Cultural Encounters and Political Orders in a Global Age [2009 - 2014]

TypeResearch Programme
Hosting Institution(s)Centre for Area Studies, U Leipzig, Germany
Director(s) /
Matthias Middell
(Global and European Studies Institute, U Leipzig, Germany)
FundingFederal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF)
Funding Term2009 - 2014

The 2009–2014 research programme of the Centre for Area Studies aims at analysing in greater detail the relationship between increasing economic, technological, social, and cultural entanglements on the one hand, and the emergence of new forms of political orders on the other hand. Thus, CAS examines how new forms and sizes of flows of ideas, people, goods, and capital lead to new patterns of control over such flows. The fact that since the mid-19th century this has been occurring more and more on a worldwide scale can be described as the “global condition”, a conceptual framework that allows one to compare societies and world regions that are increasingly interconnected and interacting. In order to analyse these multiple and interrelated topics, an interdepartmental and interdisciplinary approach is taken involving both the expertise from area studies as well as from social, historical, political, and cultural sciences.

Nowadays, interactions between societies and cultures are even faster growing in importance as they become essential resources of change that are increasingly observed and experienced throughout the world. Therefore, it is necessary to examine in depth the causes, modes, and consequences of these cultural encounters by using both macro- and microlevel designs of study. Based on this insight, over the past two decades studies have both increased in number and improved in quality, as well as have turned their focus to bi- and multilateral cultural transfers. In order to analyse these emerging dialectics of flow and control at the appropriate global level, CAS mobilizes expertise from the range of area studies represented at the University of Leipzig by inviting scholars to place at least two world regions into relationships in their research projects. Since this is to some extent a challenge to the traditional understanding of area studies of focusing on only one region, CAS insists on a self-reflexive discussion of the history of area and global studies as an integral part of its research programme. At the same time, we argue in favour of a very comprehensive understanding of the concept of cultural encounter, thereby including the adoption of political ideas and models, adaptation of social practices and cultural patterns, as well as interaction along the lines of commodity chains and production networks. In relation to these different contexts, area studies have provided critical impulses to these debates. In keeping with their traditional roles as cultural mediators, regional studies have provided much of the basic research with regard to not only the analysis of resources but also to the development of methodological tools for the analysis of interculturality. The philological tradition of regional studies is based on a strong sensitivity for the different stages involved in translation processes, whereby the issue of “cultural encounters” becomes the centre of attention.

Similarly, the research on economic geography within area studies has pioneered the analysis of commodity chains under conditions of asymmetric terms of trade and power relations. However, according to our overview these foci within area studies still reveal several shortcomings:


The convergence of research efforts into a process that systematizes the knowledge on cultural encounters as well as the methodology of analysis of such encounters within cultural studies and historical sciences remains often arbitrary. These attempts frequently depend on personal dual qualifications rather than on the integration of a long-lasting comprehensive debate by representatives of historical disciplines and social sciences. The results of this situation are a multitude of proposals and experiments seeking to theoretically grasp the observed phenomena. In that respect, CAS aims at being a platform for further systematic discussion, while organizing a series of workshops to act as forums for examination.

Disparate Methodologies

While many research programmes of area studies are predominantly based on cultural studies, a more social science-oriented programme – not the least inspired by Anglo-Saxon and French developments in the field – has also been established. This latter programme concerns itself with the integration of the studied regions into broader contexts, primarily within the paradigm of development and modernization. From experiences over the past decades, it does not seem evident that the two paradigms speak very much to each other. Therefore, a thorough consolidation of both approaches as well as further dialogue seems to be strongly beneficial in this regard.


Although research on cultural encounters inevitably highlights the permeability and transcendence of borders, the specific methodology employed at times contributes often to the reification of the studied regions, cultures, and civilizations. Despite the fact that Eurocentrism, Orientalism, and the concept of civilization are strongly criticised from a postcolonial perspective, the dilemma within the “bilateral” viewpoint – Europe versus the respective region – still prevails as a heritage in regional or area studies as they emerged since the 19th century in different countries. More recently, however, with the focus on explaining globalization, a new chance for integration has been offered while focusing, for example, on commodity chains and flows of knowledge, thereby transcending the constraints of traditional area studies.

