INTERVIEW BIRGIT MEYER
Space for non-digitisation
Religious studies researcher Birgit Meyer will speak at Synergy 2019 about the influence of digitisation on research and knowledge production in the social sciences and humanities. NWO Domain Social Sciences and Humanities interviewed her in the run-up to the conference. An interview about the considerable influence of big data and about the need to work on an equal footing with researchers from Africa and from other disciplines.
Birgit Meyer has been Professor of Religious Studies at Utrecht University since 2011. In 2015, she received the NWO Spinoza Prize and the Academy Professor Prize from the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences. Meyer (1960) studied in Bremen (religious studies and pedagogy) and at the University of Amsterdam (cultural anthropology) and from 2004 to 2011, she was Professor of Cultural Anthropology at the VU Amsterdam. For more than 25 years she has done research in Ghana into how religion is experienced in a changing world and in recent years she has also focused on religious pluralism in Europe.
When Meyer started her NWO Pionier project in 2000, she mainly investigated how the religious experience of people changed due to radio and television. Gradually, Internet and social media also started to exert an influence. Meyer: ‘In the past, I used to be more positive about the influence of new media in connecting people. Now I mainly see the dark aspects: exclusion, partitioning, easily proving your point in your own circle, and fake news.’
Communicating has become easier
Digitisation is not only changing society but also science. For example, thanks to WhatsApp, Meyer has far more contact with her fellow researchers in Ghana than she used to do. ‘That’s all very well, as social media do offer many opportunities for contacts with people in the field, but you need to be careful that you do not become complacent and simply remain behind your desk. As an anthropologist, you want to experience how people behave. And for that, you really do need to get out there.’
‘Our current world is multipolar. We need to take that into account during the production of knowledge.’
Big data threatens qualitative research
Meyer believes that within the social sciences and humanities there is a risk of too much attention for large databases and working with big data. As an example, she takes the protocols for storing and processing data. Those protocols are increasingly aimed at big data. Meyer: ‘I am not saying that big data is a bad thing, but I do think that we need to be careful that qualitative research, such as fieldwork with interviews and observations, is not treated in the same way as big data. Also, there must remain enough room for non-digitised research material. The data protocols must allow for that.’
Knowledge production is changing
In the abstract for her lecture, Meyer states that changes in the "infrastructure for knowledge production and distribution" pose a considerable challenge for the social sciences and humanities. It builds further on her recent opinion article in the NRC newspaper (extended version in English) about the implications of the accelerated switch to open access. Meyer considers the implications of the so-called Plan S rather misguided, and she argues that the accelerated switch is also at odds with safeguarding quality and internationalisation.
Collaboration with disciplines
Collaboration is a recurring theme in Meyer's work. In her latest research programme Religious Matters in an Entangled World, she not only collaborates with researchers from different countries but also from different disciplines. The first phase of the programme focuses on religious images, buildings and objects. From 2019 onwards, the theme religion and food will be added to this. Meyer: ‘Each theme concerns an exchange with researchers from other disciplines, such as anthropologists, art historians and nutrition researchers. Religion is after all a sociocultural and worldly phenomenon. It is best approached from a multidisciplinary perspective.’
On an equal footing with the South
Meyer not only aims to increase collaboration between disciplines, but also between researchers in Europe and the global South. According to Meyer, many social scientists and humanities researchers are traditionally too focused on Europe. They see the West as the driving force of world history. ‘That is a misunderstanding that unfortunately still influences our concepts’, says Meyer. ‘Our current world is multipolar. We need to take that into account during the production of knowledge.’ As far as Meyer is concerned, future internationalisation needs to be far more broadly interpreted, for example by a more extensive collaboration with researchers in Africa. Meyer: ‘And that collaboration needs to be on the basis of equality: on an equal footing. That is my wish for the near future.’
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