It is not only through the Young CAS Fellow programme that young scholars get an opportunity at CAS. Edwin Schmitt is one of the many young scholars who have joined one of CAS’s regular research projects.
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‘The six months at CAS was a period of profound intellectual growth for me’, says Edwin Schmitt who as a PhD candidate joined the CAS project Airborne: Pollution, Climate Change, and New Visions of Sustainability in China back in 2016.
Schmitt is an environmental anthropologist and his stay at CAS permitted him to meet scholars from all over the world and make network and ‘lifelong connections’ early in his career.
‘I think that level of collegial intimacy and lifelong connection could only have been possible because we had those 12 months at CAS together’, Schmitt said.
We talked with the environmental anthropologist about his stay at CAS and what he is working on now.
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Why did you want to come to CAS and what did you get out of your participation in a CAS project?
For a young scholar it was a fantastic opportunity to join an interdisciplinary team from China, U.S. and Norway with a similar focus. And coming to CAS was really exciting; it gave us all the opportunity to be in the same place for 6-12 months to share ideas, co-write papers, but most importantly to become close friends.
I mean even today I still talk to someone from the Airborne program on nearly a daily basis. For instance, my wife and I just finished an English translation of Li Hongtao’s, one of the fellows in the project, book that was published while he was at CAS. The English title is Enduring Memory: The Nanjing Massacre and the Making of Mediated Trauma. I think that level of collegial intimacy and lifelong connection could only have been possible because we had those 12 months at CAS together.
I think for me the experience at CAS was really about spending time with colleagues in a friendly environment. What was a pleasant surprise was the interaction with the other two teams at CAS in 2016-2017. I had fantastic conversations with colleagues from the other teams on their projects.
You are now working as a researcher at the Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research (NIKU). What are you currently working on?
Since coming to NIKU, I’ve been shifting my research away from China and more towards topics here in Norway. For instance, I have found the debates and contention over the demolition of the Y-blokka in the Government Quarter a complex and intriguing issue to research. You can find a brief presentation here (link to youtube). In collaboration with other colleagues at NIKU, we are beginning a three-year study of contentious heritage with the Y-blokka as the central case study.
COVID-19 has also encouraged me to expand beyond my interest in public health concerns related to air pollution to think about the role heritage can play for promoting health literacy about the dangers of pandemics. Over the past few months, I have been working with an interdisciplinary team of anthropologists, public health practitioners, historians, museum curators and digital technology experts to explore what we call public health heritage, or the aspects of public health found in the messaging, social practices and built environment that are derived from the past and inform our experiences in the present.
Our goal is to determine if experiences with public health heritage offer a way to promote public health literacy that can be co-produced with migrant groups in Oslo, Bergen and Hong Kong. Working with migrant groups in these cities is important because language barriers may make it more difficult to access and apply information about pandemics and migrants face an elevated risk of being stigmatized.
You work mainly with theoretical issues, but also try to apply your research and make the lessons learnt beneficial to the communities you study. Do you have any examples?
Well from my dissertation work, I was very interested in what gave rise to an environmental consciousness among urban residents of Chengdu. It quickly became obvious in the field that environmental consciousness was not just about discourse. It is perhaps a common misunderstanding that the key to the environmental movement is getting the right information out there. But just talking about the environment is not enough. We found that it is equally important to think about how residents perceive and act upon their environment that raises awareness and builds up a social movement. And taking this approach meant also realizing that residents from a lower social class in China still perceived a clean environment as being important to their well-being and frankly that they were acting in more environmentally-friendly ways than those who came from a higher social class. This breaks apart an unfortunate stereotype of the poor in China; that poor people are somehow not “ready” for environmentalism.
This breaks apart an unfortunate stereotype of the poor in China; that poor people are somehow not “ready” for environmentalism.
After fieldwork wrapped up, we spent time collaborating with local government officials to organize workshops in the communities we studied. Now, of course, in applied research things do not always go according to plan. One of the government officials for instance only invited residents from a middle-class neighborhood and ignored those from the lower-class community across the street. But our workshop was focused on breaking down stereotypes, so perhaps it was good that what we had to say was heard by those who came from more wealthy households. It is hard to say if our criticism will help build any bridges in the community, but I know that after our workshop the government officials at least made more attempts to connect the different neighborhoods together so they could learn from each other.
Can you tell us about what the CAS fellowship has meant for your career?
I think for me the experience at CAS was really about spending time with colleagues in a friendly environment. It even allowed for the sharing of ideas that were somewhat tangential to the Airborne project I was working on. For instance, conversations with Liu Zhaohui in 2017 reignited my interest in heritage studies that I had not considered since finishing my MA degree. Zhaohui has been working on a very important project on the heritage of the Grand Canal in eastern China, and I had some small projects on the Dujiangyan Weir in Sichuan. As these locations are both UNESCO World Heritage Sites, we started to form an idea for comparison with similar sites in Norway, which led us to work done on mining heritage in Røros by scholars at NIKU like Torgrim Guttormsen. While working at NIKU, I have been building on Torgrim’s work to explore the way people in Røros think about sustainability and its relationship to the local history of copper mining.
So for me, CAS was all about meeting fantastic scholars from all over the world who have been kind enough to share their ideas with me
In fact, today I am also developing a new project on mining heritage, that would expand this comparative interest even further to include the history of mining near my hometown in Montana. And even in this case I have a CAS connection! The present plan is to spend two months next Fall in the History Department at Montana State University with Tim LeCain, who was part of the After Discourse project. Tim’s work on the Berkeley Pit in Butte Montana has been a real inspiration for me to think about how the historical impacts of mining resonate into the present, both environmentally and socially. So for me, CAS was all about meeting fantastic scholars from all over the world who have been kind enough to share their ideas with me.