Dispatches: Undergraduate Researchers in the Field

Eighteen Harvard College students received summer 2013 travel grants from the Weatherhead Center to support their thesis research on topics related to international affairs. Since their return in August, the Weatherhead Center has encouraged these Undergraduate Associates to take advantage of the Center’s research environment. Early in the 2014 spring semester, February 6–8, 2014, the students will present their research in a conference that is open to the Harvard community. Four Undergraduate Associates write of their experiences in the field:

Xanni BrownXanni Brown

Rogers Family Research Fellow. Committee on Degrees in Social Studies, Harvard College. Causes and diffusions of recent mine worker protests in South Africa.

Rock-Drill Operators and Radicals: Coalition-Building in South Africa after Marikana.

A Makause informal settlement in South Africa.The event that galvanized me and drew me to South Africa for my thesis research was the Marikana mine strike of August 2012. It seemed to represent the accumulated brutality and injustice of the global mining system, and to offer an opportunity for study that might not only ultimately advance the academic literature, but also serve to illuminate a tragedy ignored. My goal was to carry out research among union officials and miners to better understand how one particular wage strike began in a vastly hostile environment, and more importantly, how it inspired a wave of similar movements at mines across the country. However, the situation at the mine deteriorated—disputes between rival union factions grew more violent, and the union office building in Rustenburg became a site of contestation as one union sought to physically displace the other. These changes, in conjunction with the more accurate, firsthand accounts I received after arriving in Johannesburg, made me realize that my original plan was neither likely to produce relevant data in a summer nor would it be logistically feasible.

I had been in South Africa for about a week before I found my new research topic. At the suggestion of a University of Johannesburg professor, I began going to meetings of groups of local activists who organized in various impoverished communities in and around Johannesburg. The first group I met was the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee, which is one of the oldest and most active such groups in Johannesburg. Through contacts established there, I also branched out to two similar groups from other areas of the city: the Thembelihle Crisis Committee and the Makause Community Development Forum. All three of these groups originated in response to a specific local grievance (electricity cutoffs in Soweto and eviction threats in Thembelihle and Makause). Historically, they had done the bulk of their activism work within the geographical confines of their own community, though the scope of what types of issues they took on had expanded over the years.

What intrigued me about these organizations was a variety of anecdotal reports that had involved supporting the Marikana strikers since the massacre in August 2012. This is an unlikely coalition on a number of levels—not only were the existing wages of the striking workers astronomically high compared to what these largely unemployed community activists lived on, but the demands they articulated were vastly different. In the same vein, there is a fair amount of scholarship on the “two South Africas”—the idea that there is a potentially insurmountable gap between unemployed South Africans and the relatively stable poor of the working class. So my question was: In the face of the ideological divide, physical separation, differing life experiences, material conflict of interest, ethnic variance, and a near-total lack of historic/institutional ties, were community groups and labor organizers cooperating? And why?

In the course of investigating this question, I interviewed members of the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee, Thembelihle Crisis Committee and Makause Community Development Forum, as well as a few South African academics who work in the region. I conducted a couple of supplementary interviews with members of umbrella leftist political groups, such as the Democratic Left Front and the Socialist Working Group, and interviewed a member of a public-interest law firm that has been involved in legal action on behalf of all three community groups. I also lived on my own in Johannesburg for seven weeks, joined a local rugby team, learned how to drive a manual shift, visited the Cape of Good Hope, and planned and executed a research project. I cannot wait to share the final results.

David MillerDavid Goodall Miller

Research Fellow, Weatherhead Initiative on Global History. Concentration in Social Studies, Harvard College. How democracies frame torture in order to make it acceptable to their populaces, focusing on the United States and United Kingdom.

My summer research consisted of six weeks in Europe, approximately two weeks in Washington, DC, and some more fragmented research in Boston and Cambridge. I studied decisions to torture by democracies, with a focus on considering how torture occurred in liberal democratic contexts, and whether existing models adequately explained these events.

A protest in front of Belfast City Hall.In Europe, I divided my time between Belfast and London. In Belfast, I focused on conducting interviews with academics, lawyers, and journalists, as well as conducting some archival research at the Linen Hall Library. Interview subjects included Brice Dickson and Adrian Guelke, both prominent academics in Northern Ireland. Professor Dickson, professor of international and comparative law at the School of Law at Queen’s University Belfast, was the first chief commissioner of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, as well as a strong advocate for utilizing a human-rights paradigm in asymmetric warfare. Professor Guelke, emeritus professor at Queen’s University Belfast, has extensive expertise on the politics of divided societies, terrorism, and a broad focus on Northern Ireland and South Africa. I also interviewed several lawyers and NGO officials, including Daniel Holder, Niall Murphy, and Patricia Coyle. Holder is deputy director at the Committee on the Administration of Justice in Northern Ireland, which deals with local and international human rights issues, and recently published a report on torture and terrorism by British forces. Both Murphy and Coyle have represented several defendants on terrorism or related charges, and Coyle represented a defendant who had been convicted of a political murder after British soldiers obtained a confession through torture. Her client, Liam Holden, was the last British citizen to be convicted of a capital offense, before he was eventually released and cleared owing to evidence that torture had been used to obtain his confession. I also interviewed Ian Cobain, an award-winning investigative journalist at The Guardian, who wrote the preeminent study of British torture in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

In London, I focused on background research and leads that had been suggested to me both in primary documents and in more general reading. I was lucky enough to speak with Patrick O’Connor, an eminent barrister in London. O’Connor has worked extensively on human-rights issues as well as terrorism—including present work on a torture inquiry with the British government—and was able to provide additional contacts and reading.

