Mutable Matter

“Five Propositions” out on GeoCritique

Image source: GeoCritique

The newly redesigned GeoCritique has just published the five propositions that Anja Kanngieser and I delivered as a critique at the Anthropocene themed RGS-IBG 2015 conference in Exeter, UK. The propositions also represent an experiment in positioning ourselves not just in relation to Anthropocene discourse, but in terms of geography, race, gender etc. This is an on-going writing experiment, and we welcome critique.

Recalibrating rationality: Teaching research methods through Species of Spaces


At present, I am teaching some methods classes on the MRes in Human Geography at the University of Glasgow. It is for the session that challenges the quantitative-qualitative boundary that I decided to include the work of Georges Perec. The two pieces I assigned are called ‘Space’ and ‘Approaches to What?’ Perec is a French writer who is known for being a member of the writer’s collective Oulipo that pushed the creative boundaries of literature from the 1960s onwards. As a geographer, it is hard to miss that Perec’s work is all about space: how we create and how we make sense of it. His playful approach is intriguing as well as disorienting – which is why I find useful in teaching. I will attempt to explain this further.

From my own experience, I know that it can be quite hard to first encounter Perec’s writing: you think you know what he is getting at, but the writing itself appears like a rather tedious illustration. I get that the everyday matters, I get the concern about habit, but do I really have to read through hundreds of pages of this repetitive, abstract stuff? It is not until you have really allowed yourself to take in several of his pieces that the entirety of the work begins to make sense and the texts move from annoying to thrilling. And then things really begin to make sense, or rather, sense begins to make no sense. The reason why this movement interests me for methods teaching is that, in our lectures and seminars, we mostly show how to make sense, but we rarely question very deeply how sense itself is made.

A frequent way to explain sense-making in methods teaching is via truth claims: are you realist, idealist or instrumentalist? According to this distinction, realists tend to think of themselves and their methods as uncovering underlying, pre-existing mechanisms. Under a realist paradigm, methods describe reality. Instrumentalists, on the other hand, are not invested in describing reality. They are interested in how effectively a method can predict phenomena. In instrumentalist terms, causal relationships do not pre-exist to be discovered, but rather represent relationships that behave as if they were causal. Lastly, idealists even more strongly distrust human access to knowing physical reality and regard the world as something entirely constructed by the mind. According to the idealist paradigm, methods form part of the process of shaping reality. As a consequence, causal relationships reflect the researcher’s interpretation of a problem. In short, there is a difference to saying ‘this is how things are’ (realist) and ‘this is how things appear’ (instrumentalist/ idealist). It is a question of how I relate to the world, perhaps the most important question a researcher can ask herself.

In many ways, this is also the question that Georges Perec asks in his writing. In contrast with the majority of methods teaching, however, he seems less concerned with deciding how real something is than with showing how quickly any presently agreed definition of reality and rationality can change. It is likely that his personal history greatly contributed to his view of the world. The son of Polish Jews who grew up in the 1930s and 40s, he witnessed the obliteration of the known world leading up to WW2, during which he lost his father (in battle) and his mother (in Auschwitz). It is evident that Perec’s work not only pushes creative boundaries, but asks profound questions about human relations. How is it possible that, suddenly, the death and dehumanisation of large sections of the population is legal? How is it possible that a new, monstrous rationality becomes adopted across every sphere of human interaction? The violence of this instability of reality is most obvious in Perec’s essay ‘Space’, which includes a Nazi memo regarding a border of greenery around two concentration camp crematorium ovens that matter-of-factly lists the quantities and measurements of the plants required. It also shows in his review of Robert Antelme’s ‘The Human Race’, a book that documents the author’s concentration camp survival, in which Perec discusses how the apparently opposed worlds of atrocity and idyll co-exist, but are part of the same world: one is the consequence of the other and vice versa.

At first glance, however, much of Perec’s work appears humorous and quite innocent in its playfulness. Take, for example, his recollections of the beds that he has slept in, the absurd detail of his observations, the funny classifications, measurements and exercises he proposes, or simply the sheer volume of material and enthusiasm for the subject: it gives the indication that Perec sees himself as a jester who encourages other to follow his example of breaking established parameters of writing or even knowledge-making. This boundary making actually resonates with current work on so-called ‘creative methods’, where students (and staff) are encouraged to break out of present methodological conventions and ‘experiment’. One of Perec’s exercises to determine your position in space could be taken straight out of a creative methods workshop: use various kinds of reference points, including the equator, the sea level, the Greenwich Meridian or simply your address, and see where this leads you. Such creative ways of cataloguing or creatively intervening in everyday practices have even become supported by the major funding bodies.

