“It’s much more meaningful to connect people in an open-ended way than to just start communicating about what you’ve found at the end of your research.”

(22-02-2020) Interview with Julie Carlier, co-ordinator of the interdisciplinary research consortium Ghent Centre for Global Studies.

Julie Carlier has been co-ordinator of the Ghent Centre for Global Studies since it was founded seven years ago. We spoke with her about her experiences on the occasion of the establishment of six new IDC.

The consortium you are coordinating is called Ghent Centre for Global Studies. What does global studies entail?

Julie Carlier: “By global studies, we mean the critical study of globalisation. We pay particular attention to the relationship and interaction between local and global processes. People often see globalisation as something that takes place above our heads and over which we have no influence, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Global processes are also produced locally and influence local processes in turn. Think, for example, of the international financial markets. These seem abstract and elusive, but are in fact made by people in specific places like Wall Street or the City of London. Our centre focuses on the interaction between economic, political, social, and cultural globalisation as a process of ‘world-making’.”

Can you make specify that a little more?

Julie Carlier: “We actually work on the typical global challenges: fair trade and economic inequality, depletion of natural resources and land rights, climate justice, migration, democratic citizenship, etc. We look at these in relation to local processes, but also in the tradition of critical social theory. It investigates how power and power relations shape our world. It is very important in this critical tradition that research is always linked to a social commitment to contribute to more equality and justice. Based on the same motivation, we are now also discussing the decolonisation of the knowledge we produce and the society in which we live.”

Which researchers are in your consortium? Are there any well-known names?

Julie Carlier: “It’s highly varied. We have historians; political scientists from EU, international, and conflict and development studies; sociologists; economists; human rights and migration scholars, etc. We have a total of ten research groups from six faculties. The main promoter or spokesperson of the consortium is Koen Vlassenroot (of the Department of Conflict and Development Studies). In addition, people will probably also know Sami Zemni, Eva Brems, or Ilse Derluyn. In fact, we focus less on the big names and senior professors, and more on the energy, ambition, and commitment of younger professors, postdocs, and doctoral students. There are many dynamic researchers working with us, who conduct research in very creative ways, linking their research to social impact in any case. For example, three PhD students (from conflict and development studies, history, and intercultural pedagogy) worked with participatory video. This is a participatory research method that creates visual material in co-creation with the people around which the research revolves. The videos generate source material for their research, but are also a way for those people to draw attention to the problems they are fighting against. These researchers organised the first Participatory Video Festival in Ghent in 2018. That put them and Ghent University on the international map, and was such a great success that there will now be a sequel.”

And how did you end up here?

Julie Carlier: “There were two things that really attracted me to the job. The first was the critical, transnational perspective. I am a trained historian and did my PhD on the transnational history of feminism in Belgium. So I didn’t have much ‘global’ experience as such, but I did see common ground between the transnational perspective in history and the critical global approach that the promoters of Global Studies put forward. My colleague in the History Department, Eric Vanhaute, is one of the strengths of the consortium and when I asked him if I had the right profile for this position, he told me that every candidate for the vacancy would have to learn the job by doing it, because no one has experience with all the disciplines covered here. The second reason why I applied was the social commitment. When I started my PhD, I already knew I didn’t only want to work on feminism in the past, but I also wanted to link that to feminist activism today. I then joined feminist reading groups and have been active in Furia. I can also express this social engagement in the Centre for Global Studies.”

One of the objectives of the IDC is to generate social impact. How do you guys do that?

Julie Carlier: “Our researchers have a lot of contact with various stakeholders, work together with NGOs, give policy advice, etc. We are currently planning a round table with international experts such as Jason Hickel of the London School of Economics, following a doctoral school seminar on development cooperation, to which we invite NGOs, policymakers, and networks of activists to exchange ideas. There are also projects aimed at very concrete impact in Ghent. Prof. Sami Zemni, for example, is the Baillet-Latour chair on Contemporary Islam. In 2018, at the request of local schools, he set up an ‘education lab’ around conflicts of the world in class, Persona non grata, with workshops in which controversial figures such as Black Pete, Leopold II, and Osama bin Laden were used as a starting point to look for ways to critically discuss colonial history and terrorism in the classroom.
We also look for creative ways to communicate our knowledge. A new path, for example, is collaboration with the arts. Within a project by Koen Vlassenroot, cartoons were used and one of his researchers is working with a graphic novelist about refugee camps in Uganda. Some research groups or professors also regularly work as consultants. For example, for an NGO or a certain government agency that wants an independent evaluation of a specific policy or needs input on local contexts in the field.
Most important to me is the continuous cooperation with partners based on the idea that you can learn from each other and strengthen each other. It’s much more meaningful to connect people in an open-ended way than to just start communicating about what you’ve found at the end of your research.”

