As a young boy Dennis Niemann wanted to become a paleontologist. Today, as a political scientist, he prefers to look for social mechanisms and patterns rather than petrified bones.
What was your first career aspiration as a child or teenager?
Probably the mandatory astronaut, firefighter, or policeman. A profession in which you "really do something". I fully embraced the role models of that time. When I grew up in the 1980s, there was also a great dinosaur phase. So my plan was to dig up dinosaurs later.
And why aren't you doing it today?
Because it's probably quite boring to dig in the ground and find such a petrified bone every couple of years. My first realistic career aspiration at the beginning of my studies was becoming a journalist. Like so many in social sciences. I thought that woould suit me because I've always liked to write. But I had neither connections nor special talent in the field of journalism.
Why did you start studying social sciences?
This was actually recommended to me during my school years at a student advisory service. I then studied politics and law. And right at the beginning of my studies it turned out that this was a good choice, also as a professional field.
In which sense?
This was primarily due to my work as a student assistant. In the third semester, the professor asked me if I wanted to work as an assistant. I was somewhat flattered. However, I really enjoyed my work.
You had to do more than just make photocopies.
Unlike some of my fellow students, I wasn't used as a copy slave. I was lucky enough to work for Michael Zürn, who does research in international relations. Zürn had a project on international environmental policy at the time.
When was that?
That was in 2003/2004, when there was a huge database on environmental regimes and I had the task of evaluating it. That was completely new and very interesting for me as a student, because it resulted in things that nobody knew.
Do you have an example?
That it makes more sense, for example, to use quasi-legal arbitration bodies to assess compliance with the rules rather than immediately threatening to impose any sanctions. And that's when I got infected with this virus that is driving us to create knowledge.
Your thesis was based on your work as an assistant.
Exactly, the topic was "Compliance in international environmental regimes". Since I had the position as a student assistant, I have worked continuously to get a foot in the door. And that went relatively smoothly thanks to the Collaborative Research Centre "Staatlichkeit im Wandel". So I started in the middle of the second project phase. At that time I was also an assistant to the co-project manager Ansgar Weymann. One of his colleagues found out that I wanted to do a PhD and said: "Come by, we talk about it." I think I said something like: "I would like to do research on international organisations, I don't care about the policy field". And that is how I turned to education. And that's really exciting.
Imagine you have everything you need: sufficient financial resources, good colleagues, the necessary knowledge, the best technical equipment and also enough time - which research question would you try to solve?
Phew! This is a question you don't deal with in normal life at all! Because that is completely unrealistic! However, with a colleague I had once applied for funding for a project about school autonomy in a European comparison. That's a really exciting topic.
Can you explain briefly what you mean by that?
School autonomy means that schools are less strongly regulated by the state, but can develop their own profile and teach and train people within the broadest possible framework. I would like to investigate this in a European comparison. If we had unlimited resources available for this, I would trace these development paths for each European country and subsequently have a data collection with all possible explanatory factors as to why states have opted for or against more school autonomy. To recognize what were the decisive explanatory factors for the development. That is something I am particularly interested in in general: Why did it come to something? To discover what is not obvious, but rather contradicts expectations.
Basically, the CRC 1342 is also designed in this way: You look at the past development of social policy and search for patterns.
That's is why I like the CRC research programme so much. Sometimes you have to look backwards and retrace what has happened. This enables you to identify mechanisms and patterns.
You're a postdoc now. What's your plan for the next ten, twenty years?
In the first funding phase, my goal is to seriously tackle the habilitation. And then of course I would also like to apply for professorships.
Do you already have a topic in mind for your habilitation?
Roughly, yes. It is based on our CRC education project. We look at the ideas that international organisations have on the subject of education. We also examine organisations that previously had nothing to do with education, e.g. the World Bank or the OECD, which previously had a clear economic focus. I am interested to know why the OECD, for example, is now regarding education as extremely important. What was the incentive to get so involved in this field? When you hear OECD, you immediately think of the PISA survey. And there are other international organisations that also are very much in favour of social policy. What makes organizations expand suddenly? And how do organisations that have been working on that field before, react and adapt to the new competition? Are they being ousted, are they looking for other niches? This project will be driven forward in the next six months.Contact:Dr. Dennis Niemann
CRC 1342: Global Dynamics of Social Policy, Institute for Intercultural and International Studies
Phone: +49 421 218-67473