“All Things Transregional?” in conversation with… Birgit Schäbler

What does Transregional Research mean? Who can learn from its insights? What are its limits? The interview series “All Things Transregional?” addresses these issues to launch an open discussion. We invite researchers to share their experiences, assess key issues and future perspectives of transregional research.

Birgit Schäbler, Professor for Westasian History at the University of Erfurt, continues the discussion. We look forward to your comments! Already published: Sebastian Conrad, Monica JunejaMatthias MiddellMadeleine Herren-Oesch, Thomas Maissen, Barbara MittlerMiloš ŘezníkPhilipp LepeniesMichael Goebel, Roland Wenzlhuemer, Steffen Wippel and Julia Verne.

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What academic insights did you personally gain by investigating issues transregionally?

I grew up academically, one might say, in a mix of transregional influences and in between disciplines, studying both general history (of Germany and Europe) and Oriental/Islamic Studies. I also studied at UC Berkeley, CA, and at the University of Damascus. At Erlangen University I had the privilege to work with Alexander Schölch, one of the first German historians of the modern Middle East, who had been trained in Oxford. His successor Thomas Philipp was trained in Middle Eastern Studies in the US. History departments back then were mostly rather unwilling to accommodate Areas outside of Germany or Europe – so my professors at Erlangen University had to teach in political science.

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Copyright: Birgit Schäbler

This is why I left Germany after the dissertation and moved to the US – in order to do Middle East history which has been very strong there, especially at Harvard, where I was fortunate enough to spend two years. Globalization and its debates brought about the emergence of Global History also in Germany – and it is within these developments that Area Histories and their entanglements finally got more attention.

But already in my MA thesis on nation building processes in the two Yemens in the aftermath of both the Ottoman and British Empires I wrote on the concept of national unity in the Arab world which was in fact highly influenced by German thinkers of the 19th century. I still remember the astonishment of fellow historians about these transregional entanglements – the term was not used back then of course.

So the answer to the question would rather be the observation that Middle Eastern history (or history of West Asia, whatever we call the baby) has been transregionally interconnected, embroiled, entangled – and has been studied transregionally, mostly implicitly, for a long time by Area historians. Followed by the question if there could be substantial history-writing on the Middle East (and other world areas), at least in modern times, at all, without taking into account connections and linkages with other areas. The Middle East was Europe’s direct neighbor, a big rival when it comes to religion, an area Europe sought to colonize.

In my recent book I look at modern Islam and how it came into being – even (modern) Islam was constructed in the late 19th century in debates and encounters with Europe.

What are the limits of transregional studies? What are the misunderstandings about the field?

Transregionalism belongs to the trans-approaches which have taken over from the post-approaches (as in poststructuralism, postmodernism), with the spatial turn. „Transregional“ itself signifies a scope or range of analysis, like „transnational“ and „translocal“. I am particularly interested in „transcultural“ processes or phenomena within a transregional scope.

A critique of transregional studies would be that researchers have perhaps been concentrating a bit too much on cosmopolitan aspects – the colorful medley of people moving between world regions, be it in high circles or in port quarters and cities. The growing literature in this subfield tends to overshadow the fact that the majority of populations are not on the move but stay behind. Even in large migrations and refugee movements it is usually not the majority who is on the move. We should not lose sight of the majorities who are usually a lot less cosmopolitan and more influential.

The same holds true for the study of Empires – by concentrating on their cosmopolitanism the other more repressive aspects of Empire can get out of sight.

How did the field of transregional research develop in the past ten years? How do you envision its future?

At the University of Erfurt my colleagues and I founded the research platform „Weltregionen und Interaktionen: Area Studies Transregional“ in 2008 (that is a year before the Forum Transregionale Studien came about, right?). And in 2007 I reflected in a book on the relations between Area Histories and Global History, i.e. on the history writing that comes out of Area Studies and tackles entanglements and the global from the perspective of other areas/world regions than Europe. South-South relations are very important in this respect. Of course Area Studies were pretty debated and controversial back then, including some Anti-American knee-jerk responses. I was glad to read on this blog that that reflex seems to have waned somewhat.

So what I am saying is that quite a bit of doctoral research has been done on research platforms in the last ten years, along with books on global history by established scholars. I see the transregional approach as the most fruitful one in global history.

The opening up of the „containers“ nation and region has taken place and will remain for a while to come. The big question is: who will fill the new posts in transregional or global studies– will it be the Europeanists, i.e. scholars trained in European history who now turn to Africa, India, the Middle East and other areas without much training in Area Histories (which are still quite minoritarian in this country)? To go to India and talk to the colleagues there is a great thing to do, no doubt. But it is hardly enough. Or will it be Area Historians, trained in one or more areas who will staff new posts in transregional and global history?

I for one believe quite firmly that it needs professorships in Area Histories which are integrated in history departments and which will train students in their respective areas and then encourage them to turn to transregional approaches in their research. I am trying to do this in a special double-degree-MA-Program with universities, colleagues and students in Lebanon.

What academic works (literature) would you name as ground-breaking and trend-setting for the field of transregional research?

Much interesting work has been done in the field of transregional studies. But truly inspiring on a deeper level are for me still the works by Dipesh Chakrabarty, especially Provincializing Europe, S. N. Eisenstadt’s concept of multiple modernities, and Arjun Appadurai’s concept of the various –scapes forming new transregional spaces. Of the older works Frantz Fanon is important and deserves to be rediscovered within transregional frameworks. And to read Edward Said and historicize and transregionalize him at the same time is also a rewarding intellectual exercise. It is postcolonial and certain sociological approaches, in short, which can inspire transregional research. Recently I found Hartmut Rosa’s approach on „resonance“ very interesting, having thought about „relations“ for a while. And last not least there is wonderful fictional literature, novels which talk about transregional entanglements and their possible transcultural impacts  (without, of course, ever using those terms) like for example Tayeb Salih’s classic Season of Migration to the North.

 

Birgit Schäbler studied History, Islamic and Political Science at the Universities of Würzburg, Berkeley and Erlangen-Nürnberg.  In 1997 she was Visiting Professor at the Duke University and from 1997 to 1999 Fellow at the Center for Middle East Studies at Harvard University. Afterwards she was Professor at the Georgia College State University. Since 2002 she holds the Chair of Westasian History at the University of Erfurt. Her research focuses on Area History and Global History, Middle Eastern Studies, Postcolonial Studies, Social and Cultural History, Nationalism and Islamism.

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Citation: “All Things Transregional?” in conversation with…Birgit Schäbler, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 24.11.2016, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/5515.


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