Pacing for the long game

After developing a theory to explain her research findings, Christina Zuber still had a long way to go before she could hold the book in her hands – from writing, to undergoing the review process, to a final copy-editing stage. Thanks to the book, she can now share her findings with policy makers and interested members of the public.
© Lisa Mende, University of Konstanz

When did you consider the project finished?

Christina Zuber: A key moment was when I figured out my theoretical argument and found a way to describe the causal mechanism behind ideational policy stabilization. The rest was simply putting in the effort to write everything down and, finally, collaborating with a copy-editor to improve the manuscript and make it more succinct. It was a wonderful moment when I held the finished book in my own hands, but, for me, the most important intellectual work had been completed earlier on.

How have other researchers received and discussed your results?

The book's reviewers as well as my colleagues believed that it should be possible to generalize my results. This led me to include an additional section in the book where I discuss ideational legacies also in other policy areas, not just in the area of migration and integration.

Take the liberal gun regulations In the United States, for example. Many research findings draw the same conclusions: It is irrational to stick with such liberal regulations, because the cost in terms of livelihoods is very high. However, owning a gun is very much part of people’s understanding of how the United States was created. The ideational legacy is, "In order to settle this land, we needed guns. This is what made us what we are today! And this is why we keep things as they are". Of course, this narrative leaves out negative historical events – that guns were necessary to conduct the genocide of indigenous peoples and to uphold the oppressive system of slavery (in which plantation owners were outnumbered by enslaved people).

You have shown that ideational legacies can prove to be very stable. But do you see a way to change them?

When I finished writing the book, this was exactly my question:

"How do you break with a legacy that is not really helpful? Based on my research, I can say that it will not be enough to point to a changed constellation of interests to justify policy change. In case a particular policy solution is collectively imagined as part and parcel of the very meaning of national identity, it is difficult to counter this with rational arguments, because arguing against the established policy sounds like an attack on national identity".

Christina Zuber

I believe that the correct response would be to try to gently redefine the collective identity itself. Let us think, for example, about post-war Germany that came out of the war destroyed, and then the country's rapid development afterwards, the flourishing economy upheld since the 1960s with the help of guest workers. One message could be: "We rebuild things, even if they have totally been destroyed, and we do this together with people from all over the world, with diverse cultural and religious backgrounds. That is precisely what defines our German identity". And this re-imagination of Germany as a prosperous nation of immigrants could then additionally be linked to rational arguments, such as the acute need for skilled workers, funding for pensions, etc. That would be one idea, for example, that you could take from my book.

Your results are clearly very relevant for politics and society. Do you plan to share them outside academia, too?

For the first time, I have the feeling that I have discovered things that are also relevant for the German context, not just for the international one. First of all, I published an article in the political science blog "The Loop" entitled "Why migration politics in Germany is stuck in the past". In the article, which was written in English, I apply my findings to the situation in Germany. I also plan to write a detailed article for a major German daily or weekly newspaper.

Looking back at the project, what did you find particularly challenging?

Pacing myself for the long game. This was especially true when I realized that the original plan of a much more limited post-doc project had be expanded: empirically, since I needed to go back farther in history; theoretically, because I had to find an explanation for my unexpected results. Had it not been for a fellowship at the Institute for Advanced Study Konstanz that gave me time to re-think the project and study a lot of additional literature, my findings would never have become so broad and thus so interesting for a wider readership. It would have become a book about minorities, but not one about ideational legacies and policy change more generally.

I think this kind of "slow science" is very important, because true innovation often only comes about when you don't immediately publish the first version of your argument, but continue to think about it further. And I am happy to have paced myself accordingly, even though I still had to publish additional articles at the same time to fulfil my tenure track requirements.

Christina Zuber gave this interview about her research project on ideational legacies and migration policy in European minority regions shortly before beginning a research trip to Ecuador and Peru. This project, too, focuses on minorities and the question of whether the interests of the indigenous population are better represented by their own indigenous parties or by alliances between indigenous organizations and traditional parties. Christina Zuber is currently involved in several comparative projects and already has another book project in mind.

Header image: Christina Zuber presents her book in Konstanz. Photo: Lisa Mende, University of Konstanz

Marion Voigtmann

By Marion Voigtmann - 04.04.2024

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