“I have always been interested in environmental topics” – 5in10 with Nicole Wiederroth

Foto: Bärbel Düsing

Nicole Wiederroth received her PhD in Modern and Contemporary History at the University of Duisburg-Essen. In her thesis, she analysed the reproduction and legitimisation of the colonial order in South African media during the Second World War. Prior to that she studied African Studies and Gender Studies at Humboldt-University of Berlin. Since 2015 she has held a postdoc position at the Department of History/CEN at the University of Hamburg working within the research section ‘Climate Change and Social Dynamics’. Currently she is the Joint Junior Research Fellow at the Institute of Advanced Studies of the University College London and at the Max Weber Foundation’s German Historical Institute London. In her research project, she examines a diverse and entangled history of human and non-human mobility, environmental change, and possible (re-)interpretations of history from pre-colonial to post-colonial times with a geographical focus on today’s Western Tanzania.

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

The project aims to contribute to the genealogy of environments in Eastern Africa, more precisely in an area of today’s Western Tanzania. Within a time frame of roughly one hundred years, I put my focus on various human and non-human actors, on their ideas, interpretations and transformations of the(ir) environments over different periods of time. As mobility and the regulation and control of mobility proved to be an important driver for defining environments as well as environmental changes, I am using methodological approaches from Environmental History and of Migration and Mobility Studies.

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

There is not really one specific inspiration that I could mention, but maybe several periods of time and different priorities which influenced decisions linked to my current research. During my studies, I developed a stronger interest in the history of labour migration, at that time mostly within the South African context. Later, when I did my doctoral research on media in South Africa during the Second World War, mobility and how mobility could be a motivator for change within a society became an important topic to think about. Also during this research on media and war, I noticed environmental issues were mentioned by certain media regularly, less so during most of the war period but increasingly in the last year. As I had always been interested in environmental topics, I thought I should try to bring together historical research on environment and migration. So, over time, the current project materialised.

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

First of all, it is a historical project and I am using archive material. This means mostly to analyse written sources like internal correspondences between institutions or organisations, letters, diaries, (public) reports, but also to consider visual images like photos, drawings, maps, etc., thus, quite a variety of different materials. Besides, I am integrating interviews, although more as a supplement.

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

At first glance, things which are inspiring for me seemed to not be directly connected to my own research. Inspiration comes through similarities and distinctions between my own ideas e.g. about how to perceive or describe environments and the perception or description of an environment via certain objects, performances, events, etc. An emphasis on multiple ways of defining, interpreting or picturing environments can be not only by focussing on marginalised actors or neglected parts of particular environments but also by using different materials for its interpretation. Just to give some examples, I think about the work of Bernie Krause, a soundscape ecologist, or artwork like the installation of the Algerian town Ghardaïa by Kader Attia, which are quite inspiring. Both offer different ways of presenting and producing environments, not only due to their focuses but explicitly through the material and the form of presentation they chose.

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

Certainly mobility could imply great possibilities, notably to get into contact with other researchers. The exchange of knowledge and ideas that academic mobility enables can be inspiring and constructive for the research. Besides, academic mobility offers the possibility to integrate e.g. materials that otherwise would be more difficult or even impossible to get access to from the country you are based or you are from. However, I think that there is a more ambivalent aspect to the phenomenon as mobility is not always the preferred option for the researcher but a necessity to continue with a project. Short term contracts and constrains imposed by commuting between different places can be mentioned as examples of some problems with academic mobility. Definitively, academic mobility has an impact on researchers’ life outside of the academia, e.g. regarding social ties, and not only on the research itself. However, the possibility to stay for a certain period of time in another country and be linked to another research institution might fit perfectly into the schedule of the researcher’s project. Unfortunately this is not always the case and it is ambivalent, too. On the one hand academic mobility can help to structure a project in new ways. On the other hand “to be mobile”, which means also to have access to funding for being mobile, as well as to be able and willing to do that, can dominate the structure and/or the direction of the research.


Citation: Nicole Wiederroth, “I have always been interested in environmental topics” – 5in10 with Nicole Wiederroth, in TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 18.03.2019, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/18124.


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