In order to address the issues outlined above, the CAS research programme – within the framework of examining and analysing the relationship between intra-regional encounters and the emergence of new forms of governance and political order – will focus on the following research fields:



Research Field 1: The Relationship between Economies of Violence and Attempts to Establish New Forms of Order

The concept of political order in the first instance refers to an extensive field that in the recent past has undergone significant innovations and changes. These forms are borne out of the awareness that the strict hierarchy of a regime of territorialization, which is based on the concept of the nation state, is showing signs of dissolution. This realization causes, in light of this regime of territorialization’s deep entrenchment in the so-called OECD-world, considerable fear of loss and struggles for sovereignty. These contentions are expressed, for example, in the resistance to the transfer of national decision-making powers to supranational levels, as in the case of the European Union (EU); in demands to return to protectionist policies, as in recent election campaigns in lot of countries; and also in some tendencies to return to imperial pre-constitutional practices, as for example in Russia. In turn, these findings need to be compared with empirical evidence that highlight, as it can be observed in Latin America for example, the complex processes of political ordering that create highly uneven articulation processes between the state and so-called "non-governmentally" controlled spaces. When it comes to the African continent, research focuses on phenomena of adaptation of statehood to the specific conditions of postcoloniality in Africa. Spaces in which the state has never exerted an exclusive monopoly on the use of force; where its authority and ideas have been limited; and where its power occasionally was and still is met with violent hostility have resulted in instable, nearly polycentric orders in many world regions. These orders are based less on abstract principles and rather on local cultural patterns. The Leviathan as the supreme authority is merely one political idea that, on the one hand, has by no means taken hold worldwide, and, on the other hand, shows clear signs of erosion in certain regions. Recent crises in the Balkans and in the Caucasian region demonstrate that the latter is a phenomenon not only limited to world regions at a great distance from Europe.

In order to describe such non-governmentally controlled political orders in comparison with major global regions, as well as taking into account strongly contested symbolic representations, an interdisciplinary approach is needed that includes the disciplines of ethnology and sociology of violence, as well as the political, legal, and historical sciences. To further support already successful research undertakings, a research project has been started to analyse political ordering in Latin America, thereby developing comparison with parallel developments in southeastern Europe and sub-Saharan Africa.

Research Field 2: Processes of Cultural Transfers within and between World Regions

In recent years the University of Leipzig, in collaboration with a wide range of international partners, has been developing into a centre where concepts of cultural transfer and transnational history are intensely debated. In contrast to diffusionist approaches, in this perspective the adaptation of elements of other cultures to one’s own culture is chosen as a point of departure. Suitably, perceived deficits in one’s own culture can be considered to inspire cross-cultural learning. This is followed by an analysis of the intermediaries of such transfer processes, which is coupled with the examination of transfer media. As a final step, the research examines the different modes that cultural goods, which are considered to be worthy of adaptation, are incorporated into a culture. These processes range from open and explicit appropriation, which conceal the foreign origins of innovations, to open rejection to engage in a debate with the Other, which, in turn, can be considered as an indirect form of appropriation. While empirical research has shown that, for analytical purposes, a bilateral approach can indeed be useful in order to isolate transfer processes between two cultures, de facto these processes primarily occur in multilateral transfer constellations.

This applies equally to the dimension of time, which promotes an approach that analyses the layering of several transfers over time, instead of concentrating only on one time period. Finally, the asymmetries of power, status, and other resources between the studied regions play a significant role. This research programme has by now been tried and tested in many ways and its theoretical foundations have been thoroughly differentiated. Accordingly, it has found a respected approach amongst the various perspectives that analyse such interactions. On this basis, the research at CAS focuses on the following:

  • Integrating a postcolonial perspective on the asymmetric power relations within cultural encounters. Here, CAS focuses especially on the African continent and investigates the understanding on statehood among elites in Ghana and Cameroon in the framework of the DFG-funded Priority Programme (SPP 1448): "Adaptation and Creativity in Africa". 
  • Juxtaposing this approach with others that so far have been favoured within area studies, for example, with research on Métissage and hybridization, entangled history, cultural mobility, and histoire croisée, as well as with the rapidly growing research on transnationalism and translocalism. 
  • Extending the approach to such constellations in which the identification of clearly defined "cultures" is complicated due to the acceleration of communication and the emergence of transnational spaces and networks as analysed in the framework of a project on African performance arts.




Research Field 3: Circulation and Adaptation of Elements of Mass and Popular Cultures

Regions throughout the world are not sealed off from one another but are exceptionally interconnected, which is especially noticeable with the circulation of various forms of popular culture. This phenomenon is often discussed under the label of Americanization and Westernization, and is explained on the basis of theoretical models that consider cultural encounters from the perspective of domination or in terms of local resistance against global trends. For this reason, the research programme of CAS aims to extend the cultural transfer approach to the subject of popular culture. In particular, two questions are addressed through empirical studies:

  • Is there an increasingly homogenous global popular culture essentially shaped by mediatization? 
  • Which specific market types foster the successful establishment of those elements of popular culture that are effective worldwide? 

