How would you describe the research works carried out at the Institute in the world panorama?
Our specificity comes from our unique location in the heart of Geneva and from the very specific mix of disciplines and interdisciplinary fields represented at the Institute – from law, economics and international relations to history, politics, sociology and anthropology. This set of disciplines offers enough diversity for us to engage in interdisciplinary dialogue and enough focus to prevent us from stretching too thin. In this age and time, it is no longer possible to master all disciplines, like it may have been during the Renaissance. But at least, we can expect researchers to gain insights from the complementarities between the social sciences, humanities and law as we seek to shed light on contemporary societies, economic problems and other current global issues. Our researchers all have the unique specificity of also asking questions relevant to ongoing global discussions – for instance about social, racial or gender inequalities, or about territorial, financial, digital or natural vulnerabilities – or about broad ideologies and utopias about governance, democracy and the rule of law. Being located in Geneva with faculty, fellows and students from all over the world means that researchers are connected to many dispersed, international field sites: when researching these topics, they not only move across disciplines, but also across geographical sites, historical periods, social worlds and modes of engaging with research ideas, which they either turn into very academic research questions or translate into concrete policy recommendations. This combination between the immediate presence of international organisations in Geneva and the vibrant, diverse academic cultures at the Institute is responsible for such intellectual creativity.
What are the strengths and weaknesses of these research works?
It may not be for me to talk about the strengths of our research, humility being a well-respected norm in academia! If you really push me, and at the risk of sounding a bit conventional, I would emphasise how cutting-edge our research is. The number of research grants that the Institute’s faculty has managed to attract in the last few years, as well as the first-rate venues in which our faculty and students publish their books and articles, bear witness to such academic excellence. Another strength of the Institute at the present moment is that, since the merger of the two formerly independent Institutes (HEI and IUED), and thanks to the proactive hiring policy of our previous Director, Philippe Burrin, a new generation of researchers has turned the Institute into their new permanent home. This generation is by definition, younger and more diverse, both in terms of nationalities and gender, which is always a good thing to spur intellectual openness, curiosity and cooperation. Still, although I would not speak of weaknesses, there are trends we may want to counter-balance. One revolves around the issue of language. In today’s world, scientific or academic excellence has come to rhyme with research published in the best English-speaking journals. If we purely follow requirements related to academic excellence, we thus risk moving our research outputs in a purely monolingual direction, and this may be true whether you teach at the Graduate Institute or at any other Swiss university. It’s a global fact of academic life. Our Institute has the particularity of being a bilingual Institute (with French and English being the two official languages), and our research community masters a much wider array of languages. So we should be able to broaden our intellectual conversations beyond the English-speaking world. It raises the question of how we engage with diverse publics, in different languages, and with different objectives, and still follow the goal of pursuing academic excellence.
How will you orientate the development of research at the Institute in the next months?
Academic excellence will continue to be our primary objective, and we all know that academic excellence is most often achieved by letting individual researchers freely select their research projects to push the boundaries of knowledge in their own fields. So, there is something inherently self-defeating in seeking to achieve academic excellence by orientating research from the top down. If any orientation is given, it must be done by creating new spaces for dialogue and breaking down walls between researchers themselves, not by imposing new directions. And just on this point, there is a lot that can be done, especially now that we have a new Director, Marie-Laure Salles, who brings with her a new perspective and a new set of priorities. For instance, the Institute funds a lot of extremely creative research at the PhD level, and more could be done to give visibility to our PhD researchers so that they interact with other researchers beyond the traditional confines of the PhD supervisor-supervisee relationship. Another example is how we could imagine new ways for the many thematic research Centres, which focus on Global Governance, Global Health, Trade and Economic Integration, Conflict, Peace and Development, to cite just a few, to develop new institutional venues for cooperation. There are different vehicles that could be imagined to structure these conversations across Centres, but the reflection on how they could share the wealth of experience accumulated on cross-cutting research themes and overlapping sets of issues has yet to be turned into concrete institutional-building projects.
Can you observe the impact or the consequences of the pandemic on research topics or on the way to conduct research?
I think the impact of the pandemic on our research practice has yet to be fully understood. If the most dramatic effects of the pandemic continue to be felt, and if the political response continues to oscillate between hopeful denial of its impact and severe restrictions placed on access to distant field sites and/or libraries, the very practice and social role associated to being a historian of the contemporary, or a sociologist, political scientist or anthropologist interested in global affairs, or a developmental economist, will profoundly change. Such an impact will be most dramatically felt by the younger generations, especially PhD researchers, who work under tighter time constraints and face stronger imperatives to become masters of their one research topic, their discovered archives or their original study of a carefully sampled population, than tenured professors. So I think that as a community of researchers, the pandemic forces us to really question notions of solidarity and competitiveness between researchers and research universities. These questions require us to re-think, deeply, questions of ethics in the conduct of research, but also about politics, so that we take stock of the fragility of the world that we took for granted: a world in which researchers were free to travel to distant places for fieldwork or conferencing as much as their research funding authorised without questioning either their carbon footprint or quasi-extra-territorial immunity when moving in and out of countries where local researchers were not as free to voice their ideas. The contemporary challenges that not only the pandemic, but also the political response to the pandemic, pose to our globalised academic way of life are not just challenges, but also opportunities for us to re-think how we travel in this world, how we exchange ideas in seminars that can now connect researchers across oceans and continents thanks to digital platforms, and how we relate to our local communities, especially the most vulnerable in our societies. We’re just witnessing the beginning of a re-definition of our ways of living and interacting as academics, but it’s clear that major changes will come from our response to the crisis. These are difficult but interesting times.
Grégoire Mallard is, in addition to his role as Director of Research, Professor of Anthropology and Sociology at the Graduate Institute.
This article was published in Globe #27, the Graduate Institute Review | Spring 2021