Transregionale Verflechtungen: Räumliche Zusammenhänge jenseits etablierter Metageographien

Steffen Wippel (photo: privat)

This article is part of the TRAFO series ‚Emerging Topics. Insights from ‘Behind the Scenes’. Today, we put the spotlight on the lecture series „Transregionale Verflechtungen: Räumliche Zusammenhänge jenseits etablierter Metageographien“. The lecture series started in Marburg during the winter semester 2016 and will be continued in 2017.

Our guest today is Steffen Wippel. Steffen Wippel is a senior researcher at the Research Network ‘Re-Configurations. History, Remembrance and Transformation Processes in the Middle East and North Africa’ at Philipps-Universität Marburg and is teaching as an associate professor (Privatdozent) at Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg. In 2014/2015, he was a guest Professor for Contemporary Middle East Studies in the Department of History of the University of Southern Denmark in Odense. His recent publications include a themed issue of Inamo (Informationsprojekt Naher und Mittlerer Osten) that discusses urban re-configurations between globalisation and fragmentation (Inamo 89, 23, Spring 2017, with C. Steiner), the edited volumes ‘Under Construction: Logics of Urbanism in the Gulf Region’ (ed., with K. Bromber, C. Steiner and B. Krawietz, Ashgate 2014) and ‘Regionalizing Oman: Political, Economic and Social Dynamics’ (ed., Springer 2013) and the monograph ‘Wirtschaft, Politik und Raum: Territoriale und regionale Prozesse in der westlichen Sahara’ (Hans Schiler 2012).

Why did you organize the lecture series “Transregionale Verflechtungen: Räumliche Zusammenhänge jenseits etablierter Metageographien” at Marburg University and what were you hoping to achieve?

The background for the lecture series, which took place in the winter semester 2016/17 and will continue in the summer semester 2017, is the research network ‘Re‐Configurations. History, Remembrance and Transformation Processes in the Middle East and North Africa’. Funded by the Federal Ministry for Education and Research (Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung, BMBF), it was established in 2013 at the Philipps‐Universität Marburg and connects several institutions inside the university – from the biggest network partner, the Centre for Near and Middle Eastern Studies (CNMS), to the Centre for Conflict Studies, contemporary history and media studies and other chairs and departments. From the beginning, the network defined transregional connections, entanglements and interdependencies (transregionale Verflechtungen) as one of its four research fields.

In the past, I had already worked on transregional connections in different, mainly economic and political fields from Moroccan and Omani perspectives. When I joined the Marburg research network in late 2015, I wanted to give the transregional research field more prominence beyond the work on my individual project. While the pitfalls of conventional area studies have already been intensely discussed, also at the CNMS and in the research network, in practice, teaching and research very often still concentrate on developments inside established regional containers. This seems to be particularly the case in many social science disciplines. However, in humanities and cultural studies, transregional and transcultural links have become more prominent (cf., for example, the International Conference ‘Trans-l Encounters: Religious Education and Islamic Popular Culture in Asia and the Middle East’ at the CNMS in 2016). So, although research on transregional issues is on the rise in Germany and worldwide, its presence is still limited among students and researchers.

Hence, the goal of the lecture series is to present current transregional research – empirical results, conceptual approaches and methodological challenges – to a larger audience, namely to students in Middle Eastern Studies and, occasionally, in disciplines such as political science, anthropology, geography, economics etc. The main intention is to raise awareness of the existence of multiple regional transgressions and transregional interconnections and to open the floor to related discussions. In the context of the ‘spatial turn’, the lecture series wants to demonstrate the repeated remaking of spaces and regions embedded within wider historical and current re-configurations.

Based on the topics and questions that have been discussed in the series so far: what are the key arguments for conducting transregional research? Why do we need transregional perspectives in Middle Eastern studies?