At the same time, there seems to be a difference in emphasis in social scientific contestations of methods that often has to do with what this kind of expansion or innovation is for. In creative methods workshops, for instance, the emphasis is frequently on participation, on gaining a different understanding of or relationship with others (including inanimate objects), and allowing for different, often affective experiences. By contrast, Perec’s methods firstly seem to be about a very cerebral form of self-knowledge. Questioning the self becomes a necessary part of questioning reality. In fact, Perec is suspicious of what he terms a ‘proliferation of the world’ that is in constant danger of avoiding the world through a refusal of sense-making:

“We are invited on all sides to have a sense of mystery, of the inexplicable. The inexpressible is a value. The unsayable is dogma. No sooner are everyday gestures described that they become lies. Words are traitors. Between the lines we are invited to read that inaccessible end towards which every genuine writer owes it to himself to tend: silence. No one seeks to disentangle reality, to advance, be it only step by step, to understand. The proliferation of the world is a trap in which we allow ourselves to be snared.”

How does this exercise in self-knowledge work? This may best be illustrated through Perec’s ‘Two hundred and forty-three postcards in real colour’ (1978). In this text, Perec seems to mock the repetitiveness of holiday greetings, not matter from where they are sent. “We’re camping near Ajaccio. Lovely weather. We eat well. I’ve got sunburnt. Fondest love.” “We’re at the Hôtel Alcazar. Getting a tan. Really nice! We’ve made loads of friends. Back on the 7th.” And so on. At the same time as highlighting a certain geographical relativity or habituated writing styles, this exercise also prompts questions about the intersection of geographical specificity and relations with ‘back home’. It reflects on the registers through which (geographical, individual) specificity emerges as seemingly standardised and as a reflection of habitual practices. Why are we processing impressions in this way? Is it the adaptation of the geographic location to tourist tastes? Is it the inability to escape our habitually engrained frame of mind or our unwillingness to engage with difference on its own terms? Is it, because the everyday is everywhere, and we cannot step outside it wherever we go? Do we need this way of communicating as a translation, reassurance or show of affection? Because of its lack of obvious explanation, the piece remains ambiguous, but also becomes endless in its depth. It is you who has to decide how far you want to go in your investigation, and the way you engage with this text will enable you to experiment with what you think about the world and your place in it.

In ‘Approaches to What?’, Perec more explicitly links self-knowledge and self-awareness to an exploration of habit:

‘To question the habitual. But that’s just it, we’re habituated to it. We don’t question it, it doesn’t question us, it doesn’t seem to pose a problem, we live it without thinking, as if it carried within it neither questions nor answers, as if it weren’t the bearer of any information. This is no longer even conditioning, it’s anaesthesia. We sleep through our lives in a dreamless sleep. But where is our life? Where is our body? Were is our space?’

In the remainder of the essay, Perec clarifies how this exploration of habit and the self by extension is not a solipsistic endeavour, but a sensitisation to structural issues that permeate everywhere.

‘In our haste to measure the historic, significant and revelatory, let’s not leave aside the essential: the truly intolerable, the truly inadmissible. What is scandalous isn’t the pit explosion, it’s working in coalmines. ‘Social problems’ aren’t ‘a matter of concern’ when there’s a strike, they are intolerable twenty-four hours out of twenty-four, three hundred and sixty-five days a year’.

Only with this kind of awareness of the everyday can we approach ‘the world’, as it enables us to see how our methodological tools are made as well as the system they are embedded in.

On one level, then, Perec’s work alerts us to the illusion of rationality and its claim to be neutral and value free. Our methods or even ethics policies are no external constraints that can be relied on as markers for appropriate conduct. Whenever we count, classify or analyse, we need to make decisions about what we measure, where we measure (including our own locatedness) and why we measure. If we are not aware of the consequences and connotations of our measurements, this can create significant issues for the populations or environments that we are working with. This has been shown by researchers such as Gwendolyn Warren and William Bunge in their demonstration of violent mapping and data collection practices that continue to have fatal consequences for black Americans. Other examples have been described in publications such as ‘Decolonising Methodologies’ by Linda Tuhiwai Smith, ‘Research, Red Skins and Reality’ by Vine Deloria Jr or ‘I am not your data’ by Abhay Flavian Xaxa (thanks to Lisa Tilley for this reference). This literature, too, is awash with reproductions of seemingly rational memos that we now recognise as genocidal. While many students might never end up in a situation where they can cause such harm, it is important that this sensitisation is part of their training, also because it is a skill that is applicable and useful beyond research. Habits and bureaucracy are everywhere, and often it helps to understand these systems properly to not become their victim. Such analysis can literally become a life saver. For example, in a recent blog post, an activist explained how the recognition that benefits sanctions do not make sense helped them overcome depression and campaign for a change of policies.

