„Global history challenges notions of cultures as homogeneous entities“ – Interview with Julia Hauser

Julia Hauser (left), Gesche Schifferdecker (right)

Julia Hauser (left), Gesche Schifferdecker (right)

Julia Hauser is an assistant professor of global history and the history of globalization processes at the University of Kassel since 2014. Her research interests include the history of cultural entanglements with regards to knowledge, food, religion, and gender.  She is currently working on an entangled history of vegetarianism during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Her studies, which takes her to libraries and archives in Germany, Britain, France as well as Lebanon, India, and the United States, has been supported by several grants, e. g. the Gerda Henkel Foundation, the DFG and the Max Weber Stiftung, where Julia currently holds a Gerald D. Feldman travel grant.  

Julia, you have been teaching global history for two years. I would like to know what is new about this approach and why you find it so inspiring.

The aim of global history is to transgress the boundaries of national history. It is different from old-style world history or colonial history, because these approaches departed from the assumption that cultures were separate, that there were more important and less important cultures, and that cultural influences were unidirectional. What global history is trying to do is to recognize how much cultural encounters influenced all sides involved. Global history can also show that global entanglements are nothing new but that they have always existed. From this angle, the idea of cultures as homogenous entities appears as a reaction to global entanglements and to globalization rather than something that actually existed. And last but not least, I think global history is inspiring because it challenges us to change and to develop. In order to actually do global history, we have to make contacts with colleagues in other parts of the world, possibly to learn new languages, and to do research abroad, particularly in non-European contexts, This is why I am glad that the Deutsche Morgenländische Gemeinschaft gave me a grant for conducting research in Lebanon for my PhD research and the Max Weber Stiftung offered me the opportunity to do research in India for my present project.

I would like to ask about your current research project. You are writing an entangled history of vegetarianism. Why does it make sense to approach this topic from a transregional perspective?

First of all, I do not look at the topic transregionally, but from the perspective of global history. This makes sense because 19th and 20th-century European sources on vegetarianism often emphasized that people in most parts of the world rejected meat. But certain regions and religions were referred to particularly often: India, Buddhism, and, above all in German-speaking discourse, Syria, Palestine, and Egypt. But a global perspective is not just appropriate because of the role of perceptions of other parts of the world, but also because of the conversations on vegetarianism took place to a large extent between Europe and other parts of the world. Especially in Great Britain and India there was a marked entanglement of discourses and an intensification of personal exchange in the context of vegetarianism since the second half of the nineteenth century, as Britons and Indians started to collaborate in the context of vegetarianism. Ultimately, a global approach to this topic allows us to recognize that a way of life often considered to be genuinely Western was deeply influenced by cultural encounters with the non-European world.

What are the difficulties you are facing?

Difficulties in studies of this kind start with terms. Is it legitimate to use the term vegetarianism in a study of this context, when vegetarianism is clearly a term of European origin and practices in Europe and India might differ? True, practices do differ. In India, vegetarianism could look back on a longer tradition. Other than believed in Europe, however, it was not practiced by the whole of society but was very much an upper-caste phenomenon, while members of the lower castes, Christians, and Muslims were far less likely to be vegetarians. Moreover, there were of course marked differences in menu in comparison to Europe. In Europe, on the other hand, vegetarianism was – and still is – a marginal practice based on individual decision, yet one that took on the character of an organized movement during the second half of the nineteenth century. But due to the entanglements I just described, nutritional discourses in India and in Europe became so entangled by the end of the 19th century that the term was used in India as well. And since I start from this point onwards, I find it legitimate to use it as a category of analysis. Another difficulty that arises is that it is far from easy to find unpublished sources – also in Europe. This is the case because topics pertaining to nutrition and especially vegetarianism have long been considered trivial. But there is a wealth of published material on both sides with which one can work very well as long as one reads it critically.

What about the interconnections between globalization, colonialism and the history of vegetarianism?

