Doing Transregional Studies – a Practitioner’s Perspective

Statement about the conference “Areas and Disciplines” by Ulrike Freitag

The following considerations are based on the experience of teaching in a British and German context as well as having pursued and directed major research projects with transnational as well as interdisciplinary orientations, in the past eleven years at Zentrum Moderner Orient Berlin (ZMO) and FU Berlin, before that at SOAS, London. For the sake of brevity as well as for provoking discussion, I will accentuate rather than nuance a few points.

Let me start by categorically stating that I firmly believe in the centrality of transregional and transnational studies, now more than a few decades ago. While not an adherent of notions of a one-directional global movement, all manner of issues from questions of natural resources and the environment to city planning to local crisis and international refugee trends connect modern societies more than ever. Accidents as the tragic capsizing and drowning of hundreds of refugees, mostly from Eritrea, before the Italian island of Lampedusa or the repeated leaking of contaminated water from storage tanks in Fukushima are more than individual events, their effects (as well as their causes) are linked to our own politics and thus merely demonstrate the need to understand precisely these entanglements in order to find adequate solutions. Furthermore, and precisely because not everything everywhere is equally connected, we do not only need to understand entanglements between our own society and other places in the world, but also between different places in the world as well. Hence, transregional cannot be reduced to “us and the others”.Do we have a problem with the relation between area studies and disciplines? I would argue that this has been, by and large, greatly exaggerated in terms of research practice where, overall, the topics have determined the approaches, disciplines involved and hence the methodology and theory. There is one caveat in our current system of training young academics, in that the BA/MA model has greatly reduced the possibility of acquiring a sound disciplinary grounding in addition to sound area knowledge including languages. Here I foresee more problems for the future than we have had in the past decades and would like to suggest that we take a broader view (which basically means giving people more time for their studies, notably where languages are involved). Internationalisation at universities is also hampered by the question of language – while I am not an advocate of wholesale Anglicisation of our system it is also true that insistence on German deters many of the best overseas students as well as potential staff.

Another caveat is the willingness to engage – to engage for example with a comparative perspective on specific topics in a different cultural context. This would seem to be true for academics anywhere and working in different perspectives. However, the hegemony of “Western” academia in formulating theories and coining terms and concepts has de facto led to a situation in which scholarship on “Western” societies becomes more central than that on other regions. However, I think this is a matter which differs greatly between disciplines – it is certainly more relevant in history, economics and political science than in anthropology or cultural studies – and, to some extent, between countries.

In addition, I would believe that you only get academics to really engage if they have a common systematic question. Here, I would agree with my colleague Jörg Baberowski that large collaborative projects do not necessarily add much value.1 However, small, intensive working groups based in one location and with the possibility to collaborate for a longer period have proven extremely effective. Here I would like to make a distinct claim for longer cycles of collaboration – one year fellowships are nice to finish a book but do usually not allow to build the necessary basis for more profound exchanges.

But perhaps we need to differentiate: We have been wonderfully successful in collaborating with other “Northern” and “global” academics, who all (mostly) speak the common language of English and, in spite of national and other differences in detail, are fairly able to communicate effectively. What, however, with colleagues from the “global South” who might or might not speak English as a native language but come from very different academic environments and concerns. Are we really ready to engage with these in a serious and meaningful way? And are we prepared to and do we even have the tools to address the problems resulting from the established academic hegemonies? It is very easy to pay lip service to cooperation, but it is, however, much more complicated to practice it, notably when it comes to colleagues who did not study in “the West”. I believe that it is here that we have to become much more honest about the difficulties and limitations we face, intellectually as well as institutionally.

Have the recent initiatives helped? They have certainly poured a lot of money into research, and it is much appreciated that this ran beyond the rhythm of DFG funding of 2-3 years. However, as with major DFG collaborative projects, many of the Excellence-Initiative projects were by far too large, not only demanding time-consuming collaboration of countless “Principal Investigators” but then also creating contexts too large for meaningful collaboration. Again, I think some of the lessons of the recent FRIAS dialogue about research in the humanities at universities can also be applied here: Perhaps Graduate Schools are one of the most successful ways of collaborating, whereas many of the “Clusters” were too large (this might admittedly be different in the natural sciences). As for the Area Studies Initiative, in which ZMO participated through the Crossroad Asia Programme studying South and Central Asia, as well as in “Phantomgrenzen” concerned with Central and Eastern Europe: They have been highly valuable for improving national and international networking and connections. Especially the possibility to incorporate local scholars as project members or by inviting them for prolonged visits helped to create international networks and raised the international profile of the German institutions involved.

However, what about the sustainability of these initiatives, especially with view to their international (and transregional) orientation? 4,5,or 10 years are good to finish individual PhDs and books, but what will happen to the international links thus created, beyond immediate and interpersonal relations? We were asked, in the context of a Excellence Initiative Graduate School, to conclude international agreements, but soon realised that until they were through all the relevant administrative bodies on both sides, half of the funding period was going to be over.

Similarly, in the Area Studies Initiative the limited funding period increased the reluctance to institutionalise language teaching at the institutions involved, so that, in spite of the importance of Muslim India and Pakistan, there is hardly any facility for learning Urdu, a language with ca. 65 million native speakers, in the larger Berlin area. Similarly, the regularisation of foreign contacts has, as at ZMO and other similar “projects”, been hampered by the relatively short-term funding for the research staff who, after all, builds and maintains such collaborations.

I think here something needs to change fundamentally: we need to distinguish successful and unsuccessful projects. The latter can be seen as failed experiments and thus important in their own right, the former, however, need to have a life-span and reliability beyond the usual funding rhythms. Why is there this fear of institutionalisation? It does not always need to result in ossification and I think we have an arsenal full of instruments to avoid this by now. While we are all aware of the dangers of ossification, its opposite, the immensely time and resource-consuming “Antragswut” (application frenzy), coupled with a regular reporting and controlling system, should be reigned in and there should be a certain amount of trust invested in academics with a proven track record. After all, area specialists needing language as well as cultural and historical knowledge are not trained overnight and should, once such an investment is made, also have some kind of reliable future prospects. Only such predictability will allow for the kind of calm space in which long term engagement with transregional questions pertaining to the Global South and its relations with us is truly fruitful and might have a societal impact beyond the exchanges of small groups of individuals who are currently the beneficiaries of the initiatives. In the long run, this will benefit Germany with its heightened international profile and responsibilities.

  1. Vgl. Marcus Schröter: Review of “Geisteswissenschaftliche Forschung an Universitäten – ein Gespräch”, FRIAS 28.6.2013, http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=40261 []

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