King's College lecturer Christine Cheng talks about making career choices between power and freedom of expression and about the War Studies department teachingRead More
Interviews / Academia
Professor of Political Science and International Relations | University College London (UCL)
Research Professor | Peace Research Institute in Oslo
Tell us about your current job. What do you do on a day to day basis?
I’m a Professor at UCL in the Political Science Department, and as with most full-time positions at a research university, there are three big parts to the job: teaching, research and administration.
Research-wise, I write about war, violence, and post-conflict societies. So, I write articles and I’m engaged in research projects. I have, for example, written a book about how decentralised institutions can help prevent intrastate struggles, particularly self-determination struggles. I have also done research on foreign fighters, and I have several collaborative projects on the dynamics and aftermaths of violent struggles. I’ve written articles on the divisions within armed groups, with Kathleen Cunningham and Lee Seymour.
Much of my work in the last few years focused on post-conflict societies. With a team of geographers and political scientists (John O’Loughlin, Mike Ward, Gerard Toal and Andrew Linke), I have worked on state-building in so-called de facto states born from violent struggles—places like Abkhazia and Nagorno-Karabakh. In a related vein, I’m currently working with colleagues in Norway (Karin Dyrstad, Helga Malmin Binningsbø and Arne Henning Eide) on a project in which we look at how people view peace agreements, with surveys in Guatemala, Nepal and Northern Ireland. Finally, I have a project with my UCL colleague Neil Mitchell and one of our PhD students, Hannah Smidt, on state restrictions of civil society organisations.
I spend a lot of my time on these projects, as well as disseminating research and discussing research with colleagues in colloquia (for example, we have a great Conflict & Change group in our department) and at conferences and workshops—both here in the UK and abroad. A good chunk of my time is, of course, spent on teaching and supervising student dissertations. I teach two undergraduate courses at UCL, one in the Department of Political Science and one in the European Social and Political Studies Program. One course is on political violence and intrastate conflict and one is on theories of international relations. I also teach a Master’s course on conflict resolution and post-war development.
In addition, a lot of what we do in academia falls under the rubric of ‘service to the discipline’. You might, for example, peer-review journal articles, review grant proposals for research councils, or be an external examiner of PhD students elsewhere. For the last few years, I’ve been an Associate Editor of the Journal of Peace Research, which is a major journal in my field. It’s really exciting because you get to see cutting-edge research and be part of the process of developing other’s research. I’m on the editorial or advisory board of two other journals—the Journal of Global Security Studies and Nations and Nationalism, and I serve on the council of the British Conflict Research Society. I was recently elected to be a member-at-large of the governing council of the International Studies Association. So, these things are not attached to UCL only, but they take up my day-to-day activities. It’s pretty hectic, but most of the time, I love it!
Did you always know you wanted to go into academia?
No. I did my undergraduate degree in journalism and political science, and even studied theatre theory. I started out in Norway, at Østfold University College and the University of Oslo, and then I moved to the US. I went to a really great journalism school, at Indiana University, Bloomington, doing a double major in journalism and political science. I had summer jobs at my local newspaper, Halden Arbeiderblad, back home in Norway, and interned at Ms Magazine. Between my journalism degree and my jobs, I realised that if I wanted to write about the world, especially about international politics, I needed to know more about the world.
Two of my female professors, Karen Rasler, who taught political violence, and Bonnie Brownlee, who taught journalism, encouraged me to apply to grad school, and so I did. At that point, I thought I would go back to journalism once I knew more about the word and how to analyse it.
I was accepted to a PhD program in political science at the University of Washington, Seattle. I worked with several amazing people there (among others, Joel Migdal, Erik Wibbels, Mike Ward, Beth Kier, and Steve Hanson), who are important scholars in the field and taught me a lot about how to do research. Doing research had much in common with what I knew from (and liked about) journalism—both involve writing about the world--but this was a different process of writing. I just loved it and got completely hooked on doing research and writing about questions I cared about in this in-depth way. It also helped that I was surrounded by fellow graduate students who were smart, engaging and enthusiastic about what we did.
