Research in Dialogue - Dialogue in Research: Interview with Prof. Dr. Corinna Unger

Research in Dialogue - Dialogue in Research: Interview with Prof. Dr. Corinna Unger

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Europäisches Hochschulinstitut, Florenz ()
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From - Until
01.06.2015 -
Florian Wagner

Dieser Beitrag ist hervorgegangen aus der Initiative von Doktoranden des Seminars für ‚History and Civilization' (HEC) am Europäischen Hochschulinstitut in Florenz. Ihr Projekt ‚Research in Dialogue – Dialogue in Research' wird herausgeben von Tilmann Kulke, Dorit Brixius, Ievgen Khvalkov, Florian Wagner und James White.
geschichte.transnational veröffentlicht in loser Folge Interviews, Literaturberichte und Forschungsergebnisse aus dem Bereich transnationaler und globaler Studien.

Interview with Prof. Dr. Corinna Unger
by Stephanie Laemmert and Florian Wagner, May 2016

_In the beginning of 2016 you took up the position of Professor for Global and Colonial History at the European University Institute in Florence. Earlier in your career, you studied the German Ostforschung between 1945 and 1975, before turning to examining international development policies in India. Would you recommend that graduate students take a similar approach? Should young scholars start from national case studies, which they can later put into global perspective?
CU: Your observation that I started out from a national perspective and then turned toward a more international one is very much to the point – and yet it never was a distinct strategy that I had in mind. I would rather describe it as a development that was closely tied to biographical and professional experiences. I started studying history in Germany, where at the time this predominantly meant studying German history. I still remember how surprised I was when I spent a year at an American university and saw the range of courses offered there, including African, Asian, Latin American, and generally non-European topics and places. This challenged me to rethink the conceptual and geographical confines within which I had started studying. After completing my PhD in Germany, I did a postdoc at the German Historical Institute Washington DC, where German, European, and American research was brought into dialogue with each other. From my colleagues at the GHI and at American universities I learned a lot about new approaches and perspectives that were not as prominent or popular in Germany at the time. Finally, I started thinking about my second book at a time when approaches like “new international history”, “new Cold War history”, and “new imperial history” were being discussed intensively, and this was an opportunity to take up new ideas outside a purely national framework, both in terms of topic and in terms of methodology.
Yet I don’t think that it makes sense to recommend PhD students to start with a national topic and then turn to an international or global one. More generally speaking, I think that one should certainly keep certain strategic considerations in mind when thinking about a PhD or a postdoc project, especially with regard to different national academic structures and the demands on careers they can imply. But in the end a specific topic is a good and promising topic not because it is in line with a historiographical trend but because it is fascinating, feasible, and relevant.

Your latest book “Entwicklungspfade in Indien” examines the United States and West Germany as developmental actors in India between 1947 and 1980. The title underlines that this story is an “international history.” This emphasis evokes a history of diplomatic relations between nations that substantiates the paradigm of the nation-state rather than undermining it. Why is your study “international” rather than “global” or “transnational”?
CU: In the book I analyze how India, upon becoming independent in 1947, positioned itself as a “developing country” in an international setting specifically vis-à-vis potential providers of development aid. Those were not only national governments, but also (and sometimes more importantly) international organizations, NGOs, companies, and individuals. In that sense, the book uses a very broad and inclusive understanding of what is political rather than alluding to a traditional understanding of diplomatic history. Thereby the book aims to contribute to what is sometimes called “new international history”: a history that embraces an inclusive understanding of politics and that pays attention not only to political decision-making in the conventional sense but includes cultural, gender, economic, and environmental aspects, among others.

Perhaps you can help us to understand if development policies were a form of neo-colonial interference or, on the contrary, a truly humanitarian intervention? We ask ourselves if development policy is part of “long-term” colonial history. If so, do we have to analyze it through postcolonial approaches and methods? Or can we understand it through the lens of international history and assume a general equality between developer countries and developing countries?
CU: Based on the existing research, it seems safe to state that the experience of colonialism and imperialism played an important role in shaping the development thinking of experts and administrators. Most generally, the notion of difference, specifically the perception that some were more “advanced” than others, was decisive in providing a reason for interventions into existing socioeconomic patterns and structures, and colonial and imperial experiences highlighted the need felt for such interventions. This is true of most actors who conducted what we today consider development projects, whether we think of the European colonial powers in Africa and Asia, of the Soviet Union in Central Asia, or of the United States in the Philippines. The ways in which those interventions were framed and conducted differed, of course. Yet missionaries, colonial administrators, and representatives of NGOs shared the perception that the difference they believed to be seeing was a problem, and that they possessed the knowledge and tools that allowed them to reduce or eliminate this difference. Against this background, any statement that characterizes development as either neocolonial or humanitarian is necessarily too narrow. Development, like any other political project, comes with many interests attached; it is never pure, even if it might sound more philanthropic than other political projects. However, I do think that the experience of colonialism, and its assumption of superiority based on knowledge and technology, very much shaped the European understanding of development and the ways in which difference was dealt with. For that reason, while I do not believe that it is useful to argue that development aid is neo-colonial, I think that we can understand the structures and problems of development aid better if we study colonial experiences with development, both from the perspective of those in charge of planning and of those who were the objects of development projects.

