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AIAS Workshop: Cross-regional Studies Today: Tasks and Challenges

Info about event


Wednesday 16 February 2022,  at 13:30 - 18:00


AIAS Conference room 301, building 1630


13:30 – 13:45: Welcoming coffee and speech

13:45 - 15:15: First session I Discussant Helen Van Noorden

13:45: Stéphane Dufoix
Sociology as a World Social Science: A Cross-Regional Perspective

14:30: Mark Sedgwick
On Studying Sufism Cross-regionally

15:15 – 15:30: Coffee break

15:30 - 17:00: Second session I Discussant Mark Sedgwick

15:30: Stefan Bargheer
Ambassadors of Culture: The Culturalist Legacy of Cold War Era International Exchange Programs

16:15: Uwe Skoda, Thomas Fibiger, Cecil Pallesen and Isha Dubey
Constructing the Ocean (CO-OC) – Indian Ocean Infrastructures and Thick Transregionalism

17:00 – 17:45: Discussion


Sociology as a World Social Science: A Cross-Regional Perspective 
Stéphane Dufoix, Paris-X Nanterre University 

Embracing sociology as a world social science following a cross-regional perspective may encompass two different visions that the communication will try to hold together : an understanding of the diffusion of the sociological idea much more as a local/national appropriation than as a mere radiation from some European countries ; and the assumption that that very objective of cross-regionalizing social sciences (as the UNESCO would try to implement it from the 1960s onwards) also needs to be analyzed through the study of transnational circulations of ideas and scholars. The first one implies a major change in the historiographical habits of understanding most disciplinary histories - including sociology - as being born in some specific Western countries before spreading unchanged to the rest of the world. This narrative happens to be much less adjusted to historical evidence than to work as a canonical perspective functioning as a conceptual, theoretical, methodological and epistemological domination over the Restern part of the World. Any spatial extension of the historical analysis needs to be informed by the specific local (national and regional) appropriations and/or innovations outside the West. The second perspective intends to investigate a rather invisible continent so far. What is sometimes today called South-South relations is not anything new. It results from a longer-term process that started in the late 1960s and gradually gained impetus - still in the shadow of the bigger Western narrative - during the 1970s. More and more intellectuals and scholars coming from different parts of the world were called (by Southern or Western institutions) to start thinking about how to resist Eurocentrism and defend their own epistemic indigeneity.  

Ambassadors of Culture: The Culturalist Legacy of Cold War Era International Exchange Programs 
Stefan Bargheer, AIAS, Aarhus University. 

In this paper, I look at the way intellectual history in the Cold War era was shaped by international exchange programs. I look in particular at the Fulbright program and the role set of the so-called cultural ambassador that it created. In line with the organization’s goal to facilitate peaceful interchange and cooperation between different nations, cultural ambassadors were designated as representatives of their own culture and sought to carry knowledge about foreign cultures back to their home country. International exchange was intended to facilitate mutual recognition between different cultures through inter-cultural communication. The notion of the cultural ambassador tied to this project of cross-cultural exchange thus firmly rooted in the assumption that the cultures represented by these ambassadors are in fact distinct from each other. Studying these cultural ambassadors poses both opportunities and challenges for cross-regional research. On the one hand, the Fulbright program provides an ideal opportunity to study cross-regional connections through the lens of individual biographies and their embeddedness in a larger institutional framework. At the same time, participation in the Fulbright exchange makes only for a short episode in a scholar’s biography and often suffers from distortion by subsequent memory or a lack of historical documents. The paper proposes a comparative analysis of scholars who took part in the exchange program and those who did not in order to trace its effect. I argue that scholars who took part in the Fulbright program had a high propensity to turn into stakeholders who benefited from their insider’s knowledge about a presumably foreign culture. While their work tended to hold the foreign cultural tradition in high esteem, they persistently emphasized the differences between cultures, rather than their similarities. Scholars who did not take part in the program, by contrast, had a higher likelihood not only to produce negative evaluations of the foreign culture, but were also less likely to accentuate differences. 

