The Alumni Interview: 10 Questions for Dominik Müller

May 17, 2022

At irregular intervals we publish interviews with alumni of the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology. We find out where they are living and working now, what they are conducting research on, and how their time at the MPI shaped their subsequent careers. In closing they share their advice for young anthropologists and name a book that has impressed them recently.

1. When were you at the MPI and what did you work on while you were here?
I was at the Institute from 2016 to 2019 as head of the Emmy Noether Group “The Bureaucratization of Islam and its Socio-Legal Dimensions in Southeast Asia” in the Department ‘Law & Anthropology’. Following my appointment to a professorship at Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg (FAU), the project was transferred there in 2020, but continues to be connected to the MPI through a cooperation partnership; the project will wrap up this year.

2. Where do you work now?
In late 2019 I accepted a W2 position as Professor of Cultural and Social Anthropology at FAU; this was a temporary position dependent on external funding and included the role of spokesperson for the Bavarian Elite Master’s programme “Standards of Decision-Making Across Cultures” (SDAC). Over the last two years I have invested a lot of time and energy into developing this unusual interdisciplinary degree programme with a strong basis in anthropology and East Asian studies. The funding for this programme was recently extended until 2027 as a result of my successful grant application. Since April 2022 I now have a newly-created permanent W3 professorship as Chair for Cultural and Social Anthropology at FAU, and I will be building up a new anthropology section within the Department of Sociology. While this covers the entire breadth of the discipline of anthropology, I am also establishing a new focus area entitled “LawTech in Global Legal Cultures”, which will include the project group “LawTech Ethnographies”. Funding for this project comes from the Heisenberg Programme of the German Research Foundation (DFG) and Hightech Agenda Bayern (HTA). Alongside this, I will be serving as co-director and one of three project heads of the newly created Center for Advanced Studies “Alternative Rationalities and Esoteric Practices from a Global Perspective” at FAU. With an initial grant of 4.6 million euros from the DFG, it will be the first project to study esoteric practices worldwide on such a large and global scale. It is interdisciplinary in nature, bringing together religious studies, anthropology, and regional studies. I will continue to serve as spokesperson for the SDAC degree programme, but due to my various new responsibilities and research activities, I will be reducing my involvement in the programme and colleagues will be taking over many of my former tasks.

3. How did the time you spent at the MPI shape your current career?
It has been fundamental. The community at the MPI vastly expanded my horizons – in terms of both disciplinary perspectives and research practices. In addition, it taught me much about organizing and managing research, from project architecture to practical implementation, particularly in the context of larger groups and consortiums. My current research direction and the decision to establish a project on “LawTech Ethnographies” that looks at contemporary transformations of legal technologies from a global and anthropological perspective was likewise decisively shaped by my time in the Department ‘Law & Anthropology’. The topic wasn’t entirely unfamiliar to me previously – I taught an introductory course on legal anthropology and in Frankfurt I had long been concerned with normative orders from an interdisciplinary perspective – but I was not immersed more deeply in the current developments in legal anthropology until I came to Halle. This exposure ultimately inspired me to consider new, unexplored topics in this area and organize long-term explorative research to establish solid foundations for future studies. My time at the MPI was instrumental in setting my course on many different levels.

4. When you think back on your time at the MPI, what stands out most strongly?
There were many unforgettable events and frequently delightful moments during passionate discussions. But beyond that, the excellent support that I received at all levels, from the department to the administration and research coordination. The administrative staff in particular often does not always get the recognition they deserve – and yet their organizational support is extremely important for successfully carrying out major externally funded projects. Just how exceptionally fortunate the MPI is in this respect is something that has only become clear to me in retrospect, through discussions with colleagues who have carried out similar projects in other places. So here I would like to express my heartfelt thanks to everyone working to keep things running!

5. Do you still have connections with the MPI, and if so, what kind of contact and with whom?
Yes, at present we organize for doctoral candidates to write their dissertations jointly at the MPI and my university. I hope to be able to continue and expand this arrangement. I maintain ties with the MPI as a co-operation partner and I am also a member of the Consultative Committee of the Department ‘Law & Anthropology’. I always enjoy coming to visit Halle, as it is a beautiful and vibrant city where I felt at home, outside the institute as well as in it.

6. What is your current research topic?
My current activities are outlined above in my answer to question 2.

7. What are your plans for the future?
I have the – admittedly rather ambitious – goal of making my university, the FAU, into a new preeminent location for the study of cultural and social anthropology in Germany, and to do so in such a way that sustainable structures are established. This is, to be sure, a very long-term undertaking that requires much perseverance and endurance. I value the knowledge that the MPI will continue to be a source of support and collaboration as I pursue these plans. At the same time, after spending the last two years focused on preparing various grant applications, I am looking forward to now being able to finally turn them into a reality. The “LawTech Ethnographies” initiative, which is envisioned as a long-term project, is particularly close to my heart, and I hope that I will be able to attract many students and doctoral candidates to join it.

8. What are the strengths of anthropology in comparison with other social sciences?
Anthropology is not per se better or worse than any other social science. I don’t think such boundary-making is very useful. Indeed, anthropology often shines the most when it draws on the stores of knowledge of other disciplines, bringing in its own forms of knowledge through unconventional interdisciplinary exchange in order to develop new perspectives and methodological approaches to urgent problems of the present. As it happens, the division between anthropology and sociology is particularly superfluous in the area of socio-legal studies, as Larissa Vetters – a colleague at the MPI – has recently argued in a splendid essay. Fortunately, there are more and more institutes where both fields work closely together and are housed under the same roof. In Germany, for example, this is the case in Konstanz and Bielefeld, and further afield, in Leiden and at the National University of Singapore. I hope that German law schools and anthropological institutes will also have more to do with each other in the future. But closer cooperation would also be desirable in technology and the natural sciences. Over the long term, I see the greatest potential of our discipline in multidisciplinary contexts, notwithstanding the challenges that of course come with this form of exchange.

9. What advice would you give to students studying social anthropology today?
Apart from a solid grounding in anthropology, I recommend that one should constantly look beyond the comfort zone of one’s own disciplinary certainties and language, and practice becoming “multilingual” across multiple disciplines. Combining an anthropological BA degree with an inter- or multidisciplinary MA can be one good option, for example. In my opinion we need more anthropologists who bring their disciplinary perspectives into areas where they are usually poorly represented or absent altogether. This requires becoming good at translating anthropological knowledge and making it accessible, and thus also a certain flexibility and readiness to compromise in order for our discipline to make a greater impact than has been the case until now. I also encourage students of all subjects to attend colloquia and lectures outside of their regular degree programme as often as possible, to actively participate in discussions and establish contacts with researchers working on topics that interest them.

10. What text – whether a book or article – have you read recently that particularly impressed you?
In anthropology, the book Sharia Transformations: Cultural Politics and the Rebranding of an Islamic Judiciary by Michael Peletz (2020); a non-anthropological work is the essay “Space Aliens and Deities Compared” by Darlene Juschka (2022). I also want to mention a new major research project that has impressed me, namely Bart Barendregt’s “One Among Zeroes |0100|: Towards an Anthropology of Everyday AI in Islam” in Leiden.

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