A new chapter in Africa-related research: Interview with the two chairpersons of the new Cluster of Excellence for African Studies at the University of Bayreuth
Prof. Dr. Rüdiger Seesemann (R.S.) is Chair of Islamic Studies, Prof. Dr. Ute Fendler (U.F.) holds the Chair of Romance and Comparative Literature. The questions were asked by Christian Wißler, who is responsible for Research Communications at the University of Bayreuth.
First of all, congratulations on the approval of the "Africa Multiple" Cluster of Excellence. The cluster's declared aim is the reconfiguration of African studies. What exactly is meant by that, and why do you consider such a reconfiguration, or perhaps even “new foundation” necessary in African studies?
R.S.: Thank you very much! This is of course a fantastic outcome for the University of Bayreuth. As the proposers, we are particularly pleased that we can now begin implementing our agenda for African studies. The reconfiguration is aimed at several levels: On the one hand, we would like to further expand the credo of African studies in Bayreuth, "Research on Africa only with Africa". We are doing this by establishing four African Cluster Centres in Africa and thereby developing new forms of cooperation with African partner institutions. These centres are intended to give African colleagues more freedom for their own research and give them the opportunity to play a major role in shaping the cluster agenda. On the other hand, we want to place Bayreuth's research on Africa on a broader disciplinary basis – above all, by involving law, economics, and engineering more closely. By working together on concrete research projects, we want to achieve transdisciplinary synergies. We are addressing new perspectives with and for the African continent, but also with regard to its diasporas, i.e. people with African roots living in other parts of the world.
U.F.: The core of the cluster is the so-called "Knowledge Lab". This is where all participants meet regularly to promote joint work on theories and methods and to reflect on the premises of our knowledge production. One of the innovative elements of the cluster is the creation of a digital research environment that will support the desired synergies both between the disciplines themselves and between Bayreuth and the cluster centres in Africa. The conceptual framework for these measures is our approach that Africa is to be understood in terms of multiplicity: Africa is neither uniform nor isolated, but rather is, and has always been, constituted through its ever-changing relations and global entanglements. It would be going too far to call this a new foundation for African studies. Our goal is to realign this field of research conceptually and structurally in order to provide new answers to the scholarly and political challenges of Africa-related research.
How can the research approaches – which are to be developed and implemented in the cluster under the key terms "multiplicity", "relationality", and "reflexivity" – stimulate problem-oriented and application-oriented research on Africa, for example when it comes to topics relating to economics, governance, media, demography, or climate change in Africa?
U.F.: First and foremost, the theoretical concepts of the cluster serve to develop new and transdisciplinary research approaches in close cooperation with our African partner institutions. When we speak of "multiplicity", we do not simply refer to Africa's diversity. With this concept we seek to capture the simultaneity of heterogeneous and mutually influential ways of life and world-making that we find in Africa and its diasporas. The concept of "relationality", on the other hand, emphasizes the complex processes of relating and the understanding of “Africa” as the constantly updated product of relations. This approach opens up new perspectives on African ways of life that go beyond the usual dichotomies such as "north-south", "global-local", or "modern-traditional". The focus will also be extended to include Africa's relationships with Europe, Asia, and the Americas. "Reflexivity" - the third key concept of our cluster - refers on the one hand to the fact that relational processes always have a reflexive character, i.e. they influence and shape relationships through constant back- and cross-references. On the other hand, it is about the need to reflect on the research process itself: as researchers who study Africa, we must constantly question the premises and theoretical models that guide our research. This applies particularly to cooperation with colleagues in Africa and other regions of the world.
Against this background, the three core terms "multiplicity", "relationality", and "reflexivity" enable a more precise and deeper understanding of African and African-diasporic life-worlds. You can therefore also expect new insights into the subject areas that you mentioned in your question. What we envision is less a matter of directly application-oriented research, but primarily of basic research that elaborates on the interdependencies of cultural, linguistic, social, religious, political, economic, and ecological processes. This is precisely how these processes can be better analysed and rendered understandable. In individual cases, this can indeed lead to concrete solutions for practical problems.
Let us return to the aspect of reflexivity. The fundamental reflections on science and epistemology also concern culturally influenced prerequisites that the "researching stakeholders" bring with them and incorporate into their academic work. Do you see this close connection between scientific practice and methodically conscious reflection on science as a model for future social science and humanities research – a paradigm that could extend far beyond the field of African studies?
R.S.: We developed our concept of reflexivity primarily on the basis of our experience in research on Africa. In the cultural and social sciences, self-reflexive approaches have been discussed and practiced for several decades, so the debate is not new. Nevertheless, the question of reflexivity in the context of African research arises with particular urgency. For this research is embedded in power structures of colonial origin. It is therefore important not only to reflect our position as academic knowledge producers in the research process, but also to consider unequal power relations. When we conceived our cluster proposal and discussed it with external colleagues, the question often arose whether our conceptual approach is only fruitful with regards to Africa-related research, or whether it has a wider relevance. Although our thinking, as previously mentioned, was initially based on Africa, something important has emerged in these discussions: the combination of our key concepts, i.e. the "triad" of multiple-relational-reflexive, has the potential to stimulate social science and humanities research as a whole. This also applies to our work formats, which are designed to open up new dimensions of cooperation between disciplines by way of innovative digital solutions.
