RESEARCH TALK ▼
THE POWER OF COLLABORATIVE NETWORKS
AN INTERVIEW WITH PETER MÜHLAU | by Katrin Bernsdorff and Theresa Schmitz
Name: Peter Mühlau
Occupation: Assistant Professor at the Department of Sociology, Trinity College Dublin
Research Interests: Sociology of Work and Employment, Sociology of Migration, Social Stratification, Quantitative Research Methods, Socio-Cultural Integration of Immigrants, Gender Inequality in Work and Employment, Socio-Economic and Socio-Cultural Change in Ireland, Survey Methodology
What drew you to your current field of sociology and immigration?
P.M. I worked, at the time being, largely on migration related issues or rather on issues of the integration of immigrants into their destination countries. I ended up there largely by chance. When I started my professorship in Ireland, the country was in a situation where they had a massive influx of immigrants due to the labour market opening in 2004. This enabled the departments, or, say a large group of researchers, to draw a considerate chunk of money from philanthropic resources. And since these guys urgently needed somebody who can do some quantative work, they co-opted me into this then so-called immigration initiative. Since then it has become a kind of self-reinforcing process. It was never intended, never planned. The opportunity was just there and since then the immigration issues take so much of my time that I barely have any left. I do other things as well but it is clear that it takes the lion share of my time. Most of my PhD students work on issues related to immigration, which again reinforces the process.
What drew you to go into the field of sociology at all?
P.M. I actually started with a major in philosophy. At some point, I considered my labour market chance as a philosopher and since I don't have a driver's license I thought it would be good to switch to something that has some remote prospect. That happens to be sociology because I did it as a minor in my undergrad. I started as a theoretical qualitative sociologist. But at one point, I didn't see that fit anymore and then I reinvented myself as a rational choice quantitative sociologist. Again, not a very straight-forward path.
Yes, but that's what is interesting, who has that anymore?
P.M. Yes exactly. There is a strong tendency at the time being, because of stream lining of educational programs and the strong premium on early specialization in the academic fields, that these very indirect paths and, in a certain way time-consuming paths, is becoming increasingly rare. So at the time being, I won't expect many people doing similar things I did and still ending up with a job (laughter).
How do you choose your issues for research? Is there a pattern behind it?
P.M. There is a pattern in a certain way. There is an underlying current of interest in social inequality. There is also some kind of triangle between gender issues, employment issues, migration issues and a fourth one would be social networks or social capital. This is the field of gravitation where I more or less navigate for the time being. On the other side it's also that it depends simply on, for example, my research student's interest and how I can align that with what I can give them as a supervisor or collaborator. And the same holds of course for cooperation with other people where it is simply a process of looking where enough overlap exists and what we can develop from that. So it is not that I have a master plan in mind and strictly allocate my efforts and resources based on that master plan. I think it's very much opportunity driven. You can't (ex poste) construct a major story behind it. But I think for lots of other colleagues the process runs a bit differently. It is simply with whom you are and what kind of funding opportunities there are. You need a very strong position in the field to have your own agenda and let that work very strongly to what you're doing.
And how do you manage that? On the one side to have a strong position in the field and on the other side to be driven by the scientific community. Isn't there a conflict?
P.M. For me it works fine because I am not very dependent on funding by government agencies. The problem is always if you have your agenda set externally. Funding within the scientific community is largely driven by the quite diverse and accepted interests of the scientific community so it gives you far more leeway of freedom than being dependent on direct third party money which has a strong agenda. Horizon 2020 would surely be an example of something where lots of money is involved but also the ideas or constraints are so that many academics are a bit put off by the whole thing because that would create this tension between, on the one side, being some kind of player in the academic field and on the other side getting money for the universities. But as I said, I happily don't have much of this tension.
What brought you to Bamberg now? What are you researching here and what do you expect out of it?
P.M. What brings me to Bamberg? Probably that I have working relations with people here. Particularly Cornelia Christen, at the Chair of Sociology, especially the Analysis of Social Structures.
You also work with Diana Schacht right?
P.M. I have worked with Diana Schacht, yes. So there are preexisting links that have brought me to Bamberg several times. Sometimes it is really beneficial to have face to face contact rather than doing everything via Skype or e-mail and so forth. Of course what I'm doing here is related to the research projects I have with people here in Bamberg and that is what I try to do. It is obviously a retrospective into what I have tried to do in these three months.
What is the project you are working on?
