The common theme that unites my varied research interests is understanding how powerful actors in global politics attempt to coerce weaker ones by means that stop short of outright violence. Stated more simply, how do powerful actors get others to do what they want without going to war? And how can the less powerful resist?
On this page, I provide links to several past and ongoing research projects I have contributed to. You can also click on the headings for pages that provide a deeper dive.
My Ph.D. dissertation critically examined the role the European Union (EU) and other international donors play in promoting regional integration in East Africa. The main regional organization in East Africa—the East African Community (EAC), whose members are Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, and South Sudan—receives a significant amount of financial, technical, and rhetorical support from the EU. Indeed, for much of the 2010s, over 60% of the EAC’s annual budget was funded by external donors. Although I broadly believe that the EU’s largesse is given in good faith for a mix of altruistic and political reasons, I concluded that it was becoming self-defeating, as the EAC’s over-reliance on external donors was gradually de-legitimizing the very organization the EU was attempting to prop up. My fieldwork in East Africa, which included stints in two EU embassies in Dar es Salaam, allowed me to carefully trace the complex connections between European diplomats, EAC bureaucrats, East African exporters, and local officials, highlighting how disparate elements like per diems, meeting minutes, catering services, and technical reports all play a part in keeping the EAC firmly under the EU’s sway.
This research project analyzed how states involved in border crises can signal to one another that they are unwilling to back down but nevertheless do not wish to go to war. Much of the IR literature on border crises has focused on how states can demonstrate their resolve and readiness for war, by sending “costly signals” to one another. Unfortunately, many of the classic costly signals, such as mobilizing troops or deploying new weapons systems, are inherently threatening and can increase the risk that the crisis escalates into an inadvertent war. Accordingly, my colleague Upasana Mahanta and I flipped the script and instead ask if there are any ways states can signal to their neighbors that, while they are prepared for war, they nevertheless wish to avoid it. One such option is ordering a mandatory evacuation (ME), i.e. requiring one’s own citizens to leave the area near the contested border. We argue that such a move is costly to the sender—and hence, according to rationalist IR logic, credible—but inherently deescalatory. We conclude by showing how the People’s Republic of China, during the run-up to its 1979 invasion of Vietnam, ordered one of the largest MEs ever along its border with the Soviet Union. This was done to signal the Soviets that China’s military preparations were not aimed at them and to encourage them to not get involved in the upcoming war—a strategy which worked! (Link to published work.)
Another research project centered around the cables written by American diplomats stationed in Tanzania. Along with my co-author Jérémie Cornut, we drew on 451 cables sent from the US Embassy in Dar es Salaam in the late 2000s (and subsequently leaked by WikiLeaks) to show how American diplomatic cables create a “view from nowhere,” which erases certain voices and types of knowledge from the diplomatic record. American diplomats engage in specific epistemic and literary practices that cause them to over-rely on limited sources of knowledge (elite interviews), while disregarding others (non-elite sources, as well as historical and sociological knowledge). This unintended blindness poses serious problems for American foreign policy. For instance, the State Department’s simplistic understanding of religious tensions on the island of Zanzibar during the 2000s can be tied to the handful of elite sources American diplomats repeatedly relied upon. (Link to published work.)
The Financial Practices of North Indian Women
A different research project explored the theme of how the weak can seek to resist the powerful, but shifted the focus from the international level to the domestic households of North India. In collaboration with my colleague Mariya Jilinskaya-Pandey, we interviewed North Indian women to assess how they responded to the massive financial shock of the November 2016 “Demonetization,” when the Indian government abruptly invalidated 86% of the banknotes in circulation. One of the unintended consequences of Demonetization was the revelation that millions of Indian women had been quietly setting aside cash over the years, forming so-called “personal kitties” without the knowledge of their husbands. These women were forced into a difficult set of choices: should they simply accept the loss of their personal safety nets, or reveal the money to their relatives, with all the awkward questions—or more serious consequences—that might entail? Besides establishing “personal kitties,” our research uncovered several other tools that North Indian women use to hedge against financial precarity, including storing money in the form of jewelry (harder for relatives to appropriate than cash) and joining secret “sharing clubs,” as a form of collective insurance. (Link to published work.)
Growing out of IR’s recent interest in popular culture, I study the intersection of digital games and global politics. For example, in one article I conducted a content analysis of nine historical strategy games (HSGs)—titles like the Civilization series and the Age of Empires franchise. I highlighted five major IR-related assumptions that frequently recurred in the games (the assumptions of perfect information; of perfect control; of radical otherness; of perpetual conflict; and of environmental stasis) and contrasted them with IR’s best understanding of how these assumptions manifest themselves in the “real world.” This raises the question of whether frequent players of these games come to understand global politics in biased or unrealistic ways. (Link to published work.)
In another paper, I shift from looking at HSGs to a novel genre of games called Multiplayer Online Battle Arenas, the most popular of which is a game called League of Legends (LoL), with an estimated 40 million people playing any given day. The paper analyzes how LoL’s developer, Santa Monica-based Riot Games, is attempting to use nationalism to generate interest in its product by organizing an annual international tournament where the best players from different countries around the world compete. This tournament is explicitly modelled on the FIFA World Cup, with an identical competitive format, as well as an opening ceremony and theme song. But commodifying nationalism to sell a computer game is a potentially dangerous gamble for Riot Games, since it opens the door to racism and xenophobia in the already perilous world of online gaming, where various forms of discrimination and toxic behavior are rife. Given the tens of millions of individuals who play LoL and closely follow its high-level competitions, the stakes are high.
In a different working paper, I explore which factors best explain why some countries’ athletes do better than others at esports. Extrapolating from past work that seeks to predict the Olympic Gold Medal totals of various countries, I create a model which predicts the total earnings each country’s esports athletes will win in a given year.
Text as Data for International Relations
I have recently become deeply interested in using quantitative text analysis and other computational methods to test existing theories of IR. For instance, one research project still in its early stages uses quantitative text analysis to revisit my earlier (mostly qualitative) work on the EU’s influence over the East African Community, and examines whether it might be possible to quantify the textual similarities between EU, EAC, and other East African documents.