After grad school, I was accepted to a post-doc at Harvard University, at the Belfer Center, which was a very exciting and inspiring place. I was part of a cohort of several other post-doctoral fellows there who had just finished graduate school as well. These are now all people who are well established in the field, but you didn’t know at the time that that was where people would end up. Again, there was excitement about what we were doing, so I thought that I would try this academic path for a living--and it’s worked out
You mentioned two of your female professors. Do you still look to them for inspiration? Do you have role models, and if you do, who are they?
In terms of my academic role models, Karen Rasler is one for sure. She taught this great undergraduate course on political violence at Indiana University. It was the first time I felt like I could speak up in the classroom. I think that like many women, I worried sometimes that everyone else was smarter than me, and she was amazing at managing that. She pointed out if you raised a really good point, so I felt comfortable talking and being part of discussions. I think it was very important that she made me, as a young woman, feel comfortable about my views and willing to speak up for them.
Similarly, Bonnie Brownlee developed a nice research project that we—the students in her class—all worked on, and there was something about her enthusiasm that stood out, so she was definitely important in terms of getting me to go to graduate school.
In graduate school, the members of my PhD committee, particularly Joel Migdal and Erik Wibbels, as well as Mike Ward, were role models. They are amazing academics, and they always had time for their graduate students. I try to adopt that enthusiasm and willingness to work with people. It’s particularly important in training PhD students to have that attitude.
Is that awareness, that women do sometimes feel more uncertain of their ideas, something you carry forward now when you teach?
I hope I do, and I try to be as encouraging as I can. I don’t know if I always succeed, but I am aware of it. If, in the classroom, some students are dominating the discussion, I don’t want to make the quieter students uncomfortable by calling on them, but what I might do if they’re not raising their hand, is to I say, “well you brought up this really interesting point earlier,” just to make sure they know their views are valuable.
My final year undergraduate students have to do a presentation based on their dissertation research. In preparation for that, I try to give them whatever encouraging advice I can think of. Amy Cuddy, a psychologist at Harvard, has done research on how the way you position your body might make you feel. Women, when nervous, sometimes make ourselves smaller, but her research suggests we should rather take up space—and then we will feel more powerful. She has this TED talk, which has been seen by millions of people, and I show it to my students, whether they’re male or female, before their presentations. Everyone can be nervous or have low self-esteem in some way.
You’ve worked and studied in Norway, America, Holland, and the UK – how does the academic environment differ from country to country?
There are differences in institutional norms and practices (in terms of how teaching is organized and what administrative responsibilities there are), but from a research perspective, I find my field very collaborative wherever I am, and it does not necessarily matter for the development of research relationships whether you are based in, say, the UK or the US. It’s a very international environment and there’s a lot of collaborative work across borders, especially if you’re working on a data-intensive project for which you need big grants (such as when we do surveys in post-conflict countries).
You also do fieldwork. I’ve read very interesting things by female war correspondents, who say that they often find they occupy a unique position when reporting. Because they’re Western they get the same insights that male journalists get, but because they’re female, local women are more willing to talk to them. Is that something that you’ve experienced in your career?
I certainly think there’s something to that. Now, I don’t necessarily know what answers a male researcher would get (I haven’t studied this in a systematic way…), but I think there have been situations, especially when I was doing my PhD fieldwork, in which people would ‘talk down’ to me because I was a young woman. Perhaps there was an assumption that because I was a woman, I wasn’t too smart. That can also work out to one’s advantage, though. People will give you quite a lot of information if they perceive you as innocent. There are also other ways in which being a woman can be a strength in the field. For example, if you’re talking to people who may feel vulnerable--women who might be displaced or living in a male-dominated society—then you, as a woman yourself, have unique access. There is a lot here that varies from person to person, though, so it might be difficult to generalise.
I have also, in the last few years, been in positions where I’ve interviewed people along with a male colleague (Lee Seymour), which I really liked. If you’re a team in this way, you’re getting the advantages of both. We could play off each other’s strength or ability to connect with people.
