"Research always involves a major biographical aspect"

20 May 2019

Veronika Cummings was appointed Professor of Human Geography at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) in 2017. Her current research focuses on social, cultural, and political aspects of migration. In these fields she can also draw from the experiences and insights  she collected during her time in Singapore and the Sultanate of Oman – and on her return to Germany.

"Most people who fled a country in the grip of war are not in the right frame of mind to learn the German language systemically for 40 hours a week in an integration course. These people have other things to worry about," points out Professor Veronika Cummings. "But for integration, one thing above all else is essential: a mastery of the German language." However, this is by no means obvious, she adds. Other countries focus on completely different priorities.

And she goes on to consider a little more closely the institutionalized practice of learning a language. "A language café situation where people of different origins can meet and communicate with each other in a more casual fashion is likely to be more effective. When it comes to integration courses with learners of maybe 20 different nationalities, the first question is in which language the course should be taught." The response is often a helpless shrug of the shoulders. "So all these courses start with the rudiments and in German."

Favelas in Brazil

Cummings came to the Institute of Geography at Mainz University in 2017. Her broad window front provides a view of the Gutenberg Campus and you can even make out the Taunus mountain range on the horizon. "In Singapore, I had a view of a campus that was subtropical and just fantastic. But the rooms were microscopic in size and not everyone was as lucky as I was to get an office with a window."  Here on the second floor in the Natural Sciences Faculty building she has space enough to enable her to express herself, something she knows to appreciate. 

Cummings likes to compare scenes and situations like these. But she is cautious to draw simple conclusions from these comparisons. "I'm not a fan of comparative research," she states. "But we can always learn how something works under different conditions from examples and a change in perspective." This seems to be one of her main guiding principles.

"I was born in Karlsruhe, but grew up in the region of Franconia", says Cummings. "Franconia is my home." She studied geography in Würzburg and in Caen in northern France. She wrote her diploma thesis in Madagascar while working as a project assistant for the German development agency GTZ, today GIZ. Her dissertation for the University of Passau took her to Salvador da Bahia in Brazil. During her time there, she also researched the social and geographical inequality in the favelas. "My emphasis was on urban geographical processes, but also on issues of stigmatization and exclusion, responsibility and values."

Coming from all this is her current specialization in social geography as well as urban, development, and globalization research. Migration, identity and belonging, social inequality and justice became her key topics. "Anthropological methods play an important role in my work," she explains. "I focus on the small things, on the individual people and the local conditions, and use the findings to examine global developments."

Immigration in the Sultanate of Oman

In 2009, Cummings joined the Cultural Geography Teaching and Research Unit at RWTH Aachen University as a postdoc assistant and from there went on to the German University of Technology in Muscat in the Sultanate of Oman. This university was established with support from Aachen and she became Visiting Assistant Professor. "I always wanted to experience the Arab world. And this was my chance to look at Oman and the other Gulf States up close."

Surely, Veronika Cummings could talk days about her life and experiences in the Arab world, but she decides to restrict herself to one aspect – that of how immigration is viewed in the sultanate and in the neighboring countries. In Oman, only 50 percent of the population is actually born there. When they consider a country like Germany, many Omanis become puzzled as to the heated discussion of how to integrate people. Why integrate people at all?

According to Cummings, there is a very straightforward outlook in the Arab Gulf States: "If people come into the country to work, it is assumed that they will leave again. After all, guests don't stay forever. Those who give jobs to guest workers assume a kind of an overseer role. Many low-paid migrant workers still hand their papers directly to their employer on entering the country."

"What we have here is a clearly defined two-class society, where the rights and obligations of the migrants, who are only temporarily allowed in, are precisely defined." And there is no safety net in case something goes wrong. The language used by the courts is Arabic and anyone who doesn't speak the language often has little chance in labor court proceedings relating to salary payments, dismissals or similar. "Hardly any organization based outside the Arab Gulf States that could help to defend the rights of natives or migrants is recognized in the region." Over the past few years, however, there has been increasing international pressure for things to change – particularly as the employment scandals in connection with the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar have attracted considerable media attention.

Multicultural Singapore

In 2015, Cummings moved to the Middle East Institute at the National University of Singapore. Here she worked as Senior Research Fellow and was confronted with a completely different situation. "Singapore is committed to being a multicultural country. There are several working languages. But when I talk about Singapore as a success story in this respect, I am often faced with criticism here in Germany. After all, it is not a democracy by European standards and the state system is designed so that everyone and everything is under scrutiny. But, in simple terms, there are two classes of foreign employee here too: the highly educated and specialized expatriates, who enjoy a wealth of privileges, and the labor migrants, who are needed to do the work no one else will do."

It goes without saying that Singapore cannot be held up as an example to European countries. "You cannot simply ask: What is successful and what is not? That wouldn't work. I can never detach my observations from the context in which something works." Providing we remember this, the ability to take a broader view can be very helpful.

In 2017, Cummings came to Mainz University as Professor of Human Geography. She traveled from Singapore together with her Australian husband. "I was fascinated to see how the issue of integration is dealt with here." She describes coming to Germany with a non-European partner after the wave of refugees in 2015 and 2016 as an "informative insight into German bureaucracy and the rule of law."

After her experiences in Oman, Singapore ,and Germany, Cummings has come to the following conclusion: "Research always involves a major biographical aspect. This is what spurs you on. It’s not a nine-to-five job that you simply leave behind at your workplace when you go home."