P.M. With Cornelia (Kristen) I work on issues about the mutual influence of networks and the language development of immigrants. With Diana (Schacht) I work more on the ideas of: What is the effect, under influence of different societal influence or country differences, on the way immigrants can use network resources to get a job or get a better job. That is what I came to do here. From April on, Cornelia and I will also supervise a PhD student at BAGSS and we have already had the Bamberg-Dublin connection with Diana Schacht that stayed in Dublin for 4-5 months. I think it works very well in these kind of small, collaborative networks.
What do you think about the concept of being a guest researcher at all? What time framework makes sense?
P.M. I think it really depends. If you have preexisting contact, a short period might be better. If you want to use the time to establish a research agenda at the destination, it is probably better to stay longer. It probably also depends on your career stage, whether you need knowledge differentials and all these kind of things. Most people in my situation don't have the time to stay in one place for so long, which makes it more efficient to target shorter periods. For more junior researchers, post-docs etc., it might be more beneficial to make the visits much longer, especially if they are in an environment where they benefit from a stimulating community of scholars.
Does it help you as a researcher to have a change of scenery? You are in a different work place, you talk to different people, experience a different culture. Does the scenery influence you?
P.M. That I'm speaking to different people of course. The seven hills of Bamberg don't necessarily inspire me (laughter). In the summer I had a guest lectureship in Constance. That was the first time in 25 years where I was in Germany for a longer spell but since then I speak fluent German again so it makes the transition much easier than it was before. I can't really say what you have if you have a scholar from a very different culture, how that would influence him or her since I am German.
Is travelling important for researchers at all? Or is it for you?
P.M. That is a very difficult question. It belongs to our job to travel to conferences, to collaborating partners etc. I guess this question is more directed at the situations of people who are at the very beginning of their career, right? If you want to travel, besides the usual conferences or summer schools for example, if you want to visit other departments, the most important thing is that you have preexisting links there and that you have things to work on there. Otherwise it quickly becomes a waste of time. It might be nice from a sightseeing or personal development perspective but won't give you so much in terms of developing your research. For that it is absolutely crucial that you have people you can cooperate with and that you have somewhat of a common project. When I was a PhD student, I spent a semester in the United States, in Berkeley, I didn't really have any one there to cooperate with. It was nice to see what the other people were doing but it didn't have much impact on the development of my PhD project. And you have the three-year program that is very tough in the sense that it is very condensed. It is in certain way a loss. It will have the effect that you to have another post-doctoral stage to get people to the independent maturity to work as researchers or some kind of lecturers or professors.
If you have a well-funded and current graduate school, it gives you access to a lot of course which, in the traditional, say "Lehrstuhlmitarbeiter" role, you didn't necessarily have. In our times, things were much more unstructured which is a good thing in terms of knowledge transfer but also you don't have the skills of being independent or doing your own thing, having time to think things through, trying to find your own position in the market, which perhaps the more traditional systems integrated more in the trajectories. Time will show how that works with these graduate schools.
The Netherlands is in a certain way the success model in Europe for having a set of current graduate schools. They follow these four years and involve the people in teaching which is also something you do, I understand, with your PhD students. This has a particular strength that it is very strongly connected with the research interest of the teaching staff or the research staff and it worked very well over the last 30 years if you look at the positions in the Dutch university systems you will see that a surprisingly large amount come from one graduate school. Appears to work.
How do you measure the impact of the results you found or published?
P.M. What do you mean by impact? Before you start something of course you look at what can come of it. There is always uncertainty involved but I don't think you would start something where you are sure it will amount to nothing. Of course you look at potential impact and the impact is most often a publication of some kind.
That is what you look at and that is also how you evaluate things ex poste. It's also a question of: "Do you have time for that, can you make time for that?" and the fun factor. Somehow, work has to be fun and in these positions where you have to motivate yourself very much it's more important than if you have strong external monitors who look if you do the right thing and so if a research project promises to be something enjoyable that is surely another outcome beyond, say, a publication. In a certain way I am beyond the age where I have to publish. At some stage it's no longer necessary.
Don't you feel the pressure to publish? Or was there ever pressure when you felt you had to publish in order to make yourself an expert in the field?
P.M. Of course, until you have the final tenured positions, somehow you want to end up with a full professorship in Germany, and until then you definitely have the fundamental pressure to publish. More so now than in former days. It's a cultural thing in the sense that, for a long time, in Germany it was the case that someone that provided "good service" to somebody had the opportunity to establish themselves in that way rather than by publication records. And what I see in Germany, you still have all these little edited volumes that people publish, while peer review and journals, which are the only ones that count e.g. in our system (Ireland), are not that common. But they play a large part in Sociology. But of course the immediate pressure stops when you are established and then it's just that you want to do that because you have a job. You can't be fired (laughter).
