Conference Review – Final Conference of the Research Training Group 1261 ‚Critical Junctures of Globalization‘



By Ute Rietdorf (Centre for Area Studies, University of Leipzig)

For the last nine years, the German Research Foundation (DFG) has funded the interdisciplinary Research Training Group 1261 ‘Critical Junctures of Globalization’ (GK 1261). Looking back at this period of intensive work, the Centre for the History and Culture of East Central Europe (GWZO) at the University of Leipzig hosted the final conference of the Research Training Group from 7 to 9 May 2015. Apart from an assortment of associated PhD students, a host of international guests were given the opportunity to review research results and discuss them in conjunction with recent and future trends in the study of ‘globalization’. Extending beyond the immediate realms of the Research Training Group, the conference setting allowed for debates regarding the impact of interdisciplinary research projects, such as GK 1261, on the social sciences, educational systems, and the wider public (programme).


© Ninja Steinbach-Hüter // Panel discussion: the Professors Lentz, Middell, Agnew and Newman


The conference programme offered different platforms of engagement, ranging from panel sessions to podium discussions, as well as keynote speeches. The panels were used as a platform for PhD students, at various stages of progress in their own projects, to present insights from their research and reflect on the value gained during their work around ‘critical junctures of globalization’. Since the beginning of the research programme in 2006, more than 50 PhD students have been involved in this endeavour. In addition to panels, podium discussions circled around programme-related experiences. Key questions emerged regarding institutional sustainability that lead to further reflection on how emerging fields of research impact established fields, or how they may change the societal contexts within which they are embedded. The participation the current Leibniz-Professor Professor Scarlett Cornelissen (University of Stellenbosch, South Africa), Professor John Agnew (University of California, Los Angeles, USA) and Professor David Newman (Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Israel) enriched discussions in an exceptional way. By sharing their own insights on knowledge production and experiences in studying processes of globalization, these internationally renowned scholars added an important value to general discussion, as well as exposing students to valuable insights beyond their own immediate academic spheres.

Looking back at the beginning in 2006

The conference was officially opened by Professor Matthias Schwarz, Vice Rector for Research and Young Academics of the University of Leipzig. In his address, Professor Schwarz highlighted the importance of Research Training Groups, not only as facilitating individual researchers’ careers, but also as a more general approach to postgraduate education. A key added value of Research Training Groups, highlighted Schwarz, lies in their structural effects on universities via their long-term engagement with scientific problems and the concomitant networks and connections that they may foster. Further opening remarks were given by Professor Ulf Engel, spokesperson of the Research Training Group, and Professor Matthias Middell, spokesperson of the Centre for Area Studies at the University of Leipzig. In reviewing the history of the research programme, Ulf Engel underlined the enthusiasm of the University of Leipzig in supporting the Research Training Group from the very beginning, especially in areas of financial administration and logistics. Following this introduction, Professors Engel and Middell reflected on the programme’s position on, and contribution to, debates on globalization(s), as well as the historical perspectives inherent in its research agenda. The first day closed with John Agnew’s lecture on ‘Globalization and Sovereignty’. By particularly focusing on currency flows, he moved away from mere spatial configurations into the realm of temporal distance and immediateness as emerging features of transactions questioning traditional strategies of corporations, industry clusters, financial institutions, and global financial markets alike.

Critical junctures and portals of globalization: employing and testing concepts

The second day of proceedings saw the floor open to PhD students. Starting with the panel on ‘Portals of Globalization’, four papers reviewed the meaning and intellectual depth of the framework offered by ‘portals’ against the background of their own empirical research. In addition to ‘critical junctures’, ‘portals of globalization’ was one of the concepts employed and tested by the members of the Research Training Group. During the discussion it became apparent that the application of the framework induced a wide range of further questions related to process of globalization as consisting of dialectical processes of de- and re-territorialization. Thus, the characterization of actors as transnational, the definition of relevant scales, the historicity of specific institutions, and questions of measurement of change over time emerged as important topics for more in-depth consideration. In reflecting on the value of the ‘portals’ framework, participants found agreement in its use value as a means of intellectual inspiration rather than representing a fixed category to be merely exemplified by empirical material.

