13. November | 2017

Discoveries in Space and Time

Acclaimed scholars and junior researchers at the IRS Spring Academy 2017

Between May 2nd and 5th 2017, the IRS and Technische Universität Berlin jointly hosted the first “IRS Spring Academy: Investigating Space(s): Current Theoretical and Methodological Approaches”. Over the course of four days, 26 German and international junior researchers with backgrounds in geography, political science, history and sociology came together to explore novel theoretical concepts and methods in spatial research. In particular, this year's Spring Academy focused on the interrelation between time and space. The junior researchers were joined by leading scholars to discuss theories and methods of spatial research that reflect on variegated aspects of temporality – whether conceptualised as models of spatial processes, or as social constructs of standardised time. The event also provided a platform for IRS scholars to present, modify and further advance their ongoing research on spatio-temporal dynamics.

In the past two decades the interdisciplinary field between spatial and social sciences has undergone an extraordinarily dynamic development. Many social-scientific disciplines underwent a 'spatial turn' and became more interested in integrating spatial concepts and terminology. Disciplines like geography and spatial planning gradually moved away from regarding space as their exclusive research subject and instead as one of interest to many different disciplines as well. This has extended the ontological foundation of spatial research to many social-scientific disciplines. It has allowed for the development of new, interdisciplinary concepts of space and spatiality.  

Against this background, the IRS together with several academic partners launched a series of three successive Spring Academies entitled “Investigating Space(s): Current Theoretical and Methodological Approaches”. The event series, which is supported by VolkswagenStiftung, provides a forum for junior researchers and internationally acclaimed scholars to discuss theoretical and methodological approaches to spatial research, and for junior researchers to present their projects to an international audience.

On Friday, May 5th 2017, IRS director Prof. Dr. Heiderose Kilper gathered all participants of the Academy for a late afternoon feedback session. The junior researchers, workshop organisers and other guests were looking back on three and a half intense days spent listening to three evening lectures, attending paper pitch sessions, co-teaching seminars, doing-research workshops, individual consultations, an excursion and a 'Meet the Editors' session. A busy schedule, by all means. Despite, or rather because of the busy programme, participants said they were highly satisfied with the event. Three aspects were highlighted in particular:

Firstly, many participants welcomed the interdisciplinary nature of the Spring Academy which had allowed them to broaden their horizons regarding their own research. One attendee said that “I was not fully aware of the many invaluable additional perspectives that scholars from other disciplines can bring to my own research”. Secondly, junior researchers engaged in animated discussions with each other and senior scholars. These were held informally in the context of sessions and discussions, as well as in pre-arranged one-on-one consultations designed for senior scholars to counsel junior researchers on dissertation projects. Many personal meetings and lively exchanges over the internet also occurred in the wake of the workshop. It is important for junior researchers who are branching out into new academic fields to sense that they are not alone in these research areas. Looking back on the Spring Academy, one participant said: “I used to perceive my research as rather specialised and isolated but got to meet many like-minded people with a similar perspective on spatial research.” Thirdly and lastly, junior researchers welcomed the input on theories and methods provided by experts, deeming it highly relevant to their own research efforts. The novel 'doing-research workshop' format, which illustrated methodological know-how by drawing on concrete research examples and methodological considerations of field research, rather than ideal-typical textbook cases, was seen as very instructive.  

Evenings lectures by Dr. Tim Schwanen (University of Oxford), Prof. Dr. Mike Crang (Durham University) and Dr. Vanessa Ogle (University of Pennsylvania) formed the main pillar of this year's instalment. In his talk, Schwanen introduced a new conceptualisation of “transition geography” which builds on established approaches in time geography. Time geography combines spatial and processual perspectives. Yet Schwanen argues that this traditional perspective must become more dynamic if it is to adequately capture large-scale transition processes unfolding over long periods of time. It is essential, he said, to consider the uncertainty and improbability inherent in complex developments alongside planning processes and interventions when studying “transitions”. This links the uncertainty inherent in socio-spatial development processes resulting from the influence of complex interrelated factors, with the objective of reliable planning, for instance in urban development processes or adjustments to social welfare systems. A day after his talk, Schwanen held a co-teaching seminar together with Prof. Dr. Oliver Ibert (IRS) in which concepts from traditional time geography (space-time prisms, paths, projects and dioramas) were introduced and discussed in terms of their utility. The two experts then debated with junior researchers about which kinds of criteria concepts must meet to adequately capture and describe gradually developing processes. These cutting-edge insights from spatial and temporal research were invaluable to all participants.  

Prof. Mike Crang's lecture on “Transience, Endurance and Temporal Ecologies of Value” delivered insights from the disciplines of geography and sociology. He drew on his research into the way  economic value is derived from used clothing and ships retired from service to illustrate how (ascribed) values, and concomitant work processes, regularly stabilise and destabilise. Crang traced the spatio-temporal processes from the donation of clothing, and ship breaking, to the recycling of resources, to show that the stabilisation and destabilisation of values ascribed to these goods directly impact local economies. From this Crang concluded that methods used to analyse spatio-temporal processes must be able to account for and describe temporally and regionally specific ascriptions of value to material objects. Following his lecture, Crang held a co-teaching seminar together with Prof. Dr. Gabriela Christmann (IRS) on the the way in which such temporally and regionally specific life cycles may be analysed. Participants drew on social theory, social and communicative constructivism, and ethnography to think about possible approaches to analysing large quantities of complex processes data. “Multi-sited ethnography” was identified as a particularly promising approach, though one that is also demanding in terms of data gathering and analysis. 

