Interview with Ph.D. Aysem Mert (Postdoc Fellow)

Written by Diana León-Espinoza, March 11th, 2015


Ayşem Mert comes from Ankara, Turkey. She did her studies in the field of Political Science in Istanbul, Japan, and Netherlands. She focused on environmental politics at global and transnational levels, democratic theory and discourse theory.

You are working at the democratization unit at the Centre. Why did you choose your research field and topic of specialization? How did you get there from environmental politics?

Photo taken by the Käte Hamburger Kolleg’s team

Photo taken by the Käte Hamburger Kolleg’s team

A.M: Transnational democratization is one of the less examined issues in political theory and international relations. There is a lot of work about nation level democracies, representative democracies, liberalism, and so forth. This is not the case for transnational governance, where participation does not ensure democratization. For me, it has become the central problem when I encountered democratic deficits in the governance of global environmental problems. These issues concern us all, and representatives from nation states systematically fail to solve these problems, or otherwise create transnational mechanisms which also do not seem to have much influence.

At what point in your life did you realize that you want to be a researcher? Did you always know?

A.M: I am not sure. It was always a possibility. I had questions, research made sense. I was a researcher before I decided to do a PhD. I was working at the private sector and then with NGOs as a researcher. At some point I found myself thinking that there is still academia I haven’t worked for.

Being a researcher is a hard path to follow because there are already established people in almost all the topics. The road to establish yourself, I find it really hard.

A.M: I think if you are a curious person by nature, who doesn’t want quick and superficial answers, being a researcher is extremely fun. The difficulty is establishing the networks and being strategic about your work. There is always this discrepancy between my ideal academia and what I can achieve in it. But there are also a lot of smart people who help you out in the process. Especially in regard with the patriarchal relations in the academia, I took advice from a lot of smart women who experienced similar problems but more experience.

Academia is still very patriarchal, right?

A.M.: Patriarchy takes many forms. In Northern Europe interesting, different women rarely take power positions. In Turkey, although the discourses of mainstream academia can be very patriarchal, the numbers are (or at least used to be) quite equal. One research concluded that this was largely a result of the Republican middle-class educating their daughters in 1930s and 40s and creating a certain culture of intelligent, hard core women. Academia was still not egalitarian in nature, but access was not an issue. There is always a history behind these inequalities, one has to be aware of them in order to change the habits, transform the structures, but also support others and allow each other to be different.

What do you think needs to be done in the Humanities and Social Sciences to attract more young scholars?

A.M: My experience has been that young scholars are attracted; the problem is how to keep them. There are not many jobs, and often very little security into the future, which is important for long-term well-thought through research projects to take shape. Workforce loss is most critical at the post-doc level. Research centres such as GCR21 fulfil a critical function about this: They allow us to search for a tenure position for longer, thereby not leave for the other sectors. They also provide spaces for intellectual exchange which is critical.

Which topics do you consider to be more crucial right now and should be researched more?

A.M: I think there is a lot of empirical work being done and there needs to be more work on political philosophy and political theory. This would provide us with the means to place the empirical information into context, and ask different sets of questions. We don’t need many more problem-solvers but we need a better understanding of our problems.

But, doesn’t the empirical research help the theory to develop?

A.M: There are different academic traditions in this regard. The Anglo-Saxon tradition is particularly empiricist and inductivist. I don’t see that becoming the norm elsewhere, for instance, in France. Nonetheless, it has become the hegemonic tradition and as a result various sub-disciplines are disappearing, epistemology is being reduced to methods and so on.

Secondly, this is part of the transformation towards a more inclusive policy-making process. Of course, scientists have celebrated the chance to be involved in policy formation. There is nothing wrong with that. The downside is that researchers have to take on various formats that policy-making requires. That wasn’t a very positive development for theory.

How is your work bridging the gap between social research and practical life? Do you try to have an impact on the society?

A.M: In Humanities and Social Sciences, we rarely assume that our work on its own will cause a big social transformation. It’s not impossible, but highly unlikely. We tend to think our impact is more dispersed, more ambiguous. We are not individual islands. We operate in a context and react to each other’s work. It is our practices that matter. Inspiring social change is about creating a certain body of work and teaching it in a certain way.

Accordingly, I don’t think I’m going to write a book and it will change the world. I don’t think about my work as something separate from myself, that can, on its own, have an impact. I try to be someone with stances, political, ideologically-grounded stances and ethical principles so that my inadvertent influence on the society is positive. How my work changes the world? I can’t know this for sure. It is a little like throwing a stone to a lake.

That is very interesting, because I always think of what can I do to contribute to the society if I become a researcher. It is a constant struggle in my head.

A.M: Contribution is different than intentional impact. I suppose choosing political science, and being involved in politics has been how I tried to contribute: Politics is regarded as something dirty and fraudulent in many parts of the world. It also happens to be the main vehicle for change. It does not make much sense to say that politics is bad and stay clear of politics if you want to change the world. You have to be in it. It is not going to be fun and it is not going to be easy, but the nice thing is that you are not alone.

As for the academia, I try to pay more attention to how to maintain certain academic practices and how to change others. It would be an achievement on its own to give more autonomy to students, researchers, lecturers, etc. I think that is where I would like to contribute.

In the academic world you can talk too much and you can do too much, but at the end most of the work from important researchers, at least in Costa Rica, remain in a desk’s drawer.

A.M: I understand the need to make scientific work more accessible, or even popular. This is because the origin of modern Western science involves the clean construction of a nature and science separated off from society and the self -what Bruno Latour calls purification. It then becomes so very separate from the society that it becomes a challenge to explain it, and scientists are constantly asked to make things sound simpler, easier to understand for non-scientists. You can circumvent this problem by having a non-modernistic take on science.

The requirement of social valorisation is at times problematic: You don’t necessarily write a book in order to tell people something. Sometimes you write it in order to learn something. There isn’t a singular way of being a researcher. Different people have different advantages and challenges.  Researchers shouldn’t be forced to be innovative if they are not (or at that point in their research they cannot be) innovative. I shouldn’t be forced to explain my ideas in the simplest possible fashion if I want to reflect upon a complex set of premises and write political theory or philosophy.

I think I am trying to say, this idea of the academic as an individual is corrosive to academia. First of all, it forces us to do everything at once, which doesn’t allow us to figure out what we are good at. Second, we all are forced to reach the same ideal, more or less following the same steps. I think diversity is something that academia should be proud of and very much needs.

Why did you come to the Käte Hamburger Kolleg?

A.M: I always thought of Germany as one of my obvious destinations because the Anglo-Saxon tradition in Social Sciences does not appeal to me. I also admire the critical tradition in Germany. So, I thought, there must be a critical mass in German academia that allows for various critical, even radical research groups.

The call GCR21 sent out last year was very much supporting this hypothesis of mine. I liked the idea of working on a project I wrote and shaped myself, one I found important.

How would you describe your experience in Duisburg during your stay?

A.M: I haven’t regarded Duisburg as a singular city, but as a part of a conglomerate of cities that include Dusseldorf, Essen etc.

I have very much enjoyed learning about the place, especially because it has a very specific history. It has also been amusing for me to see how industrial locales are being transformed into public spaces and how committed the local government is, to such investments. In that sense, I have found a lot of interesting things to do here.

Can you recommend books that you have read and have remained meaningful to you over the years?

A.M: I am rather obsessed with books, so it’s hard to choose. I would say: ‘Disabling Professions’ by Ivan Illich and ‘The Soul of Man under Socialism’ by Oscar Wilde. Many books of Hanna Arendt, as well.

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