These two questions lead also to the question whether we are at a juncture to a multipolar world order: one that cannot be understood by merely looking at the invitations of new powers to the G8 or G20 summits, but that is also reflected by the representation on increasingly globalized popular culture markets. Another dimension of that same question emerges out of the diffusion of different forms of religion that within one specific religion are considered as dominant, while in another as nonconformist. This relates to research conducted by the Research Training Group (GK 1553): "Religious Nonconformism and Cultural Dynamics", funded by the German Research Foundation as well as to research by the Centre for the Study of Religion (CSR), which concentrates on various forms of secularity worldwide. The research programme brings the findings of these two strands together by investigating the interplay between religion, popular culture, and consumerism. In particular, we address the question of how religious institutions adopt successful formats pertaining to mass and popular culture as tools for proselytization and self-promotion while trying to satisfy the demand of the times and of a consumerist society by adapting communication strategies strictly related to mainstream media and the market economy.



Research Field 4: Migration and Legal Transfer amongst Converging World Regions

Due to increased migration of people and growing connections between world regions, legal concepts have also become mobile. Only one example among others is Islamic finance, i.e., a concept of legal, religious, and economic features that is based on the prohibitions of interest and risk. The concept has been present in the Middle East and in Southeast Asia for over 40 years. Now, it has arrived in the West. Here, we see growing demand for financial products based on Islamic finance, which has caused a need for legal regulation. Can Western rules of Islamic finance be based on a mere transfer of Islamic law? Or must there be something "new" combining both Islamic and Western standards? These are questions that shall be answered by the study of legal texts and the relevant practices when it comes to the application of Islamic law to financial transactions and contracts at a global scale.

Research Field 5: Commodity Chains and Socio-economic Connections between World Regions

One of the fields of research on encounters and entanglements between diverse cultural spaces that has drawn much attention in recent years is the analysis of increasingly compressed commodity chains spanning countries and continents. On the one hand, they allow for a new global division of labour, while, on the other, they lead to a new re-segmentation of the world between prosperous and marginalized world regions that are no longer geographically separated but often much closer connected to each other than in the past. This results in the entanglement of places of production and consumption as well as their incorporation into new economic regimes that can no longer be controlled solely by nation states. The role that individuals play in these commodity chains strongly influences their status within knowledge-intensive work that is frequently associated with profitable positions at the top of the chain. Accordingly, these new modes of organizing production foster migration movements that also pose an exceptional challenge to political orders as well. While research on global cities – which are primarily active in the international arena – focuses on the role of urban centres, CAS concentrates on commodity chains and corresponding social impacts on the food economy, as well as on small and medium enterprises. The International Small Enterprise Promotion and Training (SEPT) MBA Program comparatively addresses, in collaboration with research on development of economies of sub-Saharan Africa, Central America, and Southeast Asia, the training and education of small and medium enterprises in globally focused commodity chains, including corresponding issues of labour migration. At CAS this research focus will be further developed by taking a comparative approach and by bringing together the various region-specific studies, while concentrating primarily on continent-spanning commodity chains.

Research Field 6: New Regionalism, Macro-regional Integration and International Organizations as Places of a Global Synthesis of Culture

This part of the research programme, on the one hand, follows the transfer of agency and sovereignty from local and national to supranational or macroregional levels. On the other hand, it promotes the comparative analysis of international organizations, both governmental and non-governmental. The expectations of actors seeking to further this international level are evidently based on designs that perceive larger units of agency as more promising within a global context. This strategy can be observed in debates that range from the reform, albeit having failed on important issues, of the UN Security Council at the start of the 21st century to the current debate over the role of the G20. On the one hand, this can be interpreted as a challenge to a world order laid out by the UN in 1945, and, on the other hand, it conflicts with the demands of the emerging BRIC countries, which are currently able to rely upon demographic and economic strength, as well as to some extent the possession of nuclear weapons. The different scope for agency and forms of macroregional integration in the various world regions are to be comparatively analysed as well as the relationship between performance of countries’ representatives at international organizations (IO) and the regime quality "at home".

