First of all: Congratulations to this Sinergia project! Sinergia funds high-risk / high gain breakthrough research that is likely to shift paradigms. How would you explain the breakthrough character of the project?
Ralph Weber: The breakthrough aspect is the post-comparative approach we are using. Social sciences can be applied universally, it does not depend whether you apply a political science approach in Switzerland, Gambia or India. Then you have a whole lot of disciplines who think that there is a huge difference. Those are disciplines that have focused on de-colonialism, on post-colonialism, on all sorts of theoretical strands to problematize this sort of universal approach of social sciences. What the post-comparative area studies try to allude to is to take this situation seriously. The originality of the project is that we separate the politics of this with a sort of genuine interest in creating, in finding knowledge. The post-comparative in that sense also means that we should think about the entities: Is it about Africa and Europe? Is it about the center or periphery? The paradigm-shift is that we move beyond this – going beyond area studies as they have been practiced until now.
Elisio Macamo: There is one major issue about this project – which is that we are dealing with a highly political issue. This also means that it is highly emotional. For many years now, people from outside of Europe have been challenging the dominance of Europe and European scholarship in knowledge production. They have done this in several ways, one of which has been to argue that knowledge is a function of power and politics and that, therefore, there are limits to scholarship. There is little that one can do to improve science because politics and ideology play an essential role in the production of knowledge. The other consequence of that, which is much more radical, is to claim that there is no such thing as science and that, therefore, we should give up the pretence of objectivity. Part of what we can do in this project is to hold on to the idea that there is science, that there is one science and that it would make a lot of sense to work on that and to think about the fundamental problems that are being raised within scholarship about the quality of knowledge. To think about them seriously but also to integrate them in a much broader project of protecting science. Now you can imagine what kinds of risks we are facing in this project. One risk is to convey the impression that we are simply defending western hegemony. The other danger, of course, is that of downplaying significant issues that Southern critiques are raising. If we say that this is all a matter of methodology, then we might appear to be downplaying the importance of the political issues that people are raising. But as Ralph said, this move we are trying to make is quite innovative, and I believe this is why the SNSF has committed money to this project. The project will make significant contributions to broader debates about post-colonialism, de-colonialization, and so on and contribute to how we teach social sciences.
Speaking about risks: Africa has often been used as a “test bed” for Western knowledge production. You are applying concepts from/on Africa and Asia to Switzerland, Italy and Austria. Is there a risk that your project could be interpreted in such a way?
Weber: There is long standing criticism that Africa is the place where you gather experiences and then you turn that into data that is used in Western theory formation. Our empirical researchers use mid-level concepts, which means we are not putting notions like “this is African” and “this is European” front and centre. By applying the notion “reversing the gaze” we also use these notions at some level, but we put them up for discussion at the same time. The point we would like to make, is that if you are serious about a concept, you should be able to contextualize it and apply it anywhere, whereas our knowledge system relies very much on these notions somehow being confined to “Latin American Studies”, “Indian Studies”, “European Studies” and so on.
Macamo: There is an aesthetic dimension to what we are doing. We are not taking Europe, Africa or Asia as entities for granted. Science, i.e. academic discourse, has produced these concepts to shed light on the places they imply. It has then gone on to assume that certain concepts only apply in those places. But our notion is: if these are concepts of science, they should apply everywhere.
In my sub-project, for example, we work with the notion of re-tribalisation. This is not an “African” concept but a colonial one used by colonial officials and anthropologists to understand what was going on in Africa. Some of these people then assumed that this concept was only appropriate for Africa. But we say that we can take that concept and apply it to Switzerland and understand Switzerland better. That is also what another PI, Benedikt Korf, a political geographer from Uni Zürich, does with the notion of political society, which Partha Chatterjee developed in India to understand governance forms obtaining in India. Why not use that concept instead of civil society to understand what is going on in Switzerland and Austria? Deval Desai from Edinburgh uses Shalini Randeria’s notion of the “cunning state”. This is a state which fakes weakness to evade accountability from its people and international institutions such as the World Bank. How could that concept help to understand the relationship between Italy and the European Union?
Elisio, you are applying the concept of re-tribalisation to the political movements AUNS and Operation Libero in Switzerland. Can you explain this in more detail?
