Dispatches: Undergraduate Researchers in the Field

Last spring, fifteen Harvard College students received travel grants from the Weatherhead Center to support their thesis field research on topics related to international affairs. Since their return in September, the Weatherhead Center has encouraged these Undergraduate Associates to take advantage of the Center’s research community by connecting with graduate students, faculty, postdocs, and visiting scholars. Early in the spring semester on February 1–2, 2018, 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 last summer:

Benjamin Grimm

Photo of Benjamin GrimmWilliams/Lodge International Government and Public Affairs Fellow. Departments of Comparative Study of Religion and German & Scandinavian Studies, Harvard College. Research interests: Swedish Muslim identity within the fabric of nationalism, secularism, and post-Lutheranism.

I completed my thesis research this summer in the city of Malmö, Sweden, which welcomed me back after a year of separation with great sentimental—if not meteorological—warmth. One summer previously, I had lived there for six weeks working on the early stages of my research. During my two summers of fieldwork, I conducted interviews with two mosque leaders, a few leaders of civil society, and numerous laypeople in the Muslim community in Malmö. The third-largest and southernmost city in Sweden, Malmö also boasts the largest demographic of immigrants (43 percent of its inhabitants have a foreign background), and the presence of Muslims is more palpable there than anywhere else.

My thesis focuses on the relationship between nationalism and secularism in Sweden, using the experiences of Muslims as a lens through which to examine Swedish culture at large: How do Muslims—through their assertions of their own “Swedishness”—disrupt the secular narrative that Swedishness and religion do not go together? I focus on how this ideological challenge reveals the Lutheran history that still inheres in the culture and social systems and shows the fragility of norms about national identity.

In addition to bolstering my existing lines of inquiry, my research gave me a look at ongoing ways in which Muslims are working to reconcile the tension between the two parts of their identity. I found that Muslims often draw on the same cultural references and values that their detractors do—particularly the Swedish emphasis on humanitarianism and equal rights. However, they interpret them contrarily, asserting the Muslim community an obvious and integral part of Swedish society and not a pariah. I am excited to see how these current approaches develop in real time. 

Young woman at public Eid Festival in Malmo

I had many high points during my trip. One moment sticks with me particularly vividly. I had secured an interview at a new mosque. The mosque was not granting interviews generally, but a serendipitous connection from my previous summer was able to get me in. It was Ramadan, and so we scheduled a meeting for 11:30 p.m. (the late hour due to the delayed sunset of the far North). I set out in a torrential downpour, through a poorly lit industrial stretch on the outskirts of the city, clinging to my notebook and dollar-store umbrella, and made my way to the mosque. I was greeted with warm coffee and dates to break the fast. I had a fantastic interview and when I returned home at 1:00 a.m., I stayed up, poring over detailed research notes until the wee hours of the morning. It was an exhilarating feeling I won't forget.

Another great moment took place completely outside the research context. Through some of my academic contacts, I made friends with a twenty-seven-year-old local named Tilda. On my third night in Sweden, she invited me over to her apartment to meet her friends. Surrounded by strangers and inundated by fast-paced and overlapping conversations in a foreign language, I was intimidated. But as soon as I started talking about my research, other conversations petered out and people turned to listen. I had triggered a full-room discussion of Swedish nationalism and religion with people I barely knew giving me their input and debating me on my research. The level of interest they took in my work was so heartening, and renewed my confidence in the timeliness and importance of my subject of study.

My research this summer allowed me to travel all over the city and across the country, expanding the scope of my research and allowing me to achieve a considerable familiarity with the culture of Malmö. Now, the next challenge is to condense the wealth of material I have collected on the subject and to compose a thesis that reflects my topic of study in all its depth and vibrancy. 

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Daniel A. Martinez

Photo of Daniel MartinezWilliams/Lodge International Government and Public Affairs Fellow. Committee on Degrees in Social Studies, Harvard College. Research interests: The ethnic and racial dimensions of the armed conflict in Colombia; and the relationship between revolutionary movements and race in Latin America.

During the summer, I traveled to Colombia—my home country—where an armed conflict has raged for more than fifty years and has resulted in eight million victims. My research focuses on the ethnic and racial dimensions of the armed conflict, a subject that has been chronically understudied. 

The scholarship on the armed conflict and the guerrilla movements in Colombia is divided. Some have paid little attention to questions about the ethnoracial composition of the armed groups or the effects of the violence on ethnoracial minorities in the country. On the other hand, the scholarship that has studied race and Afrodescendants in Colombia has tended to overlook the approach of revolutionary movements to questions of race, pointing out that the guerrillas held to class-based paradigms and ignored other factors of difference such as race and ethnicity. My research seeks to point out this gap in the literature and begins to clarify the role of race and the Afrodescendants in the guerrilla movements. In other words, it aims to give color to rebellion.

