Claire Visier, lecturer-researcher at the Faculty of Law and Political Science

Claire Visier, a political scientist and lecturer-researcher at the Faculty of Law and Political Science at Université de Rennes 1, recently came back to France after living and working in Turkey for almost four years. She tells us about her work as a researcher there.

Claire Visier. Illustration: Emma Burr

What led you to work in Turkey?
I’m specialised in the arab and muslim world. I did my thesis in the cultural cooperation between France and the Maghreb. I did a post-doctorate in Cairo, Egypt, on the subject of the relationship between Egypt and the European Union. After my thesis, I started looking for work and I was offered a job as assistant in the French speaking Department of Political and Administrative Sciences at the University of Marmara in Istanbul. I didn’t know Istanbul at the time but said yes straight away as I’ve always had a fascination for the Mediterranean world and I thought it would be a particularly rich teaching experience at that time (in 1999). Turkey had been declared candidate country to the European Union. It was a good way to change my subject area a little, without a real break.

It wasn’t quite a year and a half in fact, so too short to allow me to master the language or to really understand Turkey. Maybe it was thanks to this experience that I was recruited at Université de Rennes 1 and I began my career as lecturer here. I continued to work on the Turkey-Europe question. I returned in 2005 to do a semester of teaching at the University of Galatasary. I had a strong link with Turkey and went back regularly but I really wanted to return in the field as I didn’t have a lot of time to devote to research.

So, when you want to leave, you have to find solutions! First I worked at the Institut Français d’Etudes Anatolienne (there are a lot of IFRE in the arab world) for six months in the framework of a CRCT (Congé pour Recherches ou Conversion Thématique) which is similar to sabbatical leave. Then I got the Marie Curie fellowship, which I’d applied for a first time and hadn’t succeeded in getting and worked at the European Institute at the University of Bilgi. In the last year, I received the TÜBITAK grant (the Turkish CNRS) and worked at University of Galatasaray.
For the first three years, I was seconded from Université de Rennes 1. The last year, I was on academic leave. It’s not quite the same thing. The idea was to leave for 4 years, with my family (my husband was also working in Turkey during this period).
Is research in Turkey very different to France?

University in Turkey is very different. I discovered three very different environments: state university, private university and the French research institutions abroad.

The interesting thing about Turkish universities is that the researchers are a very high level but there’s very little collective research. One reason could be that Turkish researchers in state structures aren’t very well-paid and have little time for research, and therefore have to work quickly. For me, it was a little disappointing even if I was aware of that. Fortunately, I found a collective framework to work in via the Institut Francais de Recherche à l’Etranger (IFRE), which is something I appreciated!

Another interesting point is that Turkish universities, especially private ones, they are very connected at an international level. The lab I was in had a lot of European projects and was a lot more internationally connected than France. All my colleagues spoke perfect English (they have universities where they teach in foreign languages, English or French). Turkey is not at all isolated. That’s the good side.

On the other hand, it means that research, in my field for example, is becoming more mainstream, a more Anglo-Saxon way of doing things. In France, we like to show we’re different! In political science, it’s very clear. We have our way of doing things. We do sociology, we work in the field and we are more empirical.
But you are very international!

Yes, but let me just give you an example of what I’m trying to say. One day a colleague came into my office. I asked her to correct me in English. She said, “Can you imagine, Claire. The time you’ve spent learning Turkish you could have spent improving your English and you wouldn’t have to ask me to correct your English!”
I made the choice to learn Turkish because I’d gone to live and work in Turkey, and because I wanted to understand what was going on in the country in term of political issues. I also wanted to understand what was happening outside my scientific reading and it’s also what helped me move forward.
Turkey must be fascinating from a European point of view.
As a political scientist, it’s particularly interesting. It was 4 difficult years from a citizen’s point of view because it was 4 years when the political situation never ceased to deteriorate.

When I arrived with this Turkey-Europe label 4 years ago, it was no longer fashionable. It was fashionable 10 years ago. Now people laugh and ask why I’m still working on the question. Recent news has shown that it’s still an important issue.

Besides that, it was interesting for me to work on a subject which was no longer in the news. A lot of people work on the diplomatic questions, negotiations, etc., the subjects we read about in the newspaper. In fact, there’s a lot happening in the name of Turkey-Europe. A lot of projects have been set up, scientific programmes, and so on. My work was focused on the day-to-day workings rather than on the question Should Turkey join Europe? The big diplomatic question. I went into the administrative bodies, in the field, to understand what people were doing day-to-day concerning a certain number of programmes and projects. That’s where my research was relatively innovative.

In particular, what I’m trying to show is how Europe can accompany a non-democratic trajectory and authoritarianism. It’s a critical vision of Europe but it’s interesting to see, either because Europe doesn’t have the means to counter a drift into authoritarianism or because of its ultra-technical way of functioning, how this can happen.

For example, Europe considers Turkey too centralised and wants to helps them decentralise, with projects and decentralisation programmes. But the money used is ultra-centralised (for accounting and transparency purposes) and this contributes to the centralisation.

It’s really the heart of my research over the last four years. I published articles but my research was concentrated on exploring this new terrain which was long and meticulous work.

Now I’m in a situation where I’m trying to finish a publication, to finalise my HDR (Habilitation à Diriger des Recherches - a title which exists in France and Spain authorising a Doctor to manage other researchers). That’s when I need time to write but I’m preparing my courses! I’m not complaining of course. I had four years of research which a lot of colleagues would like to have. Often we have one year. I left for almost four!
What are you doing now?
I came back to my job as lecturer here. I came back to my office and my colleagues but not quite the same students because I changed my courses slightly. That was a big change! I’d spent almost 4 years as a researcher which is very different to being a lecturer-researcher.
What’s the difference?
As a lecturer-researcher, we are supposed to teach and do research except that in reality we spend more time teaching and dealing with administrative tasks. I’m used to managing a post-graduate diploma for example. So in fact, we don’t have much time and research is the icing on the cake! For 4 years, it had been my full-time activity! I’d done some teaching but relatively little. Just one course in the time I was there. I dealt with doctoral seminars, which I enjoy very much. It’s research and at the same time teaching.

Do you think you’ll go back to full-time research one day?

Yes, I’d like to but it depends if the opportunity arises. There aren’t many! Experience has shown these periods when we’re concentrated on research are very valuable. It’s how we really build our network. Then there are periods where we’re more concentrated on teaching which is very pleasant too. They don’t have the same timescale. At the moment, I’m putting together a course so it’s week by week. It’s fascinating and it allows me to discover many things. Research is more long-term. It’s not always easy to do both at the same time.
Was going abroad important for you?

I was part of the pre-Erasmus generation. I have friends who were part of the first wave of Erasmus students but I didn’t go on an Erasmus programme myself. I went away after my Master’s (DEA at the time). Then I did a post-doctorate in Egypt. I also travelled a lot in Maghreb. So yes, of course, going abroad was something important for me. It’s important to encourage people who want to move because it’s not easy! There aren’t so many jobs and it took me a while to find the opportunities I had.

Will you go back to Turkey?

For work, yes! To live, I have no idea. Even if it was difficult to come back, and Istanbul is a fantastic city, it’s also a city with a lot of tension.
But the pull of a foreign country is still there. Maybe in a few years, we’ll want to move again, in a country which is related to my work of course!

November 2016