Macamo: The concept of re-tribalisation emerged in the context of fears that the colonial administrations had in Africa. They feared that when Africans were integrated into the cash-economy and moved to cities, they would lose their bearings. There was a big fear of the “up-rooted” Africans, the de-tribalised Africans. But what happened was that Africans in cities began assembling around their ethnic groups, so they were not de-tribalising but instead re-tribalising. Colonial administrations were afraid of this, too, because that is not good for cosmopolitanism and modernisation. The concept shows us the processes of “Vergesellschaftung” based on how individuals manipulate their relationship to groups. Political communities are based on those processes.
In other words, you can construe these as the semantics of how political communities are constituted. We want to understand the nature of citizenship in Switzerland. How are different people manipulating their relationship to broader groups, and how are they creating and inventing those groups? AUNS has an idea of a larger political entity that they call Switzerland, which they see in terms of “home” and deserving of autonomy. “Operation Libero”, in contrast, does not have an “autonomous” notion of home as a larger political entity. It has a cosmopolitan ideal. Over the past 200-300 years, we have had a constitution of a World - by Europe - which is premised on universal citizenship. But the practice has been to deny that universal citizenship. Suppose you fully commit to the liberal idea. A practical consequence might be, for example, that you do away with passports and immigration laws because there is no reason people should not travel freely. That might be one of the effects of what Operation Libero is arguing. Maybe that is why that particular group is the source of many fears among certain political actors here in Switzerland. It is almost like a slippery-slope kind of argument: If we accept that we are a liberal country, then we have to admit that there is no such thing as an essential Swiss identity, and therefore, borders make no sense and so on and so on.
Weber: In fact, modern passports have only become widespread in the early 20th century, before that, people did not usually have passports. They are also an instrument of power. In China, even today, it is not so easy to get a passport.
A very topical question: The Corona-Crisis still has a firm grip on the World and governments worldwide had to impose unprecedented measures to protect health systems. Do you think that your approach could give more insights to this crisis as well?
Macamo: If a problem is framed scientifically, then it should have validity everywhere. One of the problems with how we have dealt with the Corona crisis was – for reasons that have to do with the way international institutions work – that a lot of countries that are considered “weak” from the point of view of their statehood saw themselves forced to frame their Corona problem in the same way that countries like Switzerland did. In Switzerland, the Corona crisis was framed as a threat to the stability of its health infrastructure. So “flattening the curve” was the appropriate response. But this is not the way the problem should be framed in Mozambique or Angola. First of all, there is no health infrastructure to protect, and secondly, you need to give people a reason to have a life worth saving. A lockdown is not a realistic option because people have to go out to fend for themselves. So the problem in those countries is how to protect people at work, not at home. At the beginning of the crisis, everybody was worried about what was going to happen in Africa. Everybody was thinking about it in the way the crisis was framed in Europe. They failed to see that poverty sometimes can protect you from certain things. And this is where the Sinergia project can contribute one or two ideas: How we deal with concepts, how we make concepts fit the context and the circumstances you want to apply them. The Corona crisis shows clearly some of the problems we have. Comparative statements rely on the fact that concepts can be used here and there. The project mixes political discussions and methodological discussions.
Weber: Everything Elisio just said can only be said if we presuppose that concepts can somehow “travel,” be used in different places. Even the point that this is not a concept that should be used when discussing Mozambique shows that it could be used. Comparative statements rely on the fact that concepts can be used here and there. One aspect that we are really trying to look at critically is a common presupposition that I would call “conceptual localism”. Concepts only are valid for a certain place, so you have to use African concepts to study Africa, European concepts to study Europe and so on. That is something we want to tackle but not by denigrating the scholarship but by trying to address politically legitimate concerns even though we might disagree with the theoretical point of this conceptual localism.
I think the crisis has shown that it is a lot about the politics of Corona, right? It is about vaccination, vaccine diplomacy etc. and I think that separating the political issues might be an interesting way in understanding even the non-political concerns themselves more properly. The project really has these two dimensions: Political discussions and methodological discussions.
