Interview with Annika Lems – New Research Group Head at MPI

February 27, 2019

Annika Lems joined the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology at the beginning of January 2019 as the head of an independent research group sponsored by the Max Planck Society. She received an MA in social anthropology from the University of Vienna and left her homeland for Swinburne University in Melbourne, Australia, to complete her doctorate. Her doctoral dissertation, titled “Being-Here: Placemaking in a World of Movement” follows the stories of three Somali refugees while investigating the question of what it means to be thrown into a completely foreign world and attempt to create a new existence for oneself. At present she is preparing for work on a new project in the German-speaking parts of the Alps. We interviewed her about her research plans.

Annika, as the leader of a Max Planck Research Group you had the opportunity to choose which Max Planck Institute you wanted to be the home of your new group. Why did you select the MPI for Social Anthropology?
To start with, my project looking at the construction of belonging and foreignness strongly resonates with the research being done by Marie-Claire Foblets on Migration, Integration and Exclusion and Chris Hann’s longstanding expertise in historical anthropology and village ethnography. And of course the MPI for Social Anthropology is one of the largest and most well-known ethnological institutes in the world. For me as a staunch social anthropologist the institute was a natural choice.

Your project is titled “Alpine Histories of Global Change: Time, Self and the Other in the German-Speaking Alpine Region”. What does this title mean and what will you be studying in your new project?
The project title was inspired in part by Johannes Fabian’s book Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes Its Object. The book is a critical examination of how anthropologists relate to the people they study. He argues that anthropologists tend to write about people who are foreign to them as though they lived in some distant, backwards past and needed to catch up with the rest of the world, while the anthropologists, of course, view themselves as anchored in the modern present.

And this critical perspective will play a role in your project as well?
Exactly. We plan to study the spread of anti-cosmopolitan, exclusionary attitudes and ideas in Europe; this will also include investigating the reasons for the increasing disillusionment with globalization. In addition, we are also interested in looking at why it is the case that people who live in isolated regions are often branded as being “stuck in the past” and traditionalist, as well as how these people see themselves in the context of a world shaped by global change.

What makes the German-speaking Alps particularly suitable for this research topic?
The region is excellently suited for our investigation because in all four communities in Austria, Germany, South Tyrol and Switzerland that we plan to study there is a long history of reactionary and right-wing political movements. This is perfect for observing the many different facets of exclusion and inclusion and delving into the details of individual life stories. Ethnographic research in the mountain villages will bring us closer to answering the question of why people in rural regions often feel excluded and find populist parties appealing. And also how these people and their everyday experiences can create social closeness or, alternately, label some groups and individuals as “other” and thereby exclude them.

In other words, you do not think that people who live in remote mountain areas are automatically xenophobic?
No, of course not. Our starting point is merely the observation that right-wing and anti-liberal political constellations enjoy substantial support in these places – nothing more. Beyond that, we have open questions that we hope to answer in the course of our research. Through our study of everyday life we want to uncover the varied reasons why certain groups are seen as part of one’s own tradition while others are considered to be “foreign”.

And where does the “global change” that you mention in the project title fit into all this?
It plays a fairly large role, actually. To start with, many of the once-isolated Alpine regions have seen an influx of money and publicity as a result of growing tourism and the attractiveness of the region to people from all over the world. At the same time, in recent years precisely these worldwide connections have resulted in companies leaving and setting up shop abroad, where production costs are lower. These once peripheral communities are thus deeply embedded in the global economy and its ups and downs. We will be investigating to what degree there is a connection between these developments and the growing resentment about globalization.

But surely big cities and urban centres would be a much more suitable place to study the causes of this disenchantment regarding globalization?
Actually, no. Inhabitants of rural areas are largely disregarded by researchers. Commentators frequently label these places as backwards, traditionalist, and stuck in the past without first asking the people who live outside of the centres of global and historical transformations what their experiences in fact are. Consequently we have very little in-depth knowledge about the local, everyday versions of history that circulate in these places. Nor do we know whether or in what way these stories and the way they are constructed can help us to better understand how people perceive the accelerated pace of global change in their daily lives.

Your planned empirical research is complex and multi-faceted. Is the research design guided by a particular theoretical tradition and what thinkers have especially inspired you?
My work is heavily shaped by existentialist and phenomenological approaches in social anthropology. One of the guiding principles of this school of thought is the examination of the tensions between personal opportunities for action and external forces that limit or undermine individual options. A major concern of existential anthropologists is achieving a deeper understanding of the multifaceted quality of human existence through directly addressing the lived experiences of individuals and groups. This intense engagement with individual lifeworlds is guided by an interest in moving away from a tendency, common in the social sciences, to focus on creating abstract theories that often have little to do with people’s actual lived experiences.

How does this concretely affect your project?
It means that we are not interested in creating social or cultural categorizations, but rather exploring the experimental and often contradictory ways that humans live and experience their lives. This is why we are primarily focusing on everyday stories – including the stories about the past that people tell in their everyday lives as an expression of their affiliations and their ties to a place. Some of these everyday histories are told collectively; others are deeply anchored in individual biographies. We are interested in studying the interaction between these two levels.

What happens now? What are the next steps in this project?
At the moment we are still engaged in assembling the full research team. But as soon as we have researchers for each of the planned regions, we will start preparing for the fieldwork phase, which will begin in 2020 and last about a year.

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