“As the Global Pandemic Criminalizes Certain Mobilities, Transnational Research Projects Are Already Being Creatively Rethought” – 5in10 with Chelsea Schields

Chelsea Schields is Assistant Professor of History at the University of California, Irvine. Her scholarship explores the histories of sexuality, race and decolonization in Europe and the Caribbean. With Dagmar Herzog, she is co-editor of the forthcoming Routledge Companion to Sexuality and Colonialism. Recent articles have appeared in Gender & History, Radical History Review, and the Tijdschrift voor Genderstudies. In 2019-2020, Schields spent six months as a Visiting Postdoctoral Fellow at the German Historical Institute Washington, where she began a new research project on the reception of black family studies in decolonization-era Europe. 

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

I am interested in how ideas about intimacy – about sex, reproduction and the family – move across national borders and shape important social and political processes.  In my first book on the history of sex and decolonization in the Dutch Caribbean, I argue that debates on sexual politics produced heightened trans-Atlantic exchange and collaboration, giving lasting shape to the commonwealth state that today spans the European Netherlands and six Caribbean islands.  The centrality of sex to postcolonial debates and the increasing connectivity between Europe and the Caribbean allow us to think in new ways about the end of empire.  My second book project continues to explore these enduring trans-Atlantic linkages.  It looks at how social scientific research on black family life, and in particular sociological and anthropological preoccupation with the so-called “matrifocal” or mother-centered family, traveled from the post-slavery US and the Caribbean to decolonization-era Europe.  It charts how studies on black kinship came to inflect a range of important social policies in France, Britain and the Netherlands, underscoring once again how intertwined perceptions of race and sex structured postwar states and citizenship regimes.

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

A friend and I were recently discussing how often research projects are born of disappointed expectations.  My interest in the afterlives of European empires, and the way that colonialism shapes enduring perceptions of race and sexuality, is no exception here.  When I was sixteen years old, I spent a year living with a host family in a rural part of the Netherlands.  This was not long after the start of the Iraq War – an event that significantly shaped my own political consciousness and made me much more attuned to and mobilized against US-American imperialism.  I didn’t know much about Dutch society beyond its touted tolerance and I assumed it would be a utopian space free of prejudice, inequality and imperial ambitions (these were, mind you, the naïve thoughts of a sixteen year old!).  But Dutch society was filled with all-too-familiar expressions of anti-black and anti-immigrant sentiment.  The difference was that it coexisted with, and indeed was made somewhat invisible and normalized by, the otherwise progressive self-representation of the country.  Understanding this seeming contradiction has propelled my intellectual commitments since.  And discovering all those years ago that the boundaries of the former Dutch empire extended into the “backyard” of the United States (including to familiar tourist destinations like Aruba or St. Maarten) made me interested in these intersecting imperial histories. 

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

Tracking ideas as they move across boundaries has, for me, involved intensive multi-sited archival research. While my latest project on the itinerancy of racial knowledge is broadly concerned with the durability of that knowledge as it traveled, research for this project has also reinforced the importance of returning “to the source.” Though Dutch bureaucrats and social scientists frequently relied on US-based studies of black families to craft policy on immigration and citizenship, it was only through visiting the collections of US-American social scientists that I could begin to parse how ideas were in some cases transformed and in other cases remarkably tenacious.  My general approach is not to rely solely on what Michel Foucault called the “fortunate tools of history,” but to locate sources and voices that recreate a broader landscape of meaning.  Especially when dealing with topics as psychically gripping as sexual politics, it is important to find sources that speak across different scales – from the public sphere to individual interiority. In my first book project on the Dutch Caribbean, this led me to endlessly fascinating source material, including personal scrapbooks of priests on Aruba and the private papers of anti-colonial feminists on Curaçao. 

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

At present, I am all consumed by the global pandemic and I am learning a lot from Zoom lectures and interviews with scholars and activists like Arundhati Roy, Ruth Wilson Gilmore and Mike Davis.  Each are urging us to leverage the conditions of the present – and the unsustainable practices and underlying prejudices that it has so grotesquely exposed – to realize a different, better world.  

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

The ability to move with relative ease has shaped my own intellectual interests and the kinds of research I am able to undertake. But I am cautious of assigning to mobility any intrinsically positive value. Increasingly, the discipline privileges ambitious transnational projects pursued across multiple archives in multiple countries. And that is, of course, not without good reason! But that mobility hinges on a number of other factors: the resources to travel, the legal license to move effortlessly across state boundaries, and the absence of care burdens that do not require rootedness in one locale. Arguably, this makes the field of transnational research – and academia more generally – open to but a small group of people. As the global pandemic criminalizes certain mobilities and enforces sheltering in place, transnational research projects are already being creatively rethought.  In that process, I am hopeful that we can also inventively rethink the methods and metrics of studying the transnational ultimately to make this field more methodologically creative and representative of a broader array of experiences. My colleagues at UCI, Eve Darian-Smith and Philip McCarty, talk about a “local-global continuum.” This is the idea that local and global are not opposites.  They are, rather, mutually constituted and relational sites. Perhaps paradoxically, then, what transnational research has taught me is that you can learn an awful lot about the world not only by telescoping out but also by focusing in. It is often in those seemingly small sites where global processes condense most dramatically.  


Citation: “As the Global Pandemic Criminalizes Certain Mobilities, Transnational Research Projects Are Already Being Creatively Rethought” – 5in10 with Chelsea Schields, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 14.05.2020, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/23815.


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