At home in the nexus of migration and city: Jun.-Prof. Yamamura and the digital methods in human geography

  Picture of Jun.-Prof.Yamamura Copyright: © S. Yamamura  

Dear Ms Yamamura,

On 1.3.2022 you took over the newly established WISNA junior professorship "Digital Methods in Human Geography". Why did you choose Aachen and what will be your focus in teaching and research in Aachen?

As a university of excellence, RWTH Aachen University is at the forefront of the German university landscape in research and teaching, and especially with regard to the development and application of digital methods and the topic of digitisation, I think RWTH Aachen University is an ideal place for cooperation and the implementation of innovative ideas. The interdisciplinary willingness to cooperate and also a really nice collegial atmosphere at the institute then convinced me of the new place of work. Despite the limited diversity compared to world metropolises or other large German cities, I still find Aachen itself particularly interesting in terms of the dynamics of diversity and internationality due to its proximity to different neighbouring countries. Internationality or transnationalisation, diversity and, of course, digitalisation will be the focal points of my work in social geographic migration and urban research. Using new digital methods, I would like to research socio-spatial questions on the migration and city nexus, and also further integrate digitalisation as a social context into migration and diversity discourses as a perspective. Teaching such new socio-spatial perspectives and sensitisation to diversity will also be an important aspect of my teaching, alongside the use and application of digital methods.

You studied geography, sociology and ethnology in your diploma at the University of Hamburg and completed your doctorate there in 2018 on the topic of "Spatial Diversity in the Global City - Transnational Tokyo". Since 2018, you have worked as a PostDoc at the "Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity" in the field of migration studies, urban and economic geography. How did you come to digital methods in human geography and what fascinates you about these methods?

I think that nowadays it is hardly possible to imagine our everyday life without the digital. In the same way, digitalisation with globalisation is a social phenomenon that accompanies us every day and with which we are confronted as a context of socio-spatial trade. Digital methods and media have become an integral part of empirical spatial and social research. On the one hand, it is fascinating how much we can learn through digital methods and research into the use and impact of digital and especially social media. On the other hand, I am fascinated and frightened by the lack of critical engagement with them. Thus, through my research and especially teaching activities, I would like not only to point out the advantages of digital media and digitisation of empirical methods, but also to cultivate a healthy critical engagement with them and advocate for a meaningful use of digital methods to answer human geography or social science questions in general.

After graduating, you joined the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in the Department of International Migration in Paris and then the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF). How does working in a globally active organisation differ from working in a German federal authority?

It is quite easy to imagine, but there are very big differences between an international and a national institution, mainly due to the internationality of the working environment, but also due to the global perspectives of the work itself. Nevertheless, the work experiences are probably more similar to each other than they are to the private sector, because both are quasi-public service and policy consultancies. Nevertheless, one major difference between the international organisation and the federal agency is the independence of interests and opinions. Despite the very instructive and highly interesting activities in both organisations, I like to put it this way: at the OECD, migrants are numbers and trends, at the BAMF, migrants are paragraphs (according to the Residence Act), and I wanted to see migrants as individual people. That's why I consciously decided to return to academia.

In addition to your professional activities abroad (e.g. France, the Netherlands, Poland), you studied as an exchange student at the Sorbonne/France and in Berkeley/USA. You were born in Tokyo. To what extent have your experiences abroad influenced your career path? How important do you consider international experience during your studies to be?

The usual mobility, even across national borders (I grew up as a so-called Third Culture Kid in Japan, Germany and the USA) definitely helped me to develop professionally as I wanted or as it came. If you grow up with a high degree of mobility, you are also prepared to move more often later in your career and feel less shy about settling in again and again and discovering yourself anew. This certainly helps to pursue career paths that people who are less accustomed to mobility might have qualms about. Because I grew up in different metropolises and countries, and later studied and worked in different ones, I bring with me a special interest and affinity, but also a closeness in terms of content and a kind of expanded understanding for the realities of life and experiences regarding my research areas on migration and the city, which also helps me in empirical research in direct contact with the interview partners.

I think that it is hardly not yet possible internationally. Therefore: yes, the earlier students are confronted with different perspectives beyond their own horizons and reflect on their views and thought patterns, the better it is. I am therefore very much in favour of international experiences during one's studies, but regardless of whether it is within the framework of the studies themselves or through internships and further professional experiences. There are so many possibilities and opportunities to broaden your horizons these days; you just have to take them.

In the media, migration is increasingly portrayed as a threat. To what extent is this approach taken up in research?

