The main mission of institutes for advanced study is to enable scholars to pursue curiosity-driven research that other, more conventional, academic institutions refrain from accommodating. Hence, as soon as I joined the Kolleg, I began implementing my long-standing ‘evil plan’ to pursue my scholarly passions, laying aside more ‘realistic’, short-range objectives. I had long been dreaming about linking my research to two cutting-edge domains of research of the last three decades: digital methods and cognitive sciences. As a researcher of the connections between ideas and social reality, I had come to believe that these two fields promise immense new grounds and powerful tools to explore the human condition.
The Kolleg has proven to be the ideal environment to realize such unconventional pursuits as a historian’s reading and writing on digital research methods and cognitive processes. One of the first things that I did as a fellow was starting a digital history project on 19th-century travelogues about the Middle East. I have always been fascinated by travelogues from this period for their uncensored eye-witness accounts. However, they are known to be rather unreliable sources for historical research for their occasionally ‘liberal’ handling of reality—which can at times acquire fantastical forms. Rapidly improving digital tools for comparative and analytical research on large-scale qualitative data, in this regard, come to the rescue of researchers. These new tools support us considerably in separating fact from fiction and detecting plagiarisms (to pick out the true eye-witness accounts), in addition to opening many tens of thousands of pages to research on all aspects of life in the region in question. With these ideas and goals in mind, I set out to build a (still humble) digital research project in collaboration with a colleague from the Göttingen Academy of Sciences and Humanities (http://middle-east-travelers.de/). During the Corona lockdown, we have finished an article that reflects some preliminary findings of our project.
My earlier research focused on the intercultural circulation of ideas and the sociocultural impact of (imported) notions and ideas. Recently, my interests expanded to include other mental processes (such as emotions, perception, memory, and beliefs) and their interaction with social reality and social action. My current book project and plans for prospective research are the results of this expansion. My work-in-progress book examines the emotional factors that contributed to the birth and early configuration of Turkish nationalism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As I am working on the manuscript, I am developing blueprints for more theoretical research on the role of narratives and emotions in nationalist thought and action. Besides, I have recently finalized an article that explores the connections between popular (fictional) narratives and social change from a cognitive perspective. Benefitting mainly from the findings in cognitive literary studies and focusing on the late Ottoman case, this forthcoming article examines public intellectuals’ (rather intuitive) aspiration to change social reality by employing the cognitive and emotional power of fictional narratives.
Following your passions is like chasing unicorns. It can easily lead to wasting a lot of time and energy on unrealistic ventures. Yet, an exceptional social and academic environment can turn all this time and effort into gold by allowing you to discover new horizons while chasing those unicorns. My personal experience, in this regard, convinced me that institutes for advanced study, when they remain true to their mission statements, are indispensable establishments for exploring new horizons for scholarly imagination and research.
Deniz T. Kılınçoğlu