Looking into the history of food and foodways makes you realize how long there has been global exchange. Just think of the history of spices, of coffee, or of the potato. To deglobalize our diet would be impossible even if we would just buy locally. But of course it was not just foods that circulated. Through colonialism and migration, also ways of preparing food were appropriated in other parts of the world. The fact that curry is such an indispensable part of British cuisine nowadays is doubtlessly a consequence of colonialism. The history of vegetarianism is also connected to colonialism. For Britain this is the case quite immediately: British (and other) authors reported on foodways in India; their writings were read by advocates of vegetarianism in Britain. In some cases, in India as well as in Britain, Britons and Indians cooperated for the sake of vegetarianism. But connections between vegetarianism and colonialism can also be found in Germany. Through British colonialism in India (from which disciplines like Indology in Germany profited) knowledge about India and Indian foodways came to Germany. In the course of the living reform movement from the late 19th century onwards, certain foods from the colonies were advertised as particularly valuable for vegetarians. But also the way vegetarianism was justified in Germany and Britain was based on appropriations of knowledge from outside Europe. And finally, both in Germany and Britain, vegetarianism was couched in terms of a civilizing mission. It was supposed to reform not just the individual but whole societies if not mankind – and civilizing missions of this scope are typical of colonialism.

Would you say that vegetarianism was and is a political statement?

Definitely, and this is true for Europe as well as for India, although the political spectrum associated with it was very wide. In Europe for instance, the adherents of vegetarianism included anarchists, socialists, colonial critics, and animal welfare activists. But some also embraced elitist, hierarchical, or even clearly racist visions of society. In India on the other hand, vegetarianism was much more rooted in society although of course, as I mentioned, Indian society was not completely vegetarian as imagined in Europe. Muslims and Christians were rarely vegetarians, and members of the lower casts ate meat, too – which is one of the reasons why they were considered impure. Thus, some of them actually turned to vegetarianism in the 19th century for the sake of upward social mobility. Contrarily, there were English-speaking Indians who started consuming meat either to demonstrate their modernity or because they hoped that eating meat would strengthen the connection the national body-to-be against colonialism, since colonial authors often claimed that Indians were lacking in masculinity to their rejection of meat. Vegetarianism, too, could have a variety of connotations in 19th and 20th century India. It could be a way of moving upward in society by assuming an upper-caste cultural practice. It could also mean that one was subscribing to an emerging Hindu nationalism, or it could be, like meat-eating, an anti-colonial strategy of strengthening the individual and the collective body by purifying it. Finally some aspects brought Indians and Europeans together in the context of vegetarianism, such as new concepts of spirituality, which evolved during the colonial encounter, but also the intention of promoting animal welfare and non-violence. Writing the history of vegetarianism, therefore, reveals the impossibility of considering cultures as homogeneous entities, and it reveals the extent to which concepts believed to be Western were actually informed by global interactions.

 You are also a member of the Arab-German Young Academy of Science and Humanities (AGYA). How is that connected to your current research?

First of all, my membership in the Arab-German Young Academy, is connected with my research foci, especially with those of my PhD time when I studied cultural encounters with regards to education in the late Ottoman Empire. In addition, I have general interest for Arab cultures and for Arabic as a language, which I started learning during my PhD. Working in contexts like AGYA is interesting because you learn about the conditions of young scholars in other parts of the world, and to get new perspectives on your own work both from the intercultural and the interdisciplinary aspect of this constellation. But working in contexts like the AGYA, and studying and teaching global history, is not just about broadening my own horizon. I would also like to pass on this experience. I am convinced that learning about global history can help us to approach cultural diversity and cultural encounters in a more nuanced manner. Rather than affirming current views of cultural diversity as a problem, we can show that it can be an opportunity, indeed an enrichment, for any society.  But the precondition for global history becoming more active in society is that we do not confine ourselves to teaching in university, but also go beyond the classroom, not just by offering our expertise, but also by seeking intercultural contacts, learning, and listening.

That was a very inspiring final statement .Thank you. I am looking forward to continuing this discussion with you and other scholars doing global history!  

 


Gesche Schifferdecker

Gesche Schifferdecker works as a press officer with a focus on online communication at the Max Weber Stiftung. She is editor of various scientific Blogs (e.g. trafo.hypotheses.org and wwc.hypotheses.org) and organizes the "WeberWorldCafé".

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