In Brief

On Diversity and Invisibility. GIGA President Amrita Narlikar in Conversation about Globalisation, also in Academia

In an in-depth interview, GIGA President Amrita Narlikar spoke with journalist Carsten Germis on diversity in International Relations and science. The final article was published in the Leibniz Magazine in July 2022. The focus of this Leibniz issue is “Diversity and Unity”. Some parts of the interview were not included in the published version; as they relate to important questions of internationalisation and diversity, we are happy to share them with our readers here on our website.

  • Germis: Professor Narlikar, you have been President of the GIGA in Hamburg for more than seven years. What made you leave Cambridge University and come to Germany?

    Narlikar: I always had an affection for Germany. My maternal grandparents had taught themselves German – and my father had academic collaborations, for example in Karlsruhe and Stuttgart. I accompanied my parents on their academic visits to Germany. But what really made me give up my old life in Oxbridge was the GIGA. I saw the institute as a place with great potential. I was particularly attracted by the fact that it is a research institute that deals with the so-called “Global South” and works with it on issues of real-world relevance. For a long time, I had argued against theories and policies based exclusively on Western experiences. Viewing countries like India and China primarily through a Western lens not only led to distorted science, but also contributed to highly inadequate policy outcomes. It was very exciting to learn that there was an institute in Germany dedicated to working with world regions that shared my long-standing concerns and passion.

    Where did you set your priorities as GIGA President?

    When I arrived, I had three priorities. I wanted to enable the institute to conduct cutting-edge innovative research, increase the external funding that makes that cutting-edge research possible, and ensure that GIGA research is not only visible in academia but also has an impact with policymakers, the media, and the general public.

    Has that worked?

    I think the results speak for themselves. Since 2014, we have increased the number of books with renowned university publishers sevenfold, more than doubled the average impact factor of our journal publications, and increased the proportion of publications in A-journals from 20 percent to 35 percent. In terms of third-party funding, the GIGA was already in good shape in 2014, but now we have raised third-party funding to its highest level in the GIGA’s history. In terms of policy outreach, we have made the GIGA more international. Until 2014, there were mainly exchanges at the federal level and in Hamburg. Since then, GIGA has taken up new high-level international interactions with the UN Security Council, the World Economic Forum, the World Trade Organization, the Munich Security Conference, the European Commission, with actors in the Global South, and with top research institutions such as Columbia University, JNU Delhi, Cornell, NYU, Cambridge, NUS Singapore.

    [… see article published in Leibniz Magazine (link below) …]

    What does the “turning point – Zeitenwende” identified by the Federal Chancellor mean for academia? How do you experience the situation in Germany – especially with regard to diversity, which is the focus of this issue of the Leibniz Magazine? Is Germany’s academic world ready for change?

    That‘s a difficult question. And to be fair, Oxford and Cambridge also have their problems on diversity issues, mainly because of their colonial past. So in a way, I thought I’d seen it all in the UK, with the toasts to church and queen in the old colleges. I imagined it would be easier in Germany, less class-based, less “colonial.” I was wrong.

    You’ll have to explain that.

    It could be because attention to “diversity” in German academia has largely focused on gender issues. It is telling that while there are some Leibniz Institutes led by women, there are very few led by people of colour. In Section B (with the Social Sciences institutes), I am perhaps the only president who has a non-European, non-white background. If the situation at Leibniz is illustrative, then German academia is probably not used to seeing people of colour in leadership positions, which can lead to conscious or subconscious bias . This results in a rather difficult mix sometimes: one is usually put under negative scrutiny, which leads to working under extreme pressure, and even if one produces results at an exceptionally high level based on ability and hard work, recognition is difficult to come by. Much of the good that one does and achieves can thus be rendered invisible if one has a person in a prominent position who does not conform to the dominant norm. Exceptional performance is unimaginable if it comes from someone different. Please note that I am not making a case here for positive discrimination; I am merely suggesting that everyone should be treated equally and fairly.

    How could academia contribute?

    As you can imagine, the situation can be quite demotivating. Fortunately, though, at a personal level, I was taught from a young age to always strive for excellence for its own sake – not to win the approval of others. I am concerned though about the signals that German science sends out if it does not ensure a level playing field for everyone and chooses to ignore the achievements of people who are somehow different, who don’t fit accepted boxes. We certainly want to reach out to the best minds, regardless of what people look like or where they come from, to create vibrant intellectual communities; only then will German academic institutions be able to achieve true excellence. Whenever the achievements of white men, women of colour, or whomever, are subconsciously or consciously disregarded – when they are equally or even more qualified – this “omission” must be called out. I know there are enough good people in German academia and politics, and I hope they will step up.

    To the Leibniz article (in German)


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