One may see a relatively recent dimension negotiated within the new spatial order that is linked to international organizations and non-governmental organizations (NGO) acting ever more autonomously from traditional patterns of territoriality. Whether the staff of the different organizations and campaigns identify themselves primarily with aims and forms of action of the organizations, or whether they see themselves predominantly as representatives of their respective countries, needs to be analysed empirically in order to understand the details of the emergence of a global community. Research on IOs and NGOs is of particular interest for cultural studies as well as the legal and political sciences that specialize in a certain world region, since these organizations are places where a common political and legal culture may emerge out of a meeting of diverse expectations and cultural backgrounds.

Research Field 7: Technologies and Significations in the Production of Order and Disorder

A considerable part of this examination of and investigation into the catalytic nature of technology in producing both order and disorder is carried out within the DFG Priority Programme (SPP 1448): "Adaptation and Creativity in Africa – Technologies and Significations in the Production of Order and Disorder", which has recently been included into the research aims and programme of the Centre for Area Studies. At the same time, historical investigation targets the role of technologies of communication and transport in the emergence of the so-called global condition in the middle of the 19th century, while attempting to relocate the idea of Europe’s hegemonic position, in regards to technology, within global history narratives by taking a long-term perspective on the effects technological advancement has on world order.

Research Field 8: Critical Junctures in the History of Globalization

A common idea widely professed by the media is the "discourse of newness", which declares the novelty of certain global constellations, instead of empirically examining these claims on the basis of historical and diachronic comparative analysis. This expresses itself in widely accepted assumptions that suggest a qualitative increase of phenomena in certain areas of society or world-society even, including migration, intercontinental trade, or foreign direct investments, as well as the technological basis for the intensification of communication. The research on the history of globalization that has been increasing over recent years and that is essentially based on knowledge gained from area studies, which the University of Leipzig plays an important role in, focuses on the comparison of three questions. Analyses of the longue durée of interactions show a great historical depth of global encounters and entanglements despite the changing economic and cultural gravity of individual world regions. The debate over the "great divergence" between (Western) Europe and China serves as an example for the revision of an older position that ascribes today’s imbalances in the global economy to the perceived ancient, essential differences between both civilizations. The recently developed method of reciprocal comparison suggests, however, a closer examination of assumptions about historical path dependencies as factors in current options for political agency and opportunities for socio-economic development. The current erosion of a seemingly stable world order – dissolution of the so-called Third World – undermines overly simplistic assumptions of a model of modernization in which, similar to a convoy, one world region leads and all others follow, be it by copy or by convergence.

This leads to the conceptualization of the history of globalization as something that does not evolve in a linear way, and during which gravity and influence have been and are being balanced anew. Between "archaic globalization" before the mid-19th century and “modern globalization”, essential differences can be determined with regard to the importance of interactions and global integration in world markets, migration systems, and modes of circulation within the knowledge-based society. The already mentioned look through the lenses of technology and its history helps to understand similarities and differences with the world before the emergence of the global condition.

It is, however, necessary to clarify the causalities of such transitions and how and where these are negotiated. Critical junctures are places and moments in which spatial reference points are negotiated as central intersections of technological opportunities for interconnecting and political control, and in which new spatial patterns of dominance emerge that in turn act efficiently as bridges between networks and autonomy. The concept of "critical junctures of globalization" – developed as a part of the DFG-funded Research Training Group (GK 1261): "Critical Junctures of Globalization" at the University of Leipzig and which is now an integral part of CAS – is not only focused on the analysis of present phenomena but also lends itself particularly well to further differentiation from a historical point of view. In this context, two histories merit special attention.

The one is the history of postcolonialism, which moves globally more and more into the centre of historical master narratives and current cultural self-representations. It further raises the question of how to incorporate postcolonialism into a "decolonized" self-understanding of Europe by placing results from area studies much more into the forefront of public debate than it has been the case in the second half of the 20th century. Starting from a resolutely localized self-understanding and negotiation of society at times when reconfigurations of space and power relations take place, helps to overcome the hegemonic prisms with which the world is explained. These prisms, assuming a parallel existence of separate social domains (e.g., politics, religion, economy, and culture) represented in different academic disciplines as well as a clear hierarchy separating "high" (elite) and "low" (popular) cultural representations, are themselves the outcome of a particular European historical experience that is not necessarily relevant outside of this particularity and that at the same time biases our understanding of Europe itself and of the interrelation between different places, scales, and social groups worldwide.