What does an IDC co-ordinator’s typical day entail? What do you like to do best?

Julie Carlier: “The best days are those when I meet a lot of researchers. That’s what gives me the biggest boost, just asking a colleague, ‘How’s it going? What are you working on right now?’ Very often, they bring up something that immediately makes me think, ‘Ha! Then we should contact that person too’. Or people come up with their own ideas for new collaborations. I like the role of facilitator the most anyway. I also consult regularly with my fellow IDC co-ordinators for joint initiatives and with DOZA – including the EU cell – on research policy. And next week, I’m going to the next meeting of the participatory trajectory “Decolonise my city” of the City of Ghent. The least you can say is that it’s a highly varied job.”

Why is it important that Ghent University invests in social impact?

Julie Carlier: “Because the university plays a role in society anyway. Either, as many others do, it can go along with a kind of neo-liberal logic in which academics compete with each other to have the most publications, which are then locked away behind paywalls, inaccessible to the rest of society. Or it can try to be a force for positive change in society. It’s important for a university to realise that it has an influence anyway. If it is insufficiently aware of this, it will very often reproduce rather than counteract the existing unequal power relations.
I also noticed that our beginning PhD students all have the ambition to make a difference, however small it might be. They don’t want to do research just for the sake of research. However, the academic model used to push those ambitions aside because you had to focus on all those publications. If you want to have more social impact, as a university, you need to reduce publication pressure and create time for people to meet up, be creative, take risks, talk to stakeholders, and design research that can make a difference.
The new career model of Ghent University, perhaps even more than the IDC, are an important step in the right direction. What could also help is to provide seed money in addition to the IDC for smaller impact projects such as finishing a documentary or making a graphic novel. Or simply to organise brainstorming sessions or collaborations with partners outside the academic world, which need not necessarily focus on a specific utilitarian goal, but rather on strengthening each other and asking research questions that also benefit those partners.”

Ghent University has reconfirmed its confidence in the IDC. What does the future look like for you? What plans do you have left?

Julie Carlier: “We would very much like to continue working on decolonisation, not only in research, but also in education. Our consortium is also responsible for Ghent University’s partnership in the Erasmus Mundus Master Global Studies. What knowledge do we pass on to our international and local students? How do we bring in other critical perspectives? My colleagues have asked for an exchange on how we can put this into practice. By the way, education is also pathway to impact, and one that is far too often overlooked.
We also want to expand our collaboration with the arts. We have noticed that the whole theme of climate change and environmental degradation, but especially the combination with social and global justice, incites many artists to make critical works about this theme. They are often interested in collaborations. At the Triennial in Bruges in 2018, for example, we organised a workshop with a design collective – Rotor from Brussels – together with Anna Tsing, the leading American anthropologist, whose work inspires both the artists and our researchers. We’d like to do more of these kinds of collaborations.”

Do you have a tip for the future IDC co-ordinators?

Julie Carlier: “I think that’s a difficult one because every IDC develops its own way of working anyway. It is important, however, that you can take on a facilitating role as coordinator. It’s mainly about putting people into touch with each other because you can’t always be the expert in every one of the areas in which your consortium is active. You look for new possibilities and partnerships; you support your researchers by organising meetings, seminars, or workshops; or by reading research proposals and making suggestions. But in the end, the greatest merit is that of the researchers themselves who decide to invest their time in it. Maybe my tip is that, in addition to a good communication strategy, an IDC co-ordinator should also focus on sufficient personal contacts because that is when the most interesting ideas arise: whether in the form of a workshop, or during an informal lunch or coffee break.”