Dienstag, 21. März 2017

Epilogue: The City as Laboratory

The city of Berlin has experienced a critical moment last year. It has witnessed the "Long Summer of Migration", where tens of thousands of refugees have arrived. It was interesting for us, professors und students alike, to experience the ways in which Berlin reacted to this new situation. We all know that the institutions failed in handeling the challenge properly, but Berlin also witnessed an unexpected openness and willingness to help on the part of the citizens. The amount of self-organized initiatives has been unprecedented and lead to a new word in the German discourse on refugees and migrants, Willkommenskultur, welcome-culture. This refers to the term culture, a way of life, a set of norms and values that structure our acting, thinking and living – and a practice in which such ways are invented, challenged and re-enacted.

For everyone who wants to know more about what was going on in the city culturally, the precedent essays of this E-book provide a point of departure. These works of undergraduate and PhD-students explain some of the ways in which the city has been lived by its citizens at that very moment, how the situation has been handled, issues expressed and problems solved. We do not focus on the big events that have been broadcasted on television under the umbrella term of the so-called refugee crisis, but, moreover, on the little crises that could be witnessed on the street-level of everyday life, mostly in Berlin, but also beyond, in diverse places that the contributors chose for their explorations. Living together side by side is always a challenge, a melodrama of fear, anxiety, hate and love (Raban 1998, 11) and our challenge was to meet these melodramas and their specific political framing in a reflexive way in order to come to an understanding.

Many of the students who have contributed as authors to this book were (and are) personally and politically engaged in civic debates and activism concerning the arrival and presence of refugees. For others, these events and involvements were strongly connected to their ongoing research in which they are studying and analysing issues in the fields of (critical) migration and border studies, these fields being a major concern of all academic contexts – broadly Social Sciences and Cultural Anthropology/European Ethnology - in which the contributors of this book are located. All of us, whether actively involved personally, politically and/or scientifically, were deeply impressed by what we observed in our very neighbourhood.

Hence, in this situation we were confronted anew with questions of how social research is related to political involvement in society, and how we – as researchers – can reflexively position ourselves and our work in politically sensitive fields:  questions that are specifically virulent in (self-)critical debates in European Ethnology. Here, the perspective and the pitfalls of possible forms of “collaboration” are discussed in the context of a longer debate on whether critique and intervention are themselves essential parts of social and, specifically, ethnographic research (Fontanari et al. 2014; Binder et al. 2013).  

All these experiences and reflections oscillating between personal, political and scientific receptions of the refugee movement in Berlin and beyond are together constituting what this book calls “witnessing”. The initiators aimed at providing a possibility to capture these first-hand and first-moment impressions of a situation that would deeply change the social worlds of Berlin, Germany, Europe, and the entangled world. At the same time, we initiators wanted to support the students by helping them individually and in the context of seminars to reflect their witnesses and to express them adequately in their written texts. We did so in a range of academic contexts, e.g. a Bachelor course titled “Migration Matters”, a Master course on “Urban Ethnography”, diverse meetings with PhD students, and with a broader public in the Research Laboratory Migration, as well as several team discussions with the future authors of the E-book during their writing process. In all these contexts, we aimed at providing support for re-thinking ethical, academic, and rhetoric questions and problems the contributors saw themselves confronted with.

In response to these discussions, the individual authors and teams developed diverse ways of addressing and reflecting their subjects. Some contributors do directly thematize their personal entanglements and the forms of commitment and collaboration that they came to experiment with.  As he describes it in his contribution “Mia san ned nur mia” (We are not only we), Michael Westrich has been drawn away from his PhD research field in the South of Spain and back to his hometown in Lower Bavaria, next to the Czech border, by the long summer of migration which had rendered that German “periphery” into a hot spot of border-crossings and media coverage. Back home, Michael discovered that the regional self-image of “Mia san mia” (We are we) which he knows since childhood, is not only the self-limiting, parochial label of exclusion as which it appears on first sight but also a position derived from long-standing experiences of being a marginalized, (cross-)border region. Michael Westrich finds that such experiences open space for moments of cosmopolitan solidarity that, surprisingly, connect his Bavarian home to his Spanish field site where he respectively explores cosmoplitical dimensions in the encounters and social networks between African migrants and local supporters.

Others further challenge the distinction between personal, political, and scientific relationshiphs in their reflections on fieldwork engagement during the long summer of migration. Like Michael Westrich, Kristine Wolf’s ethnographic field experience and her involvement do not stop in the European border zone of Morocco and Spain (her PhD site of exploring local political collaborations in the field of migration) but rather extend towards Germany, and her immediate neighbourhood. “Kris, nous voilà à Eisen`” is the title of her reflection on how her Cameroonian research partners, who became friends as she notes, arrive at “Eisen’” (the “initial reception centre” for asylum seekers at Eisenhüttenstadt, Brandenburg) after having made their way there from the south of Europe. In her personally engaged contact, Kristine learns from her friends what it means to provisionally end up in “Eisen’” and what this experience can tell us about the ongoing struggles with the inner borders of Europe.