Dr. Vanessa Ogle's lecture on the “Global transformation of time” showed that time, which we deem objectively measurable with the aid of clocks and calendars, is in fact the product of elaborate socio-technological constructs and protracted power struggles. Ogle recalled the great efforts that were made throughout the 19th century in many different places to establish what we today consider the naturally given globally standardised time. It was a complicated process involving many politicians, scientists and economists. Time zones – that is, concrete manifestation of time and space – needed to be agreed. This was done over a longer period of time in an iterative process fraught with power asymmetries and conflicting interests. Ogle added that the introduction of times zones, compatible calendars and standardised times also had significant spatial implications in that some cities, regions and states thereby gained and others lost influence.

A co-teaching seminar jointly held by Prof. Dr. Susanne Rau (University of Erfurt) and Prof. Dr. Christoph Bernhardt (IRS) similarly drew together historical and socio-spatial perspectives. They emphasised that combining historical and contemporary takes on the co-construction and co-production of space and time can yield invaluable insights. Against the backdrop of Tim Schwanen's lecture, Rau, Bernhardt and the participants reflected on the significance of long cycles in historical developments and more recent political and social processes. The lively discussions dealt with methodological and conceptual aspects but also put the notion of linear temporality under scrutiny. Yet again it became clear that interdisciplinary viewpoints can produce entirely new perspectives on these issues and, by extension, carry altogether different implications. By reflecting on the limits to constructivist conceptions of time, and on the irreversibility of human action, seminar participants became attuned to the state of the art and to research lacuna in this area.

This first instalment of the IRS Spring Academy was entitled “Current Theoretical and Methodological Approaches: Temporality and Procedurality”. In addition to lectures and seminars, methodological workshops by Dr. Johanna Hautala (University of Turku), Prof. Dr. Nina Baur (Technische Universität Berlin) and Prof. Dr. Susanne Rau further deepened theoretical and methodological thinking by examining the intricacies of various methods and procedures of empirical research. The junior researchers were given an opportunity to detail challenges encountered in their own work and to receive feedback from fellow seminar participants as well as acclaimed senior researchers. Participants agreed that interdisciplinary approaches can enrich research projects, while simultaneously broadening the scope of available research methods.

Empirical research projects were not only the subject in various seminars and talks. From the outset, the “IRS Spring Academy” event series was designed to facilitate theoretical and methodological input to help junior researchers working on their own projects (most of them dissertations). This is why the paper pitch sessions formed an essential part of the event. Participants were able to showcase their research projects at one of three paper pitch sessions. The broad range of presented projects illustrated the wide thematic scope of the Spring Academy. Projects showcased included research into long-term scenarios for politics and planning in the context of climate change and aquatic biodiversity, work on the role of venture capital in innovation processes, studies on urban development on remote islands, the export of GDR planning and architectural practices, and urban energy transitions. The projects investigate processes all over the globe, thereby highlighting the relevance of spatio-temporal approaches within many different research contexts.

At the concluding feedback session, Prof. Kilper asked workshop participants to name the events they found most useful. Aside from lectures, seminars and workshops, attendees identified the smaller one-on-one consultations and “Meet the Editors” session as especially helpful. The hour-long consultations allowed junior researchers to discuss their research projects with and received in-depth feedback from renowned IRS scholars and guests. Workshop attendees also valued Prof. Crang's, Prof. Dr. Baur's and Dr. Matthias Bernt's (IRS) “Meet the Editors” session for candidly discussing how publishing processes differ depending on national and disciplinary context, and for detailing how journals operate. Session participants were able to take away useful hints that may help getting published in reputable journals.

Spatio-temporal dynamics, which were discussed from many different conceptual and methodological angles at this first instalment of the “IRS Spring Academy”, play a significant role in the IRS' research on society and space. This is evident from the institute's conception of space, which is continually re-evaluated and enhanced by IRS scholars. It is also clear from the institute's manifold research projects which for instance investigate the spatial dimension of innovations, or processes of place-making in the context of Germany's “Energiewende”. The “IRS Spring Academy” therefore not only serves as a forum for supporting junior spatial researchers, but also as a means of advancing the institute's social science-based spatial research. Insights gained from animated discussions with international experts, for example, will have an influence on the institute's new Research Programme which is currently under development and will come into effect in 2019. All future IRS-financed departmental lead projects will build on spatio-temporal concepts. In this way, the worlds of theory and of empiricism, of supporting junior researchers and conducting basic research, and of academia and practice interlink and benefit one another.

Head of Research Management and Communication

Discoveries in Space and Time

Short film from the first IRS Spring Academy in May, 2017

Impressions from the IRS Spring Academy 2017