Panorama image of the Atrato River

I went to Bogotá and the Pacific Coast to Cali and Quibdó, as well as Medellin—a center of colonization and an important region for the historical development of the department of Chocó. I interviewed about thirty people, from Afro-Colombian activists, ex-constituents, politicians, military officers, and academics to ex-guerrilla members. I also researched several archives containing the programmatic documents of the guerrillas and compiled hundreds of news stories from national and regional newspapers. This research helped me define a clear timeline of the conflict in the Pacific region (as it pertains to the guerrillas) and reconstruct the history of a racially defined guerrilla group named the Benkos Biohó, a small all-black guerrilla group that acted in Chocó from 1993 to 1998.

Throughout my investigation, the focus of my thesis broadened to include racial expressions within the guerrilla movements. I found out that the guerrillas gradually opened up to questions of race through the frame of ethnicity around the late 1980s. After the approval of Law 70 in 1993, which recognized the cultural and territorial rights of black communities as an ethnic group, the idea of black ethnicity gained national attention, and the struggles of Afrodescendants over land forced the guerrillas to give specific attention to issues of racial justice and to the black communities. Questions of race went from being mostly invisible in the 1960s to being prevalent enough to allow for racial expressions within the revolutionary movements, which I identify as Afro-guerrillas. To my knowledge, my study is the first to reconstruct the history of the Benkos Biohó, and describe the phenomena of Afro-guerrillas in Colombia.

My summer thesis research was academically and personally fulfilling. I believe that understanding the role of race in the armed conflict is crucial. After the peace deal between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the country has entered the so-called “post-conflict” scenario. However, this period is not exempt from further violence. Given the global trend for national conflicts to erupt into ethnic conflicts, the unresolved issues of race and ethnicity and their relation to the armed conflict represent a pressing concern. Therefore, the future of peace in Colombia demands the racial and ethnic dimensions of the armed conflict to be made visible and clarified. 

Moreover, my research reshaped my view of Colombian society. I became aware of the impressive achievements that recognized the ethnoracial rights of Afro-Colombians, but also of their continued plight for recognition and equality. I’ve learned that any social science research today, especially in Latin America, should look at racial-ethnic minorities and give equal weight to matters of identity and class and their respective struggles for recognition and redistribution.

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Margot Mai

Margot Mai ImageWilliams/Lodge International Government and Public Affairs Fellow. Departments of Anthropology; Romance Languages and Literatures; and Global Health and Health Policy, Harvard College. Research interests: Gendered violence of migration and social insertion in France and the European Union; and global health and health policy.

I spent this summer considering displacement, violence, and caregiving among the Nigerian sex worker community in Marseille. As France's second largest city and a historic center of migration, Marseille serves as an important collecting point for migrants traveling to or through France—many of whom have entered Europe via Italy after crossing the Mediterranean from Libya. Women and girls who have come from their Nigerian homes to Europe in the name of a better future enter a thorny intercontinental politics of migration, development, and sexuality as they become human components of sex industry/trafficking along their journeys, either knowingly or unknowingly. A patchwork of governmental, medical, and NGO actors regulates their movement and determines the legality of these women's presence. In the worst cases, such infrastructure can inflict profound violence upon vulnerable individuals. At their best, these actors attempt to identify and respond to the needs of these women. 

I have witnessed this landscape firsthand at Amicale du Nid, a Marseille center that provides social services access to individuals involved in or proximate to sex work. Approximately one-third of AdN beneficiaries are of Nigerian origin, and it is with this demographic that I primarily interacted as a volunteer intern doing street outreach and working at the day center. I spent time with several key interlocutors beyond an institutional setting—cooking meals together, exploring Marseille's beaches and parks, and participating in forms of Nigerian community such as church worship and barbershop hangouts.

Image of Marseille's vieux port at dusk

What emerged most clearly from my interactions and observations within this space is the practice of distance management as a form of self-care. How do these women use notions of separateness and closeness to both relate to and protect themselves from their local world? Distance is a common theme in the narratives of current and former Nigerian prostitutes in Marseille. Physical distance exists between France and home back in Nigeria, but closeness is maintained with friends and family through daily phone calls, Facebook posts, and money transfers. These women live in urban France and partake in public services and a common cultural matrix like the rest of the French, yet there exists a paradigmatic distance between themselves and a society that can scarcely imagine their life experiences. These women experience physical separation too since the spaces they occupy are inscribed by their status as migrants and former or current sex workers. The Nigerian expat community can provide support and familiarity in this environment of unknowns, yet many women maintain a measured separation from this group since it can equally be a source of exploitation and violence (former Nigerian sex workers often pimp fresh arrivals).