The prominent role that digitization will play in the cluster is certainly new and exceptional. It is not only about the development of a virtual research environment, but also about the future use of digitization for scientific practice. To what extent is the "Africa Multiple" cluster a pilot project in this respect?
R.S.: Digitization is currently on everyone's lips. Nevertheless, it is understood to mean very different things. For the field of interdisciplinary Africa-related research, it means systematically shaping the transition from analogue to digital work. In some disciplines, much or most of the work is already done with digital data, in others less so. Added to this is the broad range of data that is generated: the data collected in climate research is quite different from the data collected in economics, for example, which in turn differs from the data formats used in linguistics and literature. Our goal is to store all data collected within the framework of the cluster in a "knowledge cloud" and to make it accessible for shared use through systematic tagging, naturally while ensuring careful protection of sensitive data. This creates connections between data and research fields that would be barely or not at all visible on an analogue basis. Thus the various disciplines can mutually enrich each other to a much greater extent than would be possible on an analogue basis. Questions of knowledge production, categorization of knowledge, and local knowledge also play a role here.
U.F.: In order to cope with the enormous technical and personnel requirements for these digital work formats, the cluster's budget and the university's budget will provide the necessary funds. We also want to use the funds to ensure virtual communication between the scholars involved in the cluster in Bayreuth, Africa, and other locations. The Institute for Applied Computer Science, the IT Service Centre, and the University Library are involved in setting up the necessary infrastructure. We are very grateful to these institutions and to the Vice President for Information Technology, Professor Torsten Eymann, for helping to develop and support this pilot project.
At the beginning you mentioned the credo "Research on Africa only with Africa". This was also the motto of the BIGSAS Graduate School, which is now being integrated into the Cluster of Excellence in African Studies. How do you ensure that this motto is implemented in digital work, even when there are indications of unequal technical conditions? What concrete measures will the cluster take to further develop this principle with innovative ideas?
R.S.: The observant traveller in Africa will notice that digital media are already being used in all population groups there. In large parts of East Africa, digital payment methods are much more widespread than they are here. In this respect, it is a false assumption that Africa is decoupled from digitization. The IT equipment at African universities may not be up-to-date in all areas, but we see good conditions for integrating our African partner institutions into the cluster's digital research environment. Some are also leading the way in new technologies. Here we are counting on future cooperation also with partner institutions in America or Asia. On this basis, virtual communication and the shared use of our repositories are guaranteed. With the establishment of the "African Cluster Centres", we want to create new conditions both for researchers in Africa and for joint - and global - research. By joining forces and conducting the reflection process on our research across disciplinary and continental boundaries - be it in collaborative projects, in workshops and conferences, in the training of early-career scholars, or in virtual communication - we expect important impetus for the conceptual as well as structural realignment of African studies.
You have already named some of the special tasks of the "African Cluster Centres". Which issues will initially be the focus of research there? Are the "ACCs" open to all disciplinary or interdisciplinary questions on Africa, or are there topic "filters" that give priority to certain research questions?
U.F.: We are currently still in the phase of selecting the "African Cluster Centres". We are particularly interested in institutions that contribute to building bridges between disciplines and overcoming language barriers in Africa. With regard to the disciplinary composition of the "African Cluster Centres", we do not have any fixed specifications. What is decisive for us is the potential for inter- and transdisciplinary synergies that we want to generate with the help of our theoretical framework. We have selected six themes for the cluster application, which will be dealt with in so-called "Research Sections" by scholars drawn from 15 academic disciplines. The six themes are: Moralities, Knowledges, Arts & Aesthetics, Mobilities, Affiliations, and Learning. However, research in the African Cluster Centres does not have to be limited to these areas. This new format of research cooperation is precisely aimed at creating the necessary freedom for African colleagues to develop new impulses for in situ African research and thus to develop new topics and methods. What we in Bayreuth consider to be thematically and theoretically relevant may not coincide with the priorities of the partner institutions in Africa. This is why we are working together to ensure that their potential can fully unfold in our new research network and thus help determine the direction of African studies.
Prof. Dr. Rüdiger Seesemann and Prof. Dr. Ute Fendler, the chairpersons of the cluster, with University President Prof. Dr. Stefan Leible (f.l.t.r.). - © Jürgen Rennecke
In recent decades, Bayreuth’s African studies scholars have built up a close network of international partnerships in research and teaching - not least BIGSAS with its partner universities. How will this international character be used and further developed in the new cluster?
