“Change in the making”
As envisaged in its concept, the Africa Multiple Cluster of Excellence has established a Gender and Diversity Office (GDO). In this interview, Christine Vogt-William, who has been successfully filling the important role of Director of the GDO office, talks about the Cluster’s goals and how her work commits to achieving these.
You joined the Cluster of Excellence in April 2019 – what made you want to be a part of this research organisation?
One appealing aspect is that the Cluster actually values multiple perspectives, in research projects, scholarly interests and politics of African Studies. I find this quite a novel approach to African Studies, which indeed requires the kind of reconfiguration that the Cluster pursues. This is extremely important for me as an educator and researcher of colour, active in fields of diaspora and postcolonial studies, given the current political context. The GDO position itself is a wonderfully hybrid pragmatic interface of research and administrative responsibilities that suits my scholarly and political interests.
When I say “politics”, I reference the palette of political and theorising activities based, not only on the experiences of sociopolitical injustice shared by marginalised groups, but also the kinds of political activity and policy-making undertaken by hegemonic positions. One such example in African Studies concerns Global North and Global South epistemological positions in knowledge production, e.g. in citation practices. Hence, I detect an immensely promising investment in bringing together the respective political positionalities along with research agendas, as laid out in the Cluster proposal. Advocating a reconfiguration of African Studies entails interrogating the ways in which the field has been shaped by Euro-American and African knowledge perspectives, politics and productions.
So would you say this was an agenda close to your heart?
Indeed, as an active educator and researcher of colour, I firmly believe this particular Cluster provides a fabulously mobile concept, where you see change in the making. What I found particularly interesting is how vocal the Cluster is in its proposal to achieve its goal in the process of developing new innovative interdisciplinary strategies in order to work with African scholars from the continent and diasporic contexts. We address the idea of equal participation and academic freedom against this canvas – and this is something that always needs to be critically interrogated in the course of achieving our goal of reconfiguring African Studies.
What are the biggest challenges in trying to achieve the Cluster’s goals?
The Cluster’s agenda requires reflexive work while we build strong relations with our colleagues on the African continent and diverse diasporic African contexts. We need to reflect on our approaches to the field from our different disciplinary trajectories.
“Reconfiguration”, as I see it, means moving towards transformation. The Cluster’s approach is highly proactive and aims to scrutinise our own research practices. Subsequently, we do not necessarily subscribe to some kind of singular linear progress narrative that merely allows for producing more textual and cultural output, but rather, we actually want to reflect on how we do the research that produces knowledge: Are these forms of research empowering, and if so, who are they empowering?
How can these multiple perspectives be considered effectively?
The central principles of the Cluster are reflexivity, relationality and multiplicity. We need to reflect on our own positionalities: how do I want to engage with multiplicity on a conceptual and a practical level? How did I come to African Studies – e.g. as a Black European woman, a white European man, as a Black European man, an African woman, an African man, an Asian woman, an Asian man, as a white European woman etc.? We are situated beings, with our knowledges, our histories, our imaginaries, our politics. And yet, we are dynamic creatures. Situated knowledges do not anchor and fix us in just one general fossilized idea of what African Studies ought to be. The idea of reconfiguring African Studies shows that we can actually be quite mobile in the ways we produce knowledge, in the ways that we generate relationalities. The question is: when we do our research – are we prepared to encounter and dialogue with different perspectives that are not our own? Are we then ready to reflect on our own modes of scholarship?
Such reflexive work on our positions involves considering how hierarchies are structured and our situatedness within these. The fact is: The university – where we work – is a hierarchal space. Those engaged in knowledge production processes are located in relationalites of power. Contingent on this, in addressing relationalities, it is not just a matter of how we relate to our cultural texts or our theoretical perspectives. It is also how we relate to the people we do the research with. How do I relate to my research project and to my informants? How do I relate to my colleagues, both on-site and internationally? Where am I in all this and what is my contribution to, my impact on African Studies as a field?
In your function as Director of the Gender and Diversity office, is it your main task to help guide the Cluster through this process?
My job in the Cluster is not much different from everyone else’s: to foster these central principals of multiplicity, relationality and reflexivity in all our Cluster activities. We have to engage with them as tangible practices and not mere ideals – while interrogating them as they apply to our work.
Hence I basically consider sites where such practices and processes can be pragmatically implemented in this interdisciplinary field, and thus my own work embraces the idea that “the politics of knowledge cannot be disarticulated from a politics of care”, as Martin, Myers and Viseu have observed in their 2015 article on the subject. I look at structural inequalities because we have to understand that the university is a conglomeration of spaces and positions, informed by power relations: people, research interests, political standpoints and prejudices as well as different points of access to funding sources, to labour and knowledge resources. My own research profile in intersectionality and diversity studies, as well as diaspora and postcolonial studies enables me to engage at multiple conceptual levels, cultural contexts and structural interfaces.
As a German scholar of Southeast-Asian diasporic cultural background myself, I do indeed self-designate myself in particular intersectional positions with a set of knowledges in relation to my work here for the Cluster. This also includes engaging with the notion of Germanness – and what this means for this Cluster, which I understand as a transcontinental and transcultural constellation. And there is always room for productive friction – people from different positionalities will articulate different viewpoints. Hence I personally feel, unless conflicts are addressed, we are not going to be able to drive forward the reconfiguration that we so dearly would like to see effected.
The measures I have been able to implement thus far, after my first year here, include among other things an Intersectionality and Critical Diversity Literacy Lecture and Workshop Series, where international and German scholars of Intersectionality and Critical Diversity Studies are invited to provide insights from these fields that might productively facilitate the deployment of these analytical tools in research agendas. In addition, I have managed to develop a childcare financial support policy for early career researchers; and in cooperation with the University’s Diversity Representative and Equality Opportunity Office, I have helped implement a measure for Conflict Counselling in English for international scholars and faculty, starting July 2020.
In order to promote the intersectionality and critical diversity agenda in the Cluster, I am an active co-organizer and participant of intersectionality and critical diversity events, planned with Cluster PIs, which form part of the Knowledge Lab’s schedule. Together with the university library I am working to set up an ICDL bibliographical database, which will be connected to the Digital Research Environment, as a supplementary tool for Cluster research projects.
In an ideal world, what do you want to have achieved once the Cluster has come to the end of its seven-year run?
In an ideal world, our Cluster would, for the most part, have brought African Studies to that transformative space where it works as an empowering critical discipline, designed to effect positive socio-political change in the spheres of education and research. After seven years it would be grand to have inculcated decolonial and intersectional thinking.
- The interview was first published in NAB 2019