Retrospect and Future Prospects

The URPP Asia and Europe will wind down for good this year in the fall, but one of its core elements is going to be maintained. As of September 2017, the doctoral program Asia and Europa will continue under the auspices of the Institute of Asian and Oriental Studies, carrying forward its well-proven interdisciplinary and interfaculty structure. Moreover, plans to expand it into a nationwide program for interdisciplinary Asian and Oriental studies in cooperation with six other Swiss universities are well under way.

Wolfgang Behr and Simone Müller

Since the 2009 fall term, the URPP Asia and Europa has offered a doctoral program—the only interfaculty doctoral program in Switzerland related to Asia. Over the years, the program has benefitted from generous support by several private foundations, from intra-university “Bologna II/III” resources and, as of this year, from federal funds provided by swissuniversities for the development of a cooperation between institutions offering third-cycle education.

Past and present scope of the program

The doctoral program strives hard to provide an optimal framework for a discipline-specific yet interdisciplinary doctorate, intended for exceptionally qualified young academics. It especially promotes interdisciplinary projects focusing on the relations between the regions of Asia and Europe in historical and contemporary contexts, by looking into the manifold processes of appropriation and demarcation in culture, religion, law and society, which result from these encounters. One of the program’s great strengths, developed and consolidated over the years, lies in the combination of methods and theories of the so-called “systematic” disciplines, such as human geography, religious studies or ethnology, with those offering a regional or areal focus, such as Indology, Islamic studies, Japanology, Sinology or East Asian art history. The program has always aimed at combining the possibility to obtain a subject-specific PhD on a self-chosen Asia-related research topic, with an interdisciplinary methodological outlook and trans-regional awareness. Naturally, the chief aim for its candidates is to write their PhD dissertation, but this is complemented by a curriculum that serves to deepen and expand interdisciplinary, disciplinary, and technical competencies. Doctoral students of the program regularly participate in workshops and conferences in Switzerland and abroad, and spend a good amount of research time on field work or archival studies in the areas of their projects.

Thirty doctoral candidates from more than ten countries are currently enrolled in the program, and seventeen projects have been successfully completed. Projects pursued in the program cover a wide range of topics, from investigations into terrorist figures in Early China, the philosophical reception of Kant in Teheran, arranged marriages in Switzerland and abroad, to the role of media in the interpretation of the Fukushima nuclear accident of 2011 or squatter settlements in contemporary Kyrgyzstan. Judging from a recent survey, PhD students in the program have been very positive about the great opportunity to learn across academic disciplines, to interact across regions, to benefit from exposure to a variety of research themes and methodologies, as well as about the possibility to receive financial support for conference participation and research stays abroad.

Future of the program

With the closure of the URPP, the doctoral program Asia and Europa will be transferred to the Institute of Asian and Oriental Studies, relocating it across the street at Rämistrasse 59. Thanks to a successful solicitation of third-party funds with swissuniversities, the continuation of the program is secured until at least the end of 2020, but the midterm goal is to build up a program even beyond the coming three years. In accordance with the self-declared targets of the University of Zurich and other LERU universities to establish larger units of doctoral programs, current plans are to widen the regional and thematic scope of the program and to develop it into a Swiss-wide inter-university program. In addition to the fifteen disciplines and four faculties (represented by more than 25 faculty members) that have participated in the program since its start in 2009, the cooperation aims to expand the program to other Swiss universities that offer Asia-related subjects with a view to generating further opportunities for cross-fertilization and to diversify the current program structures. Doctoral candidates will be members and shapers of an inter-university network, opening up many new exchange opportunities with peers and specialists in their field of research and beyond, considerably strengthening their career perspectives. The successful cooperation established within the framework of the URPP Asia and Europa since 2006 will act as an interface hub integrating doctoral training within ever growing international and cross-disciplinary research networks in Asia and Europe.

Against the canvas of Asia’s increasing importance on a global scale, the continuation and expansion of the doctoral program, being newly located at the Institute of Asian and Oriental Studies and closely interlinked with other institutes and faculties in Zurich, is a desideratum that will sustainably strengthen Asia-related research across Switzerland for the foreseeable future.

(Asia & Europe Bulletin, 6/2017, p. 40)