Illuminating Humanities: Defne Över
The Glasscock Center is excited to continue its series which highlights humanities research at Texas A&M, and the vital role played by the humanities at the university and in the world beyond the academy
For our second highlight, we invited Defne Över, Glasscock Faculty Fellow, to tell us about her project on understanding political transformations, particularly in Turkey over the last twenty years.
Why are the humanities important to society as well as to you personally?
“…humanities and humanistic social sciences invite us to question whether our thoughts and behaviors position us on the wrong side of history.”
Humanities and humanistic social sciences emphasize the role of human experience in historical change. They explore how we think, how we act, how we live our lives, and tell us how our ways of thinking and acting shape our realities. As such, humanities and humanistic social sciences invite us to question whether our thoughts and behaviors position us on the wrong side of history. Today, this question is more significant than ever. Since the turn of the 21st century, liberal institutions have come under increasing attack across the globe. From Turkey to Hungary, from India to Brazil this backlash is paired with an authoritarian turn in governance and mass mobilization against repression. In this moment, many of us struggle to cope with uncertainty in our daily lives while working to prevent the ascendance of repressive regimes in politics. Yet, the two do not always complement each other. At times, what mitigates uncertainty in our lives contributes to what is to be prevented in politics. Humanities and humanistic social sciences reveal these paradoxes of human experience and provide us with cues on where we stand in history. This is what makes them so important to all of us who seek a way out of the current illiberal moment.
Tell us a bit about your current research project.
“I study how ordinary people interpret repressive politics; how they experience centralization of power; and how their actions shape political institutions in return.”
My work centers on a set of important questions raised by the return of repressive regimes in the 21st century and the related processes of democratic backsliding and mass mobilization. Specifically, I explore the strategies instrumentalized in centralization of power, the uncertainties experienced by ordinary people, and how societal response to uncertainty transforms political institutions. Empirically, much of my focus has been on Turkey where the last 20 years have seen the shift from tutelary democracy to competitive authoritarianism, an increasing emphasis on religion in the construct of nationalism, and mass mobilization against the government. In one project, I study the transformation of the Turkish media as an example of democratic backsliding. I show how the uncertainty experienced by press workers transformed the institution as a whole. In another collaboration, I focus on the law that bans insulting the president and explore how dormant laws can be revived as a strategy in personalization of power.
What inspired your interest in your current research project, and why is this topic significant?
Back in 2012, when I was a doctoral student in search of a dissertation topic, Turkey had become the country with the highest number of journalists in jail in the world. Each day, Turkish citizens would wake up to news of journalists being arrested on terror charges, journalists being fired from their news outlets, and news being censored. In response to these developments, journalists would get together in front of prisons in solidarity with their colleagues, organize protests in public squares and establish new outlets. As a citizen of Turkey, these developments affected me personally by reshaping my access to the news. As a sociologist, I was curious about the source of these changes in the media landscape. So, I developed my interest into a sociological inquiry and started my fieldwork in Turkey in 2013. Shortly after, the biggest mass protest event of modern Turkish history erupted, and it became clear that Turkey was one of the many countries going through a repressive and contentious moment. Since then, my fieldwork became the basis for my current book project on the transformation of the Turkish media and I started studying the role of violence and emotions in triggering mass movements, law as an instrument of authoritarianism, and the effects of changing constructs of nationalism on people’s perception of their standing in society.
What do you find rewarding in your work?
“…this perspective allows me not only to document the micro-realities of a global moment but also to carry people’s voice into broader debates over contemporary authoritarianism.”
My research has a human-centered take on authoritarianism. Different from the mainstream research on authoritarianism I seek to provide a historically and culturally informed analysis of people’s lived experiences. I study how ordinary people interpret repressive politics; how they experience centralization of power; and how their actions shape political institutions in return. Engaging in political transformation from this perspective allows me not only to document the micro-realities of a global moment but also to carry people’s voice into broader debates over contemporary authoritarianism. This is what I find most rewarding in my work.
Besides your work, what is something you are passionate about?
Aside from my work, I am passionate about traveling and learning different languages. In Turkish, there is a saying: “one language one person, two languages two people”. It means that the more languages you learn the more you will know about the variance in human experience. Just like language learning, traveling provides us with an entryway to these other worlds. They increase one’s awareness of her similarities with the one she thinks is most different, and of her differences with the one she thinks is most similar. That’s what I like most about traveling and learning new languages.
What are some future research projects that you are, or want to, work on?
In my work, I now turn my attention to the rising support for nationalist politics in Germany. Immediately after the Second World War, political institutions in Germany were restructured to eliminate Nazi influence on society and protect the country from a resurgence of sovereign violence and political nationalism. Yet, these efforts have not sufficed to make contemporary Germany an exception to the global resurgence of nationalist politics. Exclusionary policies, especially when it comes to immigration, attract increasing support not only from extremists but also from centrists. With the faculty fellowship provided by the Glasscock center I will explore the relationship between nationalism and liberalism in contemporary political discourse on immigration in Germany, and how memories of nationalist violence shape ordinary people’s support for exclusionary policies on immigration.