From these interviews, I gained important information concerning British torture, as well as the social and political context in Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom around this torture. It was beneficial to learn how the extended conflict in Northern Ireland still affected the daily life of those in much of the country. Furthermore, as noted, the interview subjects were extremely helpful in providing research material, either in the form of legal documents or in relevant further avenues of study.

In Washington, DC, I focused primarily on archival work. Because much of the relevant information on American torture remains classified or heavily redacted, I ended up focusing more on extending my background knowledge of the American case, as well as solidifying my research question. I plan to return to Washington in the fall to conduct interviews with additional academics and government officials.

As my research progressed over the summer, my overall topic evolved from looking purely at democracies' framing of decisions to torture, and shifted slightly to the decision to torture in these asymmetric conflicts. As mentioned, I am now most interested in why, in nearly every asymmetric conflict involving a democracy, torture has been utilized. The strategic and tactical benefits of torture remain much debated, but it is hardly a panacea in such conflicts, it is strictly illegal, and is generally thought to be antithetical to liberal-democratic morality. Thus, there must be strong forces pushing for this move in many cases. I am interested in why this occurs and will use the cases of the United States in the War on Terror and the United Kingdom in Northern Ireland as valuable windows for further study, as well as considering models that already exist in the scholarly literature.

Nataliya NedzhvetskayaNataliya Nedzhvetskaya

Rogers Family Research Fellow. Concentration in Social Studies, Harvard College. The role of religion in modern-day Africa, particularly its influence on local governments and healthcare institutions.

During the summer of 2013, I spent eight weeks in Zambia and two weeks in South Africa researching Community Health Evangelism (CHE), a widespread development model used by Christian missionaries. In Zambia I conducted research in seven different cities and villages and attended a national conference in Lusaka. I was able to conduct my research with the help of the organization CHEZA (CHE Zambia) and the national director, Lovemore Zulu. In South Africa I worked with the organization Bridges of Hope in the Philippi township in the Cape Flats area outside of Cape Town. I gathered 134 interviews in Zambia and twenty-four interviews in South Africa. In addition, I shadowed thirty-three CHE home visits during my time. With these findings, I hope to answer a series of questions:

  1. Christianity in Zambian Civil Society: What is the role of Christianity in modern-day Zambian civil society, specifically in the informal, social structure of geographical neighborhoods? How does Christianity factor into public and private conceptions of morality where health is concerned? More centrally, how has Christianity been linked to Western medicine in Sub-Saharan Africa, past and present?
  2. CHE in Theory and in Practice: What is the theoretical CHE model, what are its origins in both development theory and Christian theology, and how does it compare to the practical CHE models observed? Applying this same dialectic, how is the CHE model designed to empower the communities it serves? To what extent does it accomplish this task?
  3. Analyzing Observations and Identifying Patterns: What can be observed about the effects on CHE in the communities where it has been run, or the individuals who have been running it? How does CHE affect local definitions of health? How does CHE affect local conceptions of development?

Nshima with three relishes.The highlight of my research was getting an opportunity to talk with Zambians and South Africans informally and within their own environment. When I was conducting my research in Zambia, I would usually spend three to five nights in a given place, living with the local Zambians, sharing their meals, and sharing stories. Even though these conversations were off-the-record for my research, they taught me more about the lifestyle, values, and culture of the Zambians than any number of interviews might have. Over the course of my research, I attended a Zambian wedding, cooked nshima, a traditional corn meal porridge, and learned basic phrases from five of Zambia’s seven national languages. At the end of my experience, I was able to spend six days in Lusaka attending the biannual National CHEZA Conference, reuniting with many of my friends and interviewees.

My experience in South Africa was meant as a comparison point with my time in Zambia. As a result of safety concerns, I wasn’t allowed to stay in the South African township where I was conducting interviews—a drastic departure from my experience in Zambia. I stayed, instead, with a pair of missionaries who were on the board of directors of the organization I was studying. The experience was helpful for understanding what I could and could not generalize from my time in Zambia but was too frustratingly short to draw conclusions about the South Africa program. Within my thesis, I believe I can make use of my South African interviews for exactly this purpose, commenting on the different attitudes towards development (drawing on secondary sources to describe the role of history) and the similarities in the role of the Christian churches within these drastically different environments. South Africa, which itself has faced such a complex and troubled history, is a lure and an enigma in my research, and I hope to approach it carefully with the help of my thesis advisor, Professor Jean Comaroff, who herself is South African.

