Decolonial Promise or Pitfall? Ralph Weber on “Reversing the Gaze” at Workshop in Athens

Ralph Weber, co-Principal Investigator of the Reversing the Gaze project, presented some of the key ideas regarding the project at the Comparative Political Theory Workshop 2022 at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens on April 13 and 14, 2022.

For Professor Weber, “Reversing the gaze” means working towards a more truly global history of political thought and comparative political theory. He recently presented this process . In his talk, he analyzed in how far it constitutes a decolonial promise— or a pitfall.

The Comparative Political Theory Workshop 2022 was held under theme “Authoritarianism in the Eurasian Context: From Antiquity to the Present”. The aim of the workshop was to bring together scholars to discuss the emerging acceptance of authoritarianism in the contemporary world and to reflect upon and derive insights from the rich historical experience and the depth of sources produced by Eurasian cultures from antiquity to the present.

Ralph Weber is Associate Professor of European Global Studies at the Institute for European Global Studies. He specializes in Political Theory, Chinese Politics, and modern Confucianism. Currently, he is the President of the European Association for Chinese Philosophy and the Chair of the Section on Political Theory in the Swiss Political Science Association.

4 QUESTIONS TO… Lerato Posholi

I hope for an engagement with ‘Southern’ critiques of global knowledge production that moves beyond a reductive understanding of the critiques as merely political.”

Lerato Posholi is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Basel. She is part of the working package ”Concept Travel, Comparison, and Area Studies” of the ”Reversing the Gaze” project.


Can you explain your research area in three sentences?

Part of my research looks at the politics of global knowledge production through engagement with Southern critiques of knowledge e.g. decolonial thought. I take seriously the idea that knowledge is socially constructed, and I explore the political-ethical implications of this idea as  brought up by notions of epistemic injustice and epistemic oppression. I also have a growing interest in the philosophical field of conceptual engineering.


What key questions would you like to answer in your case study?

Our sub-project considers two very broad questions. The first question is how concepts and concept travel is understood and critiqued especially in ‘Southern’ critiques of knowledge and eurocentrism. The second question we reconsider is how we can conceptualise comparison and reframe comparative studies in light of the method of ‘reversing the gaze’. 


What is your envisioned outcome of the overall project?

I hope for an engagement with ‘Southern’ critiques of global knowledge production that moves beyond a reductive understanding of the critiques as merely political. I hope that the project helps us better frame what is epistemologically at stake in the issues we take up and engage with. 


What are you most looking forward to in this collaboration?

I look forward to working with the diverse disciplinary experts on the team and seeing what insights come up when we look at the ‘North’ using concepts from the ‘South’. I also look forward to forming new networks and collaborations through the project.


4 QUESTIONS TO… Matthias Maurer Rueda

I hope that our research project can help shift the way we think about politics in Switzerland.”

Matthias Maurer Rueda is a doctoral candidate at the University of Basel. He is a researcher in the case study on “Citizenship, Migration and Re-Tribalisation” of the “Reversing the Gaze” project.


Can you explain your research area in three sentences?

Mostly, I am interested in the role that emotions – particularly feelings of belonging – play in Swiss politics, especially among conservative voters. We all need to make sense of our affective understanding of the world, and to do so we rely heavily on myths and stories: they provide powerful narratives to make sense of our feelings, and they help to unite the myriad of very personal, individual interpretations of the world under solidified, clearly delineated group identities. On a more meta-level, I look at the relationship between academic and everyday language, and how concepts change as they travel between the two.


What key questions would you like to answer in your case study?

Many people in Switzerland seem to be getting angrier and angrier, and no one really knows why –  and much less what to do about it. I think we struggle to understand recent developments – the renewed surge of populism, the increasing polarization – because we misunderstand the way people do politics on a more fundamental level. In my research, I hope to show that by accounting for the emotional, personal side of politics, some of the puzzles we face in the social sciences turn out to be less perplexing after all.


What is your envisioned outcome of the overall project?

