"We want to make people aware of their coloured lenses"

Spark interview with Jiska Engelbert

We all look at social developments from very specific perspectives, asserts Jiska Engelbert, Associate Professor of Media and Culture (Erasmus School of Social and Behavioral Sciences). For example, when talking about poverty, the climate, but also the conflict in the Middle East. With her 'Public Issues and Imaginaries' team, she makes an effort to empower people to look at things differently.

You've been the team leader at 'Public Issues and Imaginaries' since March 2023. What exactly do you do there?

"Our understanding of public issues such as politics, social inequality, economics and climate change has been strongly shaped by existing frames and historical power relations. Take poverty, for example. The contemporary dominant frame is that people living in poverty need to do more themselves. But the elephant in the room is: How have we ended up in a society where the gap between rich and poor is growing and where inequalities are only increasing? We want to stimulate and support people to become aware that they are and have been looking at these issues from specific lenses. And, crucially, we want to imagine and provide a different lens so that policy and research can be shaped differently."

"Providing a different lens" sounds nice. How do you do that?

"That starts with showing that we all wear coloured glasses on. In so doing, it is crucial to make visible through analyses how existing power structures affect our view. Only when you are aware of how those glasses shape your view and hinder vision can you begin to imagine other visions and views. You see this in science as well. There is now a strong emphasis on data-driven and solution-oriented research. However, research does not offer a quick fix and first requires a thorough analysis of the actual problem. And not so much of the problem we conveniently assume. I think this way of working  is mainly due to the system and economy of doing science. Think about the kind of research that is funded or the way in which academics can advance their careers”.

You are very involved in developments in Rotterdam. As a researcher, how can you mean something to the city?

"I think it is important to look not only at what you are good at, but to also see where you can add value. That means that as researchers, we don't see the city and its inhabitants as interesting data for our publications but consider it as our duty to really mean something. Not from "our" idea of what is good for others but based on the ideas of citizens and communities themselves.

For example, we have been involved in setting up a youth centre in IJsselmonde. There, we facilitated conversations between informal partners, such as neighbourhood initiatives and the young people themselves, and formal partners, such as the municipality. Those worlds are often kept far apart in the politics of municipal procurement. A filmmaker found that process so interesting that he wanted to capture it. The documentary 'Right to Reyenoord' premiered at the end of November."

You also participated with Jeff Handmaker, Willem Schinkel and Isabel Awad, among others, in teach-ins at the university on the Middle East conflict. Can you talk more about that?

"We wanted to provide independent yet engaged interpretations of the conflict. We felt that this topic is so urgent to many of our students and colleagues and and we wanted to bring people closer together on campus. During the teach-in, everyone could share a perspective on the war in Gaza, but according to collectively established frameworks. For example, you were never allowed to use ad hominems, and there was absolutely no room for Islamophobia or Antisemitism. In this way you notice that more understanding around the impasse is emerging. The fact that it is a complex issue does not mean you cannot find anything to say about the conflict. That was also our advice to Minister Dijkgraaf of Education and Science, with whom Jeff and I had two discussions: don't keep the conflict outside the lecture hall, but rather make it the subject of conversation and study."

As a cultural and media scholar, how do you view the conflict?

"I think there has never really been room to interpret this conflict properly. When you watched the news, the dominant frame was that Israel is threatened by terrorists and that she has the right to defend herself. Only now do you see that the picture is beginning to turn, and discomfort is increasing as the suffering in Gaza becomes more visible. The other day, I saw an explainer video on NOS explaining ‘the conflict’ in ten minutes. The video discusses the establishment of Israel and the role the West has played in it. Too little and too late, I think. As an academic, I want to show how history has contributed to so many people suffering today."

More information

This interview is part of Spark. With these interviews, we aim to draw attention to the positive impact of the faculty's education and research on society. The stories in Spark give an insight into what makes ESSB students, alumni, staff and researchers tick.

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