Macamo: I think one claim we make in this project is epistemological. We do not do research only to solve Africa’s problems or Europe’s problems but contribute to the disciplines. This is very important because one of the issues in the production of knowledge about non-European societies focuses on solving problems there and not focusing on what you can learn from there. I wish that funding agencies that support research in Africa would focus more on this. The Corona-Crisis is a good example. African countries were unable to apply lockdown measures, and you see how the crisis is developing there. In Switzerland, you cannot risk not doing a lockdown, but there are places where a lockdown was not implemented. So why not learn from them?
One of the criteria of Sinergia is interdisciplinarity. Area studies are already interdisciplinary but have you included disciplines or methods that are not usually used in area studies?
Weber: Since I have been teaching interdisciplinarity for many semesters I would love to take this question. What usually is less deployed is philosophy the way we use it in this project. Usually, philosophy would be deployed in area studies in terms of if you do Indian studies you would have an Indologist who explains to you Indian philosophy but not the sort of analytical philosophy we are introducing here. Law also is not used that much in area studies. But let me note that I am not sure whether we understand interdisciplinarity in the most productive way if we just follow the requirements of funding agencies, like “name the five disciplines…”. For example, I could put up a project in psychology, economics, political sciences and sociology and easily, I would have four people doing the exact same project – from the question to the method to the answers. I could have one person doing the project and he or she could sell it to all those disciplines. This is because disciplines are not empirically the kind of material that you can use to make a theoretical argument. They are too messy; different and contradictory logics went into their creation. I have come to think of interdisciplinarity as having very little to do with disciplines. Interdisciplinarity is about combining what I call “unlikely bedfellows”. It has that edge of progressiveness, of overstepping boundaries, that is what you want to produce. Easy combination of disciplines does not guarantee that at all. What guarantees it is ontological and epistemological clever mixings. For example, you go about an issue and construct it in the most constructivist way you can imagine, and then you test it empirically. Interdisciplinarity has become so successful that it is required by many funding agencies, but the theoretical understanding of it is often very vague, and sometimes outright confused.
In your opinion, do the faculty structures at universities hamper interdisciplinarity?
Weber: They might do so because they want to remain conservative. If something works, why should you change it? I am not surprised by the fact that disciplinarians oppose interdisciplinarity, it is perceived as a threat to how things work. Does that mean that everything should be done in an interdisciplinary way? No! There are a lot of risks involved – you might know nothing about anything and so on. Disciplinary knowledge involves a lot of mainstreaming effects – as an economist you do not have to explain your concepts to another economist to the same extent as you need to explain it in a setting such as ours. Interdisciplinary settings like ours have a lot to do with vocabulary, about trying to understand what the other person means, even if you use the same words. I think for universities today it is about guaranteeing institutional places for interdisciplinary work, but really guaranteeing them institutionally. Disciplines have often emerged exactly through interdisciplinary challenges. Robert Putman walked into the library and as we used to do he picked up a book that was lying at the entry. It was a book from a sociologist, James Coleman on Social Capital. He thought oh, that’s interesting and introduced it to political sciences. With these mainstreaming effects you are unfortunately less and less likely to pick up a book from another discipline. Interdisciplinarity has this strong sense of curiosity in it that increasing specialization threatens. So, in the interest of knowledge production, universities should make sure that there is a place for both.
Another trend in research funding is the focus on “impact”, i.e. that researchers are supposed to work on solutions for “real-world problems” defined by policy-makers. What do you think about this development?
Macamo: I would like to add a few points to that also picking up the discussion on interdisciplinary. One point is the failure to acknowledge that disciplines are contingent. Disciplines have histories, and that history corresponds to particular factors. What often happened was that people assumed that if there are disciplines, this is because the world is like this. The second point is the idea that you can do science by decree. For example, the idea that you have to commit yourself to interdisciplinarity. We cannot do our work without acknowledging what is happening in other disciplines. That is just not possible. So, if someone comes and asks us to work interdisciplinarily, he asks us to do what we are already doing, just in a much more formalized way. Curiously, calls for more interdisciplinarity end up promoting disciplines because then I go to work with other people as a “sociologist” and emphasize my role as a sociologist. So it is contradictory.