On a more practical level, I hope that our research project can help shift the way we think about politics in Switzerland, and the appeal of populist narratives more broadly. Alternative narratives are needed, but if they do not connect on an emotional level, if they see voters as policy-preference-calculators rather than people, they will inevitably fall short of conviction. I also hope to convey, through my personal research and the work of the entire project, that science can and should be a lot more creative than is commonly understood. Decolonial calls to de-center ‘Western’ research practices shouldn’t only be made on an ethical or political level. Exploring new forms of knowledge-making is a scientific necessity, and we should engage and embrace these developments as opportunities to think about the world in new and enlightening ways.


What are you most looking forward to in this collaboration?

I really enjoy the transdisciplinarity of the project. There is a wide range of interests, experiences and approaches amongst the team, and I do not think I have left a conversation without something new to think about. It makes for a very stimulating environment, and I can’t wait to put all the ideas that have been stewing in my head out there.


4 QUESTIONS TO… Peter Geschiere

“THE IDEA OF ‘REVERSING THE GAZE’ CAN BE VERY HELPFUL, IF IT IS RELATED DIRECTLY TO GLOBAL AND LOCAL POWER RELATIONS, ALSO FOR HIGHLIGHTING THE AMBIGUITIES AROUND DECOLONIZATION.”


Peter Geschiere is Emeritus Professor of Social Anthropology (University of Amsterdam). He is a fellow in the “Reversing the Gaze“ project.


Can you explain your research area in three sentences?

I am an anthropologist, but also a historian. I undertake field-work in various parts of Cameroon and elsewhere in West Africa. Central topics in my work include local ways of dealing with state formation, decolonization, ’’witchcraft’’ and lately my focus lies on homophobia and freemasonry. 


How did you become involved in this project as a fellow ?

I got to know Elísio Macamo from collaborating with him at the International African Institute (SOAS University of London), but also through his lectures and publications. I very much like his subtle approach to complex issues such as decolonization and reversing the gaze. It was therefore a pleasure to join this project and to get an insight into the various case studies.

Elísio asked me to participate in this project as my book on issues of citizenship, belonging and exclusion (Perils of Belonging: Autochthony, Citizenship and Exclusion in Africa and Europe, 2009) was based on this idea of reversing the gaze – looking at the Dutch suddenly using notions like autochthony, or allochthony from the longer history of these concepts in Cameroon and elsewhere in Francophone Africa. Generally speaking, I was intrigued by the concept of ‘reversing the gaze’, especially how it relates to power-relations. 


What are you most looking forward to in this collaboration? 

I look forward to seeing how this idea of ‘’reversing the gaze’’ will be related to empirical research, and also how this will connect to debates on decolonization. The idea of ‘reversing the gaze’ can be very helpful, if it is related  directly to global and local power relations, also for highlighting the ambiguities around decolonization. At first, decolonization seems to be a self-evident notion, but it is important to go deeper into the ambiguities and complications that emerge as soon as we try to make it concrete in specific contexts.


What is your envisioned outcome of this project?

Anthropology should be about giving others a voice, which is why it is critical that diverse perspectives and positions in global networks are reflected. This is undoubtedly the case within this project. A danger for especially anthropologists is that “reversing the gaze“ inspires an obsession with self-reflexivity which can end up ‘muting’ the voice of the Other. “Reversing the gaze“ must be most explicitly in making other voices to be heard.


In the media: ”Fehlt uns eine gemeinsame Welt?”

In the run-up to the national vote on the Co2 law in Switzerland, a guest article in the Swiss weekly WoZ calls for the country to become aware of its role in the world and refers to the research project “Reversing the Gaze”. The author, Sindi-Leigh McBride is a PhD candidate at the Centre for African Studies of the University of Basel, with a guest article in WoZ (20 May 2021)

The article is written in German.

>“Fehlt uns eine gemeinsame Welt?” on woz.ch (paywall)

Interview with Elísio Macamo and Ralph Weber on the project “Reversing the Gaze”

Prof. Ralph Weber (top left), Prof. Elísio Macamo (bottom row) and Anita Soltermann (top right) during the interview.