The lecture series has included talks by scholars in various disciplines (like history, geography, anthropology, political science, economics) that point to a wide range of transregional connections and ‘alternative’ spaces. Links across the Indian Ocean, the Mediterranean and the Sahara, as well as common Ottoman-Southeast European geographies, are prominent. Historical and contemporary examples have covered fields as varied as political orders, military mobilities, economic cooperation, food security, spirits and infrastructure. Conceptually, speakers have referred to approaches such as translocality, transnationalism, seascapes, connectivities and cultural areas. Approaches to regionalism developed in the context of African studies have provided us with new perspectives. They are often much less state-centred than, for instance, in Middle Eastern studies, and have long since started to explore spatial fluidities, the ambiguousness of borders and transgressing mobilities.

The main argument for conducting transregional research is to overcome established ‘meta-geographies’ and be open to the existence of a world of multiple, overlapping and shifting regional contexts. These contexts do not necessarily cover coherent surfaces, but rather consist of sometimes filiform and discontinuous network-, rhizome- and archipelago-like spatial arrangements. A noteworthy feature of the MENA region is that it is cut out from the traditional first-order world regions following continental landmasses. Connections with the rest of these continents (Africa, Asia and partially Europe) were largely cut in academic research and partially in the empirical field during colonial times. Thus, African studies concentrated more and more on (‘black’) Sub-Saharan Africa as disconnected from (‘white’) Mediterranean Africa. Instead, North Africa was increasingly included in the field of Middle Eastern Studies. Hence, both area studies long ignored the intense re-emerging links in the Maghreb-Sahel area. Concurrently, also on the political level, not only in the context of Pan-Arab ideologies, different countries and cultures have been amalgamated in the ‘Arab world’. Still today, demands prevail for its economic or political integration from the Gulf to the Atlantic Ocean. Against this background, the lecture series also wants to contribute to breaking down entrenched Middle Eastern/Arab spatial mind-sets and revealing the multifarious links that different actors produce on different scales, beyond assumed – and in fact rather vague – regional delimitations.

How would you like to influence transregional debates in the future and do you have plans following-up on the lecture series?

The lecture series is embedded into a series of other academic events. There is the panel ‘Beyond Established Meta-Geographies: Trans-Regional Connections Transcending the Arab World and the Middle East’, which I organised in 2016 as part of the Nordic Conference on Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Southern Denmark in Odense. There is also the international conference on ‘Re-Configurations of South-South Relations: New Dependencies, New Opportunities?’, which took place in spring 2017 in Rabat, co-organised by myself and Dieter Haller (Professor for Social Anthropology at Ruhr-Universität, Bochum) and mainly funded by the local office of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation. Currently, I am preparing an edited volume together with my colleague at the ‘Re-Configurations’ network, Andrea Fischer-Tahir (with the working title ‘MENA Transregional: Verflechtungen jenseits etablierter Meta-Geographien’). It will be based on the lecture series and the above-mentioned panel and will include an extensive conceptual section. We will prepare and discuss this section with some of the authors represented in the publication during a brainstorming workshop scheduled for late May 2017. Exemplary portraits of some of the institutes and networks advocating transregional research in Germany will complement the theoretical and empirical chapters.

In addition, I will continue my individual research project. Beyond coming back to Morocco’s trans-Saharan connections, I am particularly interested in pushing forward a local perspective on transregional entanglements (currently, I am focusing on the city of Tangier). Such local perspectives are often neglected – namely in the ‘harder’ social sciences – compared to transregional relations seen from the national level.

All these initiatives aim to integrate a transregional approach more firmly in Middle East Studies and related systematic disciplines and to open research on the Middle East and North Africa towards multidirectional connections. Although it is a challenge to influence transregional debates as an individual researcher, I understand my work as a contribution to a broader debate in an expanding field of research. I hope that opportunities working together with colleagues from different disciplines in the future will bolster the consolidation and dissemination of this kind of research.

 

Further contributions to the TRAFO series „Emerging Topics“: 

 

Citation: Transregionale Verflechtungen: Räumliche Zusammenhänge jenseits etablierter Metageographien  – Interview with Steffen Wippel, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 27.04.2017, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/6584.


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