Jörg Friedrichs’ Academic Journey

Interviewd by Professor Kung Pengcheng 

Jörg Friedrichs is Associate Professor at ODID and Official Fellow of St Cross College, University of Oxford.

Prof. Kung: What are your current research interests and what questions do you find particularly interesting? Could you reveal a bit about the methods that you use in your research?

Prof. Friedrichs: At the moment, I am researching relations between Muslims and non-Muslims in contexts where Muslims are in the minority. In this research, I look at issues as they arise when Muslims live as minorities in different contexts where the majority of society is not Muslim. Related to this wider research about majority-Muslim relations, I have published a book about Hindu-Muslim relations in 2019. I have also published articles and book chapters on Han-Muslim relations in China. In recent years, I have conducted research on majority-Muslim relations in English neighbourhoods. As in other European countries like France or Germany, England has neighbourhoods where Muslims are locally in the majority, although they remain a minority in the wider town or city, as well as the country as a whole.

The contexts are different between Europe, China, and India; the key Muslim minorities are different: for example South Asians in England, Arabs in France, and Turks in Germany; and the majorities are different as well: for example, Han in China, and White British in England. Yet, there appear to be certain challenges that are common in majority-Muslim relations. Take for example cultural and religious issues, or a certain level of mutual segregation. In all cases, my main contribution is a systematic analysis of these and other issues that may arise when Muslims live as minorities in societies where non-Muslims are the majority.

In the case of China, I was forced to rely on existing sources. In the case of India, I was able to visit the country to conduct elite interviews. In the English case, I have visited neighbourhoods and talked to local people. Over the last few years, I frequently went to areas of London and Birmingham, as well as the town of Halifax in North England, where Muslim-majority neighbourhoods are embedded in an urban context where the majority is non-Muslim. During countless field visits, I became familiar with the areas and have interviewed Muslim and non-Muslim residents, as well as other stakeholders from various backgrounds.


Prof. Kung: Before working on majority-Muslim relations, you have written articles and books on a variety of topics: climate change and energy, fighting terrorism and drugs, and so on. What has been your journey through academic research?

Prof. Friedrichs: My doctoral thesis was on European approaches to International Relations theory. It was fairly abstract, and I wanted to do something more applied afterwards. For my post-doctoral research, I led a team supervised by Markus Jachtenfuchs in Germany and conducted a study of police cooperation between European countries to fight terrorism and drugs, comparing the situation in the 1970s with the situation in the 2000s. In that study, I applied some of the international relations theories that I had analysed in my doctoral thesis, and it felt good to actually do something with the theories rather than just writing about them.

Ever since my doctorate, I have been going through cycles lasting around five years each. I have kept an interest in theory but, as far as empirical research is concerned, I have continued to devote my main attention to a new topic every five years. After police cooperation, I worked on climate change and energy. Both were important issues when I was working on them, around 2010, and they will continue to be important issues. However, I found them a little depressing. We are learning to live with climate change and we are beginning to do something about it, but nobody seems to have a solution. Therefore, when my book on climate change and energy came out in 2013, I turned to another important challenge for society, Muslim minorities and non-Muslim majorities living together.


Prof. Kung: How do you start working on a new problem? Do you use similar research methods?

Prof. Friedrichs: Originally, my background is in Classics. I have studied the ancient languages of Greek and Latin, and the classical literature in these languages. At the end of my studies, I wrote my first book on an ancient Greek historiographer named Thucydides who lived in the fifth century BCE. In many ways, studying classics broadens your horizon. I know that, in China, many people study classics of Chinese philosophy and literature. They will understand what I am talking about. You could say my original background is in the humanities. As a Latin saying goes, I do not consider anything that is human as alien to me. Therefore, I start with an issue in the real world, and then study it by means of whichever method seems best. Of course, the more often you shift focus, the more likely you are able to transfer some method or skill. However, that is not the point. The point is starting with real issues or problems.

Prof. Kung: Are there any issues or problems you would like to work on in the future?

Prof. Friedrichs: Actually, this is the first time that I have stuck to an issue for more than five or six years. While I have shifted from India and China to English neighbourhoods, I am still studying majority-Muslim relations. I find it fascinating, and am therefore likely to continue. At the same time, I have developed a new interest in populism versus governmentality during lockdown, when I was unable to visit neighbourhoods. Populism is an extremely important issue in contemporary politics, especially but not only in Western countries. I think we are seeing the emergence of a new political cleavage, beyond left vs. right or other traditional cleavages: populism vs. what I call governmentality. Other people don’t say governmentality but establishment, or something like that. Either way, the point is that, where populism becomes a challenge, “the people” vs. “the few” becomes a core cleavage.

Prof. Kung: How are you studying this?

Prof. Friedrichs: A lot of politics is now happening on social media, and artificial intelligence and machine learning offer fascinating new tools to analyse it. During lockdown, when I was forced to suspend my other research because I was unable to travel for field research, I teamed up with students of computational social science. All three of them are doctoral students now. We apply machine learning and sentiment analysis to social media data. In one paper, we look at what we term “fear-anger contests” between populist and governmental actors trying to capitalize on these emotions to gain resonance with news media and, ultimately, citizens. In another paper, we are trying to develop a machine learning classifier for the detection of populist vs. governmental rhetoric. This is based on 1.6 million tweets ‘scraped’ from the Internet, making the project quantitative and ‘big data’.


