Take 5 with...Dr. Agnieszka Sobocinska

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Take 5 with...Dr. Agnieszka Sobocinska (Senior Research Fellow, Monash University)

1. What's your current research project?  

I am currently writing a book based on my Discovery Early Career Researcher Award (DECRA) research, titled Saving the World: Western Volunteers and the Rise of the Humanitarian-Development Complex, which will be published by Cambridge University Press. It’s a history of three development volunteering programs: Australia's Volunteer Graduate Scheme, Britain’s Voluntary Service Overseas and the United States Peace Corps, during the 1950s and 1960s. The book places volunteers at the centre of a ‘humanitarian-development complex’: a nexus of governments, multilateral agencies, NGOs, private corporations and public opinion that encouraged continuous and accelerating intervention in the Global South from the 1950s. It traces volunteers’ effects on global governance, but also explores their experiences on the ground, linking embodied and intimate experience with broader tensions between the Global North and Global South. 

2. What's your favorite place to do research? 

A recent favourite was the JFK Presidential Library in Boston, where I was working with Sargent Shriver’s papers (he headed the Peace Corps and was also JFK’s brother-in-law). I don’t usually work with the papers of Great Men; the files were so well organized and so crisp! Professional secretaries (almost all of whom were women) are the unsung heroes of mid-century professional and political life. The papers were a dream to work with...The library also has a team of dedicated staff who go out of their way to help researchers, and desks have a fantastic view out onto the bay. What more could you want?! That being said, I also love the National Library of Australia, especially after its most recent renovation. It feels very Mad Men and I can’t wait to go back.

3. Other than yourself, who is a scholar you think is doing really interesting work these days?

There are so many! I am very lucky to have brilliant colleagues at Monash, including Ruth Morgan, who is working on environmental connections between colonial Australia and colonial India; Josh Specht, who just published Red Meat Republic (Princeton University Press, 2019) about America’s beef industry; and Kathleen Neal, who works on the diplomacy of 13th-century queens. More broadly, there’s now a flourishing network of scholars working on 20th-century humanitarianism and the public sphere, people like Anna Bocking-Welch, Kevin O’Sullivan and Tehila Sasson, whose work I admire. I also recently read Daniel Immerwahr’s How to Hide an Empire and was blown away by its ambition and style.

4. What is the most important book to shaping your thinking in the field?

I keep returning to Ann Laura Stoler’s work, and particularly Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power: Race and the Intimate in Colonial Rule. Stoler links colonialism with intimate experience, and argues that colonialism functioned through the regulation of bodies, personal relationships, and intimacy. The argument is nuanced, sophisticated, and utterly convincing, and it has been hugely influential in my work on non-elite international relations.

5. If you weren't where you are now, how might you use your PhD?

Quite honestly, if I knew then what I know now, I probably wouldn’t have done a PhD in the first place. It’s such a gamble in today’s precarious job market! But luckily, I was totally naïve and decided to follow my interests. I did my PhD at the University of Sydney, as at the time I was interested in Australia and the World. If I had my chance again, I would first do an MA at Universitas Gadjah Mada in Yogyakarta, to hone my language skills and learn more about Indonesian historiography at an early stage in my career. I would then go on to one of those 8-year PhD programs in the US that require years and years of coursework. I would probably still be studying, of course, but by God I’d have done a lot of reading! The Australian system is much more thesis-focused and I envy scholars who had the opportunity to read so widely outside of their field, before making a start on their dissertation.


Scholar Bio: Agnieszka Sobocinska is an historian with an interest in the intersection between public opinion and international affairs, with a particular focus on the divide between Global North and Global South in the mid-twentieth century. Her first monograph, Visiting the Neighbours: Australians in Asia, situated travel as a politically significant element in the history of Australian-Asian relations. Her current projects examine humanitarianism and international development below the official level, at the intersection of decolonization and the Cold War.

Categories: Interview
Keywords: Take 5 With, Oceania