Report Panel 5: “Doing Transregional Studies”
by Susan Wille and Elisabeth Köller
The last panel of the conference “Areas and disciplines” dealt with the practical implications of “Doing Transregional Studies” and was used as an opportunity to share experiences and approaches.
After an introduction by Andreas Eckert (Forum Transregionale Studien, chairman of the Board of Director, Humboldt-Universität Berlin), Professor Ulrike Freitag (Professor and head of Zentrum Moderner Orient Berlin) started the panel. Experienced in teaching at British and German Universities as well as leading transregional research projects, she shared her impressions of the most urgent topics and questions practicing transregional studies, one of which was the issue of time: The students in the new BA/MA system don’t have enough time to build up profound area knowledge, especially in the case of language acquisition. Also, time is often crucial for building up successful and for long-lasting collaborations, especially with colleagues from the south, and classical funding cycles are too short. She further discussed possible ways of collaboration. For her, the most promising way to proceed and collaborate are small and intense working groups on particular topics over a longer period of time. She also called for fundamental changes with regard to the issue of sustainability – scholars who invested a lot of time into their training and education should have reliable future prospects as well as successful projects should have longer life-spans.
Andreas Gestrich, head of the German Historical Institute London, started his presentation by explaining the post-war context in which the institute was founded, and described academia’s attempt to overcome the received position of Germany being a barbaric country by establishing a transregional approach in the field of historiography. He pointed out the notion of connectivity and the crossing of boundaries that came along with that transregional focus in historiography, although it is often said that area studies served as an instrument of bias for Western political powers during the Cold War. For Gestrich, writing common histories, e.g. in schoolbooks, and taking care of the accessibility of heritage should be practical impacts made by transregional and area studies. Furthermore, he focused on the critical potential transregional studies can and should develop, not as a European, but international and collaborative enterprise. Since national narratives are still the default case of academic work, the epistemological challenge transregional studies are facing is the creation of a new concept of space beyond national states. Nevertheless, a critical awareness of a potential hegemonic discourse of tranregionalism is crucial to avoid a eurocentric view on national states as being per se “unenlightened”. As a final point, Gestrich advocated the clarification of key concepts such as “work”, “identity”, “education” and “person”, which need to be discussed before concrete projects can be implemented.
In his contribution, the political scientist Bert Hoffmann shared his experiences with the areas studies in the GIGA (German Institute of Global and Area Studies Hamburg). He explained how, ten years ago, the GIGA – then Deutsches Übersee-Institut – was reorganized and transformed. The four former independent institutes, each specialized in a certain area, under the roof of the “umbrella” institute was lacking real contact and exchange between the scholars. The new structure now incorporates four area studies departments in one single institute, in which the researchers work together in four comparative cross-cutting research programs. According to Hoffmann, Comparative Area studies with collaborative research programs resulted in fruitful and engaging discussions at the GIGA, with an increase in publications and cooperation projects with other institutes and programs. Thereby it can be seen as a possibility to overcome the inherent additive character of area studies, and to fill the lack of more general work about area studies, possibly in the form of journals or general associations.
Matthias Middell, spokesperson of the Center for Area Studies and Professor of Global History at Leipzig University, first of all explained the special connection Leipzig and Berlin have with regard to regional and area studies. By competition with Berlin, Leipzig developed a strong legacy in the field of area studies, especially in the fields of history and national philologies, though the departments in Leipzig were basically “one-man-shows”. After the reunification, the self-reflectiveness of former “Regionalwissenschaften”/regional studies led to the formation of area studies at both universities. Nowadays, not only the substance of transregional studies has to be reflected upon, but also strategies of sustainability must be explored to face the permanent funding challenge. According to Middell, teaching is more sustainable than research in financial terms: The invention and implementation of teaching programs such as transnational master programs and graduate schools for PhD students raises chances to receive long-term funding and helps developing overlapping research networks. As a last point, Middell mentioned the necessity to think of new ways to integrate non-university research institutes into the discourse of transregionalism.
Andreas Eckert humorously pointed out one main problem of the last panel and the field of area studies in general: One could say “Why not shut up and just do it?” instead of getting stuck in self-reflectiveness. Thus, he suggested talking about concrete topics in the next conference.
Thomas Maissen, German Historical Institute Paris, advocated this idea, too, but empathetically added that people need to have a place to get together physically, not only in the digital world – so the conference fulfilled a very important purpose. He as well suggested to install concrete topics, such as “Transculturality” was chosen as a key concept in the Art Histories program in Heidelberg.
Disputant Joachim Nettelbeck, former head of the Wissenschaftskolleg, posed the question whether the terms “transregional” and “transnational” really do bear a fixed meaning. To him, especially the former is rather a metaphor with an unclear content than a concise scientific term, thus it should be defined as a perspective. Area studies do need concrete research objects in order to fill concepts with meaning.
Shamil Jeppie of the Institute for Humanities in Africa, Cape Town, added a non-german perspective by mentioning the fascinating academic developments taking place in the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), for instance the new perspectives on African History evolving in Brazilian institutes of area studies. Those “South-South-Movements” mostly take place unnoticed by area studies in the global North/West.
Engseng Ho, Duke University in Durham, responded to that remark that not only South-South-relationships have to be taken into consideration, but also axes around the world have to be rediscovered – for instance relationships between South Asia and China. Addressing Ulrike Freitag, he added that in his opinion, students should acquire at least three foreign languages, including English and at least two non-European languages. This idea should be pursued by installing language programs also for postdoc academics.
Another participant criticized that the fields of school education and journalism are mostly ignored by area studies academics. He emphasized that university examiners should also focus on transregional topics when teaching and testing teacher’s candidates.
As a last point, podium members were asked to give one wish for the future of transregional studies:
Andreas Gestrich wished for the South-South-relationship to be fruitful and better developed in the future.
Matthias Middell advocated for the teleological approach of transregional studies to be turned into a more critical mind-set.
Ulrike Freitag contributed the key terms flexibility, time and travel, to make cooperations between universities and extra-faculty research institutes possible.
Bert Hoffmann had two wishes to all participants as well as the field of area studies: A good health and a long life!
Citation: Susan Wille/ Elisabeth Köller, Report Panel 5: »Doing Transregional Studies«, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 22.01.2014 https://trafo.hypotheses.org/505.