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Institute of Asian and Oriental Studies URPP Asia and Europe (2006–2017)

Research Field 2: Entangled Histories

Processes of cultural exchange and the constructions of cultural boundaries between Asia and Europe are shaped by agents and embedded in particular temporal and spatial contexts. The notion of “culture” functions as a dynamic category which comprises a multi-facetted spectrum of meanings and modes of expression that contributes to the creation of social space within in distinct historical and geographic parameters. Neither social formations nor cultural self-representations are enclosed, self-sufficient entities, but tie into each other in multiple ways. The notion of “entanglement” implies to critically reflect notions of national, cultural, territorial and epochal boundaries. This allows to analyze the creation as well as dissolution of cultural boundaries as being intrinsically connected to processes of entanglement and disentanglement between the interacting groups and individuals. As a consequence, the role of institutions, places, media-representations and knowledge-transfers in such processes is a main focus of our investigations.
Our research field highlights dynamics of exchange and constructions of cultural difference by employing approaches from the field of cultural studies as well as from social sciences. This may create methodical synergies. Cultural flows between Asia and Europe are studied primarily with regard to historical, institutional and geographical interactions, media-representations (literature, film etc.) as well as history of knowledge.

2.1. Networks and Institutions

Networks and institutions are basic preconditions for intercultural communication, shaping the way in which distinctive groups interact across cultural or language borders, both in colonial and postcolonial contexts. This research group investigates translocal networks and institutions such as Eurasian trade networks, Christian missions in Asia, international diplomacy, colonial administrations, or warfare.
Networks are flexible and at times unstable forms of social organization. Bound to individuals or groups, they may vary in geographical range, depth and intensity. Under specific circumstances networks can become institutionalized, either as customs and behaviour patterns important to a society, or as formal organizations of government and public service.
The research group investigates the emergence of networks and institutions in Eurasian history, the individual actors and groups within these networks, as well as the norms and rules informing intellectual and technological exchange between Asia and Europe.

2.2. Places and Transitions

Space, scale and social practice are inherent concepts of the research projects of this group. Space – whether it is defined as a closed absolute/euclidian physical section of the earth’s surface or as a constantly produced throwntogetherness of different trajectories – is essential to all human activities. Spaces are appropriated, overcome, and – most important – attributed with meaning. Although scales become increasingly entangled, through processes of globalisation they remain important ordering principles in everyday life as well as in research. Social practices shape spaces, places, and localities, which conversely are reference points for other practices. In other words everyday actions of people make geography. These concepts are at the base of the following research topics.

Landscapes, nature, the environment can be regarded as resources that have a certain value. The appropriation of natural resources or landscapes is a social practice that can happen in physical but also in mental form (i.e. by the attribution of positive or negative meanings). Since resources can be appropriated or accessed, they can also be dis-appropriated (i.e. by exclusion or lack of entitlement) or alienated (i.e. by receiving a negative meaning). Spatial appropriations are closely related to drawing borders. Physical manifestations of (socially constructed) borders are only one aspect of distinguishing between “us” and “them”. Furthermore, social bordering and de-bordering structures processes of belonging and of othering. By spatial (i.e. migration, tourism) and social mobility some borders are overcome others are redrawn or restructured. A result of migration for instance is the emergence of multilocality. People have to take into consideration multiple places for their daily life and practices, they develop a feeling of belonging to different places and physical mobility is closely related to upward and downward social mobility and social (in)equality.

Processes of globalisation – especially increasing speed and frequency of transportation and communication – are bringing together/bridging different scales. The entanglement of the global and the local leads to new forms of social and spatial structurations (i.e. glocalisation).

2.3. Narratives and Media

The research group analyses processes of cultural exchange as represented in literature, film, art, theatre and the mass media. The focus is on cultural concepts and theoretical discourses informing cross-cultural interactions in Asia and Europe, and on the ways in which notions of social order and ethical-religious orientations are tied into constructions of collective and individual identity. How are these interactions expressed and translated in different media and in particular social environments, e.g. in migration contexts? How are self-preceptions and self-representations transformed and recreated in these processes? The spectrum of transformations extends from acculturation, hybridization and syncretism to (self)-exoticization and stereotypizations.

Our investigations entail a reassessment of the idea that cultural exchange is generally based on hegemonic relationships and unidirectional influences by focussing on the mutual interdependency of „cultural flows“. This allows studying both the mutual adaptation of modes of representation and figures of thought as well as the resistance against such interpenetration. In particular, the research group studies the agents, who initiate and/or are subjected to such „flows“, with an particular emphasis on the role of crossing as well as creating borders and boundaries in shaping social identities and individual biographies. It is asked how the linguistic and metaphoric pattern of narratives, the iconic programs of visual representations as well as the enactments of ritual and dramatic performances are shaped by such processes. The circulation of theoretical positions, as manifested in aesthetic theory and translation study, is yet another field of cultural entanglement included in these investigations.

2.4. History of Knowledge and Cultures of Knowledge

While European History of Science devotes itself largely to the modern sciences, some of its representatives have now chosen to introduce the term “history of knowledge” and thus to broaden their field onto parallel, non-European cultures of knowledge.

The research group offers a point of departure for the study of the entanglement of these cultures of knowledge. One of the intended aims is not least the rethinking of conventional comparative approaches that still very much take historical developments in Europe as the point of departure, only trying to, for instance, find confirmation of them in Asia. The perception of histories of knowledge intensely entangled in parallel, maybe in synchronic and diachronic ways will be brought forward and rethought with regard to new comparative approaches.
Finally, questions concerning a material entanglement of Asia with Europe (and vice versa), owing to colonial and postcolonial processes, are time and again core topics in the study of material cultures. This is why, in this research group, such stagings of materials will also receive attention.

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