Prof. Kung: You are teaching for the MSc in Global Governance. What is this master programme about? To whom would you recommend this Master programme and which career can they pursue?

Prof. Friedrichs: The degree investigates a broad range of policy issues related to the institutions and processes of global governance and diplomacy at international, transnational, state, and domestic levels. It enables students not only to develop a big-picture view of world politics but also to specialise on topical aspects and, in their dissertation, make an original contribution based on their own research. Our seminars and lectures equip students to understand and explain global governance and diplomacy, preparing them for a career in these areas and beyond.

Personally, I contribute to the foundation course on global governance and diplomacy, teach a seminar on qualitative research methods, and offer an option seminar on religion and world politics. Our foundation course covers topics such as crisis diplomacy, digital diplomacy, international trade, global health, civil society, and regional integration. Our option seminars include topics such as international law, public diplomacy, political economy, and environmental governance. There is of course more, but these are some examples.

In fairness, I must add that it is one of the most competitive master’s degrees at Oxford in terms of applicants per place. We have had excellent students from all over the world, including China. I have found the best students from China simply superb, not only in terms of work discipline but also in terms of originality. Independent thinkers who are passionate about politics are welcome to apply. Acceptance is based on academic merit, and students must apply through the website rather than approaching academics like myself.

Our graduates are everywhere. Some are diplomats for their countries. Others work at international organizations, such as United Nations and World Bank. Yet others work for private businesses or nongovernmental organizations. When Brexit was negotiated, we had two former students helping the United Kingdom leave the European Union. Others were working for institutions or member states of the EU to keep the UK in the EU, or negotiate a separation agreement more favourable to European countries. We also have graduates who went ahead with an academic career and now work for universities and policy think tanks.


Prof. Kung: China has played an important role in your research on political sociology and international relations. What are your main interests in China?

Prof. Friedrichs: China is fascinating to me as a non-Western civilization and great power with a glorious past and, hopefully, a bright future. China played an important role in my research on climate change and energy, as a major economy. It again played a key role in my intercultural theory of international relations, which I proposed in 2016. I have also published a paper where I consider various international relations theories to explain China’s popularity in the Middle East and Africa. As mentioned, I also studied majority-Muslim relations in a Chinese context.


Prof. Kung: Can you tell me more about your intercultural theory of international relations? How did China play a key role in it?

Prof. JFriedrichs: My intercultural theory of international relations is based on three distinctive ways of establishing self-worth: honour, face, and dignity. In each culture of self-worth, concerns with status and humiliation intervene differently in producing political outcomes. The theory explains important variation in the way states and nations relate to members of their own culture of self-worth, as well as members of other such cultures. China represents a face culture, and this affects the way it relates not only to other states representing a face culture but also to states representing honour and dignity cultures. Concerns with status and humiliation have been, and continue to be, of great concern, from the tributary system to the contemporary era. Representing a face culture seems to work rather well in interactions with honour cultures, as one can see from China’s popularity in the Middle East and Africa.


Prof. Kung: What did you find out in your research about majority-Muslim relations in China? Are there differences in this regard between China and India?

Prof. Friedrichs: Like many other empires, and perhaps even more than they, China has been managing relations between the centre and the periphery by relying on hierarchies of groups seen as more or less acculturated. For example, a distinction is often made between more acculturated Hui Muslims and less acculturated Central Asian Muslims. Similar distinctions were also made with regard to other groups, such as different groups of Mongols. This has allowed the Emperor and his bureaucracy to keep the empire together. It seems that some of it is still operative. It is a state-led mechanism, whereas in India the main mechanism works through society. Partly in response to Islamic and partly in response to other challenges, Hindus have developed a hegemonic caste system that has been highly resilient, not only to Muslim rulers and the spread of Islam but also to the spread of Buddhism and attempts by European colonial empires to promote conversion to Christianity. Have you ever wondered why monotheism has disappeared almost anywhere on earth, but not in India?


Prof. Kung: How does Europe compare to this?

Prof. Friedrichs: While non-Muslim majorities in India and China, over many centuries, have developed ways of relating to Muslim minorities, in most of Europe, Muslims are relatively recent migrant communities. Repertoires of majority-Muslim relations have yet to develop, and this is precisely why I started my investigation with India and China. I am not saying that majority-Muslim relations in India and China are without problems. A look into the news over the last ten years or so proves the contrary. Yet, there is a rather elaborate baseline on which to build.

In Europe, you could say we are making relations up as we go. Elite people at universities and elsewhere have opinions, for example regarding the failures of multiculturalism or the glories of diversity. However, the emerging experts in majority-Muslim relations are not academics but the people engaged in these relations first-hand. In many cases, these are Muslim and non-Muslim people living in and around Muslim-majority neighbourhoods. In my current research, I explore their experience and what they have to say about it.