As part of a series of interviews with researchers who have moved from other continents and countries to work in Europe, we spoke to Minh Nguyen from Vietnam
Minh Nguyen is Professor of Social Anthropology at the Sociology Faculty of Bielefeld University. Professor Nguyen works on labour, care, welfare and migration in Vietnam, China and beyond. Hailing from the northern Vietnamese city of Thai Binh originally, she was educated at Vietnam National University in Hanoi, University of Queensland, Australia, and University of East Anglia, UK. Before joining Bielefeld University, she was Research Fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Halle, Germany. Currently, she is co‐editing two special issues on the good life and on the politics of development in late socialism.
In 2018 Prof. Nguyen received an ERC Starting Grant to fund her project proposal for WelfareStruggles – project website.
You are currently carrying out your research in Germany, however your academic and research career in the past has been based in other countries and continents too. Is mobility in your field beneficial?
Yes, it is. I am a social anthropologist, and since anthropology is a discipline that thrives on comparisons and has varying traditions, it is beneficial to have a sense of the variations in research approaches and the kinds of topics that are considered as significant in different contexts. German academia in the meantime has gone through major transformations in recent years, requiring universities and research institutions to be more outward looking than they used to be. Internationalization is a keyword here at the moment and we have more international students than ever in the country. In this context, my mobility trajectory was considered as a strength for the recruitment committee for my professorshipmy mobility trajectory was considered as a strength for the recruitment committee for my professorship, which I began in early 2018.
Does being in Europe help build useful long-term links with other colleagues in your field globally?
Being in Europe itself does not necessarily help more than being elsewhere in terms of building global networks, but being in certain places of Europe will. I was really lucky to have landed a post-doctoral position as research fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Halle just as I had defended my PhD in the UK. There I had all the time and resources I needed to build up a research agenda of my own within the broad framework of my then director, Chris Hann, and I also had access to a global network of outstanding scholars who were regularly involved in the institute’s projects and events. The sustained collaborative engagement with international scholars in a number of writing projects has also led to long-term partnership, and even friendship. The relatively long time there (six years) allowed me to gain a global and comparative perspective for my research, which was originally empirically grounded in Vietnam but now has extended to China and following the movement of my research subjects from the villages of central Vietnam, recently to Berlin.
My current institution, Bielefeld University, is also a dynamic young university that places great emphasis on international cooperation and internalizing teaching and research. Its Center for Interdisciplinary Research (ZIF) is one of the first Advanced Studies institutes in Europe, which is a well-known international meeting point of brilliant minds and excellent research ideas. The university is an excellent place for me to foster my older connections and build up my professional community. I am just immensely lucky to have made it to these places.
What was the motivation behind your ERC application?
In my earlier work on rural migrants in Vietnam, I had been long observing the changes in the welfare system of the country, although I had before treated these changes as the background of issues related to labour and mobility that I was studying. At Max Plank, I was part of a research group on China and Vietnam, through which I was intensively exposed to discussions and literature on social transformations in China and identified many parallel developments between the two countries. It seemed just a natural step for me to turn what used to be lurking in the background of my earlier research into the center of my next inquiry a natural step for me to turn what used to be lurking in the background of my earlier research into the center of my next inquiry for which the comparison with China was an exciting challenge that I really wanted to take up on. It was also a fascination with what has been going on in China and a desire to understand the enormous societal transformations in that part of the world that drove me in putting the project together. The ERC Starting Grant seemed to offer the right kind of conditions for such an undertaking.
Could you describe your ERC project and explain its potential benefits, in particular for East and South East Asia?
China and Vietnam have come to be known as the factories of the world. Following decades of state socialism, the two countries abandoned central planning for marketization at the turn of the 1980s. With political systems that feature continued leadership of the communist party and at the same time with deepening privatization, these countries are now vastly different from what they used to be.
One major transformation has been in the realm of social protection. Following years of declining socialist welfare, both governments have been recently pushing ahead with ambitious welfare programs.Following years of declining socialist welfare, both governments have been recently pushing ahead with ambitious welfare programs.. Like in many other southern contexts, universal health insurance, pension, and cash transfers have been expanding along with provisions by diverse non-state actors. Another transformation has been massive rural-urban labor mobility. In both countries, millions of people migrate to urban and industrial areas to work in factories that produce consumer goods for the whole world. Many live away from their families as they work to sustain them.
My project comparatively examines the moral politics underlining how this migrant labour force is being cared for by the two countries’ changing welfare systems with a focus on the welfare of the rural migrants working in global factories. The labour of migrant workers has been instrumental to both national development and global corporations’ profitability in these rapidly changing countries. Their welfare is a domain in which the workers, the state, global capital, and global society all have a stake, not just East Asia.
The focus on migrant worker welfare is therefore productive for understanding the moral, social, and political dynamics of welfare restructuring as part of global politics of production and global dynamics of social protection. For East Asia and Southeast Asia, the theoretical and empirical insights we generate will be important for regional governments and societies in shaping welfare systems For East Asia and Southeast Asia, the theoretical and empirical insights we generate will be important for regional governments and societies in shaping welfare systems that provide meaningful care for their migrant labour force, in ways that actually reduce the workers’ dependency on the forces of the market.
Do any non-European researchers participate in your project’s team and would you encourage researchers from East and South East Asia to consider joining ERC teams in Europe?
All the members of my project team are non-European, although they themselves are all quite internationally mobile, having studied and worked in different parts of the world. Of course, qualified researchers from East and South East Asia should actively apply for employment with ERC teams – these projects are relatively long-term and provide excellent opportunities to develop a research career, not just in terms of resources and prestige, but also in terms of professional networks.
Do you have any advice for potential ERC applicants from your region?
Developing a research proposal for the ERC grants requires a long perspective, and one should prepare the grounds for it as soon as one has a PhD.Developing a research proposal for the ERC grants requires a long perspective, and one should prepare the grounds for it as soon as one has a PhD. Apart from a very good research question and plan, one needs to show an outstanding track record of publications and professional reputation, things that have to be substantiated by demonstrable outputs. Secondly, institutions would not host and support a proposal unless they are convinced of one’s potentials to develop a research agenda that benefits their research program. This has to do with one’s reputation as a scholar and as a colleague, which also takes time to cultivate.
So my advice would be to start preparing as soon as possible to build up your profile and foster collegial relationships with people working in European institutions. These are the kind of things you would do anyway for a research career, whether you apply to the ERC grants or not, whether you apply from East Asia or Europe. By the way, Bielefeld University has a Fellowship that provides promising ERC applicants supported by a faculty of the university with 18 months of employment to develop and submit their application with the university.
EURAXESS Worldwide is an EU backed initiative supporting researchers working outside of Europe who wish to connect with Europe. This interview was carried out thanks to cooperation with Susanne RENTZOW-VASU of EURAXESS ASEAN, Southeast Asian researchers can learn about EU-funded mobility opportunities.