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Berlin scholar, explorer and researcher Alexander von Humboldt always kept his eyes on the big picture. "Cosmos", his most important work, was intended to provide a "physical description of the universe" that would encompass the heavens and the Earth, nature and culture, the smallest details and the big overarching relationships. "Alexander von Humboldt embodied the ideas of interdisciplinary work and the global view", says Marianne Braig.
A specialist and a generalist in one person
As a Latin America researcher, she works in the field of area studies. In 2019, which marks 250 years since Humboldt's birth, his way of viewing the world still serves as a role model: even though it is more than 200 years since Humboldt set off on his first journey to America, area studies researchers still take a very similar approach in their work. "When studying Latin America it is important for me to learn about the wider context. I need to research the continent's history, look at the asymmetrical relationships with European countries, and also take literature and cinema into account", explains Braig, a professor at the Institute for Latin American Studies (LAI) at the FU Berlin. The film "City of God" is a good example, she says: set in a poor district of Rio de Janeiro, it offers a particularly useful basis for studying the emergence and the dynamics of violence in this Brazilian metropolis.
Scholars conducting research on Latin America, Africa or Asia are often specialists in one particular region or country with its respective languages, literature, music, history, art, and economics. Such research was unpopular for quite some time; degree courses in these areas were long considered somewhat "exotic". Whenever budget cuts needed to be made at universities, they were frequently the first to be axed.
This changed with the dawn of the 2000s, if not before. As globalisation has advanced, there has been growing demand for the knowledge and approaches of humanities scholars and social science experts in area studies. In 2012, Germany's Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) established a comprehensive programme of funding for the cultural and social sciences, with a special focus on area studies.
Topics, epochs and regions in the global context
In the meantime, over 50 million euros has been channelled into research projects, funding conferences, workshops, and summer schools. Research networks and centres that study individual regions or topics have been established. One of these is the International Research Center "Work and Human Life Cycle in Global History" which belongs to the Humboldt-Universität in Berlin. Since 2009, it has attracted 10 to 15 visiting fellows from around the world each year. And each is helping to write a new global history by contributing their research on a particular region or epoch.
Other research centres in Germany specialise in specific regions. AFRASO at Goethe University Frankfurt explores the relationships between the countries of Africa and Asia in economic, political, social and cultural terms. Economics, society and politics in China, Japan and Korea are the subject of the teaching and research conducted at the IN-EAST Institute of East Asian Studies at the University of Duisburg-Essen. The work pursued at the Centre for Area Studies at Leipzig University and the GIGA German Institute for Global and Area Studies in Hamburg is pretty much borderless. What unites all of these scholars is their understanding that countries and regions are not self-contained geographical or cultural entities. Rather they are fluid structures in which spaces – be they cultural or political – are constantly being claimed and seized back.
Funding young researchers with partner universities abroad
The funding provided by the BMBF aims on the one hand to raise the international profile of the research being done in Germany and on the other to support young researchers. To this end, the TrAndeS programme was established at the Freie Universität (FU) Berlin in 2016. This is a collaboration between the FU's Institute for Latin American Studies and Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú (PUCP) in the Peruvian capital Lima. Master's students, doctoral candidates and postdocs there are studying the relationship between social inequalities and sustainable development in the Andean region. The "Temporalities of Future" graduate school, in which several universities in Berlin and Mexico City are involved, is also focusing on Latin America. Social scientists and linguists, economists and literary scholars have teamed up in an attempt to understand cultures in all their heterogeneity against the backdrop of globalisation – and they are based not in Berlin but in Mexico. The University of Ghana is home to the Maria Sibylla Merian Institute for Advanced Studies in Africa, with a second campus in Senegal. This BMBF-funded research institute is cooperating with universities such as those in Freiburg, Frankfurt and Konstanz.
Buzzwords like global networks, globalisation, inter- and transdisciplinarity can be heard all the time these days. Though Alexander von Humboldt did not use these particular terms, "he was certainly a thought leader", says Marianne Braig. He pioneered an approach to research that always views a phenomenon within the context of its interrelationships – a truly universal approach.
Centre for Area Studies (CAS)
Established in 2009, the Centre for Area Studies at Leipzig University works on a global level. Much the same is true of its researchers, who come from all over the world. The regions studied at the CAS include not only Asia and Africa, but also Australia, the Middle East and Europe. Collaboration between area studies and other disciplines in the social sciences and humanities is particularly fostered at the CAS. The centre works together with the university's Graduate School Global and Area Studies, where more than 50 scholars are currently supervising the research pursued by 120 doctoral students.www.cas.sozphil.uni-leipzig.de