The Alumni Interview: 10 Questions for Minh Nguyen

July 03, 2019
Minh Nguyen: Alumna of the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology and Professor at Bielefeld University

1. When were you at the MPI and what did you work on while you were here?
I was a Research Fellow between 2011 and 2016 and worked on a study on care and migration in northern Vietnam as part of the focus group ‘Social Support and Kinship in China and Vietnam’ in the Department ‘Resilience and Transformation in Eurasia’.

2. Where do you work now?
Since early 2018, I have been a Professor of Social Anthropology at Bielefeld University. It is rumoured that Bielefeld is a city that doesn’t exist – I won’t try to convince you otherwise, you need to find it yourself if the rumour troubles you.

3. How did the time you spent at the MPI shape your current career?
I have a PhD in International Development, and while my methodological approach had long been ethnological, it was here that I gradually assumed the professional identity of an anthropologist. It was here that I had the time and the autonomy to develop my research interests, build my professional network, and read more books than I had ever done before. It was also here that I learned the rules of the game in the academic world and where I gained confidence that I could play the game.

4. When you think back on your time at the MPI, what stands out most strongly?
The feeling of belonging to a scholarly community with common interests, worries, uncertainties; and a certain sense of pride. The possibility to meet really interesting scholars from all over the world. MPI is an amazing node in the international circulation of excellent scholars and scholarship, and not just those based in Euro-America. It shapes important conversations about the state of our world today. Also, the practical support we got as researchers was extraordinary.

5. Do you still have connections with the MPI, and if so, what kind of contact and with whom?
I keep track of major events at the institute and a couple of good friends and colleagues are still there; I invite MPI scholars over to Bielefeld for exchange, and sometimes I come back.

6. What is your current research topic?
I have a general interest in the social organisation of care at different levels, including the care provided by the state. I am currently working on a couple of comparative studies on the welfare of rural people and migrant factory workers in China and Vietnam. One of them is a research project funded by the European Research Council:

7. What are your plans for the future?
I shall continue the work of building up the social anthropology profile at Bielefeld University in a way that makes good use of being part of Germany’s largest sociology faculty. I will conduct further comparative research on labour, welfare, and mobility in global contexts other than China and Vietnam.

8. Why did you become an anthropologist?
My understanding of the world has become more nuanced and enriched by the anthropological works that I have read and the anthropological research that I have done. I love the process of finding out about people’s lives and identifying common patterns and themes that run through different lives in different places. I love the work of moving back and forth between everyday realities and theoretical ideas. And I love the unexpected, the serendipity, and the chance encounters of ethnological fieldwork.

9. What advice would you give to students studying social anthropology today?
Please do not romanticize anthropology. Like any other social science discipline, it has to show rigor and quality of data and analysis, and all that is hard work. Ethnographic fieldwork is hard work, if not gruelling at times. At the beginning it seems one has an eternity, but it will pass by very quickly. One thus needs to take time and be open, but it is important to have a viable and focused plan; discipline is as central to ethnography as openness and flexibility. Writing is hard work that has to be done – do not wait until you find motivation to write, just get down to it. And, please do not let yourself be intimidated by people who throw big words and big names around. Respect for good scholarship is another matter.

10. What text – whether a book or article – have you read recently that particularly impressed you?
Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History by Sidney W. Mintz
The Exemplary Society: Human Improvement, Social Control, and the Dangers of Modernity in China by Børge Bakken

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