In Conversation with Timothy Colton and Meg Elizabeth Rithmire

Interview by Sarah Figge Hussain 

Photo collage of the regions cluster affiliates

“What makes a region?” This seemingly simple question frames the work of the Weatherhead Research Cluster on Regions in a Multipolar World (informally called the regions cluster). Spearheaded by Faculty Associates Timothy Colton and Meg Elizabeth Rithmire, the research cluster seeks better understanding of what defines a region—by studying political and economic diffusion, perceptions of regional identification, regional ordering principles, and transnational cooperation. 

Launched early 2018, the regions cluster is part of the Weatherhead Research Clusters, a pilot program that enables faculty-led groups to home in on key questions facing the social sciences and the world, complementing the Center’s traditional focus on supporting individual faculty and student research.

Centerpiece met up via Zoom with Colton and Rithmire to learn more about the cluster’s progress and goals for this unique academic year.

CENTERPIECE: What inspired you to propose a research cluster on “regions” in 2017, and how has your thinking evolved since then?

MER: The cluster really started with just Tim and me, and our thinking about regions— specifically about Chinese power, waning American influence, and novel forms of economic engagement that did not really exist when the earlier literature on regions was written. Also in 2016–2017, there was a seismic shift in the way American global power was being exercised, perceived and interpreted. In our discipline (political science) and others, the literature didn't really take into account new forms of economic engagement: like China’s growing economic reach—which is regional in nature but national in perspective—or how information is now being exchanged online. Plus in June 2016, you have Brexit, etc.

So we invited a range of people, many of whom we had never interacted with before to join us—Pol Antràs from the Economics Department, Kathryn Sikkink, who works on human rights, and Tarek Masoud from the Kennedy School. Once we brought everyone together, the real intellectual sparks began, especially during our 2018 seminar on “Regions in a Multipolar World” at the Radcliffe Institute. 

During the seminar it became clear how different disciplines think about regions. For example, political scientists tend to think of regions in terms of regional cooperation or noncooperation, with gradations of cooperation—and if there is no cooperation, then it is not a “region.” Whereas historians and economists think very differently. They can cooperate economically and not at all politically, and you can have a region that's really built on conflict, like you see in the Middle East or even in East Asia.

We realized how enriching and totally different these perspectives were from how political scientists tend to think, at least in the political science literature that Tim and I had read. It was all very interesting.

Now the cluster is thinking very deeply about this and collecting data as granularly as possible on a variety of things to enable us to try to answer: What is a region? How do you measure it? How do you think about regional interactions? 

TC: Yes, another thing I learned was the importance of thinking about regions “in time.” 

Regions, as we currently understand them, are pretty much a twentieth-century or early twenty-first-century concept. There are also many historical antecedents for spatial entities that may not have even had a name. For example, the Bay of Bengal—a body of water—is bounded by complex societies which have interacted very deeply and intensely over the centuries. Sunil Amrith, in his book Crossing the Bay of Bengal: The Furies of Nature and the Fortunes of Migrants, extracted from that sort of regularities of behavior and sentiment. These behaviors don't have a lot to do with regional cooperation in the political science sense—there was never an organization or a single state, but there was a cluster of activity around the water. 

Meg and I definitely share the sense that these examples can’t all be equated with cooperation, including what the political science literature tends to focus on—institutional, organized cooperation through regional associations like the EU or the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). 

CENTERPIECE: How do you think having faculty from a variety of disciplines has guided and influenced the work?

MER: The questions we're asking are much broader than they would have been if we did not have people representing different disciplines. And when we meet, our inquiry proceeds on a couple of different levels—one is temporal and the other is spatial. 

We are thinking about questions like: How over time has the concept of Southeast Asia changed? Can we locate the genesis of this term? For what purposes was it pedaled? Why do other regional terms catch on and other regional conceptualizations do not? We are then thinking about these questions over a long period of time, and factoring in forces like empire decolonization, the role of great powers in the world, and the role of economics. 

On the spatial level, this is a bit tricky, since none of us has the dexterity or knowledge of all geographic areas. We have experts on different regions and some of our most interesting conversations have been when scholars of the same region, like Tamar and Kathryn, engage in productive scholarly disagreements about what does and does not constitute a region, or whether there is actually such a thing as Latin America.

We also have people within the same discipline—like political science—who have different dispositions and different substantive areas of expertise. So when we are thinking about diffusion of different kinds of things, like economic regimes, transitional justice practices, or human rights practices, the transmission of regime change and social protest movements, and  those kinds of things—we have really interesting conversations. 

TC: Some of the formative books published about this several years ago were written by very fine scholars who knew a lot about particular regions. Peter Katzenstein’s book, A World of Regions: Asia and Europe in the American Imperium, is probably the best example. He wrote  about what he knew from his own scholarship in Europe and East Asia. He came to the conclusion that we are in the process of becoming “a world of regions,” as opposed to “a world with regions”—which we definitely already have. He called them “porous regions,” which suggests a softness.