Even more importantly, Perec’s work is an important tool for recalibration. Through its profoundly destabilising effect, it forces readers to struggle for a new base line, a check point that sensitises to reality shifts and limits of violence. This point is something that we need to set for ourselves as a ward against co-optation along the lines of Hannah Arendt’s ‘banality of evil’. How far am I willing to go? Where is my cut off point? Here, Perec suggests a variety of exercises that can aid in setting this point. For him, it is the transformative effect that literature can have in creating a gradual awareness of the world beyond the apparent chaos and contradiction. (For others, it has been experiments with the non-textual, such as Mikhail Bakhtin’s and Georges Bataille’s experiments with ‘base’ or ‘gay’ matter, or Antonin Artaud’s utilisation of affect and bodily projection to subvert logic.) In reading Perec and perhaps undertaking his proposed exercises, we are given the opportunity to reflect upon these things, be disturbed, be amused, be encouraged to look beyond our methods books into ourselves. Even if not understood immediately – and here I have noticed a significant difference between young and more mature students – Perec’s work has a tendency to stick and to remain around as an invitation: to be willing to engage in methodological experimentation as self-experimentation in order to always remain suspicious of ‘what makes sense’ at any given point.

RGS-IBG 2016 CFP: Parallel Institutions: models and realities, strategies and tactics, islands and archipelagos


Parallel Institutions: models and realities, strategies and tactics, islands and archipelagos

Session Convenors:
Angela Last (University of Glasgow)
Mireille Roddier (University of Michigan)

Existing and historical examples of parallel institutions represent a wide scope of intentions, scales, and formal organizations, from local commoning practices to the strategically planned duplication of state institutions in sight of a governmental overthrow (Roggero, 2010; Arendt, 1973) What they all share is a dissatisfaction with state institutions’ disenfranchisement of entire sections of population who fall outside of their stewardships. The origins of such alternative models of organization are thereby rooted in either the need to complement or to contest hegemonic institutions, particularly those delegating public services. More than self-help however, parallel institutions are also devised as alternatives, enabling new forms of commoning and experimentation with new imaginaries.

Parallel institutions can serve as means to diverging ends. On one end, they can be devised for eventual incorporation into the dominant system, bearing the risks of paving grounds for developments that will be subsequently recuperated. On the other, they are often inspired by emancipatory perspectives that could lead to autonomous forms of self-governance (Gordon Nembhard, 2014, Nelson, 2013). Accordingly, their relationship to the state varies from subservient and heteronomous to independent or even contentious, as do the responses of the state to such institutions—from embrace to outright violence, affecting the status of their legitimacy.

This session seeks to discuss parallel institutions that reclaim a radical spirit of experimentation in the service of alleviating dependence upon the state—not in the ideological pursuit of less governance, but in order to forestall the normalization of austerity measures. We are interested in both theoretical models and case studies that can expand our public imaginary. We specifically are looking to probe such topics as:

– the temporal evolutionary patterns of parallel institutions, from origin stories to institutionalization or extinction;
– the instrumental use of institutions towards emancipatory autonomy (Castoriadis);
– the spatial reification of parallel institutions, and their relationship to territory, global patterns of enclaves and archipelagos (Davis, 2008; Aureli, 2011), states of imagination (Newman and Clarke), as well as the exclusionary effects of communautarism (Harvey, 97);
– the specificity and influence of scale upon theoretical models, from community to society;
– the use of parallel institutions in political strategy versus as bottom-up tactic;
– the roles of cultural and academic institutions, as well as of artists and academics, in fostering counter-hegemonic activism from within a privileged, most institutionalized position (Mouffe, 2010);
– specific typology studies —both organizationally and spatially— such as the emergence of new schools, health institutions, taken factories, urban communes and rural hackerlands, etc.


Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1973)

Pier Vittorio Aureli, The Possibility of an Absolute Architecture (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2011)

Cornelius Castoriadis, The Imaginary Institution of Society (MIT Press, 1998)

Mike Davis, Daniel Monk, Evil Paradises: Dreamworlds of Neoliberalism (The New Press, 2008)

Jessica Gordon Nembhard, Collective Courage: A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice (Penn State University Press, 2014)

David Harvey, “The New Urbanism and the Communitarian Trap,” Harvard Design Magazine (winter / spring 97)

Chantal Mouffe, “The Museum Revisited,” Art Forum (Summer 2010)

Alondra Nelson, Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination (University of Minnesota Press, 2013)

Janet Newman and John Clarke, “States of Imagination,” Soundings (Summer 2014)

Gigi Roggero, “Five Theses on the Common,” Rethinking Marx: A Journal of Economics, Culture & Society (August 2010)

Anne Mariel Zimmermann, “State as Chimera Aid, Parallel Institutions, and State Power,” Comparative Politics (April 2013)

Instructions for Authors:
Please submit a paper proposal (250-300 words) along with a short biography to and by February 14th.

