“When You Work on Iran and With Iran, Life Is Always Full of Surprises” – Interview with Katja Rieck

We regularly introduce scholars that work in the project by letting them answer three short questions. Today, we talk to Katja Rieck. After having received her B.A. in International Political Economy from Princeton University, Katja Rieck took her M.A. and PhD in cultural anthropology at Goethe University Frankfurt, conducting her PhD research on economic counter-discourses in post-colonial social and political movements in late 19th and early 20th-century India at the Goethe University Cluster of Excellence “The Formation of Normative Orders”. Currently a post-doctoral fellow at the Orient-Institut Istanbul, she is developing a new project on civil society charity organisations in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

What will you be working on while being involved with the “Knowledge Unbound” project and what did you work on before?

Thanks to the Knowledge Unbound Project, the Orient-Institut Istanbul was able to offer me a one-year fellowship to develop my project on civil society charity organizations in present-day Iran. After receiving my PhD in 2017 from Goethe-University Frankfurt, I was working as the coordinator of a DAAD project conducted at the Goethe University Frankfurt to establish academic collaboration with Iranian researchers at Ferdowsi University of Mashhad and the University of Isfahan. In a way I was preparing the foundations to be able to carry out my project on charities. In order to be able to conduct research in Iran, you need institutional embedment, you need colleagues willing to host your work, you need to build trust with the relevant institutions there. So this project has required a lot of non-research related preparation.

What role does the concept of “knowledge” play in your own research?

My PhD research was on the role of political economy (as a science) in the emergence of economic-counter-discourses that brought forth colonial resistance in late 19th and early 20th century India. Knowledge “without borders” was central to this previous project. If you’re curious, the book is supposed to be out by Fall 2020 under the title: A Matter of Principle Political Economy and the Making of Postcolonial Modernity in India, a Foucauldian Approach (Nomos). But my current project on civil society charities in Iran builds on this interest in knowledge/power and how it doesn’t just play into relations of domination, but also engenders new forms of agency and processes of transformation in unexpected ways. These grass-roots initiatives are extremely creative in tapping into globally circulating knowledge, culling what is relevant from it, adapting it and combining it with tradition or with their own “situated knowledge” to improve social welfare in the community. And in some respect they are presenting positive examples of “good government”, in the sense of being transparent, accountable and effective in a context where the state is criticized for being none of those things.

Have there been any surprising moments in your research recently?

Well, when you work on Iran and with Iran, life is always full of surprises. I was admittedly rather unprepared for the fact that I was to be kept in visa-limbo with regard to my planned 10 week stay in Iran. I spent six months planning and preparing this field stay, during which I was to conduct the empirical part of my research as was planned during my fellowship.  After having been “on hold” since October of last year, it looks like I will have to resort to plan B for my research.
However, this is the reality of doing research in Iran. The situation changes. Sometimes everything is easy and open. And sometimes access is restricted. However, the aim of the project is to establish “Sustainable Scholarly Collaboration”. Sustainable means that such collaboration also has to weather these (inevitable) moments when things are more difficult. I am extremely thankful and privileged to have such wonderful Iranian colleagues who are as persistent as I am in continuing the collaboration despite all the institutional hurdles.


Max Weber Stiftung

The Max Weber Foundation promotes global research, focused on the areas of social sciences, cultural studies and the humanities. Our research is conducted at ten institutes in various countries across the globe with different and independent fields of focus. Through our globally operating institutes, we are able to contribute to the communication and networking between Germany and our host countries or regions. By promoting academic dialogue and merging academic and non-academic employees from several countries with different cultural backgrounds, the Max Weber Foundation is able to strengthen the internationalization of research.

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