Amrita Narlikar – from Cambridge to Hamburg

DE interview with Dr Amrita Narlikar, the new President of the GIGA German Institute of Global and Area Studies, Hamburg.

Charlie Gray - Amrita Narlikar

The GIGA German Institute of Global and Area Studies in Hamburg is regarded as one of the leading research institutes in the field of social-science area studies; it emerged in 2006 after the restructuring of the German Overseas Institute. 90 scientists are engaged in regional research there on Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East. They focus mainly on global developments such as the rise of new powers, the development of violent conflicts, the impact of sanctions, and changes in political systems. An interview with the new GIGA President, the renowned scientist Dr Amrita Narlikar.

Professor Narlikar, you have been President of the German Institute of Global and Area Studies (GIGA) in Hamburg since October 2014. How did you first come into contact with the institute and what is your impression of it today?

Well, the GIGA is already quite well known in the scholarly community. I had heard about the institute from colleagues in Oxford and Cambridge (where I come from), and had also come across the works of GIGA colleagues over the years.

Having been here since October 2014, it has been interesting for me to see the GIGA from the inside. It has been a very intense but also enjoyable start. I think colleagues at the GIGA are already doing excellent work. One of the most striking things about the GIGA is the wealth of empirical and interdisciplinary expertise it has on the different regions. In my view, this expertise is precisely what theorists need to build theories with more explanatory power, and what practitioners need to develop more effective policy. Given this inherent strength that defines its research agenda, I believe that the Institute has tremendous potential to be even more international and impactful.

I am particularly excited about the links that the GIGA has with the Federal Foreign Office and the Senate of the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg. Much of the research that colleagues do at the GIGA happens to be in areas of direct real-world relevance, and I am personally committed to continuing and reinforcing the fruitful two-way exchange between GIGA research and the world of policy.

What do you want research in GIGA to focus on? And what are your overall goals for GIGA?

Let me answer your first question first. In terms of research focus, it is perhaps almost a natural next step in GIGA’s research agenda to use its analytic advantage in empirical and comparative studies at the domestic and regional levels, and apply this analytic perspective to the global level. Much of mainstream scholarship is largely Western dominated, and pays very little attention to the societies, economies, cultures, and polities of the so-called “rest” that constitute the global system. GIGA is possibly the only institute in the world thus far (thanks to its unique Comparative Area Studies advantage), which has a strong foundation in this empirical expertise, and thereby has the potential to provide the leadership to make scholarship in International Relations truly global. I am very keen for the GIGA to take this next step: to apply its detailed empirical knowledge, to see the forest and not just the trees, and to show us how things add up. And in doing so, address the pressing questions of global import that affect us today, ranging from deadlocks in international trade negotiations or climate change, or indeed the multiple crises and conflicts that we see operating outside international institutions. If the GIGA were indeed to hone the “global” element in its research, I think the Institute could help develop a whole new approach to scholarship. The policy implications of this “global” approach could also be potentially path-breaking, both in problem-solving and also agenda-setting and norm-building.

Now to your second question: in terms of my overall goals for the GIGA, I would like the GIGA to take the next step and become a really world-leading institute, where colleagues publish pioneering fundamental research of real world relevance. How might we go about reaching this goal? I would suggest three broad strategies:

First, as I have outlined in response to your first question, the GIGA would do well to apply its rich and detailed empirical expertise to the global. This would be important in developing a new theoretical approach that is more inclusive than anything we have had yet, and also in finding some feasible and creative solutions to critical problems in the real world.

Second, going hand in hand with this strategy of “globalisation” would be a strategy of “internationalization”. In part this means engaging with the international academic community by attending conferences and workshops, as GIGA sholars have already been doing. But internationalization does not just mean the GIGA going out to the world, but also bringing the world to the GIGA. We are already planning a series of “Big Bang” events towards this, in the form of conferences and a Distinguished Lecture Series. In different formats, we aim to bring some of the world’s best and brightest minds to the GIGA, and to set new intellectual and practical agendas for the future together.

Third, policy engagement. I am strongly of the view that while research must preserve its intellectual integrity and seriousness, it can often be enhanced by policy engagement. I have relished my experiences with policy engagement, not only because they provide one with some satisfaction of having one’s ideas contribute usefully to the real world, but also because thinking about policy questions and discussions with practitioners have fed back into my own research questions and interests. Engaging in this dialogue between scholarship and practice offers unique benefits for both sides. I am therefore personally committed to continuing to work in cooperation with policy-makers, and also supporting and encouraging colleagues at GIGA to apply some of their findings in fundamental research to the policy domain. Incidentally, I should point out that the GIGA is an institute that belongs to the Leibniz family, whose motto is Theoria cum Praxi. The research that we do at the GIGA lends itself perfectly to this motto.

With these strategies, it is my hope that our GIGA team can together make the GIGA more giga!

Your last jobs were in Oxford and in Cambridge. How does Hamburg fit in the sequence? And what does Hamburg stand out for?

The real intellectual draw for me initially was the research agenda and potential of the GIGA. But rather quickly, Hamburg too became a point of attraction for me, for two reasons. First, given that one of my own research areas is international trade, I feel that the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg is a natural home for my research. Second, Hamburg has a wealth of research institutes and universities. For instance, I was impressed to learn when I first arrived that Hamburg is home to not only the GIGA and DESY and several universities, but also two other Leibniz institutes, and three Max Planck institutes, to name just a few! I see many potential intellectual partners for the GIGA here (given especially our own commitment to interdisciplinary research), within different departments in the universities and also in the different independent institutes. It is my hope that having spent most of my adult life in Oxbridge – two intellectually vibrant towns – we may be able to harness and consolidate the intellectual strengths of Hamburg and make it a real hub of interdisciplinary world-leading research.

Word has it your parents are moving to Hamburg, too. Why is that?

My parents are my only family, and I theirs, so of course they are going to join me in Hamburg. We would also like our beautiful and very well-behaved dog, Don (named after Oxbridge dons!), to join us. But additionally, I should mention that my family has a longstanding intellectual connection not only with the UK (I am the third generation in my family to have studied at Oxbridge) but also with Germany. My father works on Superconductivity, and he has developed many research collaborations in Germany over the years. I have some very happy memories of visiting Germany as a child, when my mother and I would accompany my father on his Visiting Research Professorships, and we struck some long-lasting friendships in the country. So in some ways, my coming to Germany now feels more like a homecoming for the family!

Interestingly, I feel connected to Germany not only because of my parents but also my grandparents. My maternal grandmother taught Sanskrit at the University, while my grandfather was a physicist. Both of them had a strong interest in linguistics and they actually studied German because they wanted to explore the linguistic connections between Sanskrit and German. I remember their telling me about the similarities between the grammars of our two languages, so my parents and I are very keen to continue the family tradition of learning German!

The World Economic Forum in Davos, 21 to 24 January 2015