The Grants Office of the University of Basel interviewed two of our principal investigators, Elísio Macamo and Ralph Weber, about the project ”Reversing the Gaze”, interdisciplinarity, trends in research funding, and the Covid-19 crisis.


Read the interview on the Grants Office’s website

Elísio Macamo

Ralph Weber

4 QUESTIONS TO… Elísio Macamo

”I am committed to the old-fashioned view that there is only one science.”

Elísio Macamo is a Professor of Sociology and African Studies at the University of Basel. He is one of the Principal Investigators in the Reversing the Gaze“ project, and leads the case study on “Strangers in our midst”.


Can you explain your research area in three sentences?

Firstly, and most importantly, I am concerned with the knowledge that we produce about Africa, i.e. I am interested in the methodologies used to bring it about and worried about the quality of that knowledge. Secondly, I am interested in how we, as academics, can make knowledge about Africa relevant to the various disciplines. Thirdly, I am committed to the idea of science, and, for this reason, I attempt to contribute to it by working on how best to produce knowledge.


What key questions would you like to answer in your case study?

What I am aiming to show is that there are no boundaries to knowledge. I am interested in using questions raised in connection with Africa to shed light on Switzerland’s fundamental issues. If we manage to do that, we will essentially reveal that science’s boundaries do not lie where we tend to think they do.


What is your envisioned outcome of the overall project?

This project’s overall goal is to engage in broader discussions about topics such as post-colonialism, decoloniality and epistemological hegemony. These have been going on for 30 or 40 years. They are important debates. They take issue with the central place that certain regions occupy in knowledge production and the assumption that this is highly problematic. There is the suggestion that there is a non-European science, and I’m not happy with that. I am committed to the old-fashioned view that there is only one science, and if we can meet our stated research goals, we would make a significant contribution to this broader debate. We will demonstrate that there is only one science, and that is what we should focus on.


What are you most looking forward to in this collaboration?

I am thrilled about the whole project and its originality. I am also very excited about the two doctoral students, Tebuho Winnie Kanyimba and Matthias Maurer Rueda. I am looking forward to seeing how they will overcome the challenge of doing African Studies research in Switzerland.

Overall, it is stimulating to work with the whole project team. It is brilliant. I highly respect the work of my colleagues and love what they have done so far. I can learn so much from them, and it is exciting to have the opportunity to work so closely with them. Lastly, I’m excited about the resonance of our project, if we do our work well, there will be responses, and if we do our work exceptionally well, these responses will be extreme. We might have to brace up some rough times as the debates we engage with address controversial topics. 


Student assistant (6 hours per week), research

The Chair of African Studies at the Department of Social Sciences at the University of Basel is looking for a student assistant (6 hours/week) as part of the research project Reversing the Gaze: Towards Post-Comparative Area Studies funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation.

Tasks

The successful candidate will assist a research team consisting of two doctoral students and a professor organizing events, transcribing data, managing data, searching literature, copy-editing/proofreading and content management (website).

Profile

Candidates must be registered students at the University of Basel, ideally in the final stages of their BA or beginning of their MA studies. We are looking for a reliable and motivated student with an interest in the broader politics of migration and a commitment to research. Good English language skills (oral and written) are required, good language skills in German and/or French are desirable.

Position

We offer a position in an interdisciplinary project and in a vibrant and open work environment.This student assistant position with six hours per week is scheduled to start on 1 October 2020 and is limited to one year. The general University regulations for student assistants apply.

Application/Contact 

Applications should include the following documents:

  1. Motivation letter (maximum two pages);
  2. Curriculum vitae (maximum two pages);
  3. Certificates, references, diploma;
  4. A writing sample in English.

Deadline for submission: 31 August 2020

Student assistant (6 hours per week), coordination

The Centre for African Studies Basel and the Department of Social Sciences at the University of Basel look for a student assistant (6 hours/week) as part of the research project Reversing the Gaze: Towards Post-Comparative Area Studies funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation.

