Working for science and scholarship

Sophie Elpers (Meertens Institute)

This edition of Working for science and scholarship focuses on Sophie Elpers and Antal van den Bosch (read his interview) at the Meertens Institute. Sophie is a postdoc at the institute, and Antal is its director. We asked both of them the same questions –questions about the institute, about their work and passions, and about scholarship.

The Meertens Institute studies and documents the Dutch language and Dutch culture, focusing mainly in the phenomena that shape everyday life in our society.

Sophie Elpers

Sophie Elpers, Postdoc at the Meertens Institute
Born in Billerbeck, Germany (about 40 km from the Dutch-German border) in 1978

What did you want to be when you grew up?
‘When I was very young, I wanted to do something artistic. Interior designer, for example. When I went to secondary school, I became interested in the theoretical side of art. I also loved history, and in the end I decided to study art history.’

How did you end up at the Meertens Institute?
‘At university, I became fascinated by painting in the Dutch Golden Age. I applied for the Erasmus programme and spent my exchange year in Leiden. It was fascinating to me that the paintings told us so much about everyday culture. That’s why I chose to do a minor in European ethnology, and the classes were held at the Meertens Institute. At the end of my exchange year, I was so captivated by European ethnology that I applied for an internship at the institute. After I returned to Germany, I decided to major in ethnology. I returned to the Meertens Institute for part of my PhD research, and now I’m here as a postdoc.’

What’s so fascinating about your research?
‘European ethnology examines the culture of everyday life. We learn just as much about ourselves as we do about others. A lot of the time, we study what seem to be trivialities –routine, ordinary things like how people dress, how they live, what they believe. But take a closer look and you see how these routine matters shape people’s daily lives and the world.’  

Does that have any practical value?
‘The whole identity debate is something that affects people deeply. Our research touches on that debate. It’s not our job to tell people what cultural heritage is or what the Dutch identity consists of, but we do try to understand the different perspectives being put forward. We identify the processes without espousing a position.’

What typifies the Dutch?
‘That’s the wrong question to ask an ethnologist. There is no “one” Dutch culture; everyone interprets it in his or her own way. And culture is constantly changing. Of course, as a German living in the Netherlands, I move in and out of different cultures and identities. What strikes me about the Dutch is their quest to find “the Dutch identity”. Perhaps that very quest is what typifies them.’

Are there any trends in scholarship that you didn’t see coming?
‘The rekindled interest in rural life in ethnology. It’s actually a revival, because rural life was a “hot topic” for ethnologists in the first half the twentieth century. Only now we have a very different set of questions. It’s exciting to explore the images that people have of rural life and how those images interact with real life in the countryside. Major changes – for example advances in technology – have caused ethnologists to take another look at everyday rural lifestyles and the images that we have about them. It’s a very exciting field of research!  How do people interpret rural culture and how do they identify with it? And how is the relationship between the countryside and the city changing?’

Can you name another Academy institute where you’d like to take a look around?
‘I’m already fairly well acquainted with the humanities institutes, so I’d like to have a look round the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience and the Spinoza Centre. I’d love to talk to the researchers there about cognitive processes and the role of culture in that context. Can you see “culture” in the brain? How does our brain learn about culture and the expression of culture? And as an ethnologist, I’m also naturally interested in the everyday culture of a “hard science” institute.’

Read the interview with Antal van den Bosch, director at Meertens Institute

Interview: Carel Jansen