Continuous curiosity in cultures and people generates the most interesting questions – 5in10 with Jürgen Dinkel

Jürgen Dinkel. Picture: private.

Jürgen Dinkel studied History and Slavic Philologies and graduated with a PhD from the University of Gießen in 2013. He was a wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter (similar to a assistant professor) at the University of Gießen and a Research Fellow at the German Historical Institute Washington before he joined the history department of Leipzig University in 2017. His current research interests include the history of inheritance, global and transnational history.

 

How do you explain your current research projects to your students?

I tell my students that what really fascinates me about my research is that it deals with a simple universal anthropological fact: people die and they cannot take any of their property with them. So, throughout time and in all societies people have had to answer a couple of questions concerning the deceased person’s property: Who gets (all or part of) the person’s property? Who has the right to claim that property, and which parts of it? And who in the end determines the final distribution of that property?

The answers to these questions are varied across time, region, and social group. The importance of the legal, economic, social, and religious values and conditions affecting these questions has changed over time, and, so too, the definitions of family and kinship, which often have a profound impact on property transfers. Indeed, every time someone passes away, the existing legal and cultural values as well as family relations have to be re-affirmed or contested.

Building on this background, one aim of my project is to examine – through the comparison of inheritance transfers in three different cities (Baltimore, Frankfurt am Main, Odessa) – the impact of the political, legal, economic, and social values and conditions, as well as family and kinship relations on property transfers in these urban societies at various points in time. My second goal is to analyze the effects of property transfers at death on individuals, families, and societies in the 20th century. In this way, my project will shed new light on family and kinship relations in the 19th and 20th century; contribute to a broader and more complex understanding of “the economy,” including non-market exchanges; look into the origins, continuance, and discontinuance of social inequalities in families and in societies; and discuss the interdependence between the state and private family and kinship networks.

What were academic or personal inspirations that led to your current research?

I owe the idea for my current research project to Dirk van Laak. He gave once a talk about the history of inheritance in which he mentioned that historians of the 20th century have so far paid not much attention to this topic – contrary to historians for earlier time periods. I was immediately thrilled by this topic, and he encouraged me to begin with my own archival research, which I did.

How are you ‘doing’ research? What are your most important research methods (interviews, archives, excavations…?)

I am conducting extensive archival research in various archives, libraries and probate courts. The hardest part for me is to read and analyze sometimes very emotional documents like last wills and testaments, diaries, and private letters dealing with money, death, rage, betrayal, guilt, justice, forgiveness, and love between close family members without losing a neutral perspective and without becoming emotionally involved.

Which publications or academic events (workshops, conferences, lecture series…) did inspire you recently?

Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century was an inspiration, as it made a strong argument to include the analyses of inheritance transfers into the broader examination of social inequality. More important were the works of Simone Derix (Die Thyssens. Familie und Vermögen). Her analysis of close personal networks connected through “property” and “emotions” shaped my own thinking about inheritance transfers. I also learned a lot from all participants who attended two workshops I organized with colleagues on property, family and inheritance practices – one in Giessen in 2016 (with Dirk van Laak) and one at the German Historical Institute in Washington in 2017 (with Simone Lässig and Vanessa Ogle). In addition, the academic curiosity and knowledge of the people at the GHI throughout the year I was a fellow there was highly stimulating.

Do you think that academic mobility changes the way in which research projects are conceptualized? What are your personal experiences in this regard?

Academic mobility definitely shapes research projects. However, I think it is not so much the mobility – measured in kilometers or miles or number of archives visited in various countries –  that generates interesting research questions, but the intellectual mobility of researchers and their continuous curiosity in cultures and people. Although it is not necessary to travel thousands of miles to conceptualize an interesting research project, being physically mobile pushes you out of your daily routines and forces you to some degree to question what you think you know and to get in touch with other people and their ideas. And this can lead to experiences, conversations and contacts which may change research projects or even inspire new ones. I already mentioned the fruitful discussions at the GHI. At the Baltimore City Archives, archivist and researcher Edward C. Papenfuse took a long time to share with me his knowledge about the history of inheritance and the archives in Maryland. Without his tremendous support the design of my research project would have been different. In another way, the many talks with my neighbors and friends at Takoma Village Cohousing (TVC), the place where my family and I lived for almost a year in DC, broadened my horizons enormously.

 

Citation: Jürgen Dinkel, “Continuous curiosity in cultures and people generates the most interesting questions” – 5in10 with Jürgen Dinkel, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 16.01.2018, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/8724.


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