Tasks

The successful candidate will assist the project coordinator in administration, research management and communication. The tasks include travel management, organizing events, data management, copy-editing/proofreading and content management (website).In addition, the successful candidate will support the team of the executive office of the Centre for African Studies in its daily business.

Profile

Candidates must be registered students at the University of Basel, ideally in the final stages of their BA or beginning of their MA studies.We are looking for a reliable and motivated person with quick comprehension and good working knowledge of common office software. Very good English language skills (oral and written) are required, good language skills in German and/or French are desirable.

Position

We offer a position in an interdisciplinary project and in a vibrant and open work environment.This student assistant position with six hours per week is scheduled to start on 1 October 2020 and is limited to one year. The general University regulations for student assistants apply.

Application/Contact

Applications should include the following documents:

  1. Motivation letter (maximum two pages);
  2. Curriculum vitae (maximum two pages);
  3. Certificates, references, diploma
  4. A writing sample in English

Deadline for submission: 31 August 2020

Two PhD positions in the subproject “Citizenship, Migration and Retribalisation in Switzerland”

The Chair of African Studies in the Department of Social Sciences at the University of Basel is looking for two PhD candidates to work within a SINERGIA Collaborative Research Project on “Reversing the Gaze: Towards Post-Comparative Area Studies” funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation. The Chair is in charge of a work package with the title “When There are Strangers in our Midst – Citizenship, Migration and Retribalisation in Switzerland”.

Project description

The work package foresees two qualitative studies to be carried out in Switzerland on two distinct civil society groups in the field of migration and citizenship. Drawing upon the concept of “retribalisation” developed in the context of anthropological research in Africa during the colonial period, the study will inquire into two distinct groups in Switzerland in order to test the relevance of using concepts developed in Africa to an understanding of phenomena in Europe. One group campaigns for an independent Switzerland, i.e. for a country that stresses a national identity unconstrained by transnational institutions such as the European Union and the United Nations, whereas the other group claims allegiance to liberal democratic values and emphasises a liberal definition of Swiss identity. In relation to immigration, both groups position themselves in contrasting ways and appear well-suited to test the relevance of the concept of “retribalisation”.

The study will focus on the life-worlds of these activists as they are shaped by the dynamic socio-cultural change brought about by immigration. The issues to be pursued are:

  • (a) The social profile of activists
  • (b) Their places of contact and social intercourse
  • (c) Their definitions of themselves in relation to their respective nation, immigrants and the political establishment
  • (d) Their overall understanding of political values.

Knowledge of German for the purpose of conducting research in Switzerland is a must.

Tasks

Successful candidates will develop an individual research design examining the research question of the above mentioned subproject; engage in the project workshops and colloquium; contribute to the project’s research output; present their own research inside and outside the University; complete their PhD theses.

Profile

Candidates should have a Master’s degree in any discipline in the humanities or social sciences. Ideally, they should have some experience in research in postcolonial contexts, especially in Africa. Good English and German language skills are required. 

Candidates have to fulfil the conditions for admission as a PhD student in the faculty of the Humanities and Social Sciences of the University of Basel.

Position

These are two full-time research positions funded for four years and scheduled to start on 1 October 2020. The salary allows the successful candidates to cover living and tuition expenses, and to commit themselves fully to their research project. The place of work is Basel.

We offer the successful candidates membership in an interdisciplinary research group sharing a common interest in theoretical and methodological issues regarding knowledge production in a postcolonial context. The Department of Social Sciences and the Centre for African Studies at the University of Basel provide a vibrant and friendly research, teaching and study environment supporting emerging scholars in connecting with academic colleagues and institutions across the world. 

Application / Contact

Applications should include the following documents:

  1. Curriculum vitae (maximum two pages)
  2. Two academic references
  3. Copies of Master’s diploma and transcripts
  4. Copies of Bachelor’s diploma and transcripts
  5. A 3-5-page exposé discussing your views on the use of social scientific concepts in different cultural contexts and how you would make those views relevant to the study of phenomena in Switzerland drawing from concepts developed and first applied in Africa
  6. A writing sample (an article or a seminar paper)

Deadline for submission: 31 August 2020