This week Mona’s guest is Professor Nasar Meer, Personal Chair of Race, Identity and Citizenship in the School of Social and Political Science.
Mona Siddiqui: Tell us a little bit about the work that you do at the University and your research.
Nasar Meer: I’m a professor of sociology and I work on questions of unity and diversity, and by that I mean I focus on the ways in which societies try to come up with ideas of common membership; national identity, citizenship, other forms of living together and that’s characterised, I suppose, by questions of race. That’s my intellectual work, and in addition to that I’m the director of RACE.ED which is the University’s network for the study of race, racialisation and decolonial studies.
MS: Do you think that universities generally, not just Edinburgh, have come to issues of race rather late in the day?
NS: I’d like to think each time we come to the issue of race, we have a chance to come to it in a deeper fashion. So while there’s a cyclical character to the focus on race, each generation of students and scholars who tackle it can bring a new set of critiques. Intellectually I think it’s better to be studying and researching and teaching in this area now than it was a generation ago but I think the challenges, including the political ones, are different.
MS: What would you say in your own work and in your own experience is the biggest challenge to cohesion and community?
NS: Partly it’s historical. I think there is a legacy of racialisation which casts a very long shadow. I think a primary question right now within universities, if not, society at large, is whether or not we want to recognise that and undertake the activities that come with that recognition, or if we want to look for other potential explanations which, at best, effectively ignore the issue.
MS: Can you give an example of good practice in this area, whether it’s at Edinburgh or something that you’ve uncovered in your own work?
NS: I think there are good examples at Edinburgh, which begin with what we might call epistemology, or theories of knowledge in trying to understand where our organising ideas come from, and reverse the telescope, if only a little. So rather than tell the story from a white majority and Christian perspective, to look at the issue from perspectives that challenge us to recognise our categories are often limited or partial.
MS: Looking back at either your recent or your distant past, is there anything you regret?
NS: I have regrets – I have intellectual regrets about things I wish I’d have written, professional regrets about relationships that may have broken down in institutions but my biggest regret is really the way in which work takes you away from family. Our daughter is seven this year and sometimes my partner and I, who’s also an academic, look at each other and think about all the evenings and weekends that we’ve spent working instead of being with her. That is a real regret for me and something that I’d like to change.
MS: And looking forward, what is your one hope for the future?
NS: I think the hope is definitely an intellectual hope – that the work that we’re doing here at Edinburgh isn’t transitory, that it actually embeds itself in something which is bigger than the present moment and we can tell a better and fuller story about who and what we are as an institution, if not a society and that’s something I’m very hopeful for.