspective. In mythology, there were the lotus-eaters, who were a peaceful people who ate only lotus leaves. Historical sources report on root-eaters, sperm-eaters and wood-eaters. These ‘vegetarians’ were usually driven to adopt such diets through their geographical circumstances.”

In ancient times, why would people choose these kinds of diets?

“Broadly speaking, among philosophical circles that dealt with these issues, you can divide their motivations into three main types: religious or metaphysical reasons, like the Pythagorean teaching of transmigration; ascetic motivations or health-related arguments; and ethical motivations such as the just treatment of animals. Usually, elements from all of these areas would be combined to create a single argument. The neo-Platonic philosopher Porphyry, for example, believed that people could become more like god by practising non-violence towards animals and by not defiling their bodies with meat. It is difficult for us to understand exactly what he meant, but that is why it is so important that we analyse these kinds of arguments in their contexts, in order to better understand references to other philosophical teachings.”

The title of your dissertation indicates that vegetarian diets were just as controversial back then as they are now. What characterises this controversy in the main sources you use?

“My dissertation analyses two debates we find in Porphyry’s book ‘De Abstinentia’. By comparing two fragmentary sources from ‘De Abstinentia’, I tried to identify and evaluate the discussion between the otherwise unknown Klodios from Naples, who wrote ‘Against vegetarians’, and Theophrastus, who was the successor to Aristotle. Klodios uses several arguments against vegetarianism that are often used today, for instance that vegetarians shouldn’t drink milk or eat honey if they believe killing animals is wrong. In response, Theophrastus says that people and animals have an agreement with one another, and that animal products should be considered as payment for protection by humankind.”

Does this mean that Klodios, in opposing vegetarianism, introduced “vegan arguments” into the discussion?

“From my perspective, it is more useful to keep in mind that discussions about eating meat in ancient times took place in a very different religious, social, and economic context than ours do today. However, it is true that people at the time did have serious disagreements over their ethical positions and life philosophies just as we do today, including over their diets.”

Dialectics of secrecy

Florian Hadler, Berlin University of the Arts. The dissertation was published by V & R Unipress in 2018.

Even though your dissertation is about secrecy, can you tell us a little bit about your topic?

“My dissertation investigates concepts and theories of secrecy in widely divergent fields, such as philosophy, theology, and systems theory. Various dossiers address what secrecy is. Each of the dossiers deals with a separate topic related to secrecy. The history of confession, the concept of the unconscious, and the figure of the detective are some examples of these. The dissertation shows that secrecy is a fundamental part of how humans understand the world. It is expressed in these individual phenomena, all of which are connected to one another at their core.”

You taught a course on the topic of public secrets. How can secrets be public?

“Public secrets may sound like a contradiction in terms, but it all depends on the kind of secret you are talking about. The urban space is pervaded by coded signs and ‘locked’ places, although anyone can decode and track such spaces. These include, for example, subcultures and milieus that prevent easy access by just anyone, or paths and passages not directly accessible to the public. In addition, there are publicly visible architectures of secrecy, such as the deposit boxes in a bank or the BND building (Federal Intelligence Services headquarters in Berlin). Just because a secret is visible to the public does not mean the public gets to look inside of it.”

Are secrets really still important to us in the era of Facebook data protection scandals?

“I don’t think digitisation has changed anything about the fundamental importance of
secrecy. What has changed, of course, are the availability and transmission of information, and therefore the social controversies surrounding the right to access this data. However, this only affects those secrets that can, in principle, be shared with others or that have already been shared. There are a whole host of other secrets not suitable for sharing in digital or analogue form, and these are the secrets that are really interesting—at least throughout the history of secrecy. Facebook hasn’t changed anything about that.”