“Researching Modern History Is Inevitably Linked to the Cultural Experience in a Given Country of Research” – An Interview with Rouven Kunstmann
In the series “Feldman Fellows Revisited“ we regularly interview former and current Feldman fellows on aspects of mobility in academia, transregional approaches abroad and where they stand on definitions of transregional studies as voiced in our series “All Things Transregional”. The Feldman fellowships allow young researchers to pursue research in two to three host countries with institutes and branch offices of the Max Weber Foundation. Named after the American historian Gerald D. Feldman (1937-2007), these fellowships enable selected researchers to spend up to three months abroad to visit archives, libraries and other research facilities on site. With the format of the funding being already transregional, we are wondering: to what extend does transregional funding promote transregional research? Already published interviews in this series: Christoph Mauntel, Björn Siegel and Isabella Löhr.
What project were you working on during your fellowship? Did you have any previous experience with the research facilities in your countries of destination?
During the first half of my fellowship, which I spent at the German Historical Institute Paris, I worked on a research project looking at newspapers in Senegal which complements my current doctoral research on Ghanaian and Nigerian print and visual cultures in the mid-twentieth century. The central focus lies in the transnational connections between elites, journalists and politicians in Francophone and Anglophone West Africa and Europe. The second half of the fellowship will take me to the United States, where I will work with the German Historical Institute in Washington, DC.
I had previously been to the GHI Paris when partaking in the Herbstkurs, a language class with an introduction to French academia, and I had also visited the Bibliothèque nationale de France before, which holds a selection of newspapers relevant to my project. After the Herbstkurs, I dedicated an additional week to research in Paris. Therefore, I was well prepared to consult Parisian archives before my fellowship. In addition, the lecture series at the GHI provided me with an insightful perspective on their current research agenda and I enjoyed the presentations of guest speakers from leading international universities. Since the bulk of the documents on French colonial history are held by the Les Archives nationales d’outre-mer in Aix-en-Provence, my stay in France offered an exciting opportunity. In Provence, I encountered a research environment that was new to me. Thanks to extensive preparation for my research visit, I found intriguing documents in the archives and was able to meet historians from the Aix-Marseille University. The contrast between Paris and Marseille enriched my experience and furthered my understanding of French domestic and colonial history, illustrated by Marseilles’ local sites of connectedness with La France d’outre-mer and the transregional Mediterranean space. Overall, it was a formative experience to combine archival research with the exploration of French cities of seminal historical importance. I look forward to the second part of my fellowship, which will allow me to conduct research at the GHI in Washington D.C.
What role does mobility play for your research? How important is it for your project to work transregionally?
As a German in Oxford working on the circulation of information, material and ideas between West Africa, Europe and the Atlantic, mobility is engrained in my personal, as well as my academic life. Since traces of history influence contemporary culture, researching modern history is inevitably linked to the cultural experience in a given country of research. Although the experience of contemporary societies is always a filtered reflection of the past, my research led me to spend a year in Ghana and Nigeria. The experience of living in West Africa decentred my perspective on historical questions and helped me to gain a more thorough understanding of local dynamics, which made a significant contribution to my research. For instance, I began to give more weight to the influence of the civil rights movement in the United States and the Indian National Congress on processes of decolonization in West Africa. These transnational connections became entangled with local historical dynamics. Visiting local archives and experiencing Ghanaian, Nigerian and British culture has helped me to gain an understanding of reciprocal historical processes, which oscillate between local and transregional contingencies. In addition to my academic work, I convene the Oxford Transnational and Global History Seminar, which, as part of the Centre for Global History at the University of Oxford, provides a space to discuss emerging methodological questions of transnational history. As an editor of Global Histories of Books: Methods and Practices published by Palgrave Macmillan, which offers tenets for a global book history often decentring the focus of national historiographies, transregional approaches are also part of my wider academic engagement.
Did you have a look into our interview series “All Things Transregional”, and if so, where do you position yourself within the debate on what our various interview partners defined as transregional research?
