Karen Schönwälder

Karen Schönwälder Calls for Interdisciplinary Migration Research

Dr. Karen Schönwälder; Copyright: David AusserhoferDr. Karen Schönwälder; Copyright: David AusserhoferThough she insists on keeping research and politics apart, she doesn't see herself as an apolitical academic. She can prove, for example, that the oft-mooted trend of immigrants' sealing themselves off in "parallel societies" simply does not reflect reality.

Karen Schönwälder, Dr. phil. habil, is a research team leader at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity. Until 2008 she was head of the Programme on Intercultural Conflicts and Societal Integration at the Social Science Research Centre Berlin (WZB). Born in 1959, Schönwälder grew up in Cairo before her family returned to Germany. She did her undergraduate and PhD in politics and history in Marburg, Germany, taught at the University of London from 1992–1997, served as visiting professor in Haifa, Israel, from 2001–2002 and worked in Bielefeld and Freiburg, Germany, before taking the helm of the AKI programme.

Research on the history of immigration to Germany and Great Britain

"I have a very good overview of the history of immigration to Germany and Great Britain after World War II," she says. That was the point of departure for her current research activity; her postdoctorate on English and German integration policy from the 1950s into the '70s is a "weighty" tome: 700 pages on a chapter of modern history which, at least in Germany, had been the subject of precious little investigation theretofore.

"I was able to show, for example, that above all the public at large was presented with ‘guest workers' and not immigrants, though as early as the mid-'60s it was clearly spelled out in the ministries that many were here to stay," she resumes. Another conclusion from her study: in the early years of the EEC (later EU) Germany had a substantial interest, after the crimes of the Nazis and the Second World War, in being integrated into the Western community. To that end it was vital to show that the Germans were treating foreigners according to democratic standards. So the 1955 convention on the recruitment of Italian labour fit the bill. The recruitment of Turkish labour was also motivated by foreign policy considerations: Turkey is a NATO partner, hence of strategic importance, and a major buyer of German exports.

Do immigrants stick together?

Why politicians had a hard time for so long admitting that Germany is a country of immigration is the sort of question that intrigues Schönwälder: How do political issues evolve over time? What is involved in decision-making processes? Why does a specific issue come to the fore at a certain point in time? One present-day case in point: the theory of "parallel societies" or the buzz about culturally Muslim families in which all the women are oppressed and all the daughters forced into marriage. "The fact is that 65 per cent of the pupils in what are now mandatory language courses are women; most of them want to learn something, they want to participate actively in society." And a study on ethnic "segregation" showed that there are very few neighbourhoods in Germany in which nationals of any particular foreign country make up more than 10 per cent of the population, so one can hardly talk about "ethnic enclaves" here. It turns out that in places where immigrants constitute a larger percentage of the population they hail from several different countries of origin. In Europe there are no clear-cut structures comparable to the geographic segregation of "black" and "white" residential neighbourhoods in the US, according to Schönwälder's findings.

Who sets the agenda?

"Politics and research work according to different standards." Social scientists have to take up and propose responses to socially relevant and publicly debated issues, but in their questions and answers they need not heed the dictates of political deliberations and demands. Politics is swayed by votes, the struggle for majorities, foreign policy considerations, media-generated moods.

"Here at the Social Science Research Centre we do basic research, so we need to maintain a certain detachment." AKI staff include sociologists and psychologists with very diverse academic backgrounds. For the future, however, Karen Schönwälder wants to see even more interdisciplinary work. "Research is generally divided up into disciplines, but the best way to do migration research is an interdisciplinary approach, together with ethnology, political science, contemporary history, population science, urban studies and other fields of research."

The programme's remoteness from the hurly-burly of day-to-day developments does not mean its insights aren't useful to decision-makers. On the contrary, the AKI wants to be a place for policymakers and journalists to consult. And getting research results to the public at large is another core concern of Karen Schönwälder's: "Among other things, that means writing in generally comprehensible German whenever possible." In its research reviews, moreover, the AKI has demonstrated how research findings can be packaged in a way that makes them accessible to specialists and non-specialists alike.

Volker Thomas
is a freelance journalist in Bonn and Berlin and runs a copy and layout agency in Berlin.

Translated by Eric Rosencrantz
Copyright: Goethe-Institut, Online-Redaktion

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January 2008

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