“All Things Transregional?” in conversation with… Philipp Lepenies
Was bedeutet Transregionale Forschung? Wem kann sie nützen? Wo sind ihre Grenzen? Mit der Interviewreihe „All Things Transregional?“ eröffnen wir die Diskussion und fragen ausgewiesene WissenschaftlerInnen nach ihren Erfahrungen, wichtigen Themen und der Zukunft der transregionalen Studien.
Nach Sebastian Conrad, Monica Juneja, Matthias Middell, Madeleine Herren-Oesch, Thomas Maissen, Barbara Mittler und Miloš Řezník greift nun auch Philipp Lepenies, Gastprofessor am ZI Lateinamerika-Institut der Freien Universität Berlin, die Diskussion über transregionale Studien auf.
What academic insights did you personally gain by investigating issues transregionally?
It is not so much my academic work that has sensitized me for the need to look at social phenomena from a transregional perspective – but rather my practical experience as a development aid manager. After my PhD in Economics, I worked as a development practitioner for over a decade with a large bilateral aid agency and I was in charge of typical development projects in countries as diverse as China, Cambodia, Laos, Viet Nam, El Salvador and Bolivia. Development policy in itself is transregional – it is the deliberate attempt of specific parts of the world to aid and change others. Yet, speaking not from a geographical standpoint but a general academic one, development policy is probably the single most un-transregional approach there is. Development is and has always been based on universally applicable blueprint solutions for pressing social and economic problems and on a vision of global convergence based on what used to be known as Modernization Theory. It is far from obsolete. The practice of development aid is a transfer of knowledge: from supposedly knowledgeable (academic) experts from the outside and the Global North (I was one, and believe me, this is a fun job to do) to the supposedly ignorant partners in the Global South. It is this approach that has been identified as a major reason for the dismal track record of development ever since it emerged as a part of global politics in the late 1940s. Yet, not only is this practice extremely resilient – it is characterized by a complete lack of transregional perspectives. The idea of looking for or promoting “lessons learned” or better, of “state-of-the-art” approaches and policies applicable to any part of the Third World prevents searching for real autochthonous and endogenous, culturally contingent viewpoints and approaches. Even today, methodological innovations such as “randomized control trials” are often marketed as being able to gain insights into “what really works in development” – tacitly or not so tacitly assuming that a successful approach to child vaccination in South India can be automatically transferred to other parts of the Globe as well. In development, if one analyzes the practice of aid critically, it becomes obvious that by investigating reasons for underdevelopment and approaches to development, a lot can be inferred by letting go of universal Northern blueprints, and by embracing instead detailed research on the ground – ideally research that is free of prefixed viewpoints and mentalities and that allows to compare the differences and similarities and entanglements between different parts of the world. This has been called for time and again – and it is easier said than done. But I sincerely believe that a lot goes wrong in international aid, and a lot of money is completely wasted for the lack of transregional perspectives – and the lack of willingness to engage in transregional analysis.
What are the limits of transregional studies? What are the misunderstandings about the field?
As a Social Scientist with practical experience in international policy, I believe the limits are not so much to be found within the field of transregional studies itself, but lie in the fact that many university degrees (at least those that are not entirely based on some conception of area studies) – such as economics (but the same applies for others) do seldom integrate transregional perspectives in their teaching or in their research. This might have a variety of reasons – convincing or less convincing. Maybe a misunderstanding about the field can result from the belief that transregionality can be something of a discipline or scientific approach of its own – disconnected from other fields or seen as a mere appendix to current practice and thinking in major disciplines. Ideally, transregional approaches should blend into the Social Sciences to such a degree that it is no longer necessary to even highlight how important these perspectives are. But since students of the Social Sciences should be equipped with a sound disciplinary and methodological base first before engaging in transregional studies, maybe the fate of transregional approaches is that students will be exposed to them or apply them fairly late in their studies – while others will not be exposed to them at all thanks to the short time of their academic exposure.
How do you envision its future?
Given the extreme dynamics of global change and the new role played by emerging economies and of different regions of the world, transregional approaches will become a necessity in order to truly assess current and future political or economic developments. This will require an outlook that does not focus on one continent or the linkages between some part of the World and say, Europe – but has to take into account the interconnectedness of various culturally completely diverse parts of the globe. The so-called “grand societal challenges” of our time, such as climate change, mass migration, poverty and so forth all require not only global solutions, but the in-depth knowledge of transregionality. Therefore, I envisage that the demand for transregional research and expertise will become bigger. This however, will require a change in academic teaching – Again, speaking in terms of what would be ideal, I would hope that the within the Social Sciences students will be forced, at least from the Master level onwards, to specialize in two completely different regions of the world – and that transregionality in teaching goes hand in hand with transdisciplinarity as well. True transregional research, in my point of view, requires, especially for the investigator of social phenomena, the openness to trespass the boundaries of one’s own discipline. To understand different parts of the world, it is helpful to understand first, how other disciplines interpret what one wishes to analyze. Next to learning about other parts of the globe, students of economics should by way of example, come to know important authors, theories, and methodologies of Anthropology, Political Science and Sociology in their master education – and vice versa.
What academic works (literature) would you name as ground-breaking and trend-setting for the field of transregional research?
I would cite the works of Albert O. Hirschman. And especially his writings on development. Hirschman is not only known as the quintessential disciplinary “trespasser”, who freely integrated approaches of other disciplines into his “economic” reasoning and was thus always capable of shedding new light on and to come up with ingenuous interpretations to social problems. Above all, he looked at how ideas and concepts travelled (for instance through experts, who he diagnosed as suffering from the –“visiting-economist-syndrome”) and what this transregional adaptation of ideas and policy recommendation did to the ideas themselves, to the experts, to local politicians and societies at large. I interpret Hirschman’s work on development as prototypical transregional. It contains not only transdisciplinarity, but also a clear plea to look for the “possible” and “underutilized local ressources” instead of the “probable” in given circumstances, meaning that an in-depth knowledge of local history, custom, political cultures and so forth is necessary in development practice and in research on development– as well as, if this is not obvious for the polyglot Hirschman, a detailed knowledge of local languages – making it possible for to engage with locals, local politicians and co-operating with local researchers and to get to know their points of view. If I had to cite a specific work of his, these would be “Development Projects Obeserved” and “A Bias for Hope.” It is unfortunate that his brilliant writings on development are the ones least likely to be found on university syllabuses these days. If the wave of transregional studies lifts them on shore again to be rediscovered and to inspire future Social Scientists interested in firstly, understanding the world and secondly, working for change and improvement, a lot will be reached.
Citation: “All Things Transregional?” in conversation with… Philipp Lepenies, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 09.05.2016 https://trafo.hypotheses.org/4011