Building Sustainable Scholarly Collaboration With Iran (and Beyond): Of COVID-19 and other challenges
By Katja Rieck
Next to producing innovative scholarship, the second but no less important pillar of the Knowledge Unbound initiative is forming and strengthening international research networks. At Orient-Institut Istanbul we are pursuing this aim through the International Standing Working Group “Iran and Beyond: Breaking the Ground for Sustainable Scholarly Collaboration”. Three of the institute’s research areas, namely musicology, sociology of medicine and study of religions, are involved in this initiative, and each is pursuing the building of sustainable scholarly collaboration with colleagues in Germany, Iran, Turkey, and Pakistan in its own way. In this blog post I will reflect on the activities and experiences gathered so far within the research field study of religions, headed by PD Dr Robert Langer, a principle investigator in the project. I will focus on the general challenges we have faced in extending our academic network specifically to Iran, but close with some reflections on how the current COVID-19 pandemic has not only presented us with obstacles but opened new opportunities to deepen our research relationships.
Challenge 1: Where are the colleagues?
Collaboration with academic contexts outside the European and North American scholarly tradition presents a challenge, as disciplinary fields of study may differ. The study of religions (Religionswissenschaft) is a discipline very much rooted in a German academic tradition. In post-revolutionary Iran, especially, religion is positioned differently from the way it is in the academic context of Continental Europe. The tradition of (Shi’ia) Muslim scholarship is still formative, even in the university context: Religion is studied as theology in the scholarly traditions of fields like religious jurisprudence (fiqh), Qur’an and Hadith studies, Islamic philosophy (kalam), philosophy of religion and Islamic history and civilisation. Complicating matters is how religion is linked to the political sphere of the post-revolutionary state. That said, in Iran scholarship and “modern scientific methods” are highly valued, not only in the academic community, but also in government administration and society in general. Hence, there is great interest in having research approaches measure up to international scholarly standards. As a result, several faculties of theology have embraced “innovative” research approaches, such as the comparative study of religions, or comparative mysticism. In some cases, they have formed partnerships with colleagues in the faculties of humanities and social sciences to broaden their research focus to include the empirical study of religion(s) using quantitative and qualitative methods of social research. Further, many Iranians leave Iran for post-graduate study. In this context Iranian scholars have been trained in anthropological studies of religion, bringing this expertise back home. So, while the study of religions in the German academic tradition is not currently institutionally present in Iran, there are colleagues scattered across different faculties who have become interested in the study of religion as an empirical phenomenon. Not being able to rely on websites, which tend not to adequately represent what scholars are currently working on, one relies on a snowball system of personal contacts to locate colleagues who might share similar research interests and approaches. However, without concretizing these contacts in personal meetings and forming substantive plans for future projects, e-mail correspondence soon succumbs to the everyday pressures of surviving in our respective publish or perish systems.
Challenge 2: Sustainability in scholarly collaboration, creating durable research networks
So following a period of intense mobilisation of personal contacts, Robert Langer and I went to Iran last November with an ambitious two-week itinerary of establishing personal contacts with more than thirty scholars. We were warmly welcomed at all the institutions we visited. Universities and other research institutions are eager to establish international research networks, particularly in the social sciences and humanities (and theology) where such networks are not as common as is the case in the natural sciences and engineering. Having met with many scholars doing interesting work in fields that are relevant to the research being conducted at Orient-Institut Istanbul the next question was: How do we not only maintain but deepen the contacts made?
Sustaining a network of contacts and developing them into productive research collaborations (i.e. with joint publications and projects) over the long term must be linked to concrete scholarly task(s), preferably with deadlines that keep everyone actively in contact and engaged with each other’s work. We decided that we needed to host a workshop, which preferably would be linked to some sort of publication project. Having the latter would ensure that a shared peer-reviewed endeavour would keep collaborative activities higher up our active to-do lists. We were able to obtain support from an important journal that agreed to publish select contributions as articles in a special issue scheduled for 2023, on the condition that they met with the journal’s expectations of academic quality. Moreover, one of its editors agreed to attend the workshop as a discussant and to support the development of the stronger papers into journal articles. One could hardly wish for a better situation.