Do you feel like your work has a social impact?
P.M. That always sounds very lovely, to have an impact on society or to influence the agenda of politicians or to make government policy more in the way you like it. It's very difficult. In Ireland, I have worked with those that very closely cooperated with people in the ministerial departments and it is very clear that the agenda of the ministries or of politicians is very difficult to influence from the outside. They select what you produce according to their own agenda so in a certain way, we are naive to think that, as an individual researcher, working on this project has a direct impact or influence. As a community you probably have some say in creating public debate about issues and having the credentials of having some expert knowledge which makes your opinions, hopefully, because it is evidence based, have more weight than people who just have an opinion. But it's difficult. I also see it with people who work in research institutions that directly produce reports for government. It's a very delicate balance and a direct impact of an individual researcher on one piece of research shifting anything in society is very unlikely. I mean the famous butterfly wing somewhere, if you believe in that. The primary audience for academic research is academia. As a community you may have an indirect effect but I think if you have a strong agenda to change society or influence policy, then there may be a better path than being an academic.
Do you have a personal framework of values or ethics that go into your research?
P.M. I mean firstly, I have strongly institutionalized values in academic research, which means being open to criticism, scrutiny of whatever you see, institutionalized scepticism and so forth. And I think there are more general values that influence the community as well as individual researchers. Not necessarily the values or issues that drive ethics committees that become more important in our work when we do experimental stuff. I think at least in my generation, and in the younger generation, we basically come from a socio-democratic or egalitarian point of view so most sociologist will have some preference for inclusiveness, egalitarian outcomes, for equality as opposed to, say, economists who have more internalized efficiency (laughter). And of course that influences the selection of what you study, how you approach this. Hopefully not your outcomes directly. Sometimes in the interface between research and pop-science, if the media gets alerted to your research that's a bad sign because you can be sure that they will make something out of it that you didn't mean or didn't intend. Sometimes you would prefer, or I have colleagues that would have preferred, that the media hadn't picked up on their work because they presented it in the way that definitely wasn't the intention of the work.
Do you have to deal with such situations yourself? And if so, how do you deal with them?
P.M. Yes, I live in a country where we have, for example, issues, such as refugees, that are not as topical as they are in Germany right now because it is rather far away and it takes quite a while. I did a study about social integration and it shows that immigrants, if you have ever been an immigrant you know this: You are the one that looks for social contact, probably with the mainstream population and they have their separated networks, they don't need anyone else there, they know their guys from wherever and the study found that Poles, for example, are relatively isolated in society and don't have that much friction with the national population. That was turned then into the idea of "immigrants don't want to integrate" which is a shift in meaning that is not nice and that I didn't intend, I don't like that very much. Here in Bamberg, in our system we have a "service to the community" aspect as one of the things you need to provide. And of course doing interviews with media is much appreciated as a kind of impact on society. In my experience, in Ireland, social scientist, economics and sociologists are much more prominent in the media than they would be here in Germany. They are in political magazines, in the news or there are simple interviews with people from universities or research institutions. Their exposure or their push to give your views to the broader public is much stronger in Ireland than it is here.
You also supervise doctoral students, what words of wisdom do you share with them?
P.M. Besides having something enjoyable in your job you also need to realize what is realistic. How does the market develop for your set of skills, for your potential? Of course it appears to very strongly depend on demographics. With all these graduate schools come large cohorts of PhD students. And is that really what you want? Most PhD students, at least my PhD students, start with the idea that they want to become academics. And I think most people don't realize at the beginning that this is a path which has many involuntary exit options and that it is, for a long time, very demanding and stressful. Once you are in it all sounds nice and everyone that advises you are those who have managed to get there while those that have fallen out or are collateral damage of the system you don't see because they have disappeared. So you get a completely biased view of the world and that is why you really have to ask yourself whether you want to do it. It's not made for everybody. You might be wasting your time. And being an academic here in Germany appears to involve that you have very strong relationships because of the mobility of the German system. You end up living in a city in which you don't work, being with a partner you don't live together with and other things that are particular to the German academic market. ◼
// Interview: Katrin Bernsdorff & Theresa Schmitz / Editing: Theresa Schmitz
Image Credits: © Bamberg Graduate School of Social Sciences