Report Panel 1: “Between Impact and Endangerment”

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By Lucy Jarman and Philip Geisler / Forum Transregionale Studien

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The introductory panel of the 2013 “Areas and Disciplines” conference located transregional studies within structural dichotomies

Zusammenfassung: Das Eröffnungs-Panel der Konferenz “Areas und Disciplines”  unter dem Titel “Thinking Transregional Studies” verortete das Feld in einer ambivalenten Situation: Einerseit sahen die Panelisten das Forschungsfeld gefährdet durch durch Förderungskürzungen und Stellenmangel sowie methodologische und inhaltliche Vorurteile. Gleichzeitig wurde das große Potential Transregionaler Studien betont: es ermögliche neue Fragen und die Zusammenarbeit über Regionen und Disziplinen hinweg. Die vier Panel-Teilnehmer Engseng Ho, Dhruv Raina, Dominic Sachsenmaier, Birgit Schäbler und der Moderator Sebastian Conrad (Freie Universität Berlin / Forum Transregionale Studien) bestritten ein ideenreiches, teilweise stark der Institutionenpolitik verhaftetes Gespräch, dessen Format für eine kontroverse Eröffnung der Konferenz sorgte und die vielfältigen Standpunkte innerhalb des Feldes skizzierte.

The Dodo bird has been described in prodigious colors, a light green, some pale yellow that led up to small eyes resembling diamonds. A beauty of nature. However, not even its expressive beak could preserve this exotic figure from its extinction. All that is left today are reports about encounters, some drawings, bones. According to Brigit Schäbler, German Professor for Western Asian history at the Universität Erfurt, transregional studies and the 16th century Dodo have much in common: an unsustainable disposition being confronted with public (financial) ignorance leading to the status of an endangered species. Schäbler finished her key speech on the reconciliation between area studies with this lamenting picture of the field’s future.

Albeit, many prospects of a vivid field, potential impacts and collaborations had been outlined beforehand in a dynamic format of debate. As host Sebastian Conrad (Freie Universität Berlin/ Forum Transregionale Studien) pointed out, having four globally renowned experts from the field giving short key speeches before entering into a debate with each other and the audience, proved to be a productive introduction into the various interdisciplinary perspectives on the current situation and challenges of transregional studies.

The first speaker Engseng Ho, Professor for anthropology and transnational theory at Duke University Durham, outlined the development of the leading social science and humanities disciplines, rooted in a classical Enlightenment social theory focusing on the internal and constitutional. In this tradition, he stated a methodological lack of contextualizing, that precludes an understanding of larger regions like the interconnected Asia. Concentrating on single state-society-nations has enabled scholars to work on a “thick” description, exploring dimensions like religion, ideology, politics, economy, culture and their interlinks within an internal system. Relating to transregional studies, he asked: “The question is this: can descriptions spread out beyond the internal without becoming thin?“ To sidestep the danger of becoming “thin” Ho concluded his speech suggesting seven concepts to deal with the old and new interconnected world focusing on (1) mobility, (2) connections, (3) transregional geography, (4) partial societies, (5) circulation, (6) an outside-in perspective and (7) external-internal entanglements.

Physician and historian of science, Dhruv Raina from Jawaharlal Nehru University New Delhi, drew a picture of the history of reconceptualizing and internationalizing the sciences as well as concepts of the internal and external after 1945. In a second period in the early 1970s, an increased critique of modernity and developmentalism evolved, involving new conjunctures between the West and non-developed countries. These led to a variety of new and alternate sciences, promoting also a theory of connected histories. Raina observed a shift from Eurocentric modern science to an increasing consideration of global indigenous knowledge with new centralisms. He pointed out a pluralizing effect containing new forms of internal suppression of smaller, non-mainstream exotic indigenous entities: “This poses both a political and epistemological challenge for the internationalization of the interdisciplinary field.“

Following this, Dominic Sachsenmaier, a pioneer of global history located at the Jacobs University Bremen, described observations within the current situation of transregional studies. He noted that the field became more relevant and collaborative, experimenting with new space concepts while distrusting global theories at the same time. Acknowledging the unclear naming of the (transregional, transcultural, translocal, global) field, Sachsenmaier favored an open definition. Stating a lack of theories compared to other fields, he saw substantial perspectives of development in studying global flows of ideas and transfers within different fields. Sole concentration on transfers and flows however, could lead to a “mobility bias, the ever-changing eliminating the stable, the history of seamen replacing peasants”.

Finally Birgit Schäbler pointed out the importance of collaboration for opening and challenging territorial and epistemological containers. She introduced the Universität Erfurt with its structure of area-historian-chairs in its institute of history to illustrate the coherence of collaboration and sustainability. Her speech finished with the suggestions of quotas for endangered disciplines, area studies being one of them.

The subsequent discussion followed Schäbler’s aggravations, outlining urgent tasks within the field. Among them was the necessity to emphasize the role of area studies for creating new questions and answers as well as the inevitability to resist becoming an exclusive academic circle. The term “sustainability” emerged a number of times, revealing the uncertainty of how to anchor the field institutionally and in practice. At times, the German focused tinge of the thread seemed misplaced, considering the highly international speakers and audience. Following the suggestion of an audience member, transregional studies should engage in specific collaborative projects while simultaneously acquiring essential foundations with the goal of a common understanding within the multidisciplinary field. This was pointed out regarding terms and perspectives, regarding the consolidation of a community of scholars through discussions and finally regarding clear, shared and open formats for the field. Concluding, with a reaction to the Erfurt-model, it was argued that transregional approaches are not equal to a mere additive concept of incorporating area chairs in a discipline.

The Dodo was not saved by quotas of a Red List in the end, which might resemble mere public protective measures. Nonetheless, it might have lived, rethinking its self-appearance, its collaboration strategies, its structures and concepts within a mainstream surrounding. It seems, the Dodo of transregional studies is quite alive today having grasped these challenges – however struggling and negotiating with its antagonist, the globally renowned, elegant, ever-living Phoenix, that is the mainstream science.

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Citation: Lucy Jarman/ Philip Geisler, Report Panel 1: »Between Impact and Endangerment«, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 14.11.2013 https://trafo.hypotheses.org/238.


Forum Transregionale Studien

The Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien is a research organization that promotes the internationalization of research in the humanities and social sciences. The Forum provides scope for collaboration among researchers with different regional and disciplinary perspectives and appoints researchers from all over the world as Fellows. In cooperation with universities and research institutions in Berlin and the rest of Germany, it carries out research projects that examine other regions of the world and their relationship to Germany and Europe systematically and with new questions.

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