“Conducting Research with the Citizens of Bremen, Not about Them”

To what extent does the colonial history of Bremen still impact the identity of the city today? Urban geog­rapher Professor Julia Lossau and cultural anthropologist Professor Michi Knecht are investigating this question together with their teams, students, and local players out­side the university. For them, outreach and knowledge transfer are part of a mutual pro­cess where the synergy of various perspec­tives creates added value for all.

„I Seek Out Dialogue“

Julia Lossau, Michi Knecht and the “brick elephant” in Bremen.
Julia Lossau (left), Michi Knecht, and the “brick elephant” in Bremen, since 1990 Anti-Colonialism-Memorial.

Strengthening the dialogue between the city of Bremen and the university was the goal of the project titled “Global Cotton – eine Uniein Bucheine Stadt” (“global cotton – one uni­versity – one book – one city”) in 2018 under the leadership of Professor Michi Knecht. The example of cotton as a raw material was used to encourage thinking and discussions – for instance about the interweaving of local and global history as well as colonialism and the present-day social, political, and eco­nomic orders. “For us, it was exciting to bring together the various partners from the city and from the university,” says Knecht. These included, for example, the Theater der Versam­mlung and the Bremen Cotton Exchange, or the university’s fiber institute with the Anthro­pology and Cultural Research department. “We built bridges that weren’t there previously,” adds the academic. “Global Cotton wove the university and the city together in various models of teaching, research, and discussion.”

Julia Lossau also sees time and time again that academia and the city can be more closely linked through exciting models and partner­ships. “As a professor of urban geography, I seek out dialogue with various players in the city to find out how they want to shape their city and what is important for them in doing so,” she explains.

Professor Michi Knecht works at the desk.
Professor Michi Knecht studied cultural anthropology, sociology, psychology, and history at the University of Cologne and earned her doctorate in empirical cultural studies and cultural anthropology at the University of Tübingen. As postdoc at Humboldt-Universität, she established the ColLaboratory Social Anthropology and Life Sciences together with other researchers. Since 2014 she has been Professor of cultural anthropology in Bremen, she is co-spokeswoman of the platform Worlds of Contradiction.

That is why she likes to partici­pate in events such as the “Wohntage Bremen” organized by the Senator for Environment, Construction and Transport – an interac­tive format where the people of Bremen get to speak their minds. Lossau would also like to strengthen her commitment on the board of the Bremer Zentrum für Baukultur: “The ‘Bremer Stadtdialog’ series does important work in terms of outreach and knowledge trans­fer relating to current topics of Bremen’s devel­opment. Urban geography has a lot to offer in that regard, and we can also learn something along the way.”

“The University of Bremen doesn’t have an inner-city campus, which is why formats need to be organized where the city comes together with the university,” notes Michi Knecht on her commitment to knowledge transfer. “On the one hand, that means taking the university to the city and, on the other hand, bringing the city to the university.” This worked perfectly as part of the Global Cotton project. “The project demonstrates what cultural studies at the Uni­versity of Bremen can do for the city: we make sustainable knowledge available for Bremen that will help the people of Bremen understand the developments of the city in a broad context.”

„We Have to Take Our Research to the Neighborhoods of the City“

Professor Julia Lossau works in her office on the computer.
Professor Julia Lossau studied geography, sociology, and urban planning at the universities in Würzburg and Bonn. She earned her doctorate at the University of Bonn with a dissertation on the subject of political geography. After that, she was a Marie Curie Fellow in the Department of Geography and Topographic Science at the University of Glasgow and junior professor at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. Since October 2012, she has been a professor of human geography with a focus on urban geography at the University of Bremen.

In response to the question of how research can be taken to the city, Julia Lossau comments: “We should be aware that the format of central­ized dialogue series doesn’t go far enough. In fact, we have to make direct contact with the people who live in the neighborhoods.” She con­siders cities to be nodes in a network of inter­woven relationships. Currently, she is research­ing the postcolonial relationship between Bremen and Singapore with someone who lived it. During a visit to the Übersee-Museum, Los­sau came across the story of a businessman from Bremen who grew up in China and is now once again living in Bremen. “Stories like that say a lot about the importance that people subscribe to the places they live.”

What unites the way the two academics under­stand public outreach is their unconditional desire to learn something through their work with the citizens of Bremen. “In our polar­ized society, we need to rethink what knowl­edge supposed laymen may have, how we take this knowledge seriously, and how we can make connections between this knowl­edge and academic knowledge. This is why I always refer to it as collaboration and copro­duction,” says Knecht. Lossau takes the same approach: “Successful outreach and knowledge transfer are reciprocal – both or all parties involved are able to teach the others something. When many different perspectives are involved, then we can reach better conclusions about the world, which is why outreach and knowl­edge transfer have a lot to do with participa­tion. The collaboration between academia and society should take place on an equal playing field.”