Beyond the ivory tower



February 16, 2018

No, she does not view research and science as disciplines to be carried out in isolation from the rest of the world. She wants to be in close contact with people and their lives and shape society – for the better. “Our research,” says Dr. Regina Arant, “is meant to reach the real world and help people directly”. This applies equally to her work on social cohesion, as well as her PhD thesis, for which the 33-year-old was awarded the Bremer Studienpreis for excellent dissertations by the Unifreunde Bremen this week.

For her doctoral thesis Regina Arant followed a total of 846 exchange students from Germany who spent a school year in one of 33 countries worldwide. Her goal was to investigate the impact of a year abroad on the students’ relationship with their home country, i.e. their national identity as well as the identification with the host country. In order to do so, Regina Arant, born in Cologne, surveyed and interviewed the exchange students over a period of 2.5 years before, during and after their year abroad.

In her thesis entitled “Who You Are Depends on Where You Are – The Impact of a High School Year Abroad on the National and Host Country Identity of German Exchange Students,” she used both quantitative and qualitative methods. For this elaborate study design, the dissertation was awarded the "Mixed-Methods Award" by the Association for the Promotion of Qualitative Research in Psychology.

The study found that exchange students develop a strong bond with their host country and engage intensely with the local culture during the high school year abroad. However, this process levels off after returning home. Another finding: „The German identity is being reinforced during their stay abroad“, Regina Arant states. „Students learn how to handle their German identity, they explore it and consciously commit themselves emotionally. A temporary bi-cultural identity is, in the end, strengthening the German identity during a student exchange.“ These findings are also interesting for the German committee of the exchange network „Youth for Understanding“ with whom she collaborated for her study.

Beginning around the time she completed her PhD, first as a Research Associate and then as a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department for Psychology and Methods at Jacobs University, Regina Arant has worked on a study examining social cohesion in Bremen. Carried out on behalf of the Bertelsmann Foundation, this work was the first comprehensive study of social cohesion on the local level for which 2,604 people from 78 different neighborhoods in Bremen were surveyed. Together with a colleague and under the supervision of Prof. Klaus Boehnke, Regina Arant was responsible for the primary tasks in the study ranging from designing the questionnaire, coordinating the survey conducted by a field institute, analyzing and preparing the data as well as writing the final report.

“The results show that overall the level of social cohesion in Bremen is satisfactory. The city does not have only a few areas of strong cohesion – cohesive districts can be found throughout the city”. However, the study also shows that each neighborhood has its own strengths and weaknesses, which means that there is no single ideal solution for social cohesion. “The local circumstances always have to be taken into consideration when looking for indicators for improvement,” says Regina Arant. This is exactly what she continues to do at meetings with local actors, although the study has long since been completed.

Representatives from authorities and politics, housing associations and neighborhood management were involved in the study. The psychologist appreciates this link with the real world as much as the interdisciplinary nature of her work. “No matter which research topic, there is never only one single perspective, but various ones that together contribute to a better understanding of your area of interest. Looking at a topic from different viewpoints is always a plus”.

Interdisciplinarity was one central reason why she moved from Cologne to conduct her PhD at the Bremen International Graduate School of Social Sciences (BIGSSS), the graduate school operated jointly by the University of Bremen and Jacobs University. At Jacobs University, Regina Arant teaches young researchers in social psychology and empirical research methods. The international flair of the university which she also experiences as a member of the university’s choir, is particularly important to her: She studied not only in Cologne, but also at Duquesne University in the United States and the University of Edinburgh in Scotland.

After completing the most recent study on social cohesion on the regional level in Germany, she is currently in the middle of a new research project on behalf of the Robert Bosch Foundation. Again she is conducting research on social cohesion, but this time the focus lies on the constructive handling of diversity in our society. Poor, rich, young, old, religious or atheist, born in or migrated to Germany: What role does social cohesion play regarding the acceptance of diversity? And what conclusions can be drawn? The findings are expected to be published in autumn 2018.

The Bremen International Graduate School of Social Sciences (BIGSSS) is operated jointly by the University of Bremen and Jacobs University. The graduate school for social sciences is currently training 110 doctoral researchers from around the world in the core disciplines of political science, sociology, and psychology.
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