The liminality of de- and re-territorialization processes


© Ninja Steinbach-Hüter // The discussions continued during coffee-break

The panel on ‘Effects of Processes of De- and Re-territorialization’ revealed that any territorial fixation is contradicted by the multitude of transnational processes that produce a variety of spatialities in a close relationship with their particular context or place. A key insight that emerged, for example in the analysis of frontier experiences made in different contexts, is that findings are dependent on the underlying categorization of objects. Thus, the liminality of de- and re-territorialization processes was a common feature of all examples presented, whether they talked about urbanization as localized transregionalism in the case of Eastern Africa, or about border making in the case of Israel and Palestine. The afternoon finished with a panel on ‘World Orders and Critical Junctures – Analysing the Geopolitics of States and Social Movements’. The mapping out of the research area once again proved to be the crucial step in making sense of the concept of ‘critical junctures’. The second day of the conference finally closed with a panel discussion reviewing the personal experiences of current and former PhD students as well as Post Docs employed by the Research Training Group. Although experiences differed across cohorts, general concerns included the challenge of relating individual topics to newly emerging research agendas, as well as post-PhD career opportunities within and outside of the academe (reflections on the challenges by Nicholas Dietrich).

Beyond the uniqueness of cases: paving the way to generalization

On the third day, presentations continued with a panel on ‘(New) Regionalisms and Beyond’, illuminating how phenomena like transnational crime and policing, infrastructural power, or politics of memory question our understanding of globalization when framed as merely de-territorialization. Furthermore, presentations brought to light the need for innovative approaches that allow the researcher to go beyond the uniqueness of cases and pave the way to constructive generalizations. By the final day of the conference a host of questions and topics had accumulated that would feed into the final panel discussion. The final panel consisted of GK 1261 associated professors as well as visiting scholars who were invited to reflect on what had been achieved up to that point.

Ongoing debates on globalization(s)

A key point of departure was the question of how the concept of ‘critical junctures’ could enrich ongoing debates on globalization. Key points of contention emerged around matching spatial concepts with the ever-changing nature of the world, moving beyond the spatial turn and its established categories, and thus how to consider the responsible establishment of new categories that may enrich debates on globalization both empirically and theoretically. Participants agreed that it is important to be aware of the plurality of academic languages and thus avoid lexicographic orthodoxy. Furthermore, consideration was given to the embedded historicity of academic languages applied. Finally, it was agreed that establishing a ‘theoretical epicentre’ across social science disciplines might be difficult to achieve. This became even more evident when considering power structures prevalent within academic disciplines and the, more often than not, exclusion of ‘non-Western’ conceptual contributions.

Impact outside of the ‘ivory tower’

Gruppenbild des GK

© Ninja Steinbach-Hüter // The Junior and Senior Researchers of GK 1261 ‚Critical Junctures of Globalization‘ at the final conference

In addition, the question of impactwas raised. Apart from the scientific context of knowledge production, the difficult task remains pursuing constructive engagement with the public via the media, policy communities, and the wider educational system. Although not an easy task, such efforts are crucial in order to have a broader impact beyond the so-called ‘ivory tower’ of the academe. Beyond research results, however, the Research Training Group and similar forms of postgraduate education was seen to deliver something indispensable: young people who are capable of replacing bottlenecks in current educational systems and public administrations which often still struggle to acknowledge the intellectual challenges associated with an increasingly connected but still poorly understood global society and economy.

The closing of a successful conference thus saw the conclusion of the GK 1261 project. Debates will, however, continue as the project has set the foundation for further research on historical and contemporary processes of globalization. In 2013 the GK 1261 was integrated into the new Graduate School of Global and Area Studies of the University of Leipzig. Research about critical junctures of globalization will thus have an academic home for students and social scientists from a multitude of disciplines, for a time to come. As Ulf Engel said in his closing remark on the conference: ‘It’s not the end.’



Citation: Ute Rietdorf, Conference Review – Final Conference of the Research Training Group 1261 »Critical Junctures of Globalization«, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 12.08.2015

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