“Ethical Consumerism Is a Transregional Phenomenon and Thus Cannot Be Analyzed Within a National Framework” – An Interview with Benjamin Möckel
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, Isabella Löhr, and Rouven Kunstmann.
What project were you working on during your fellowship? Did you have any previous experience with the research facilities in your countries of destination?
My current research project focuses on the emerging markets for “ethical consumerism” in Britain and West Germany in the 1960s – 1980s. Empirically, I look at the history of the “fair trade” movement, at consumer boycotts as a form of political protest and at the emerging market segments for “green consumerism”. The focus of the project is on two western European consumer societies. Nevertheless, it is essential for the project to integrate a global perspective and to reflect upon the way producers from the Global South were quintessential for the development of these new social movements. To do this, I conducted interviews with fair trade activists in India last year and I will continue my research in Egypt in 2018.
Prior to my research visit to New-Delhi last September, I have had no previous experiences in working in archives and other research facilities outside Europe and the United States. Researching in India has therefore been a very new experience for me, not only in terms of archival work, but also in relation to academic and everyday life. The sense of uncertainty about how this research would work out was extremely stimulating for me. I tried to get into contact with as many fair trade activists as possible to conduct interviews with them. At the same time I also tried to get a feeling for the academic life and the political and social debates of contemporary India. My research topic often led to conversations that were relevant both for my scientific analysis and for a better understanding of the social and political debates present-day India.
What role does mobility play for your research? How important is it for your project to work transregionally?
Ethical consumerism is a transregional phenomenon in at least two ways and thus cannot be properly analyzed within a national framework.
On the one hand, most movements that tried to establish “alternative” modes of consumption since the 1960s have been shaped by transregional networks and connections. Highlighting these connections is an important part of my research project, not only with regard to Britain and Germany as my two case studies, but also in the cases of the Netherlands, France and the United States. Equally important, on the other hand, are the global networks that emerged within these new forms of trade and consumption. “Fair trade”, for example, can only be understood from a global perspective, highlighting the importance of transfers of knowledge, goods, expertise and activists between the Global South and the Global North.
At the moment, this global perspective is at the heart of the debate in recent research on “fair trade”, especially in anthropology, sociology or economics. Historians are still struggling with this broader focus, particularly because it is often much more difficult to get access to archival records and relevant sources. In my case, for example, integrating this global perspective also meant to rely on expert interviews as a source for my analysis for regions of the Global South – something I had not to do for my chapters on the European NGOs. At the same time, though, a global or transregional perspective can also help to see the archival documents of European institutions in a new light, because it allows room for doubt of the narrative of “fair trade” as an economic exchange of “global partnership” and reveals the problems of establishing such a global partnership on equal terms.
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?
I am a scholar of European history by training and therefore not an expert on a specific region or area studies. Nevertheless, global, transnational and transregional approaches have always been important for my thinking about modern history. This is particularly true for my teaching, where I try to guide my students to reflect upon the methodological nationalism engrained in much of our thinking about modern history. My impression is that there is an immense interest in such approaches in the younger generation of students.
Theoretically and methodologically, I strongly sympathize with Sebastian Conrad’s claim that transregional approaches help us to “follow questions, people, ideas and things” wherever they lead us. In this respect there are more similarities than differences between transnational, transregional, translocal and global approaches, which all share an interest in transcending, supposedly natural entities like the nation-state as the paradigm of historical narratives. For my own research, this means that the topic defines the spatial approach I choose. As Matthias Middell argues, one of the strength of transregional history is that it refers to new regions that are not predefined by national or political boundaries but emerge through the connections and exchanges between individuals or groups of people. National boundaries therefore do not become meaningless or irrelevant, but they lose their status as predefined frameworks: as a scholar, one needs to explicitly justify why such boundaries are important for a particular research question.
I personally think that it is one of the most important tasks for historians to be able to switch between different spatial scales: just as historians have learnt to combine longue durée, moyenne durée and courte durée perspectives, we need to learn to consciously switch between and combine different spatial scales. To take my current research project as an example: some aspects of the “fair trade” movement are best understood in a translocal perspective, looking at how global imaginaries were produced in world shops and other local settings. For other phenomena, national differences remain important, for example in legal settings etc. For the formation of the fair trade movement in Germany, a transregional perspective is the most important one, because the movement developed in close cooperation and exchange between activists and institutions in the Dutch-German borderland.
Did you notice any differences in academic approaches towards transregional research in the respective countries you have visited?
When I first presented my former Ph.D. project in Britain and Ireland a couple of years ago, I was surprised to see how many people drew global connections and asked for transregional perspectives and comparisons which I had not thought about before.
It might still be true that such approaches are more established and self-evident in the Anglo-American academic discourse, but I have the impression that this is rapidly changing. Global and transregional approaches are nothing that any scholar can just leave to the global historians anymore. Today, there is a broad consensus that it is indispensable to reflect upon translocal and transregional connections. As international mobility of academia has increased in the last years, differences in national academic cultures have become less important (maybe transregional particularities are more important…). From my own research experiences I would rather argue that different research areas and eras are more important in this respect. My Ph.D. project, for example, was on National Socialism and the immediate post-war years. In this field, transregional approaches are not as influential as for example in my current research project.
Do you have any advice for young scholars who are interested in doing research in/on the same regions?
From my one-month visit to New-Delhi I cannot claim any expertise about how to conduct research in India or South East Asia that I might pass on as advice to young scholars. What I can do, though, is to encourage young scholars who would usually prefer to work primarily on European history to take the Feldman fellowship as an incentive to broaden their perspective. The Feldman fellowship provides a wonderful opportunity to do so. In my case, this was a quite experimental endeavor in the beginning. When I applied I was not yet sure which NGOs and activists I would be able to visit and talk to. Once my application was accepted, though, it was very important for me to prepare the visit properly and to get into contact with as many people as possible before the beginning of the trip. Four weeks are not a very long time and it is therefore essential to be quite sure about what you want to achieve during these weeks.
In general, I think the Feldman fellowship is a perfect opportunity to force yourself to think about your project from a global and transregional perspective. For me it has not only been helpful because of the sources I discovered, the activists I interviewed and the scholars I met, but also because it has forced me to think about my research topic from a completely different perspective. This experience still influences me now that I am back to my archival work in Germany and the UK.
Benjamin Möckel is an assistant professor at the University of Cologne where he is writing a monograph on the history of fair trade and ethical consumerism in Britain and Germany since the 1960s. He received his doctoral degree in modern history in 2013 for a study on the War Memories and Generational Narratives of Young People in East and West Germany in the 1940s and 1950s. His fields of interest include the history of consumption, the history of modern morality, and the history of humanitarianism and human rights.
The Gerald D. Feldman Travel Grants are awarded annually. Find further information on this fellowship program here.
Citation: Feldman Fellows Revisited: „Ethical Consumerism Is a Transregional Phenomenon and Thus Cannot Be Properly Analyzed Within a National Framework“ – An Interview with Benjamin Möckel, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 11.05.2017, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/6521.