Still others have dealt with ethical questions of doing fieldwork – or being simply interested in personal encounters – with refugees under the current conditions of the public obsession with dramatizing the “crisis”. The authors of “Einfach mal gucken, darf man das?” (Lou Klappenbach, Fabian Bovens) have directly addressed that question of whether it is “allowed to just go and watch”. In a very sensitive, reflexive turn to their own discontent their contribution points to hotly debated issues of the fine line between open, honest attention and exploitive reproduction of “Otherness”.

Here, we have come to implicitly and explicitly address this ongoing debate that tends to – according to one position – proclaim to stay away from direct research contact in order to protect the interlocutors from being addressed and used as mere “objects” of research(er’s) interests. However, it seems that this tackles questions of ethical reflection, commitment and responsibility on the side of the researcher that cannot be solved by just staying away from the personal encounter and turn to more distanced modes of research, e.g. discourse analysis. Such strategies do not solve any problem of representation by themselves. Seen from a self-reflexive ethnographic view, we even miss important dimensions of taking into account otherwise neglected agency when staying away from micro-politics and interaction in everyday life. And, moreover, it is not only a decision of the researcher to get involved personally or not, but also a decision that can and should be made by the people whom we approach.
Alejandra Parra in her essay "A research about an odd place" comprehensively summarizes the discussions we had on that topic:

"It was the first time I was being confronted with that kind of ethical considerations in
an academic context and somehow it seemed I was missing a piece of the puzzle (…): it would be insensitive to ask people to talk about their experience; it would be frivolous to show interest in a traumatic experience only in order to do a short research; it would be invasive to hang around where people lived, specially taking into account they already had little privacy; we were not trained to deal with their fragile state and could end up making it worse; we could not just watch."

Alejandra, being raised in Columbia, felt that displaced people were omnipresent, images of "desplacados" were more or less part of everyday life in the country where she came from. She argues convincingly that avoiding acquaintances with people from Syria and other countries means to exotisize refugees, whereas we should consider the encounter as part of our everyday lives in a globalized nomadic world.

Another concern was the question of how to adress and represent our topic of research. Students were experimenting with a variety of ethnographic methods that each reacted to a specific problem or situation, thus allowing different perspectives on topics we thought we were allready familiar with. For example, in "Smartphones and Sonnenblumenkerne. Die Rolle der digitalen Medien in der Freiwilligenarbeit vor dem LaGeSo in Berlin", the authors Elisa Hänel, Stefanie Kofnyt and Charlotte Seiler are reporting on a change of the "Geschmackslandschaft" (urban landscape) around the "Landesamt für Gesundheit und Soziales" (LaGeSo) by doing perception walks, taking fotographs and just hanging around this public arena where refugees lined up in order to become registered. This method allows them to document on the ways in which the local economy and the public reacted to this new situation and how it became tangible in the urban landscape. In "Sensing Tempelhofer Freiheit", Flavia Alice Mameli, Josefine Londorf Sarkez and Anne Van Wetteren found that participant sensation was the most feasible method on researching the standardized but intimate relationship between refugees and volunteers.  They took up a job at the "Kleiderkammer" and handed out the clothes to the refugees to the ones that were in need of them. By registering touch and smell they highlight the sensual peculiarities of Willkommenskultur. It becomes clear that far from sensual pleasure, the control of the sensual realm for the sake of hygiene (by using gloves when handing out the cloth) was a mean to execute and express a hierarchical relationship, a rule of the Notunterkunft that the students ashamedly complied to. In her study on the "Die Notunterkunft in Karlshorst", Meret Eikenroth explored the peripheral location of the Notunterkunft by fotographic documentation. The refugees, she argues, are marginalized not only symbolically but physically by pushing them out of the city, which, again, is something that is experienced and suffered with all the senses. She registered shifts and changes on the border between city, country and industrial suburbia, that shows what it means to be dwelling in a place on the margin. Dženeta Hodžić in "Auf den Spuren eines Aktivisten" researches the traces on the urban landscape that poltical activism and protest in Kreuzberg left behind. Last but not least, in "The Fame of Syrians: (Facebook) Archives as Traps", Persefoni Myrtsou shows how archives become symbols and sites of political struggle. The archive that the historian Omar has collected is a precious treasure in the heart of Damascus that the war threatens to destroy. The barbarism of war can hardly be more accurately represented than in this Walter-Benjamin-like image of the vulnerable archive.
In workshops and seminars, we were discussing the problems and pitfalls that occurred along doing field research. For any researcher, particularly novices, field research is a time of crisis, because the outcome is never predictable. Since the researcher initially is bound to his or her original social world, he or she is not capable of classifying certain events or comments within the group under study and to understand the meaning that it has for the group. In contrast to the final report, which is rich with stories (if it is good), the everyday live does not take the shape of a story. It does not contain a beginning, climax and ending. What the field researcher experiences is not a story, like one reads it in a book, but a series of loose situations that only gradually reveal the larger picture. The field researcher is exposed to the ordinariness of live how it is lived. The answers are hidden rather than manifest. It needs time to trace them down. Most of the time, nothing strikingly relevant happens. The researcher has to detour, accept distractions, in order to understand something in the end (Ehn and Lofland 2016). It is part of the process of learning to appreciate the relevance of field research data. Understanding these actions means to engage into the live of these groups through participant observation.
With the refugees flocking into Berlin, the students witnessed the emergence of new social worlds and encountering "strangers". As the students started out to do their research in this very particular time and explore other social words, we had discussions about the definition of "strange" and "exotic". Talking about the stranger means to draw a distinction between "us" and "them". Through engaging with urban theory and the "city as laboratory" (Park 1967), we realized that the stranger here is not necessarily an ethnic(ized) category. In a most general way, the "world of strangers" (Lofland 1968) means the community of individuals in the big city who are strangers to one another, encountering each other anonymously everyday in the streets, the cafés, the station, the waiting room, the park. This is how we got interested in the social world of the volunteers that for some of us was just as exotic and strange than the social world of the refugees and migrants. Some students experienced for the first time what it means to be engaged in the "Willkommenskultur", physically, socially and symbolically (in contrast to that, for others, who have been personally and politically engaged in activism for a long time, as described above, this world has been familiar, which lead them to other questions). For example, they experienced the social world of the "Notunterkunft" as a field where behaviour is symbolically coded and socially controlled. In preparing the student's research, we talked about the challenge to establish a role as a researcher: Will we be allowed to do research in a highly coded field like the refugee camp, the train station where the refugees arrive or the public space around the LaGeSo? Participant observation means to participate in the lives of a social group, becoming part of this group, socialize into this group. In general, the observer is at first not familiar with the group under study; through participation, he or she learns something about this group. He or she spends much time, sometimes years with this group (like Kristine Wolf), experiencing changes and witnessing conflicts, becoming part of this processes and being drawn into conflicts, thus changing oneself, one's own personality. Field research novices quite often tend to hide their scientific identity because they fear to be rejected as trespasser or voyeur. Will it be possible to reveal our request? The students realized that being open to one's ethnographic intentions is the basis for dialogue: Just as the researcher expects to encounter the entire personality of the research subject, the researcher him/herself should present all aspects of his or her personality, including his or her ethnographic intentions.
This book documents the benefits of "Forschendes lernen" (learning by doing research), an approach that has been successfully practiced since many years at Humboldt-University. For example, each Master-student at the department of European Ethnology participates in a "Studienprojekt" (graduate research project) that spans several semesters. Through workshops, students develop collectively a research question. They run through all phases of a proper research project and gather first-hand-experiences in doing ethnographic research, from finding the subject matter, searching literature, collecting and interpreting data to presenting this material. The final results often take the shape of a collection of essays assembled in a book. In doing so, abstract theories are applied and tested.

