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Report of the first post-doc meeting

A Personal Report by Matthew Hobson on the First Meeting of Post-doctoral Researchers at the Institute for History.

This is a brief report resulting from a meeting, the first of its kind, of post-doctoral researchers at the Institute of History on October 10th 2013. Holding a post-doctoral position can potentially be a rather lonely and isolating experience, especially for researchers moving to a new institution, where they have few previous contacts and when they are carrying with them a heavy workload. Also, if not teaching, they can be unlikely to meet and cooperate with members at the institute beyond their personal projects. For these reasons the invitation to a gathering of post-doctoral researchers within two months of arriving in Leiden was an extremely welcome one for Yours Truly, and it soon became clear that the benefits of such an initiative could go far beyond social acclimatization for newly-arrived researchers like myself (situated at the current time somewhat peripherally in the Matthias de Vrieshof building). 

Instigated and organized by Lotte Pelckmans, currently the post-doctoral coordinator of a Vici project on the modern history of conflict, social media and mobility in central African countries, the recent meeting took the form of a seminar of short Powerpoint presentations from post-doctoral researchers about their past and present academic work. This was followed by further discussion over drinks in the Huizinga building, and finally by a sit-down meal in a nearby restaurant. 

Family migration policies 

The presentations covered a broad range of topics in both chronological and thematic terms, touching on issues as diverse as slavery, migration, imperialism and gender, and spanning a period from the Roman period to the present day.  Lotte Pelckmans opened proceedings, with a summary of her past research into slave status, identity and migration in Mali, and her current interests in how new communication technologies create new possibilities for migrants in the diaspora to be politically active in times of crisis and conflict in their home countries (focus on Central Africa).  Saskia Bonjour introduced her comparative method for investigating the related topic of family migration policies in France, the Federal Republic of Germany, and the Netherlands in the latter part of the 20th century. 

A trio of presentations covered the immediate pre- and post-industrial periods.  Marion Pluskota described how her work as part of the NWO project,  Gender and Crimes 1600-1900, addresses the public roles of men and women in 19th-century crimes, committed or tried in London, Frankfurt, Bologna and Amsterdam.  Maartje Janse summarized the results of her project,  Associational Mania. The Struggle for Recognition and the Transformation of Politics, 1820-1890, in which she investigated the remarkable enthusiasm for founding new organizations in the 19th century, and its relation to the process of democratization from the perspective of the ‘founders’ of various abolitionist and “anti-“groups.  Karwan Fatah-Black introduced his research, both past and present, on the informal empire and monopoly companies of the Dutch in the 17th and 18th centuries. 

Building Tabernae 

Finally, there were two presentations on the subject of the ancient economic and social history of the Roman period.  Miko Flohr spoke about his NWO Veni Project,  Building Tabernae, which focuses on urban commercial space in Roman Italy, investigating how favorable economic circumstances under the Roman Empire fostered the emergence of new and more ambitious forms of investment in commercial space.  Yours Truly spoke about the ERC-funded project,  An Empire of 2000 Cities: urban networks and economic integration in the Roman Empire, directed by Prof. Luuk de Ligt and Prof. John Bintliff. Having recently completed my doctoral thesis on the subject of economic and social change in Roman North Africa as a student of David Mattingly in the United Kingdom, I have relocated to Leiden to focus Roman North African urbanism. The project has a massive scope, including another post-doctoral researcher, Rinse Willet, studying the region of Asia Minor (unfortunately not able to be present at the October meeting), and six PhD students covering the rest of the Roman Empire. 

Questions and discussion following the presentations revealed many common themes and points of interest between our various fields of research. Some of us, for example, had first-hand recent experience of the appropriation of social media and communications technology by emerging social movements (Yours Truly, at the beginning of the recent revolution in Libya, for example). The broad impact of a process of neoliberalisation in the social sciences was also noted by several of us, specifically with the recent introduction of methods borrowed from the New Institutional Economics in both pre-industrial and Roman-period economic history. 

Foundational texts 

We also found a certain level of common ground with regard to foundational thinkers and texts in philosophy, critical theory, and other areas. It is sometimes assumed that there is a greater gulf between the various sub-disciplines of the social sciences than there in fact is, or needs to be. Meetings like the one held in October are a great reminder that certain foundational texts are read by most scholars within the social sciences: that not just the classicists will know Homer, Herodotus, or Livy, and not just the social historians will know Foucault's  Surveiller et Punir, or the anthropologists Escobar's  Encountering Development, is an important point to underline. Good scholarship is dependent upon an awareness of current trends in other disciplines, and initiatives like the October post-doc meeting help to keep the pathways of such communication open, avoiding any tendency toward atomization or isolation. 

Publication and funding possibilities 

On a more practical level, fruitful discussion was had regarding possible opportunities for future publication and funding possibilities. We all recounted our experiences with different forms of funding and grant applications, and the group also found mutual support in dialogue about how to balance the joint pressures of research and PhD supervision. There also seemed to be interest in some quarters in exploring the possibility of the future insertion of a postdoc representative in the management team of the institute. 

Everyone agreed that it was extremely rewarding to engage in these kind of exchanges and that it would be helpful to continue to do so every two to three months (the next meeting has been scheduled for January 2014). Most importantly for me, I found a set of new friends and colleagues with which I feel there will be a mutual benefit in continued communication and dialogue. All of us involved in the October meeting would like to thank the institute for opportunity to congregate in this way, and one can only hope that future meetings of the post-doctoral community shall continue to be so practically useful and socially beneficial.

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