The other is the history of Eurasia. Obviously, there is a new East-West dimension in the self-perception of Europeans that has less to do with Cold War constellations and more with the attention given to the emergence of China and India as new partners and competitors for Europe’s economy. While, on the one hand, these more recent economic and financial developments are addressed by economists, there is also a historical dimension to be rediscovered. Here, CAS places emphasis on the shaping of that history by the Ottoman Empire and its diverse populations. The undertaken research combines the strengths of area studies research on Eastern Europe mainly at the Leipzig Centre for the Study of Culture and History of East-Central Europe with the expertise of CAS on the Middle East and South and Southeast Asia. Suitably, this is a reaction to the current debate on the global importance of Eurasia, while changing the focus on the various regions of the double continent. This is further connected to research on the transnationality of East-Central Europe and to analyses of the portals of globalization within the PhD programme "Critical Junctures of Globalization".

Research Field 9: Self-Reflexive Area Studies: The Consequences of the Spatial Turn for Disciplines Concerned with the Study of World Regions

The concept of area studies cannot be taken for granted. It is a product of various constellations within the history of science and the history of globalization addressed most prominently in human (new political) geography. It is connected to the highly diverse experiences of colonial and postcolonial relations between North and South, and is based on epistemes that although having been challenged over the past 100 years have remained relatively stable. The so-called spatial turn, which invites for greater self-reflection within the humanities, applies to a key interest within area studies: the attachment of culture and society to a certain territorial order and to a certain concept of territoriality. This concept is not an objectively given fact but rather emerges as a product of particular rationalization processes that are both culturally specific and of limited duration within history. Correspondingly, this has been critically discussed within individual area studies for some time now, and that debate has brought forth numerous proposals to extend the existing research. Some of this research includes critiquing the concept of civilization; expanding research to incorporate transcultural phenomena, transregional comparison, and research objects, such as the maritime connections between regions; and paying attention to new, not specifically regional, interests of research such as global cities – an interest that inspires the research programme of the Leibniz Institute for Regional Geography with which CAS cooperates intensively. A systemization of such extended research interests is, however, hindered by:

  • Pragmatic difficulties that result from the constraints and need to initially teach extensive language skills and knowledge of the respective countries, which a considerable part of already scarce resources have to be allocated to at departments of area studies. 

  • A de facto reification of North and South accompanying the deconstructive aims in the debate on Orientalism and postcolonialism. 

  • The structural weakness of area studies at German universities, which are expressed in defensive rather than offensive strategies when dealing with criticisms on research that has an uncertain outcome. 

Furthermore, resources that could be applied to more comprehensive internationalizing research are tied up in maintaining professional relations with individual area studies due to lack of research staff. The interconnection between European research institutions that could qualify certain traditions of the discipline’s self-understanding has not been sufficiently developed to date either.

Paradoxically, the esteem that area studies have gained within more recent debates on globalization hinders further systematization, as well as owing to the fact that the demand for knowledge about the world seems more urgent than a clarification of epistemological issues. At the same time, the challenges that area studies face, with regard to the spatial aspect of their research objects, are often met by a lack of interest by social sciences and historical disciplines, due to the fact that their theoretical debates are predominantly based on experiences within the OECD world. In trying to overcome these drawbacks of earlier studies, CAS analyses comparatively the various traditions of regional or area studies in Germany, the US, the Soviet Union/Russia, France, Britain, and East-Central Europe in order to historicize some of most influential epistemic assumptions and institutionalized patterns often essentialized as being at the core of area studies per se.

One of the most important epistemological premises of this research programme is to "provincialise Europe" (Chakrabarty) and to consider Europe as only one region among many. By doing so, the trap that is inherent in the distinction between area studies and systematic disciplines, which derive their paradigms from the empirical research of the "West", can thus be avoided. Hence, the process of re-segmentation that Europe itself is undergoing, which only partially moves along the East-West axis that has emerged since the late 18th century, becomes visible. At the same time, the inclusion of Europe into the research programme promotes a more detailed analysis of the interconnections that persist or that are being newly established because of persisting asymmetrical power relations, thus eliminating the restriction of the subject of area studies solely to the non-Western world. Although “space” is the leading issue, it evidently leads to more essential questions and specifically to that of the shape and scope of a new epistemology for the humanities in the age of globalization. We hope to derive from this research programme further insights into the analysis of historical and current processes of spatial organization of social interaction worldwide by comparing the emergence of new relevant spaces and spatial reference points in different world regions. To this end, CAS also orients its international cooperation towards strengthening its integration into the intense debates on the re-segmentation of the world.