We think that the texts of this book, indeed, show how personal and social scientific, ethnographic encounters can lead to collaboratively gained, inspiring and critical insights into the new realities of a German “Willkommenskultur” and its counterpart – the aggravated, increasing politics of exclusion and borders in everyday urban life. Beyond our personal and political engagement in this matter, it is all the more necessary and productive for a critical understanding of our shared divided world to relate to these issues with the resources provided by our scientific research approaches. In this way, we, as students and scholars, can contribute to imagining and practicing new cosmopolitical modes and conditions for urban conviviality.


Binder, Beate, Friedrich von Bose, Katrin Ebell, Sabine Hess & Anika Keinz (Hg.) (2013): Eingreifen, kritisieren, verändern!? Interventionen ethnographisch und gendertheoretisch. Münster

Ehn, Billy, Orvar Löfgren (2016): Doing an Ethnography of 'non-events'. In: Anja Schwanhäußer (ed.): Sensing the City. A Companion to Urban Anthropology. Basel

Fontanari, Elena; Johanna Karpenstein, Nina Violetta Schwarz & Stephen Sulimma (2014): “Kollaboratives Forschen” als Methode im Handlungsfeld Flucht und Migration. In: Labor Migration (Hg.), Vom Rand ins Zentrum. Perspektiven einer kritischen Migrationsforschung. Berlin, 111-129

Lofland, Lyn H. (1968): A World of Strangers. Order and Action in Urban Public Space. New York

Park, Robert E. (1967): The City. Suggestions of the Investigation of Huma Behavior in the Urban Environment. In: Ders., Ernest W. Burgess, Rocerick D. McKenzie (Hg.): The
City. Chicago und London

Raban, Jonathan (1998): Soft City. London

Please quote as follows:
Regina Römhild, Anja Schwanhäußer: Epilogue - The City as Laboratory. In: Gökce Yurdakul, Regina Römhild, Anja Schwanhäußer, Birgit zur Nieden, Aleksandra Lakic, Serhat Karakayali (Hg.): E-Book Project of Humboldt-University Students: Witnessing the Transition: Refugees, Asylum-Seekers and Migrants in Transnational Perspective. Preview (Weblog), https://www.blogger.com/blogger.g?blogID=863130166696833325#editor/target=post;postID=3697950972162993466;onPublishedMenu=allposts;onClosedMenu=allposts;postNum=0;src=link 

Keine Kommentare:

Kommentar veröffentlichen