James Merron in Europe

Pre-departure and background

In June of 2012 I was awarded a travel bursary from the Postgraduate and International Office and Stellenbosch University which was used to fund my travel and flight costs for a summer school in Switzerland. Key to the success of this trip was early preparation like ensuring that my travel documentation and logistics (such as flights and accommodation) were in place well in advance. The Postgraduate and International Office was my primary access point for this, and besides the capital to finance the trip I also received transportation to the Department of Home Affairs in Bellville to gather visa documentation. The next move I made was establishing communication with the Swiss representative at the embassy in South Africa who advised me about what to expect in terms of the application process and fees. I also found it very helpful to go through a travel agent at Maties Travel, who extremely helpful in terms of arranging the flight as well as a hotel for a 10 hour lay-over in Doha.

2          Summer schools, workshops and conferences

While in Switzerland I was based in Basel.  As the second largest city in the German-speaking region of Switzerland, Basel has a healthy atmosphere of traditional Swiss culture mixed in a unique international setting.  The border to Germany and France is approximately 30 minutes by bicycle.  The Rhine flows through the city, and its banks are one of the preferred recreation spot for many of the residents. Considered the cultural capital of Switzerland, Basel hosts a number of international events, such as ArtBasel. During my time there I developed a close relationship with the Centre for African Studies at Basel University (CASB) as a stepping stone to a large network of scholars researching topics in and about ‘Africa’. I had come to Switzerland specifically for participation in the International Graduate School North-South’s summer school in “global change and sustainable development” in Meiringen, Switzerland.  I was able to maximize my time in Switzerland after receiving a small grant to extend my stay as well as take a short trip back to South Afria to attend conferences and a workshop during the middle of my stay.  That Stellenbosch University had initially supported me was one of the primary reasons for my success with this.  This allowed me to combine my summer school with additional research and training outside of Switzerland, to in Germany, and Italy.

2.1       African European Group for Interdisciplinary Studies (Cortona, Italy, June 18 – 28)

The first formative event during my time abroad was the African European Group for Interdisciplinary Studies (AEGIS) Summer School in African Studies, which is held bi-annually in Cortona, Italy (in northern Tuscany).  This event was essentially a meeting place for people (PhD students and professors) doing research in Africa to communicate their “fresh findings” from the field. During the ten days each person was allotted a time to present their paper.  Each person was assigned a discussant that would ask questions about the paper, focussing the discussion and probing for. We lodged in a spectacular Tuscan hotel with a view of a valley of wine and olive estates. Every morning after breakfast we met inside of a medieval monastery at a round table where we planned the discussions for the day.  After some speeches from the Professors each student had the opportunity to present their research and gather feedback from their colleagues. This was an excellent place to turn a focus on another case study. One of the main objectives was to workshop papers and to be introduced to the topics of an upcoming European African Studies Conference in Portugal in June of 2013 and I will present a paper with my supervisor in Basel.

2.2       South African Sociological Congress (Cape Town, South Africa, 1- 4 July)

I returned to Switzerland on 28 June and spent a few intensive days in Basel communicating with fellow students at the Centre for African Studies as well as my supervisor about the developments from the AEGIS summer school.  After these conversations, it was agreed that there was merit in returning to South Africa for the South African Sociological Congress (SASA) in Cape Town. The costs involved would be partly offset by the Centre for African Studies and a grant through the Swiss South African Joint Research Partnership.  This allowed me to go back to extend my time in Basel and take a trip to South Africa that allowed me to finance my living costs while in Switzerland for the International Graduate School North-South. I booked a ticket and within two days I was back in the Western Cape, this time staying in Observatory.  The University of Cape Town was hosting the SASA congress entitled, “Knowledge, Technologies and Social Change”.  I presented a paper in a revised format using feedback from my time in Basel and in Italy.  The SASA conference was an excellent opportunity to listen in on the work of others within my field and to communicate my research interests through which to expand my network.

2.3       Johannesburg Workshop for Theory and Criticism (Johannesburg, South Africa, 4 – 10 July)

In order to maximize my time back in South Africa, I committed myself to the Johannesburg Workshop on Theory and Criticism hosted by the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (WISER). From Cape Town I traveled to Johannesburg and stayed in Melville with the other participants who came as far afield as Pakistan, Latin America, Europe, the United States. Here I indulged in a theoretical perspective about relations between the global North and South in relationship to the ‘Futures of Nature’. This workshop was not only based on presentations but also had a strong arts component and the participants benefited from a number of performances, musical activities, and fine arts.  This workshop was a good opportunity to meet with experts and students working on similar issues in terms of the’ perception of nature’ and to discuss how this relates to scholarship in the global North, such as the United States and Europe.