You’ve conducted research in lots of post-conflict societies. Have you ever felt unsafe doing any of your research?
Not really. I don’t do work in ‘hot’ conflict zones. There might be some instability, there might be some criminal violence, and some of the places I’ve gone to are a bit off the beaten track (such as the de facto states in the former Soviet space), but I’ve never directly experienced anything dangerous or felt very unsafe. Most of the time, doing fieldwork has been a pleasure, and I’ve met a lot of friendly people.
I probably felt most unsafe last spring, when I was in Guatemala. Karin Dyrstad and I were organizing a survey there, and Guatemala City itself has significant criminal violence, with high homicide rates. Now, I don’t think anything would have happened to us, but people who live there are quite worried about criminal violence. Some of the people we engaged with, for example, warned us not to walk on the street, and that was unusual. Normally I walk everywhere. It was interesting, though, because it points to the fact that one of the major challenges we might see in post-war societies is not the recurrence of war, but rather other forms of violence, such as criminal violence.
Another time, I was in a car in the North Caucuses, which was driving really fast, and there were one or two uncomfortable checkpoints. I remember texting my mother to tell her where I was… The roads in Georgia also felt somewhat unsafe, but you could experience that anywhere. So, I’ve had these kinds of worries, but nothing serious, like worries about being kidnapped. Sometimes you’re a little bit uncomfortable, but I guess you can be a little bit uncomfortable if you find yourself in a deserted alley in London, too.
Do you have any advice for anyone young, especially young women, trying to get into the field of academia?
You go into academia if you have questions you want to know more about, or if you have an interest in a particular field. Doing a PhD can be a tough process, so it is important to have that motivation or curiosity driving you. I also think a lot of your success hinges on having very supportive supervisors, family members, and friends. For example, I had an amazing cohort of fellow PhD students to go out with on the weekends, after those gruelling hours of work. I don’t think I would have loved doing the PhD as much as I did if I hadn’t had those things. Similarly, at UCL, I have really inspiring colleagues (and students), whose research and ideas—and conversations about research—help make my own work better.
Academic work – accumulation of knowledge in general – is built on recognising what is good, and, importantly, what is not good about existing work. I love what I do, but doing research can be a semi-brutal process, in the sense that you’re building on criticising others. This is the way it should be, and it is the way it has to be, but you have to have sufficiently thick skin to put your ideas out there for them to be torn apart.
Additionally, academia can be competitive, and it can be difficult to actually get those amazing jobs you might want. But academia is not necessarily different from other fields in this way. It requires motivation, hard work, imagination, patience and, importantly, people who can inspire you on the way—be those your peers or mentors.
I often say that I have the best job in the world, and I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.
Where would you like your career to go in the future?
I love where I am, working at UCL. This is a great institution, and I have amazing colleagues and amazing students. I’m also affiliated with the Peace Research Institute in Oslo (PRIO), which is home to several important and really great scholars doing conflict research. So, in terms of where I am, the networks and collaborators I have, and the people I’m working with, I’m really happy.
In terms of projects, in the foreseeable future, I’m interested in continuing to do work on post-war societies. I’m particularly interested in knowing more about how the things that happened during the war shape the organisation of the societies that emerge after the war ends. Ideally, I’d like to do more survey-based work, as it gives you a sense of what individuals think in a systematic way., and I want to pair that kind of work with in-depth fieldwork and talking to people one-on-one.
I’ve been working with two of my co-authors, Kathleen Cunningham and Lee Seymour, ever since we were graduate students. We’ve published a few articles together and we still have a long list of ideas, related to opposition movement fragmentation, so I’m pretty sure we will be able to keep busy on that front.
One of my most recent projects, with my UCL colleagues Neil Mitchell and Hannah Smidt, explores the various ways in which—and why—states restrict civil society organizations. This is a research agenda that has very clear policy relevance, and one of the things I would like to do more of—both with respect to this project and others—is to foster dialogue between scholars, policy-makers and practitioners.
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