In covering different approaches to transregional historical research, the interview series provides a wide range of fascinating perspectives. Since a comprehensive response to these versatile and insightful answers would require a more extensive piece of writing, I can only point out a few arguments, which relate to my own position. If we accept the claim made by Sebastian Conrad that “transregional” is merely a perspective, a main question certainly arises about the frequent use of this term in German-speaking academia as Michael Goebel suggests. However, following Julia Verne, the question about the transgression and fixity of regions provides fruitful angles of conceptualising these terminologies. As part of this conceptualisation, I agree with Roland Wenzlhuemer that it is important to demonstrate how transregional connections affect human ideas and behaviours. As such, I share the opinion of Christine Hatzky that encounters of different cultures highlight local agencies within transregional networks and support her suggestion for interdisciplinary work. My research has always been interdisciplinary in the sense that it engages with visual history and questions of historical methodology. To follow a transnational perspective, as Thomas Maissen puts forward, is also relevant for my research, since I work on a specific period marking the formation of the nation state; when the nation was not yet an established category. In addition, it is too much of a self-fulfilling prophecy to take the nation as the teleological outcome of modernity. Maybe, as Madeleine Herren-Oesch has proposed, it remains to be answered, whether comparisons of nationalism should be more historicised or methodologically broadened by considering different tempi of historical processes questioning parallels and simultaneities. As such, I support the pursuance of questions about which parts of the past constitute history when a society is aware of its globality.
To weave these threads into a fabric spanning transregional research is a promising challenge. As Birgit Schäbler suggested, it is often the few not the many who are transnationally mobile. A focus on these less cosmopolitan but influential majorities might be promising. While the mobility of people, goods, services and capital accelerates in many parts of the globe, we face the challenge of a dialectical relationship potentially slowing down processes of entanglement. To provide solutions to these contradictions and an analysis of their historical origins remains a challenge for historians of the 21st century.
Did you notice any differences in academic approaches towards transregional research in the respective countries you have visited?
During my fellowship, I learnt that the German Historical Institutes focus on regions such as Latin America, the Atlantic, West Africa and South Asia, to name a few. Interdisciplinary research agendas such the question of identity politics enforced by the state, institutions, parties and unions define the basis of the GHI Paris’ main research interest on West Africa. As such, the institute created an international research collaboration encompassing its staff, the Centre de recherches sur les politiques sociales (CREPOS) at the University Cheikh Anta Diop in Dakar, the Forum Transregional Studien in Berlin and the Fonds d’Analyse des Sociétés Politiques in Paris. Their focus on West Africa and, in particular Senegal, is representative for the deep historical link between this region and France. It is noticeable that the GHI Paris sees “transregional” not simply as an extension of diplomatic or international history but borrows from other disciplines such as anthropology, too. While the history of Franco-German-Relations naturally provides a fruitful research agenda, the focus on regions outside of Europe and, in many ways, their relationship with Europe widens the research spectrum and contributes to an increasingly growing historiography of transregional history. Unlike academia in Ghana and in Nigeria, which often follows research trajectories with their country at the centre, the GHI in Paris focuses more on specific local histories in West Africa while the GHI in Washington covers Atlantic networks more broadly. I, however, am very excited to find out more about the particularities and differences of their foci, especially since my visit to Washington is yet to begin and the research project of the GHI Paris on West Africa is growing fast.
Do you have any advice for young scholars who are interested in doing research in/on the same regions?
I can only highly recommend following what can be broadly defined as a transregional approach when designing a research agenda. It is difficult to characterize my approach as strictly transregional, since flows of information transcend regional boundaries, but simultaneously local dynamics bring out facets and nuances essentially complementing the interpretation of the past. The effects of meeting and discussing matters of everyday life and academia are not easily ascertainable but they continuously change one’s perception of a place and an archive over time. I have found this cultural exchange highly beneficial for my own research since it has shone a much brighter light on some of the dimmed corners of history. A transregional perspective can offer new tools with which to analyse sources, in particular, when thinking about flows between different regions. As such, a general focus on transregional history certainly broadens one’s perspective, and funding and infrastructure as provided by the Feldman fellowship present an excellent opportunity to follow this trend.
Rouven Kunstmann is a historian of West Africa and Britain. After graduating from the Leibniz University of Hannover in 2010, he became a doctoral student at the University of Oxford under the supervision of the late Jan-Georg Deutsch. As a Feldman fellow, he has visited the German Historical Institute in Paris in 2015 and is preparing a research visit for the German Historical Institute in Washington, D.C. Rouven Kunstmann’s current research focuses on the circulation of information and photography in Ghanaian and Nigerian newspapers in the mid-twentieth century.
The Gerald D. Feldman Travel Grants are awarded annually. Find further information on this fellowship program here.
Citation: Feldman Fellows Revisited: „A Focus on Transregional History Certainly Broadens One’s Perspective“ – An Interview with Rouven Kunstmann, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 10.04.2017, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/6330.