Call For Papers Deadline

Academics for Peace UK Letter of Support


Dear colleagues, please consider signing this letter of support for the Turkish academics who have signed the ‘Academics for Peace’ petition. It can be found here.

Global Social Theory – Call for Contributions

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On behalf of the Global Social Theory team (Gurminder Bhambra, Lisa Tilley, Lucy Mayblin, Pat Lockley, Angela Last):

Dear all,

Many of you will already be familiar with the new research and pedagogy resource ‘Global Social Theory’ which is partly inspired by the ‘Why is my curriculum white?’ movement and seeks to build a series of accessible introductions to truly global thinkers, as well as to important concepts and topics.

The site is now widely used as a teaching resource, which is wonderful, but we still need to build up the content in order to keep the project growing.

Many key thinkers have yet to be profiled, including Said, Spivak, Bhabha, Walter Rodney, Chakrabarty, and other prominent scholars. However, we would also like many more entries on thinkers who have not been canonised in Western scholarship, or who work through registers other than academic texts, such as music, poetry or fiction.

Otherwise, many key concepts and topics have yet to be covered including, land, labour, freedom, space, sovereignty, subjectivity, violence, security, and so on.

So, please do get in touch with me (or one of the other editors) if you would like to contribute a summary of a concept, topic or thinker. Entries have ranged from shorter 300 word summaries to more detailed 900 word overviews, but each entry includes ‘Essential Readings’ ‘Further Readings’ and some key ‘Questions’ which are very useful in a classroom setting.

Finally, and on behalf of the GST team, I would like to wish you all a happy and healthy 2016!

All my best,


Workshop ‘The Arts and Precarity: Forging New Solidarities’

Image: ‘Prekariat’ – Graffiti by karina1101

My colleague Heather McLean has put together this amazing workshop, taking place on 22/23 January 2016 at Glasgow’s Kinning Park Complex. The event is free, but it would be great if you could register here. See you there!

The Arts and Precarity: Forging New Solidarities

This event combines radical cabaret with a day of academic-artist-activist workshop discussions.

Programmed in Glasgow’s Kinning Park Complex, an autonomous, resident-led social centre, the event will bring together a transnational network of artist-activists and scholars to discuss strategies for analysing and resisting precarious labour in a time of austerity.

Day 1: The Arts and Precarity Cabaret, January 22 — 7 pm till 11pm

The Arts and Precarity cabaret will feature five artists exploring and resisting public funding cuts, precarious work and labour inequalities through text, films, music and performance.

Day 2: The Arts and Precarity Workshop, January 23 — 10 am till 6:00 pm

The workshop groups will discuss precarious work across many fields, from freelancers in the cultural sector to zero hours service and education workers, from undocumented agricultural labourers to interns and volunteers.


Min Sook Lee (professor of fine arts and award-winning filmmaker of ‘El Contrato,’ a documentary)

Harry Giles (performer, poet, and general doer of things — writer and performer of ‘All I Want for Christmas is the Downfall of Globalised Late Capitalism’)

Richa Nagar (professor and author of ‘Muddying the Waters: Co-authoring Feminisms Across Scholarship and Activism’)

Geraldine Pratt (professor and author of ‘Families Apart: Migrating Mothers and the Conflicts of Labor and Love’)

Claire Askew (poet and award-winner of the inaugural International Salt Prize for Poetry)

They They Theys (poetry performance in English and BSL, melded with acoustic music and live visuals. Exploring disability, Deaf culture, class, race, gender and sexuality. Mostly mellow-ish, sometimes veering accidentally into punk)

Cachín Cachán Cachunga! (intersectional queer & trans arts company established in Edinburgh in 2009)

Caleb Johnston (lecturer in Human Geography and co-author of ‘Theatre, Politics and Transnational Justice’)

Fran Higson (filmmaker of ‘United We Will Swim….Again,’ The extraordinary story of a community fighting to save their local swimming pool)

Free vegan and vegetarian lunch catered by Soul Food Sisters social enterprise.

(BSL interpretation provided. The building is wheelchair-accessible by ramp. There are heavy double doors so please get in touch if you want assistance upon arrival. There is a level-access wide/large cubicle in one of the toilets, but no fully-accessible or stand-alone single accessible toilet. All toilets are gender-neutral.)

For more info contact:

Mutable Matter on Curved Radio!


This year, I have become a fan of Curved Radio, thanks to my friend Rebecca Closure. I was totally thrilled when they invited me to talk and select tracks on their last show of the year.