Particularly in the (super-)diversity approach within migration research, there is the claim or the thought process of starting from social diversity as an actual state in many parts of society. Diversity does not only refer to ethnic backgrounds or nationalities, but also considers the other, quite complex interwoven diversity dimensions. Nevertheless, we can speak of the migration-led diversity or diversification of society, since the speed and intensity of multidimensional diversification can certainly be seen more often concentrated in large cities and these are also intensified due to migration. At the same time, however, it is undoubtedly also the lived reality of many fellow human beings to experience or even see only a limited amount of this diversification tendency - depending on the socio-spatial context (that's just human geography!). This gives rise to frustrations, conflicts and highly problematic situations, e.g. that "migration is perceived as a threat".

An important contribution of science is therefore to counteract these people's fear of their own unknowns or irrational racist or otherwise discriminatory ways of thinking by pointing out and explaining social phenomena. In my research, I therefore also pursue the more fundamental question of what is perceived and experienced by whom as "different" or "diverse" in the first place - because if we understand this better, we can also work out more suitable recommendations for action for positive coexistence in society as a whole. In my view, it is also part of the educational work of academia, especially in teaching, to critically reflect such media reappraisals and social discourses.

You did not take the classic path of a habilitation, but instead went the way of a W1 junior professorship with tenure track (WISNA) to the W2 professorship "Cultural Geography" (successor to Prof. Pfaffenbach). Why did you decide on this path and what opportunities do you see in this academic career model?

In science, it is very difficult for young academics to find a balance between freedom in their work and security in terms of working conditions. Some time ago, people started to talk about the "academic precariat", because young academics under suboptimal conditions, with fixed-term contracts and frequent changes of work and residence, could and still can only find stability in their lives with great difficulty. Because I experienced this myself, but also had an atypical academic career (because I gained professional experience outside the university and also did my doctorate externally - so I was never on the "classic path"), I found the tenure-track model particularly attractive. The peace and security, but also the capacities and working conditions to pursue one's research interests independently and to develop academically - that is worth its weight in gold as an academic and as an individual. The chances with this model are that the unique combination of freedom and security allows a diversity not only of career models but also of life models. These circumstances then also lead to the promotion of competitive young academics. However, I am not speaking against other academic career models. On the contrary, I believe that the diversity of career models also reflects and benefits the diversity of individual life models.


With your appointment to the junior professorship, you will supervise doctoral students. What guidelines are important to you in the training of your junior researchers and how do you plan to implement this in your junior professorship?

Of course, the primary focus is on the development and promotion of scientific potential, that creative and innovative ideas are implemented and that doctoral students' competences are expanded. But there are three aspects that I find particularly important as a "big picture" for a supportive working environment for doctoral students.

One important aspect for me - precisely because I have not experienced this myself as an external doctoral student - is early integration and involvement in the relevant scientific community. I would like to achieve this by sending the doctoral students to relevant conferences and within the framework of a doctoral student colloquium, but also through effective involvement in and docking with publication and research projects. In the very challenging phase of doctoral studies, the exchange with other doctoral students is just as important as the early embedding in the relevant specialist community.

The second thing that is important to me is the early support in finding and planning a career. I am aware that the decision to take the academic path is by no means made during the doctoral phase or after the doctorate. That makes it all the more important to clarify the suitability or ambitions early on, to explain or talk openly about the consequences, and to establish appropriate perspectives together so that the step after the doctorate - whether in academia or outside it - can be taken smoothly and successfully.

And finally, the third thing that is important to me is that I adapt the support and supervision to the individual. The individuality in the way of working, in the required balance between freedom and assistance, and in the processes that are important for research, such as creative phases or writing phases, blockades or also emotional stress, etc., is often misjudged. In dialogue, I would like to adapt the support and training of the respective person according to their needs, and provide advice and support for their development with the help of internal university training opportunities, but also external ones.

For the last few years you were employed at the Max Planck Institute in Göttingen. How does scientific operation at a university differ from a non-university research institution?

The main difference is that in non-university research there is no teaching and thus no connection to students or to the younger generation in general. On the one hand, initially after very teaching-intensive years, it was a liberating and restful time for me as a postdoc in which I could devote the entire capacity to scientific development and was ideally supported in all areas. On the other hand, especially in the last year, I missed the exchange with students and also with practice. These can often lead to interesting and quite fruitful changes of perspective and drive further innovations. In addition, unlike other research centres, Max Planck Institutes conduct basic research, which is also reflected in the scientific content and discourse itself.

Thank you very much for the interview and have a good start in Aachen!