Getting to know Lisa Carstensen

Foto © Verena Scholz

ICDD: Dear Lisa, heartfelt congratulations for being appointed as professor for "Global Political Economy of Labour under Consideration of Gender Relations" at the University of Kassel. How does it feel to join the University of Kassel?

Prof. Carstensen: It feels like coming home – because I spent the first years of my PhD in Kassel and have great memories of that time. Old friends and new colleagues have been very welcoming and I am happy about my future tasks. As a professor for Global Political Economy of Labour and Gender Relations I am part of the department for social sciences as well as the International Center for Development and Decent Work (ICDD). As you might know, the ICDD will move into the newly founded Kassel Institute for Sustainability and I will participate in this transition. Indeed, the first event I attended here was the kick-off conference for this institute. It was exciting to see that everybody is motivated to study socio-ecological transformations from various perspectives and in an interdisciplinary way.

Also important: For me, coming to Kassel means to join the Global Labour University. The GLU is a network of universities closely related to the global trade union movement. It is dedicated to education and research from a perspective of solidarity, freedom and social justice. As part of the GLU in Kassel we organize the MA programme Labour Policies and Globalization (LPG). This is a one-year programme that aims at promoting cooperation between trade unions and the research community. It provides a great space for reflection on the current challenges of the labour movement such as climate change, migration and economic crisis. Last but not least, my colleagues at the GLU are currently developing very innovative educational tools and approaches within the GLU online academy. I really appreciate the value of international collaboration and exchange in education and research and am grateful for build upon the experiences of the GLU and the ICDD.


ICDD:What will be your priorities in the field of the Global Political Economy of Labour and Gender Relations?

Prof. Carstensen: We are currently witnessing a restructuring of global capitalism that has severe consequences for labour and trade unions. In analysing this, we can build upon the theories on globalization and the role of labour as well as the existing work of trade unions, international organizations and social movements. However, I also believe that we need to go further and approach the topic more broadly. Because we observe changes in the economic, social and political framework of labour but also within the labour process and the composition of the working classes. This leads to open questions, for example about migration, the need for socio-ecological transition, the pandemic and war. All of this affects the conditions under which people work. To understand these developments, one needs to draw attention to topics and problems, that at a first sight do not seem part of the decent work agenda, e.g. migration, racism, gender and climate crisis. In order to address them, I draw on social reproduction theories, that do not only focus on wage labour within the companies, but also its surroundings, or to say unpaid care work within the households, the situation of the old and sick workers as well as the social and political conditions that determine how urgently and under which conditions one needs to work. Because this strongly shapes the power relations within workplaces, too.


ICDD: What experiences and research foci do you bring to your new position that you hope to apply?

Prof. Carstensen: What I love most about qualitative research is that it allows you to relate different sources, perspectives and experiences to each other. For my PhD-project, I interviewed workers who had experienced conditions of modern slave labour in Brazil. Their stories were a very important source. Nevertheless, they became even more interesting when contrasted with interviews from experts and state representatives as well as media and policy documents. I also learned that it is important to reconstruct the historical and social context of the phenomenon one researches. In my early post-doc years, I had the chance to expand on this. Together with my colleagues Lisa Riedner, Helen Schwenken and Sabine Hess I conducted a research on the relation between migrants’ movements and trade unions in Germany in the 1970s and 80s. We spoke to elderly activists and trade unionists and these interviews were very special because our interview partners provided historical accounts from very personal perspectives. We also had participatory workshops in which we interpreted the material together. Then, at the final conference, I presented my case studies to some of our interview partners. I was very nervous because I felt that I was telling their stories with my own words. Doing research and writing up history comes along with a huge responsibility! In the future, I would like to expand on the participatory methods and exchange with research partners. In my next research project, there will group interviews with migrant workers from different sectors.


ICDD:Your research also focuses on postcolonial and critical theory. Why are these perspectives more necessary than ever?

Prof. Carstensen: I believe that there is a need for a recalibration of north-south relations not only in a political but also in an epistemological sense. Whether in the past – and sometimes still is today – it was important to train activists from the global south how to navigate the Eurocentric institutions and discourses situated in the global north (GUFs, international organizations, important funding agencies), it becomes more important to exchange perspectives and knowledge and from a European perspective: to learn from the global south.

In order to make this possible, one has to address uncomfortable questions within the labour movement and in research, e.g. about the sources of funding as well as dominant positions in international debates.

And of course, this has effects on the personal level among students and researchers. This is also a huge resource and possibility especially in a lively context such as the Global Labour University where we have a space, in which we can reflect upon ourselves and our relations to each other and thereby lay the groundworks for an emancipatory perspective.


ICDD:You are teaching several courses in the upcoming winter term. What do you expect from students attending your classes?

Prof. Carstensen: First, I wish them that they are curious and courageous! Because studying can be a great experience if one allows oneself to be irritated by new insights and perspectives. However, this is challenging too. Therefore, I encourage students to support each other and to seek help if something goes wrong. In this winter term, my teaching covers research methods and an introduction to global labour studies. I hope that these courses provide spaces where students can elevate their knowledge to an analytical and academic scope. I have to admit that I set a high value on academic standards and quality of analysis. Because I believe, that academia provides great tools that allow to reflect own thoughts, observations and insights in relation to the socio-historical context and theories in a transparent and clear way. This is difficult to learn but totally worth it!


ICDD: Please tell us about your career path. Was becoming a professor always your plan?

Prof. Carstensen: No, it wasn’t! But I always enjoyed both research and teaching very much. Unfortunately, in Germany it is very difficult to work in academia, especially at the post-doc-level. There is just a certain time frame in which one can work at a German university as non-professorial teaching staff. During the last years, I had short-term working contracts and felt quite frustrated because I did like my job but it was very unsure, whether I had a long-term perspective. At the time, I heard about the job opening in Kassel I was unemployed, writing a research proposal but also considering alternative career paths – so the job opening came at a good moment for me. At the end, I was at the right time in the right place! 


ICDD: Thank you, and all the best wishes!