ZiF Workshop

Entangled Comparisons. Grounding Research on Asia – Expanding Research Methodologies

Date: 5 - 6 September 2019
Convenors: Joanna Pfaff-Czarnecka (Bielefeld, GER), Christiane Brosius (Heidelberg, GER)

This Working Group carried out in the framework of the DFG-funded 'Shaping Asia Networking Initiative' was geared at sharpening and developing—mainly qualitative—research methodologies for conducting research on Asian cultures and societies. The aim was to further engender sustained research and activate new collaborations among scholars from the Humanities and qualitative Social Sciences based at German universities in exchange with their colleagues working at partner institutions in different parts of Asia. The approach was to explore the comparative dimensions and to grasp connectivities that shape dynamics across Asia and Asia's position in the globalized world. The scholars involved in this Working Group engaged in designing and testing research strategies and fields that allow for a synergetic approach towards various ways in and through which different regions of Asia can be brought in relation to one another.

The workshop addressed four major methodological challenges that have characterized research on Asia, so far:

  1. Particularism : Most of empirically grounded (by thorough preoccupations with cultures, languages and religions) research on Asia is compartmentalized by localized, national and/ or regional perspectives, and these divisions continue to be influenced by research politics and academic funding;
  2. Methodical hesitancy : Over the last decades, scholars started uncovering significant interconnections within the Asian region and beyond and proposing novel research avenues, but there is a lack of systematic reflection on methodologies and epistemologies, especially in the field of tracing connectivities;
  3. Comparative bias : Whereas quantitative inquiries deploy comparative methods (while lacking fine-grained insights into cultural specificities), qualitative research is generally challenged when involving in comparisons. Besides, given the compartmentalized nature of research within the so-called 'small disciplines (kleine Fächer), a number of scholars generally lacks comparative traditions;
  4. Epistemic disjunction : Qualitative, quantitative and mixed methods have produced distinctive and often mutually exclusive data, statistics or narratives. What has so far been neglected is that comparative research opens up pathways of reflexive juxtapositions instead of hard contrasts, and enables collaborative strategies of integrative assemblages, montages and bricolages of distinct data dimensions.
Throughout the workshop novel research avenues were explored. In the field of connectivities the topic of 'infrastructures' emerged as an especially promising thematic field as large-scale infrastructure projects show the potential of connecting and integrating hitherto separate regions, but also because of their competitive nature they often bear a dis-integrating and disconnecting potential. Three identified modes of implementing the infrastructure projects were adaptation, orchestration and cooperation — deriving from the conditions they are exposed to. Another approach discussed were the so-called 'resonant methodologies' comprising relational phenomenological concepts especially geared at sensory and embodied research and / or employing indigenous and decolonizing methodologies. The third relational approach that received much attention was the so-called 'follow-the-discourse'-strategy — that addressed the challenges while tracking the discourse tips deployed in developmental measures across the globe with the help of scientometrical analysis. Papers also reflected on dominant discourses and the dynamics between local and international trends in Asia as well as the complex and shifting interrelations between Asian centers and the periphery.

Among questions surrounding comparisons was: What does the work of comparing entail? Discussions centred on constructing new categories that destabilize current divisions and dichotomies as well as on the work of translating experiences of the same processes and even between places, regions and countries. Generally, comparative approaches were seen as frameworks for critically reflecting on or accounting for the diversity of human experiences in different places. An important question discussed was: Is comparison inherently hierarchical and if so, what to do about it? This brought up a discussion on the role of scholars as intermediaries in knowledge production and circulation.

The workshop helped the team to see the potential benefits of 'entangled comparisons' as an analytical perspective to become a fruitful new research avenue into de-colonizing knowledge production on Asia that might also help the Shaping Asia network, to systematically and critically study both the constellations of connectivity and rupture, and their entangled relationship. Entangled comparisons also allow us to critically reflect, in a systematical way, on how the methods and epistemologies around established comparative processes have shaped region-wise and discipline-based compartmentalizations and methodological particularisms in academic knowledge production on Asia and beyond. The contributions to this workshop have made clear that the Shaping Asia network initiative can develop an innovative methodological toolset that can do more than just de-construct. Entangled comparisons can become, if further developed, an important approach in transregional and transdisciplinary research in Asian, in Area Studies, and beyond.

Joanna Pfaff-Czarnecka, Christiane Brosius

Conference Programme

Noorman Abdullah (Singapur, SIN), Christoph Brumann (Halle (Saale), GER), Claudia Derichs (Berlin, GER), Antje Flüchter (Bielefeld, GER), Eva Gerharz (Fulda, GER), Elaine Lynn-Ee Ho (Singapur, SIN), Ėva Rozália Hölzle (Bielefeld, GER), Anna-Katharina Hornidge (Bremen, GER), Riho Isaka (Tokio, JPN), Chunrong Liu (Kopenhagen, DEN), Kelvin Low (Singapur, SIN), Marius Meinhof (Dresden, GER), Talha Minhas (Bielefeld, GER), Barbara Mittler (Heidelberg, GER), Minh T. N. Nguyen (Bielefeld, GER), Dhruv Raina (New Delhi, IND), Anja Senz (Heidelberg, GER), Vineeta Sinha (Singapur, SIN), Manja Stephan-Emmrich (Berlin, GER), Andreas Vasilache (Bielefeld, GER)

Please direct questions concerning the organisation of the workshop to Trixi Valentin at the Conference Office. Questions regarding scientific content and contributions should be directed to the organizers.

Tel: +49 521 106-2769
Fax: +49 521 106-152769
E-Mail: trixi.valentin@uni-bielefeld.de