‘A Scientist Must Be a Curious Person’
Monika Wohlrab-Sahr, Professor of Cultural Sociology at the University of Leipzig in Germany, began her involvement with HSE when she started working with two young scholars – Christian Fröhlich, an Assistant Professor at HSE and a former PhD student of hers, and Rafael Mrowczynski, who has served as a DAAD-lecturer at HSE. Ahead of her upcoming visit to Moscow, where she will present her work on ‘Multiple Secularities’ and give a seminar on Qualitative Methods, Professor Wohlrab-Sahr spoke with the HSE news service about her work, her academic interests, and her views on the key attributes researchers need today.
— Could you give us a brief overview of your current project, and how it’s tied to the theme of your upcoming lecture?
— Together with a colleague from Religious Studies – Christoph Kleine – I am currently directing a big project on ‘Multiple Secularities: Beyond the West, Beyond Modernities’. It has the format of a humanities centre of advanced studies, which means that we invite scholars from all over the world to come to Leipzig, work here and discuss their work and our ideas.
The topic of secularization and Islam in Western societies is incredibly relevant in today’s world. What attracted you to study the topic of secularization professionally, and how did you go about selecting specific areas for study?
We intentionally decided not to start with areas that easily come to mind when you think about secularization, secularism or secularity. We therefore chose different Asian regions and different parts of the Islamic world. The aim is not just to equate developments in the West with these regions. And the aim is also not to use a narrow framework of secularization. When we talk about secularity, we mean the differentiation, distinction or demarcation between the religious and the non-religious. This plays a role in every part of the world. We decided to look at the Islamic world and ask for these distinctions and differentiations. These will certainly not be the same as in the West, but the Islamic world is also not a place that is thoroughly religious. There are differentiations and distinctions, even if they are contested.
— Have you worked on any research together with HSE or other Russian professionals?
— Not yet. But as I mentioned earlier, I did supervise Christian Fröhlich’s PhD dissertation.
— What would be your message to young people, both at home in Germany and here in Russia?
— Remain curious about other people’s experience. Travel, get involved with people from other parts of the world. Learn other languages, talk, open your eyes to what’s going on somewhere else.
— What's the most important rule you've established for yourself and lesson you've learned?
— To stick to the things that I’m really interested in and to create environments where people are able to follow their scientific interests and discuss them with others.
The academic field is currently full of strategic rules: where to publish, what to research, etc. Of course, we cannot simply ignore these strategic rules. This is especially true for young scholars. But, nevertheless, I think it is important to connect our research with a strong interest in the subject and with deep curiosity. I think it is most important for a researcher to really be excited about the subject that he or she is working on. And to be able to let reality surprise him or her. And not to know everything already from the beginning.
— How would you describe the role of the researcher and scientist in the modern world, especially in your field of interest?
— It is my deep conviction that a scientist must be a curious person. He or she must be able to take the perspective of others, try to look at things from the standpoint of other people and try to understand the logic of their thinking and acting. This goes together with my qualitative methodological approach.
The German sociologist Alfred Schütz used to talk about the work of social scientists as ‘second order constructs’. This means that we first of all need to understand and reconstruct the constructions of the people under research and, based on that, build our scientific categories. Max Weber spoke of comprehension as a precondition for explanation. And all this goes together with a comparative approach. You can only understand what’s going on in one case or field or society if you compare it with other possibilities. We do this in everyday life as well, but in sociology we do it in a methodologically elaborated way.
Anna Chernyakhovskaya, specially for HSE News service
On September 28, the HSE Centre for Cultural Sociology held the first session of the Moscow Culture Workshop 2021–2022 – a series of meetings where participants have an opportunity to discuss research papers prepared by prominent scholars. Jeffrey C. Alexander, Lillian Chavenson Saden Professor of Sociology at Yale University, delivered the first lecture, entitled ‘Nature as Iconic Object: Its Performative Creation’. Dmitry Kurakin, Director of the Centre for Cultural Sociology, spoke to the HSE News Service about the purpose and setup of the workshop.
The HSE News Portal offers its readers an interview with Dr. Binder of Masaryk University in Brno, Czech Republic, who shared his thoughts on the pertinence of his discipline, the myriad of challenges he faces as a researcher, and what other plans for collaboration with the HSE are afoot.