You recently co-edited the volume “A World of Populations. Transnational Perspectives on Demography in the Twentieth Century”, together with Heinrich Hartmann. Can you tell us more about the importance of the demographic discourse in the twentieth century in transnational history and about the link between demographic growth and development? Is it possible that certain trends, like the overpopulation discourse (and so-called “soil mania”) of the 1920-1940s in Eastern and Southern Africa and the USA, still play a role in today’s discourse about development and demography?
CU: The history of demography and population thinking in many ways reflects the relevance of transnational and international connections in the making and shaping of a discipline and the ways in which it contributed to public perceptions of the political and economic implications of population growth and decline. Demography as an academic discipline emerged relatively late compared to other social scientific disciplines in the twentieth century. Most of the individuals who helped to develop demographic approaches had a background in economics, statistics, sociology, or psychology, and it was mainly in the context of international congresses and events that they started to think of themselves as demographers. National population statistics were undoubtedly dominant throughout much of the twentieth century (much like development-related categories), yet demographers early on showed a distinct interest in and awareness of transnational and international phenomena. Think, for example, of migration, or of debates about access to natural resources and infrastructure – topics which figured very prominently in colonial, imperial, and international thinking in the twentieth century and which could not be limited to the nation-state, as Alison Bashford has shown in her excellent book “Global Population: History, Geopolitics, and Life on Earth” (New York 2014). In the context of development planning, demographic prognoses often played an important role in making the case for or against a specific development strategy. For example, the perception that many of the former colonies had very high birth rates (even if those rates were sometimes based on statistically shaky evidence) led many politicians to assume that so-called family planning measures were required if the country in question was to experience significant economic growth. The history of demography and population thinking offers an ideal lens to study the co-production of knowledge and social order, which can add to our understanding of the nexus between decolonisation and development.

What advice can you give to researchers who work on a similar topic (development, colonialism, modernization etc.) and thus focus on a relatively small group of people (developers, colonial administrators, etc.) who had the power to make decisions for the majority of people, who remain silent in the sources? In other words, is there a way to reconcile this kind of history with history from below?
CU: The fact that many of these studies focus on elites is a problem, of course, in the sense that they suggest that elites keep the world running or have the power to change it. Of course we know that while members of elites hope that this is the case, there are very distinct limits to their powers. Many examples in the history of development suggest that it is comparatively easy to envision and design a specific form of change but much harder to make sure that the vision becomes a reality, precisely because those who are supposed to carry out the changes and to “develop” often do not behave as expected. This is the reason why I consider it crucial to study not only the debates and publications of members of elites but to include the translation of their recommendations into practice and to pay attention to the situation “on the ground”. Ideally, this would involve sources attesting to local and individual demands, reactions, and agency more broadly. However, those sources are often much more difficult to secure and work with than planning papers, which are closer to the type of texts historians produce themselves. I think that there is a systemic bias which is difficult to overcome, but historians should make an effort to do so, whether it means adopting and adapting ethnological methods, conducting more oral history, or generally broadening their understanding of relevant sources. At the same time, I do not think that each and every study has to pay attention to all levels of interactions equally, which, of course, is very difficult to achieve. A concise book focusing on elite discourses on development can be highly valuable, as can be a study concentrating on the “view from below”.

When you studied Indian “modernisation” and development, you made use of various archives, including Indian archives. How was your work experience in the Indian archives? How important was the use of Indian sources for your work?
CU: Before going to India, colleagues warned me that the Indian archives were very difficult to use, particularly with regard to the period after 1947. However, I was surprised how much, relatively speaking, I did find in the National Archives and in the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library in New Delhi. It took some time and effort to gain access to finding aids and to receive files, but it was not as difficult as I had imagined. Archival work in India definitely demands patience and a bit of persistence, but that is the case with many archives, and it should not keep anyone from trying to find material. And the situation is improving, as many colleagues are telling me. Also, although I found much more material in terms of quantity in the archives in the United States and Germany, the documents I found in India seemed in many ways more valuable because they provided a different perspective, one that often was not in line with my assumptions or what I had read elsewhere. If I could do it again, I would also try to go to regional archives and to spend more time in India to access the printed documents that are available in many libraries but harder to get in Europe.

Given the requirements of the job market and the budget cuts in humanities, what would you recommend to young researchers interested in area studies and global history with respect to the tension between visiting “time-consuming” archives (no photographs allowed, no index online etc.) and finishing a PhD within the given period of funding? Do you have strategies relating to how to succeed on a job market that grows more precarious every day? How important is the choice of a “sexy topic” for a career?
CU: It is obviously difficult to conduct extensive and systematic research in far-away places with sometimes complicated archival structures and to finish the PhD dissertation in three or four years. More generally, the idea that one person is able to cover one “global” topic completely on her or his own seems questionable, not least because of the language requirements involved. So I think the question boils down to finding a feasible approach to one’s topic, and to be careful not to overburden either the researcher or the dissertation. It can be better to carefully select one or a few case studies, or compare two regions, for example, than to try to write “the history of” in its entirety. I do not mean to imply that topics should be narrow and researchers should become overly specialized. Rather, I think that there is merit in going into depth and analyzing a selection of sources carefully instead of amassing mountains of material without having the time to actually work with them. I think this kind of rigorous analysis and contextualization is more important than a “sexy” topic – apart from the question of who gets to decide what a “sexy” topic is, and why.

*Stephanie Lämmert is a PhD candidate at the Department of History and Civilization at the European University Institute in Florence, focusing on Eastern African late colonial history. Her PhD research is concerned with litigation patterns and social change in designated native courts in the Usambara Mountains in Tanganyika under British colonial rule, 1920-61
Florian Wagner received his PhD in history from the European University Institute in Florence. Currently he is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the University of Hamburg. His main area of interest is the international cooperation among colonial experts in fields as varied as customary law, Islamic law, colonial agronomy, tropical medicine and the training of colonial administrators. His new project focuses on the influence of think tanks and business lobby groups in Africa after decolonization.

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