According to their website, “Curved Radio is a platform for independent contributors around the world to share cultural experiences”. What I love about them is that they play music from all over the world, no matter whether from known or unknown artists. Genre is irrelevant, too. In a segment of the 3-hour show, a gothy bandcamp track produced in a Belgian bedroom might be followed by a transmission from a Chinese music festival, a discussion of the Tuareg version of Purple Rain and a track by Billie Holiday. The show is curated from 2Ser in Sydney by Gayle Austin, known as Australia’s first female rock DJ. She is joined by a number of ‘Curvies‘ who report from various geographical locations (‘across the known universe’), on various topics and, importantly, also from various underground scenes. As Gayle put it in a recent conversation, this is how she would like the world to be, and I cannot agree more with her.

gayle austin
Gayle Austin in action

Bascially, every Sunday, I try to organise my day around Curved Radio and see what they come up with this time. I usually end up buying lots of music and excitedly email friends about the theatre plays and projects that I hear about during the show. I also tweet to Mr K, who is in charge of Curved Radio’s social media as well as the bandcamp selection. I initially did this from my mottomotto twitter account, which is the small independent music label that I am running. Last week, they found out that I was also a geographer, so they asked me on the show, to talk about music and geography. I decided to talk about experimental geographies, because Curved Radio, to me, feels like a form of experimental geography. I also played two tracks, one by Yasmine Hamdan, and the other by The National Jazz Trio of Scotland, since I was broadcasting from Glasgow. As it looks, they would like me to talk and play more, so stay tuned!

The show is currently breaking for the holidays, but will be back in about 6 weeks. You can listen to it here, currently between 12-3pm UK time/11pm -2am Sydney time (check the blog for updates on broadcast times). Until then, you can listen to the archive. This Sunday’s programme is already up – enjoy!!

RGS-IBGS Race, Culture & Equality Group invites session proposals

I am forwarding our call from the Race, Culture and Equality Working Group. Our website and mailing list are now also up. We will soon begin distributing roles, so if anyone is interested in becoming involved in areas such as teaching, research, outreach, mentoring etc, please get in touch, also with Margaret Byron and Richard Baxter.

“The newly formed Race, Culture and Equality (RACE) working group would like to invite proposals for sessions to be sponsored by RACE at the RGS-IBG annual conference 2016. We are interested in sponsoring proposals that examine race, racism and racial oppression. Sessions can explore research on race, the relationship between race and teaching, or inequality in the geographical discipline. Innovative session formats that attempt to break down the barriers of race are welcomed.

Please email proposals to Richard Baxter ( by 15 January 2016. Submissions should include a title, an abstract (max 250 words), the session format, the number of timeslots requested, and name(s) and affiliation(s) of the session convenor(s). The guidelines for organising sessions can be found here We will endeavor to respond to convenors by the end of January 2016.”

Can activists and academics talk to one another?


This week, I experimented with talking about a more neglected aspect of my PhD project, the problem of how to transition beyond ‘issue formation’ (becoming aware of a political issue and perhaps even joining debates on controversial topics). While my PhD focused on public participation in risk governance, my current work looks at public responses to austerity or other forms of withdrawal of state support. Specifically, I look at how people form experimental, alternative or ‘parallel’ institutions that emulate state institutions to provide for healthcare, housing benefits, food, education or public transport. In order to get a variety of feedback and to test some ideas, I decided to present this work in two rather opposed spaces, an academic International Relations conference on ‘World Society in the Making’ in Duisburg, and a Kilburn Manifesto themed meeting at an activist space called Kinning Park Complex in Glasgow.

Unsurprisingly, the reactions to my talk were quite different. For both events, I had cut out pretty much all of the theory, because of word length and audience. (The theory part of the longer manuscript represents another aspect of the project: to talk to different discourses that engage with experimental institutions, such as art, STS and Marxism). At the IR conference, my talk was appreciated, but perceived as over-saturated with ‘activist slang’, which was feared to prevent a serious engagement with the subject matter. At the activist meeting, despite sparking some animated conversations, my part of the presentation (I co-presented with my colleague Lazaros Karaliotas), was considered as inappropriately academic and sitting uncomfortably with the rest of the presentations. In fact, an older participant loudly proclaimed in the tea break that she hated academics: “I hate academics! They only study and don’t do anything.”

In the course of the day, academics were being described as elitist, bourgeois, career-crazy, unable to speak to ‘the people’ and unwilling to ‘put their bodies on the line – in fact, ‘they don’t even realise they have bodies’’. Interestingly, at last week’s workshop, some academics vocally complained about activists: they are narrow-minded, prefer antagonism over dialogue and “fight with one another over who is the most radical person instead of fighting against the world’s problems”. From experience, these accusations are not isolated cases. In fact, the list of faults on both sides could be infinitely continued. However, both positions more or less boil down to the same thing: that each group sees the other as closed-off and unwilling to engage in conversation.