2.4       Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology (Halle, Germany, 18 – 20 August)

After 10 days in Johannesburg I returned to Switzerland.  While in Basel I prepared for a workshop in Halle, Germany at the Max Planck Institute for Anthropology. After a short flight on EasyJet from Basel to Berlin, I spent a night in Kruetzberg, near the Templehof Flughaven.  The next day I took a train to Halle, which is a town near Leipzig and stayed in a backpackers there.  The theme of the workshop, “Relocating Science and Technology: Global knowledge, travelling technologies and postcolonialism”, was directly relevant to my research.  There were also interesting connections between the Max Planck Institute and my supervisor in Stellenbosch who had spent some time researching in Halle.   At the workshop I was introduced to a number of experts who view Science and Technology from the prism of its experience in South Africa. As a result of this meeting I will become a member of the African Science and Technology Network, something that I hope to link in with my studies and programmes being taught at Stellenbosch University at the Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology, namely the DPhil programme in Science and Technology Studies.

2.5       International Graduate School North-South Summer School (Meiringen, Switzerland, 23 – 29 August)

After Germany, I return to Basel where I spent the next few weeks communicating these experiences with a working group at the CASB and re-visiting the focus I had developed with my supervisor.  This all led up to my attendance at the International Graduate School North-South, an affiliate of my doctoral programme – the Doctoral Programme North-South – and organized by the universities of Bern and Basel. The summer school took place in Meiringen, Switzerland, famous for being the home place of meringue pie and the alleged death place of Sherlock Holmes.  Meiringen is located at the foot of the Bernese Oberland and is near a popular gateway to the Alps, Interlaken.  While there I was able to interact with a very large network of people associated with my doctoral programme who come from Central Asia, South-East Asia, Latin America, Africa, and Switzerland.  During the seven days, activities included stimulating lectures and group activities.  The latter allowed us to travel to different regions in the Burnese Obserland. One group went to the military base to explore a conflict between the air force and local people, another group went to a hydrological dam, and the other (mine) went to the Simmental valley to do interviews with locals about forestry and farming practices.  Afterwards, each group came together to develop a research proposal about the issues we had been exposed to.  As the one of two social scientist in my group of 16 people it was an interesting challenge to translate research interests with natural scientists which I found one of the most rewarding experiences of the entire trip.  Focusing on another case study was also very beneficial in terms of avoiding the tunnel vision that can happen when one works on their own project.

3          Finalizing my journey and return (2 – 10 October)

After Meringen I returned to Basel to attend a final event there, a workshop on Southern African history hosted by the Basler Afrika Bibliographien.  This was a very important experience in terms of exploring avenues through which to apply my research and work in Stellenbosch and how this can bear on discussions happening in Basel. There was also a Conference on Sustainability hosted by Basel University which was an interesting platform to understand some of the broader debates about sustainable development.  Here I was fortunate to meet with development practitioners and scholars who are interested in similar topics to mine and these sparked interesting conversations which drew on our experiences in different parts of the world.  Also during this conference, I was also able to meet with a colleague from the University of Pretoria, which was a very good-shared experience to have.

3.1       Old Land, New Practices (Grahamstown, 11 – 14 October)

Before I returned to Stellenbosch to attend my admissions committee meeting and participate in teaching at the Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology, I attended the Old Land, New Practices conference in Grahamstown. As a more focused conference, I found this conference very rewarding.  After presenting my paper about land transformation in the Eastern Cape I received very positive and informative feedback from a group of experts from South Africa and abroad.  The feedback from this was applied to my research proposal to Stellenbosch University, which was accepted upon my return at the beginning of October.

3.3       Conclusion

These travels were incredibly valuable and formative to my current understanding of issues involved with my PhD research.  For the next few months I will be pondering these events, returning to my many recordings and notes which will provide a strong framework through which to construct and communicate my research. In total, the outcome of the travel grant from the Postgraduate & International Office was two completed papers, additional funding from Basel University to maximize this research and training period, and a successful research proposal.  I owe a great deal to the efforts of the Postgraduate & International Office in terms of offering support and getting the ball rolling for an excellent and informative experience abroad. This is a positive step in realizing my unique doctoral programme which encourages me to focus on the social dimensions of globalization within the framework of North-South relations, offering an interdisciplinary perspective on the dynamics of social, political and cultural change in Europe and the global South (with a focus on Africa, the Middle East, Central and South Asia).