Weber: The contingency mentioned by Elisio is crucial. There is a logic of genesis of disciplines that goes by dividing up the world into several different distinct domains. This was initially how disciplines developed. And then you have the situation of economics as a discipline, which is huge and very mainstreaming. At the beginning it was something that pertained to economy, a domian that is out in the world. Today, economy is defined also very much by the method, not by the object. You could have an economic theory of love where you are thinking of your partnership in terms of supply and demand, which is perhaps a disastrous way of looking of it, but for hardcore economists, I suppose, it is completely okay. So you have the method that defines the discipline, which is a completely different logic of genesis. Today we have both logics. When a new subject comes up, for example when women came up as a subject that could no longer be ignored, women studies were established in the United States. The new subject became the basis for new a discipline. When computers came up, computer sciences became a discipline. Area studies where often established out of security concerns. Most professorships in area studies after the 2nd World War came straight from intelligence circles. It is interesting that there are two different sorts of logic of genesis. I was thinking a lot about what would be a good way of combining things. I think if you have a similar logic of genesis you are actually about to combine “unlikely bedfellows”.
Macamo: It really has to do with respect for the logic of a practice. Politics has its own logic and science has its logic. For politics, it is essential to have results, and these results are practical. For science, it is crucial to validate your knowledge. What happens with this push for applied research is that scientists are forced to use the logic of politics to validate their knowledge. So knowledge is only valid if it’s practically useful. And that is a significant limitation of scientific activity. Personally, I have always had a problem with this push towards applied research. The SNSF had this R4D (Research for Development) programme, which was about solutions. I would be interested to know how many problems they have solved. I believe that there is a problem if you do science based on the search for solutions because our strength is not our ability to produce solutions but our ability to formulate a problem clearly. I think it is a significant science policy mistake to give money to scientists to look for solutions. Scientists should be given money to think about problems, and then enterprising people will find the solutions. Bill Gates, for example, is not a great scientist but an ambitious individual who took problems that other people formulated and constructed an answer out of them.
Ralph, your sub-project can be considered as the heart of the project as it puts the case studies into dialogue with meta-perspective issues. Can you tell us more about it?
Weber: I wouldn’t say that my sub-project is the heart of the project but it is the heart of the interdisciplinary framing because there two worlds collide in a sense that usually don’t collide. In fact we already had first experiences of that, because it is so comfortable for some of the disciplines and their empirical orientation to be so clear that everything has to do with colonialism, everything should be post-colonial – that this is a major defining constellation in the world. And we collide because somebody like me would come and introduce just an analytic philosophical problem and then immediately we have this discussion. My sub-project is really about engaging with the empirical cases sufficiently so that we are challenged by that. And the other way around, too. And there I really think we bring something together that I think is rarely brought together. Analytical philosophers are really not those that engage with colonialism and world systems theory and so on. But, I should also say, I am not a classic analytical philosopher, quite far from it, so it’s not the pure clash, then it would be hard to have a discussion going on. I see myself rather as somebody who in my research interest already combines those things. It is not like I am the analytical philosopher and there is the sociologist, the anthropologist and the geographer who usually don’t talk to the philosopher. I have also a background in political theory and Chinese studies. I think this is a conversation of four people and their teams who are already willing to do that, otherwise you would not do that. In that sense I think it is the core of our originality – what is happening here is often not happening. And the longer we can sustain that before we actually give in to our narcissism and say ok, we are still right, the better for the project. I do find that already quite exciting and it is something that I have done in many things that I have done before, be it on comparison itself, where I looked into the philosophy of comparison, which was my habilitation. But then also just read up on what is political science or sociology saying about comparison.
Macamo: Ralph’s project is central for basically two reasons. One is that Ralph really brings in the expertise on comparison. He has been working on this concept for years, and he has brought original ideas into that project that are very important to what the rest of us are doing. We had our colloquium last Wednesday, and the first person speaking was Ralph. He talked about comparison and what he was sharing with the rest of us just once again showed how significant his contribution to this project is. He also helps us to articulate better our political discomfort with our methodological misgivings and discomfort. This is a central work package.
One final question: The project has started in October 2020, in the middle of the Corona crisis. Has the crisis affected the project?
Macamo: The one who has been affected in a serious way is Deval Desai, as he had planned to do fieldwork in India. However, science is always about “How to do it”, and this is an opportunity to explore other ways of doing research. This is what I am encouraging the two PhD students to do, reflect on methods, reflect on how to get access to data, and treat data given the way they are accessing them.
Thank you very much for this interview. We wish you every success with the project!