Overall, I had an overwhelmingly positive experience in both Zambia and South Africa. I believe that my thesis will shed light on the local perceptions of both secular and faith-based development in the Sub-Saharan region. I hope it will improve understanding of the Community Health Evangelism program for the development community, the academic community, and especially the local Zambians and South Africans involved with the program.

Aaron E. WatanabeAaron E. Watanabe

Samuels Family Research Fellow. Department of Government, Harvard College. State and regime development, especially in Latin America.

I spent ten weeks this summer investigating the persistence of democracy in Peru during the last decade. Since their independence two-hundred years ago, the Andean countries of South America have experienced frequent shifts of political regimes.

The 2000s were no exception to this pattern, with Bolivia, Ecuador, and particularly Venezuela moving from democracy to what Professors Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way call “competitive authoritarianism.” Under such regimes, incumbent political leaders allow regular elections to occur and the opposition to operate legally, but render these meaningless by using electoral authorities, courts, and control over state agencies to tilt the playing field of politics so that they are almost impossible to unseat. Despite the rise of competitive authoritarianism in its neighbors, Peru during the 2000s experienced one of its longest-ever periods of democratic stability. Considering the many political, economic, ethnic, and historical similarities these countries share, why have their political regimes diverged over the last decade?

President of PeruTo investigate this question, I interviewed roughly twenty-five Peruvian politicians, government officials, journalists, and academics as part of “snowball” research strategy. These interviews were generally open-ended and exploratory—I tried to focus on the political trajectory of current President Ollanta Humala. When first running for president in 2006, he campaigned on a platform of rewriting the constitution, expanding social-welfare programs, and increasing the state’s role in the economy. Elsewhere in the Andes, candidates with similar anti-establishment platforms won handily and, once in office, moved their countries towards competitive authoritarianism. However, Peruvian voters rejected Humala in 2006, only electing him in 2011 when he presented himself as a more moderate politician. Thus, I hoped to understand why Humala did not win in 2006 and, since taking power in 2011, has not pursued his original political agenda. I found that interviewees were very willing to discuss this question—it’s a topic of conversation in the press—and they often provided me with further contacts and direction to valuable datasets and books.

Learning how to effectively conduct interviews and manage field research was my greatest challenge. My question is broad, though not undefined, and thus involves understanding the actions and attitudes of everyone from the president to voters in regard to political and economic issues. This complexity is what I find most interesting. I eventually discovered that researching this question is like fishing: it involves a lot of patience and willingness to reel in whatever line of investigation is getting a bite. Once I realized this, the work was extremely satisfying, especially once I absorbed enough information to start seeing patterns and connections to help explain why democracy has persisted in Peru. However, before I fully grasped this aspect of research, I worried about my work being too unfocused.

From the knowledge I gained over the summer, I currently hypothesize that the lack of regime change in Peru revolves around the middle class. In Peru’s neighbors, presidents consolidating power undemocratically have relied on support from the poor who they have appealed to through fiery rhetoric and programs providing significant wealth redistribution. Yet, the Peruvian poor, particularly in cities, have given Humala only lukewarm support and were not, in contrast to their counterparts elsewhere, taken with his early proposal to scrap the existing political and economic order.

My explanation for this lack of enthusiasm, among the urban poor, for radical change is that many of these voters are actually an emerging middle class. While still clearly different from the traditional middle class by the type of work they perform, the districts where they live, and their absolute level of income, their standard of living is rising rapidly. Homes in former slums skirting Lima now not only have electricity and running water, but flat screen TVs, computers, and Internet access. It’s even more striking to see the modern shopping malls that have sprung up in these areas. Such improvements in standards of living are related to recent economic growth and the existing economic system based on the market and free trade. To many, the program of radically changing the status quo that Humala proposed in 2006 threatened this prosperity. Further, considering that many in this group are small business owners, the prospect of increased state involvement in the economy through expropriation, price controls, and regulation was not enticing and made them hesitant to vote for Humala.

This hypothesis is still tentative, and my next step is to flesh it out. Although I have some qualitative data to support it, I plan to analyze several available public opinion datasets to see how they support this hypothesis. I also need to read the theoretical literature related to this topic. I am very excited about proceeding with this work.

Photo Captions

  1. Xanni Brown: A Makause informal settlement in South Africa.
  2. David Goodall Miller: A protest in front of Belfast City Hall.
  3. Nataliya Nedzhvetskaya: Wikimedia Commons, Nshima (top right corner) with three relishes. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Nsima_Relishes.JPG
  4. Aaron E. Watanabe: UN Photo, President of Peru, Ollanta Humala Tasso, Addresses General Assembly, September 25, 2013. United Nations, New York.