Despite such mutual resentments, there have been many attempts to communicate across boundaries. For instance, efforts have been made to show how academics are also activists and how activists also operate on the basis of theoretical concepts. At the Glasgow meeting, geographer Doreen Massey did not explicitly go into this issue, but, for me, her talk on strategies against neoliberalism offered a meeting ground between academics and activists, perhaps because she successfully occupies both positions. What she emphasised in her talk (audio to follow) is the necessity to challenge neoliberalism at different levels and scales and to cultivate the ability to pitch to different contexts. Because the ideology of neoliberalism penetrates everywhere, any attempts to offer alternative visions also have to enter all of these spaces. This also involves “talking to the person on the bus”.

For Massey, this reaching-out also involves an experimentation with words and concepts. How do we redescribe “neoliberalism” (or other problems) so that we can reach more people and inform them what is so problematic about it? Are “left” and “right” still the right categories or do they hinder necessary conversations? Does the concept of “class” need to be expanded? Incidentally, these are words that appear across academia and in activism – we share a lot of the same vocabulary despite our different communication styles. Recent campaigns to change certain types of vocabulary – from migrant to refugee, from ISIS to Daesh etc – have shown how important language can be to change the way we think about, and respond to, an issue. Such campaigns have often involved an alliance of a variety of actors, including grassroots organisations, larger NGOs, churches, journalists and academics. For me, such debates around language issues are crucial not only for changing the debate around an issue, but for creating a space where input from all sides is desperately wanted and needed. While I am sure that this space is not free of conflict, it represents an example of a collaboration that facilitated a series of successful shifts (if anyone has any commentary on this, whether affirmative or contradictory, please send it to me!).

What came out of the last two weeks for me, was a search for useful questions that could replace the desire to determine ‘who is best placed for bringing about change?’ I think it was Doreen Massey who reminded the audience this Saturday to focus on asking ‘why are we doing what we’re doing?’ Indeed, this is a question that has helped me out of many a crisis, but it could also be more than just part of a self-help checklist. It is a question that needs to be asked every time a potential alliance starts to fracture because of a belief in the superiority of a particular approach – whether within or between groups. As Massey emphasised, we need as many people as possible to fight inequality. From “why are we doing what we’re doing?”, differences can be reconsidered and other questions can follow. For geographers, this has frequently been, to cite Gwendolyn Warren from the Detroit Geographic Expedition and Institute, “how to make geography more relevant and affect change?” If we carried on asking such questions – to ourselves and in public – we could perhaps learn to speak to one another in moments where communication is in danger of breaking down.

Gwendolyn Warren and Cindi Katz in Conversation.

Of course, it is not enough in some cases to merely agree on a common goal. This was sharply illustrated by Warren who, as a black youth activist in 1960s Detroit was approached by William Bunge and a group of white geographers who had a similar aim – to fight racial inequality in Detroit. Warren noted how the geographers went in with the attitude that they would ‘discover’ the black community and tell them how to affect change (‘clueless but nice people’ – ‘always bringing food’). The geographers thought that it was a matter of black communities not understanding their problems. Here, the black youths enlightened the geographers that they very well understood the problems, but also knew that the system was so rigged that the obstacles to make a difference were almost insurmountable. They were also aware that their input in the project would constitute a potential career benefit to the geographers in question – in the form of publications or promotions – whereas they would remain in the same situation. The resulting negotiation for more equal benefits – education for the black youths in return for educating the white geographers – illustrated that a recognition of common aims needs to be followed by a willingness to take risks.

In the Detroit case, the risk was both on the academics and the activists: on the academics because they ended up with an even more visible political intervention, and on the activists, because they were abandoning other pathways (training, work, schooling etc) to participate in an experiment that might leave them stranded half-way through. While these risks were real – the programme was effectively shut down and at least one geographer seems to have lost his job – the years that the programme ran contributed to significant change, both for individuals and for the communities that they would come to lead or be part of. Still today, geographers like me look at those Detroit maps, co-produced by activists and academics from very different backgrounds, as an affirmation of the ‘why’ and as a prompt to risk better understanding and communication.

Wie teilen? Or: “What do you have to share to be able to share knowledge production?”


Last week I went to a German workshop on ‘Geteilte Forschung’ (shared knowledge production) at Frankfurt’s Goethe University. The workshop, organised by Julia Verne and Jan Beek, addressed the increasing demands on researchers to co-produce through team work, interdisciplinary and transnational projects and multi-author publications, and the sorts of problems that brings with it. For instance, while shared knowledge production is widely advocated and funded, research esteem continues to be measured against the ideal of individual contributions (monographs, single-authored articles, ‘own’ funding). Here, the workshop sought to interrogate the potential consequences of such a dissonance. As the abstract asked: do we have to reorient our practices? Is shared knowledge production twice the work? Does it lead to superficial outcomes?

