Research Agenda

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?

Below, I illustrate the breadth of my research in International Relations (IR) by providing an overview of five projects that I have either published or which are at an advanced stage of publication.  Further details about these projects can be found in the other tabs of this website.

To begin with, 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 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.  I am currently in the process of spinning off several parts of the dissertation as stand-alone articles, with plans to submit the theoretical, historical, and core empirical chapters to journals in 2019.

A second research project analyzes 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 flip 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.  In a working paper under review, we propose one such option: 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 de-escalatory.  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!  This manuscript is currently under review at an IR journal.

A third research project centers around the cables written by American diplomats stationed in Tanzania.  Along with my co-author Jérémie Cornut, we draw 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.  This manuscript is currently under review at an IR journal.

The fourth research project continues to explore the theme of how the weak can seek to resist the powerful, but shifts 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.  On the whole, we were surprised by the significant amount of creative agency these typically illiterate and innumerate women were exercising, despite (or perhaps because of) living in a highly patriarchal society.  Our article was published in 2019 in the International Feminist Journal of Politics.

The fifth research project stands somewhat apart from the others.  Growing out of IR’s recent interest in popular culture, it considers the intersections between computer games and global politics.  For example, in an article published in International Studies Perspectives in 2017, 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.

In a current working 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 the future, my work will continue to wrestle in various ways with the question of how the powerful attempt to sway the weak, as well as what tools are available for the weak to resist.  I find myself increasingly drawn to working from a feminist IR perspective, but continue to be interested in making friendly critiques of rationalist IR work, all the while maintaining my interest in the concrete practices that constitute so much of international political behavior.  Additionally, I am always looking to expand my methodological tool kit.  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 EAC, and examines whether it might be possible to quantify the textual similarities between EU, EAC, and other East African documents.  Separately, my colleague Mariya Jilinskaya-Pandey and I are preparing to launch a very large online survey of computer game players and non-players to empirically assess whether they have significantly different attitudes and beliefs about war, states, and the conduct of foreign policy than non-players.