Fieldwork in this landscape was rich in material but posed specific challenges. The biggest challenge I encountered was limited access to formal interviews with beneficiaries at AdN for reasons of institutional confidentiality. This felt enormously frustrating at times—there were so many moments where it was clear someone had an incredible story to share from a preliminary conversation, but I was not permitted to inquire further. While this felt like an obstacle at first, it forced me to explore alternative methods of data collection that I otherwise would not have attempted. I was pushed to spend time with key interlocutors outside of institutional settings to get to know them and develop conversations, resulting in more organic relationships than that of researcher-respondent in a formal interview. These connections were high points of my summer—both uplifting and humbling moments where I felt I had earned another's intimacy and was also aware of just how much distance remained between us in the encounter.

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Theo Serlin

Photo of Theo SerlinFrank M. Boas Fellow. Department of History, Harvard College. Research interests: How Indian members of British Parliament discussed nationalism and economics during multinational debates c.1900.

This summer I travelled to the UK and India to do archival research for my thesis. My project focuses on three Indian members of Parliament (MPs) in Britain over the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: Dadabhai Naoroji, M.M. Bhownaggree, and Shapurji Saklatvala. 

Despite all being Bombay-based Parsis representing London constituencies, they represented three radically different viewpoints in the Liberal, Conservative, and Labour and Communist Parties, respectively. Looking at these thinkers is an inroad into understanding the functioning of the late British Empire and early Indian nationalist movement. I plan on focusing on how people like Naoroji sought to represent India in British politics, and who accepted and disputed this mission.

In London I visited the British Library, home to the papers of George Birdwood and William Digby, pro-Indian activists in Britain and correspondents with Naoroji and Bhownaggree. I also read several accounts of Saklatvala’s life sent to his children by friends after his death, and spent a day reviewing MI5 surveillance reports on Saklatvala in the National Archives.

Image of archives building

The purpose of my trip to India was to visit the National Archives of India and the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library. The former, heavily guarded on the outside but curiously lightly supervised on the inside, contains most of Naoroji’s private papers. The Nehru Library, an enormous archive located in the house occupied by India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru (and before him, the British viceroy), contained several letters and manuscripts relating to a trip Saklatvala took to the Soviet Union in 1934, as well as some of Naoroji’s papers.

Conducting archival research for the first time was interesting, but frustrating. Often letters between important and politically opposed people contain just everyday pleasantries, such as Bhownaggree asking Naoroji for “the pleasure of your company at dinner” on June 14, 1891. 

Of course, discovering that historical figures are human is no bad thing. Indeed, I think my understanding of Naoroji’s perseverance in the cause of Indian reform is enhanced by my new knowledge of how the septuagenarian exercised every day, with "a little gymnastics by two light dumb bells … and some motions of the body” (a secret he presumably did not share with Bhownaggree when they met in June 1891). Bhownaggree later complained that “I cannot have more turtle soup and cheese. … I kicked the balance at 12 stones, that is one stone more than at Xmas.” 

Similarly humorous, but more instructive, was my discovery of a large number of poems written by Naoroji’s supporters to aide his parliamentary campaigns. While Naoroji was decrying the “drain of wealth” from India to Britain, campaigners on his behalf claimed “in all foreign parts” Britain “is hailed with greater joy than gold!” It was further helpful to find that Saklatvala’s otherwise rosy impression of the Soviet Union in 1934—the year Stalin launched the Great Purge—was marred by the state of its “lavatories which breed microbes by the millions and enable the flies and insects to scatter them about.”

Of course, not all that was surprising was funny. Saklatvala’s willful blindness to suffering under Stalin, and categorization of the victims of Stalin’s policies as “largely undesirables,” was surprising given his criticism of British brutality, but shed light on the weight of optimism attached to the Soviet Union in the 1930s. Similarly confounding was a letter from a prominent Indian journalist to William Digby, suggesting an English MP would be more useful to the Indian cause than Naoroji. That letter suggests the existence of a substantial debate in India about the purpose of representation in Britain.

I found the archival research experience hugely worthwhile and helpful for my thesis. While I struggled to find many useful points of direct overlap between the three subjects of my research, the ideological similarities and differences between them—magnified by the changing fortunes of the British Empire and Indian nationalist movement—should supply a lot to work with going forward.

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1. At a public Eid Festival in the Malmö People's Park (Folkets park), a young woman waits for a performance to begin (in the context of a Muslim gathering, her jacket takes on a whole new valence). Credit: Benjamin Grimm
2. Panorama of the Atrato River in the proximity of Quibdo, Chocó. Many Afrodescendant communities live on the littorals of rivers like the Atrato on the Pacific Coast. Credit: Daniel A. Martinez
3. Marseille's vieux port at dusk, a gathering point for tourists and immigrants. Credit: Margot Mai
4. Entry to Isa Khan’s tomb, New Delhi. Credit: Theo Serlin