R.S.: Indeed, internationalization is one of the focal points of the Bayreuth African Studies focus area. The University of Bayreuth currently maintains a Memorandum of Understanding with 30 African universities. The close cooperation with the six partner universities of BIGSAS is to be continued under the umbrella of the cluster, especially in the area of recruiting and training doctoral students. The African Cluster Centres will form the cornerstone of the cluster's internationalization strategy. In addition, the cluster will maintain a number of strategic partnerships, some of which already play an important role in the University of Bayreuth's internationalization strategy. These include the 'Program of African Studies' at Indiana University in Bloomington/USA, the Centre Les Afriques dans le Monde in Bordeaux, the Centro de Estudos Afro-Orientais at the Universidade Federal da Bahia in Brazil, the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa based in Dakar, and the Point Sud Research Centre in Bamako and Frankfurt. The aim is to establish a global research network with regular scholarly exchange and joint conferences and publications. We already initiated this process in December 2017, when the leaders of 20 centres of African studies from all five continents came to Bayreuth for the conference "African Studies - Multiple and Relational".
A special feature of Bayreuth is the Iwalewahaus with its outstanding collection of African contemporary art and its long-standing contact to African artists. Will the Cluster of Excellence strive to build new bridges between research and art, and will it possibly also use art as a medium for new insights into Africa?
U.F.: The Iwalewahaus is also of central importance for the cluster as a place for the presentation, documentation, research, and production of African and African-diasporic art. The Iwalewahaus has already done pioneering work in linking research and art in the past, most recently in cooperation with the Bayreuth Academy of Advanced African Studies, which opened its doors in 2012 with funding from the Federal Ministry of Education and Research. Like the BIGSAS Graduate School, the Academy will be integrated into the cluster and will accommodate our local, national, and international fellows. The Academy's fellowship programme is explicitly designed to invite artists to Bayreuth for extended residencies.
Successful work formats under the direction or participation of the Iwalewahaus will be further developed in the cluster. These include the transdisciplinary exhibition formats and the development of research-based access to the archive, as well as the "Conversations" series at the Bayreuth Academy, which brings research, art, and the interested public together for discussions and artistic presentations. The "Knowledge Lab", the intellectual core of our cluster, offers artists the opportunity to engage in research and, like others who are not active scholars, to contribute to our transdisciplinary debates and the further development of methods. Within the framework of the "Research Section" on Art and Aesthetics, artists will collaborate with scholars in a laboratory for transmedial research and establish a "Digital Art Space". Synergies between research and art thus remain a trademark of Bayreuth African studies and will be promoted even more strongly in the future.
In recent years, science policy and universities have become increasingly convinced that higher education institutions do not serve research and teaching alone, but also have - or at least should have - a "third mission". This involves a targeted, proactive commitment in various fields of business, society, and culture. How would you describe the "third mission" of the Cluster of Excellence?
U.F.: In this area, too, we can follow up on extensive preparatory work that was carried out under the umbrella of our Institute of African Studies. All Bayreuth institutions for Africa-related research have provided important impetus for public engagement and outreach. Above all, BIGSAS has played a pioneering role here, for example by way of the BIGSAS literature festival, the BIGSAS journalist prize, the use of social media, or with the programmes BIGSAS@School and BIGSAS in Town. The annual Cinema Africa Festival in Bayreuth should also be mentioned in this connection. In the cluster, these activities will be continued and expanded under the heading of "Public Engagement". We are planning to employ a professional academic journalist in order to further strengthen the transfer of ideas and knowledge to non-academic circles. In addition to traditional print media, social media and online formats such as blogs and podcasts will also be used in conjunction with the cluster's digital research environment. An ongoing programme of the Bayreuth Academy, which provides learning and teaching materials in the form of online resources for schools, is to be transferred to the cluster, as are the BIGSAS programmes. Exhibitions, cultural events, and interactive online formats will further promote exchange with the interested public. The cluster has special offers for groups and institutions interested in specific Africa expertise. In Bayreuth, this applies in particular to the Centre for Teacher Education and the university’s Campus-Akademie.
R.S.: At the state level, Africa-related knowledge transfer is already taking place via the Bavarian Research Institute for African Studies, known as BRIAS. This is a network in which the University of Bayreuth has joined forces with three other Bavarian universities. As the experience of the Institute for African Studies has shown to date, there will also be demand for the cluster's bundled Africa expertise in policy consultation, development cooperation, and commercial enterprises. In contrast to certain other collaborative research units with a cultural studies or humanities background that have difficulty in transferring knowledge, we are very well positioned for the "Third Mission".
It is a huge success for the University of Bayreuth to receive this Cluster of Excellence. Today’s news has spread great joy across the campus. So how about a personal question: What do you look forward to most when you think about the imminent launch of the new cluster?
R.S.: First of all, we are looking forward to properly celebrating the award. We will then take the necessary steps to get the cluster up and running by the start date of 1 January 2019. We are particularly pleased to have the opportunity to soon be able to appoint new academic staff members in Bayreuth who will enrich our research landscape - for example, a new Chair of Philosophy of Science with a focus on Africa, a junior professorship in the field of Digital Humanities, and four junior research groups, including one with a focus on intersectionality. And in general, we are very pleased that we can open a new chapter in Africa-related research. We owe this to our outstanding team and the constant support of the University Governing Board and the Bavarian State Ministry for Science and the Arts. We now have the unique opportunity not only to reconfigure African Studies, but also to take part in building the “university of the future.”