It was also planned that I spend an extended period of time (about two months) at one of the institutions most interested in developing and institutionalising research collaboration. I would be working on an application for third-party funding and doing preliminary research on a project that expanded on a pre-existing (but very limited) study of small-scale charity organisations in the city of Mashhad in North-eastern Iran. It was also planned that I co-publish with an Iranian colleague an article based on data he obtained during this previous study. Such a sustained time of close in person collaboration and interaction as well as active presence at the hosting faculty was to lay a foundation of trust and mutual understanding regarding each other’s research priorities and approaches that would facilitate further collaborations between members of the Orient-Institut Istanbul and their fellows and colleagues in Mashhad.
Challenge 3: And then came the pandemic …
As I was waiting for my visa to go to Mashhad COVID-19 hit Iran with full force. The pilgrimage centres of Qom and Mashhad were among the hardest hit. A few weeks later, when we were circulating the call for papers for the planned workshop, the spread of COVID-19 reached pandemic proportions with now not only Iran but also Germany and Turkey being among the countries hardest hit. Universities and research institutes closed in all three countries (as well as in most other parts of the world). A number of Iranian colleagues themselves became infected. Other colleagues struggled with their productivity as they juggled childcare and home schooling with on-going academic work. Quite a few had shifted their research to various aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic and were frantically collecting data. Despite these challenges, about forty scholars submitted paper proposals regarding the “materiality of everyday lived religion”, far more than could be accommodated within a two-to-three-day workshop. We were faced with having to turn down good and interesting papers due to the limited numbers of slots. Moreover, as the situation unfolded, it became clear that there would not be a “return to normal” until there was some sort of vaccine. When this would be an accessible reality remained anyone’s best guess. Perhaps in spring/summer 2021? Yet, there are plenty of diseases for which even after decades of intensive research there are still no vaccines. This has not been conducive to planning an autumn workshop or for creating “sustainable relations of scholarly collaboration”. But we have pushed ahead with selecting papers and creating a workshop program. My own stay in Iran, however, has been put on hold indefinitely.
When life gives you lemons, make lemonade
As Turkey, Iran, and Germany have gone into various forms of lockdown, everyone, scholars included, has flocked to online technology. Not only did teaching go digital, but so did research collaboration. While once upon a time great value was placed on jetting between countries to attend meetings in person, now everything was transferred to video conferences. Since such technology has become a necessity and travel an impossibility for the moment, the reservations and even ‘stigma’ attached to such interactions (as somehow being inferior to being invited in person) have decreased. This has opened possibilities to invite Turkish, Iranian, Pakistani und German colleagues to share their work in online colloquia and lectures without being burdened by the extra costs of hosting them physically. The forced switch to online interactions has thus for the time being lowered the costs of research exchange, which has encouraged us to create new online formats that allow us to invite our colleagues to share their work.
In all three countries there is currently much interest in COVID-19 research grounded in the social sciences and humanities; and several Iranian and Turkish colleagues have been examining different aspects of how, for example, religious practices and networks have impacted both the spread and containment of the virus. They have also been following how religion(s) have been affected by or have responded to the pandemic. The forced switch to online scholarly exchange is now allowing us to quickly integrate such new research priorities and interests and to meet on short notice for online workshops. Being able to respond to shifting research priorities in such a way is in turn impacting how we can position ourselves to quickly take advantage of calls for applications for funding to submit proposals for collaborative projects. In other words, the immediacy that online exchanges affords us, is showing itself to be beneficial to the speed with which we can capture pressing research interests and turn them into substantive longer-term projects, which are the bread and butter for truly sustainable scholarly collaboration.
In the coming months, we must continue to use and build on such opportunities to the best of our advantage and hope that the technological infrastructures connecting us are up to the task. The upshot of building research scholarly under such situations of duress may be that whatever is established in the face all these challenges will most likely survive easier times.
Read more about the IRSSC here