The way these questions were tackled in the workshop was through examples from academic practice: fieldwork methods, publication and funding strategies, managing new constellations of hierarchies and research priorities. Most participants in the workshop came from the discipline of ‘Ethnologie’ (study of peoples). The term was at first confusing (why not call this research social anthropology or sociology?), but was explained in the course of the workshop (e.g. by Thomas Bierschenk) as a historically grown disciplinary identity that distances itself from their apparent equivalents for very particular reasons (focus away from the individualisation/ generalisation, biological determinism, a particular German school – the Bielefeld School – that placed a political emphasis on ‘learning from the people’ etc). The remaining researchers came from subjects such as sociology, architecture, history, human geography and linguistics.

My own talk focused on different interpretations and utilisations of ‘internationalisation’ in the research context, giving the examples of how internationalisation impacts publications such as edited collections, and how attempts to diversify the curriculum are both demanded and resisted by students, academics and university management in quite different ways. Apart from two papers, the workshop was entirely run in German (this was my first ever German paper) which, I was told, was becoming an increasing rarity due to internationalisation demands and the resulting language hierarchies. This fact, and the related discussions around language in the workshop, sharpened my attention to the complex ways in which internationalisation impacts on research.

The most interesting part of the workshop for me was the attention to the wider structures that our research practices are embedded in, which is what I would like to focus on in this post. (Apologies in advance to my fellow workshop participants about the lack of inclusion of the equally significant debate over field methods and questions of reflexivity!) In particular, I appreciated how North-South relationships were discussed across multiple levels (individual, structural, geographical etc). Here, specifically the ethnologists contributed a diverse range of angles and contradictions, from grant proposal histories to complaints voiced by colleagues during ‘field’ research. As Judith Schlehe put it, sometimes you learn more through co-working with others than through focusing on the fieldwork topic itself. I found these interesting not only for my own research practice, but for my methods teaching. I appreciated that the workshop participants made extensive use of the potential to play with the German translation for the word ‘shared’, which can be translated as both ‘geteilt’ (which not only means shared, but divided) and ‘gemeinsam’ (which also means ‘common’ or ‘together’). For me, these seemingly opposing movements together encapsulate my experience of research, for instance, research as a common fight against that which seeks to divide, or as a desire to differentiate where commonalities are assumed.

Andrea Behrends and John Njenga Karugia, for instance, engaged with the agency of African academics: how do different knowledges and forms of knowledge production encounter one another? While Behrends had primarily experienced the relegation of African academics to the status of ‘informants’/’resource persons’ in the work of white academics, Karugia pointed to the ways African scholars challenge the “Northern theory master”/“Southern informant” relationship. While it was generally agreed that there is no absolute fixity of North and South, the structures that facilitated on-going divisions were pointed out. These included the persisting North-South traffic in research problems in exchange for funding (Wilke & Wrons-Passmann). In the past, this meant that money dictated a lot of the hierarchies and research practices, with the funder’s priorities routinely being prioritised (Lange & Bromber; Dagyeli). Even today, the money flows in research reorient a variety of practices, such as academics from the Global South becoming introduced to a project at a late stage of grant writing, often too late to have any significant influence on aims and concepts. The following questions emerged: ‘Whose research agenda, if the project is funded from outside and categories imported from outside?’ (Behrends) Whose categories are given preference to and taken seriously?’ (Scholz) ‘When does it make sense, to adopt or refuse local categories?’ (Tutzer & Mageza-Barthel) ‘How do transnational and postcolonial perspectives meet?’ (Tutzer & Mageza-Barthel) Here, Andrea Scholz also gave the example of Venezuelan ‘indigenous’ researchers and their struggle with accusations naïve realism. Given the absurdity of many Northern academic claims, her talk really showed the uncertain boundaries of categories: who is a naïve realist was not always clear. ‘

Recently, these power dynamics have come under scrutiny and have been partially rewritten, in an attempt to level hierarchies and facilitate a two-way exchange (Lange & Bromber). Internationalisation strategies now ‘test for diversity’ in different ways: they strive to involve project partners more closely, seek to better negotiate disciplinary advantages and attach funding to better research conditions. At the same time, however, well-meaning manoeuvres such as contract clauses to prevent ‘brain drain’ from the Global South – e.g. African researchers being required to stay in Africa (‘anywhere in Africa’) or being eligible for promotion at their home universities – were perceived as discriminatory by both Northern and Southern researchers who equally disliked the selectively limited mobility (Behrends). Further, internationalisation strategies were critiqued for perhaps placing less emphasis on the research than on strategic relations with project partners (Lange & Bromber). They also tend to privilege English as a research language, which again advantages people who are more fluent in English and also often leads to anglophone literature becoming more prevalent in citations. It was noted by many participants that practical or considerations were especially off the radar of internationalisation strategies, for instance pertaining to visa problems for invited researchers, political sensitivity of conference spaces, gender issues, feedback loops between countries regarding research topics, PhDs following NGO/Northern imposed models, cuts to language teaching, impossibility to manage the projects desired by research councils, or different academic conventions or accounting structures.

