A social anthropologist asks: How do countries take care of their citizens?

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Do states inevitably scale back their social welfare systems as neoliberalism and capitalism become more and more entrenched? No, not necessarily. Countries such as China and Vietnam have expanded their welfare programmes significantly in recent years despite moving increasingly towards a market economy. Among other things, they have introduced public health insurance and basic pensions. So how does this apparently contradictory development come about? What prompts states that are constitutionally socialist to take huge steps to privatise their economies on the one hand while expanding their social welfare systems on the other? This is what Minh Nguyen is keen to find out.

Competitive funding for outstanding early-career researchers

Social anthropologist Minh Nguyen 640x360
Minh Nguyen giving her inaugural lecture at Bielefeld University

42-year-old Professor Nguyen has just been awarded an ERC Starting Grant that will fund her comparative research project to the tune of 1.5 million euros. Established by the European Commission, the European Research Council (ERC) makes the grant available to finance outstanding research in any discipline. Applications are welcome from early-career researchers from all over the world, who have two to seven years of research experience following their PhD, and have published independently. It is also important for the applicant to be associated with an academic institution in an EU member state.

Research in Bielefeld: interdisciplinary and international

Minh Nguyen's application for her ERC Starting Grant in 2018 coincided with her appointment as a professor in Bielefeld. She believes that her ambitious grant application partly helped her obtain her first chair. What she liked about Bielefeld University was its international orientation, she explains, adding that she saw an opportunity there to expand the university's social anthropology profile. She is currently putting together an interdisciplinary research group; in the next few years she and the group will further advance her research into the social and political transformation processes in East and Southeast Asia. Nguyen appreciates the excellent working conditions in Germany and the wide-ranging contacts with colleagues that she has been able to forge in recent years. "This worldwide network is very valuable to me."

International education

Nguyen herself has already spent a great deal of time abroad. She completed her degree in English studies, with additional courses in sociology, at Vietnam National University. Even then the young graduate knew that she wanted to go abroad. "As a teenager, I had already been determined to get to know the whole world." This became possible for her when Vietnam began to open up politically in the 1980s. She went to Australia to do her master's degree. Nguyen first visited Berlin in 2004, for personal reasons: her husband is German. This was followed by a PhD at the University of East Anglia in Great Britain. After that, she worked as a research fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Halle/Saale. "That was ideal", she explains. That's because having a long-term postdoc position allowed her to develop her own agenda without excessive time constraints.

Field research in Vietnam, teaching in Bielefeld

The leitmotif that links all of her work is unmistakable: "All of the research I have pursued to date has explored the social organisation of care", explains Nguyen. For example, she studied the living conditions of Vietnamese domestic helpers, many of whom are migrant workers from rural regions who provide care labour to middle-class families. "Conversely, I looked at how these people, in their precarious employment situations, organise care in their own homes and families." Nguyen views the care of children, senior citizens and the sick in a wider social context "because the organisation of care shapes the relationships between the young and old and between men and women." And possibly also the relationship between the citizen and the state? This is an aspect she focuses on in her current research project on welfare transformations in Vietnam and China. Now that she is a professor, Nguyen can only pursue field research when she is not teaching. Yet, "there are a lot of advantages to holding a chair." Teaching in particular is something she finds personally enriching: "I meet young students who ask very interesting questions. As a result, I learn new things all the time."

Various options for young researchers

Students and young researchers will find good conditions for studying at German universities. According to the CHE Ranking, the following universities are amongst those that score particularly well in the field of sociology:

Göttingen University

Bielefeld University

University of Mannheim

Freie Universität Berlin

University of Konstanz

Young sociologists and anthropologists can also find a wide range of research opportunities at non-university research institutions in Germany, for example at the:

Berlin Social Science Center, Berlin

GESIS – Leibniz Institute for the Social Sciences, Mannheim and Cologne

Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, Halle/Saale

Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity, Göttingen

Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies, Cologne

Faculty of Sociology at Bielefeld University

The excellent reputation enjoyed by sociology in Bielefeld is thanks in part to its history, as it was Germany's first ever faculty of sociology. Furthermore, the newly-founded university appointed Niklas Luhmann as its first professor; he was to become one of the world's leading theoreticians in the field of sociology. Even 50 years on, in the year 2019, the faculty of sociology remains outstanding. It is one of Europe's largest research and teaching institutions in the social sciences. Some of the research areas in the faculty are the world society, social inequality and transnational processes. Students are taught in interdisciplinary master's degree courses and in a structured PhD programme at the Bielefeld Graduate School in History and Sociology.

www.uni-bielefeld.de > Faculty of Sociology