On Studying Sufism Cross-regionally 
Mark Sedgwick, CAS, Aarhus University 

Sufism can be studied nationally, regionally, or cross-regionally. In-depth studies require a national or at most regional approach, if only because few people nowadays master more than one of the necessary languages. But Sufism has always been a cross-regional phenomenon. I started my work on Sufism in the Arab world, but followed one particular Sufi order all the way to Malaysia (which worked well, even though I do not know Malay) and to Thailand (which was a disaster, as I do not know Thai). I then went up one level, working on Sufis in Italy, then in other parts of the West, and finally in South America (which worked well, because I do speak Spanish). This allowed me to see processes and dynamics that would have been invisible in a purely national or regional study. One of the most interesting of these processes and dynamics was the way in which the distinction between different regions provides to be declining. In the 1920s there was a distinctively Western Sufism that was very different from anything found outside the West. In the 1980s, differences were fewer. Today, geographic location is sometimes irrelevant. 

The main methodological issue that emerges from this case study is the classic one of breadth versus depth, which combines with the issue of language. Regarding breadth versus depth, my conclusion is that both approaches have value, and both approaches have problems. I do not think there is any solution to this; one just has to accept it. Regarding language, my experience has been that linguistic knowledge and access are certainly related, but that other factors are also important. It is not all about language. 

The main theoretical problem is, of course, to what extent regions exist in the first place. Any use of the term “West” raises issues of essentialism, let alone are use of the term “non-Western.” Even the term “Europe” can raise issues. This theoretical problem is actually related to the methodological issue, as the non-essentialist solution is to study a very limited phenomena and in great depth. It is difficult to study anything across-regionally without some degree of essentialism. This is probably a price that needs to be paid. But it is important to remember that differences between regions are not constant over time: this is an important point that can only be revealed by cross-regional studies. 

Constructing the Ocean (CO-OC) – Indian Ocean Infrastructures and Thick Transregionalism 
Uwe Skoda, Thomas Fibiger, Cecil Pallesen and Isha Dubey – CAS, Aarhus University 

Construction around the Indian Ocean is booming. In Mumbai, a fleet of skyscrapers is rising up behind the old mosques of Bhendi Bazaar. In Dar es Salaam, buildings in the central Upanga district reach ever further upwards, while Dubai’s skyline is widening by the day. Many of these ambitious infrastructure projects are being financed and led by Daudi Bohras, a Shia Muslim minority with expansive bonds and histories across the Indian Ocean world. Spearheaded and supervised by their spiritual leader in Mumbai, these initiatives offer a critical lens for understanding how a diasporic religious community imagines and reproduces itself on local, national and transregional scales. How do infrastructure projects engineer, assert and transform transregional connections and imaginaries across the Indian Ocean? 

  Focusing on community-led infrastructure projects, this collaborative research project, funded by Independent Research Fund Denmark (2022-2025), investigates how transregional relations play out in the everyday lives and social imaginaries of Daudi Bohras residing in the port cities of Mumbai, Dar es Salaam and Dubai. Furnished by monsoon winds, connections of all kinds – economic, religious, material, aesthetics, social, political – have crisscrossed the Indian Ocean for millennia. Today the region has re-emerged as an increasingly important focus of geopolitical strategy (Ahram, Köllner and Sil 2018; Kaur 2018; Kaplan 2010). By way of an ethnographically rich analysis of Daudi Bohra infrastructural initiatives, CO-OC aims to advance the study of ‘thick transregionalism’, defined by anthropologist Engseng Ho as a “spatially expansive yet integrative account of a mobile society” (Ho 2017:912). Studying the social life of infrastructures of a heterogenous religious community in three littoral locations, this project will unpack the links within and between Indian Ocean regions. Aiming to rethink conventional tropes and methods within area studies (Levitt and Crul 2018; Stevens et al. 2018; Wimmer and Glick Schiller 2002), the project positions infrastructures as a novel analytical category for studying the Indian Ocean, and will produce one of the first simultaneous multi-sited ethnographies of the region.   


Mark Sedgwick (CAS-AU), Thomas Fibiger (CAS-AU), Uwe Skoda (CAS-AU), Stéphane Dufoix (Paris X Nanterre University), Stefan Bargheer (AIAS), Helen van Noorden (AIAS) and Laure Guirguis (AIAS).


The workshop is open to the public upon registration at laureguirguis@aias.au.dk.


The workshop is organized by AIAS Fellow Laure Guirguis, Aarhus Institute of Advanced Studies – Aarhus University.