The question of language was explored in more depth by Jeanine Dagyeli, a researcher who works on Central Asia. She particularly looked at how language limits knowledge exchange, because of factors such as difficulty of learning other languages, lack of money or access, refusal or ban to speak a particular language for political reasons, and because of the lack of prestige for researchers from ‘Northern’ research systems, where publications in particular journals are valued. For academics who do decide to publish transnationally or multi-lingually, a struggle with different publishing conventions materialised as a next hurdle. From Dagyeli’s experience, this struggle for communication and understanding was very time and labour intensive – and at times can be very risky if a political publication leads to a ban for the researchers from re-entering the country – but also beneficial for gaining a deeper understanding the other culture and her colleague’s concepts and methods. Moreover, a different political and research impact can be achieved this way. Like Mirjam Tutzer and Rirhandu Mageza-Barthel, Dagyeli emphasised that local standards, categories and valorisations do not need to be uncritically adopted, but could be productively contested or negotiated. She also addressed the criticism of better resourced outsiders barging into local contexts and taking over local debates: is critique being invited or not? While there are clear cases of insensitivity, she also pointed to situations where local researchers were grateful for critical debate with their country or situation, because it was too dangerous for them to make such statements themselves. The researchers could then ‘draw on’ an outsider perspective in less problematic ways.

My favourite slide of the workshop: Beate Löffler showing how interdisciplinarity ‘works’

Aside from sharing across geographical boundaries, we also talked about sharing across disciplinary boundaries. Here, geographer Marc Boeckler pointed to the risks of interdisciplinarity: while it is often desired, the infrastructures for its successful implementation are lacking. A major risk comes from the lack of positions for interdisciplinary people, which constitutes a career risk: from what position onwards can one afford such a risk? (Or, in the words of Lange & Bromber: ‘Are you interdisciplinary enough – or too interdisciplinary?’) He argued that a ‘home for interdisciplinarity’ has to be created in some fashion, if it continues to be desired. Other participants suggested that same goes for shared authorship: while shared knowledge production is highly desired, the ideal of single-authored articles and monographs is upheld. Beate Löffler, on the other hand, illustrated the problem of methodological chaos and the emergence of conceptual hierarchies. She lamented how the burden of translation is never on the dominant discipline, but on the less prominent subject partners. These discussions finally led to a focus on publications. How to show different perspectives and layers in joint pieces of writing? (Behrends; Lange & Bromber) What is part of the writing process? What do you do with all those jointly produced/emerging thoughts that you didn’t include in publications? (Lange & Bromber) Who runs what risk with what kind of critique? How do you negotiate citation hierarchies and problematic ‘canon’ material?

Such considerations also influenced our debate around how to continue the discussions from the workshop. Both follow-up events and publications were proposed. In terms of publications, we asked: How do we go beyond mere description, group therapy (Bierschenk) or summarising? One pathway we considered were publication formats that might enable some form of discussion. After all, as organisers Julia Verne and Jan Beek had pointed out in their introduction, dialogues were once considered the main model for knowledge production. But then further questions appeared: Where do you publish? How do you write? How do you publish? (e.g. Open Access, peer-review) Where/how do you get the best responses or feedback? In terms of events, we wondered: how can we involve more people from other countries in such workshops? And how would that shape future workshops in terms of language and power dynamics?

For me, a question that came out of the workshop was: what are the dynamics between individuals and structures? I had touched on the question in my talk, but had not gone into it very deeply. The workshop raised new perspectives for me in terms of how structures shift or could be shifted. As Katrin Bromber put it: ‘We don’t support a system: we are it.’ In this context, our performances as academics, both in the ‘global political performance of academia’ (Bierschenk) and in local or personal exchanges, were highlighted as imbued with a potential for significance. As my colleague Olivia Rutazibwa, who unfortunately was not present at the workshop, recently reminded me: academics have influence, and this influence can be managed in different ways. This influence can be exerted in a variety of ways, whether through charismatic personalities, as highlighted by Judith Schlehe, or through layers of reflexivity that translate into practices or collaborations. For me, this translated into a hopeful message: when we share knowledge and knowledge production, we don’t need to resignate in frustration or accept existing frameworks, but we can potentially shift uncomfortable structures if we remind ourselves that, on the one hand it is not just about our own little project, and, on the other hand, that larger structures are made up of smaller ones. In navigating larger structures that affect us, we can potentially ‘affect back’ or ‘make demands’, as it was put. In terms of shared knowledge production, the guiding questions here might be: What do you have to share to be able to share knowledge production? How far do you need to take this sharing to make a difference in the way we share?


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