In the contemporary world, the sense of region-hood, at least in my view, is really often quite soft. There are sometimes competing visions within the same country and within the same political group regarding regions. And that might be what we're moving toward—a multiplicity of possibilities. 

The United States is a good example of this, since it is a founding member of the Organization of American States, which thinks of itself in hemispheric terms, and is also an anchor member of NATO, which is in many ways a regional entity. Under President Trump, the US has been promoting something called the Indo-Pacific, which stretches from the tip of the Indian subcontinent to San Diego. So you can see there's no exclusivity here in terms of belonging to one region. India is an even better example—what region India is part of depends who you ask and what it's being used for. 

I don't think these regional players and regional identities are exclusive. Rather, it's about where they fit in a field that is already pretty crowded. This understanding has really been driven home to me as our cluster conversations have unfolded.

CENTERPIECE: What is the regions cluster working on now?

MER: Right now, we have four research focus areas, or subclusters. 

One is a massive data collection project—imagine a big map—where we are using different arenas of human life and behavior to construct, from the ground up, a region. 

The other projects are driven by our members’ individual research agendas and the questions that each of us have been asking, so it's very collective and collaborative. Since last summer we have been working with our amazing postdoc Cassandra Emmons, to do this. Cassie’s dissertation, which she finished at Princeton last spring, focused on these issues. 

Diffusion How do political, economic, human rights, and transitional justice practices diffuse across regions?
Identity and Boundaries How do historical identities of boundaries hold power and come into being? What precipitates changes in these perceptions?
Regional Ordering Principles and Great Powers Are regions defined by conflict or cooperation? Are they hierarchical or defined by “sovereign equality”? How do/don’t urban centers and entrepots fit these expectations?
Mapping Regions If we let the data “speak,” what do regions look like? How do behaviors drive/contribute to the way regions are defined and determined, beyond traditional borders?

TC: One of the subclusters is about ordering principles—a core area of concern for political science—and I was eager to look at how great powers are involved in this and if there is anything new going on. I had a series of conversations with local experts in Southeast Asia during 2017, 2018, and 2019, and while there was no uniform point of view espoused, they did advise us to look at what the “big boys on the outside” [China and the US] were doing because it was those actors who were going to determine the fate of this region.

There was a school of thought in the 1990s, which said that after the Cold War—with two armed-to-the-teeth superpowers and their proxies (who had their own regional interests and constellations)—supposedly all of this was being put behind us. What would replace the Cold War configuration of the world would be sort of subportions of the globe—regions—with greater autonomy from the great powers, which could lead to more cooperation and integration or more conflict.

That was twenty-five years ago, and now the world has changed again. The question facing us now is: Are we going around in a circle or are we entering a period when the defining factor is the confrontation or competition between the United States and China? Or are we being short sighted, only thinking about the past?

Just look at the Middle East, where American power is still really strong and China is getting more involved. There are also new kinds of regional players with a lot of resources that weren't really a factor earlier.

And there are countries like India, Indonesia, and Brazil, which are all very large players in a regional context. Are they going to really return to a service subordination to some kind of bipolar confrontation between the two giants? I doubt it. 

So these are wonderful questions to which I don't have the answer, and this is how you proceed in scholarship. Start with a question.

CENTERPIECE: Do you feel the COVID pandemic and/or the resurgence of various social movements (#MeToo, Black Lives Matter) has significantly impacted yours and/or the cluster’s thinking?

TC: One thing you can probably take from the COVID experience is that there is a trend toward a renewed focus on national governments and a moving away from global thinking in certain regards even though the pandemic itself is global in nature. The response and impact of responses have been more at the national level.

So where does this leave regions and how far is it going to go in terms of global institutions, with the United States now boycotting the WHO. Does that mean that the US is going to nationalize everything in terms of a certain policy or are they going to be more neighborhood-level substitutes for global thinking? 

This perspective has come up in our conversations, and while you can't help but think about it, we're not in a position to really draw major conclusions just yet.

MER: In our meetings now we have had discussions about the pandemic—talking about how problems (like air pollution) cross immediate borders before they cross big borders, noting that whether your countries cooperate or not, people cross borders and can spread disease.

These behaviors give us a set of data points about the spread of the virus and about regional efforts to cooperate and contain it. We've also been mindful that not everyone's research should pivot to be about the pandemic.

In terms of the impact of social movements, it was really interesting this summer to see people in Europe joining in the George Floyd protests and this prompted us to ask questions about the proliferation of social movements. What kinds of societies feel enough affinity with one another to actually get in the streets and protest when something happens because of social and political legacies that you haven't experienced, but you feel enough affinity to be part of it. In a strange way, people may have more in common with certain social strata across regions and across national boundaries. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 


  1. Photo collage of the regions cluster affiliates. 
  2. Table describing the working groups, or subclusters, within the regions cluster.