In Conversation with New WCFIA Director Melani Cammett

Interview by Michelle Nicholasen

Image of Melani CammettThe Weatherhead Center welcomes its ninth director, Melani Cammett, Clarence Dillon Professor of International Affairs in the Department of Government at Harvard University and Professor in the Department of Global Health and Population at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. She will succeed Michèle Lamont on July 1, 2021, and begin a three-year term.

CENTERPIECE: What is your perspective on the WCFIA’s role on campus, and in the world? 

MELANI CAMMETT: The Weatherhead Center is unique because it’s one of the only centers at Harvard that brings together scholars from across the majority of schools at Harvard, and addresses important questions that bridge the international, broadly defined. With such wide reach across the University, it plays an important role in advancing Harvard's knowledge of and engagement with the world.

The Center is home to a set of scholars—not just faculty but also graduate students and undergraduates—who are doing exceptional, original research. It’s a great place to convene and support research more generally on campus. I see part of its role as akin to that of a foundation—to promote cutting-edge research at Harvard that can be shared and disseminated widely.

CENTERPIECE: You first joined the WCFIA as an Academy Scholar in the early 2000s, taught political science as a professor at Brown University, then returned to Harvard as a faculty member in 2015 and joined the steering committee of the Weatherhead Center. How have you seen the Center evolve over the years you have known it?

MELANI CAMMETT: Soon after I joined the faculty, I became involved in the Center when Michèle Lamont invited me to be a member of the steering committee. From that vantage point, I observed her vision for the Center and how she was executing it. Under her leadership, there has been an emphasis on highlighting the strength and seriousness of research.

Michèle Lamont made some notable changes. First of all, she created the research cluster structure, which set up a new framework for collaborative research. Groups of faculty were invited to propose a broad topic spanning their collective research interests in order to advance the research agenda in that area. The clusters aim to build large research teams or networks of researchers.

The Scholars Program is another component that has evolved in the last five years or so.

We have more researchers coming to campus not just from American institutions, but from abroad as well. The program also continues to welcome practitioners, who are in dialogue with some of the research going on at the Center. So, overall, there’s been an increasing emphasis on research and on the complementarities between researchers and practitioners at the Weatherhead Center. It's exciting to see how the Scholars Program enables us to expand our connections beyond Harvard and to broaden the work of the Center.

CENTERPIECE: You have multiple research projects underway. How would you generally describe the focus of your own work?

MELANI CAMMETT: My research sits at the intersection of identity politics, on the one hand, and welfare and development on the other, often with security at the nexus of these areas.
Some of my work related to questions about social and economic development is based on a collaborative project that looks at the effects of historical legacies—particularly legacies of French and British colonialism—on postindependence economic and social development in the Middle East and North Africa. This is partly based on archival sources from the colonial period that we have been digitizing. In a couple of years, my collaborators and I plan to share these materials through a publicly accessible database: the Middle East/North Africa Historical Data Archive (MENAHDA). We have been working on this with support from excellent research assistants, some of whom have been supported with grants from the Weatherhead Center undergraduate research assistantship program. Based on these data sources, I also have ongoing collaborative work on the political economy of social policy reform in the Middle East, which is my primary—but not exclusive—regional area of expertise.

Another project, which sits at the intersection of identity politics and development, is a collaboration with colleagues who are in the Weatherhead Scholars Program right now. Based on a survey experiment we ran in Delhi, India, we look at how accountability mechanisms affect the likelihood that Hindus and Muslims cooperate around common problems in slum communities. In particular, we focus on how minority status shapes contributions to sanitation and drainage, which are integral to public health in the community. In short, this project looks at an important manifestation of identity politics and links it to a development-related outcome.

Another example of research that cuts across identity and development is a collaborative project that looks at power-sharing arrangements, which are widely adopted in some types of postconflict settings. When a conflict situation is characterized by actors with relatively equal power on the ground, then a power-sharing agreement is a common policy solution. This set-up is quite common across the globe, and there’s a large social science research agenda around the adoption and ramifications of power-sharing arrangements. Critics of power-sharing argue that these systems create incentives that undermine the effective provision of public goods. Scholars from countries with power-sharing institutions, such as Lebanon or Bosnia-Herzegovina, have written about these seemingly perverse effects of this institutional design. My colleagues and I hope to assess the conditions under which suboptimal outcomes arise from power-sharing arrangements through a systematic, cross-national analysis.

Turning to work that focuses more on security and postconflict politics, I have a series of papers in progress with several collaborators that come out of a survey experiment we ran in Lebanon. One of these papers looks at citizen preferences for national security arrangements in Lebanon, where both the state and nonstate actors offer protection in parallel to each other in the wake of the civil war. 

Finally, I’m in the very early stages of working on a new book, which I’m tentatively calling Toleration. It looks at how people live together after ostensible ethnic or religious violence. I’m focusing on the cases of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Lebanon, and Northern Ireland, all of which had bloody civil conflicts that officially ended decades ago, allowing us to examine how communities reconstruct social relations in the wake of violence. This project is obviously more in the identity politics/security camp.

Melani Cammett talks on the phone in front of a crumbling building in Lebanon

CENTERPIECE: Will you continue to teach after you assume the directorship?

MELANI CAMMETT: I will continue teaching, and I find it fulfilling on many levels. It's amazing to work with both undergraduate and graduate students at Harvard, and often research and teaching are mutually beneficial. Maintaining regular connections with students is intellectually stimulating and it keeps our ideas fresh and relevant. At the same time, one of the best things about being a professor is the opportunity to help young people think critically about their world and work toward their goals. 

CENTERPIECE: What are your goals for the Center?

MELANI CAMMETT: I aim to continue to uphold the Weatherhead’s reputation of rigorous research established by prior directors. It's not hard to do when you're surrounded by so many excellent researchers, but I do think it involves some strategic thinking. Over time, there will be opportunities for new research clusters to emerge at the Center, and part of my job will be to work closely with the steering and executive committees, and with the advisory board, to support new research. 

Another key feature of the Center is its regular and ongoing grant programs, for which we have calls for applications up to three times a year. Faculty as well as graduate and undergraduate students can compete for these grants. I want to support and promote these programs, which have become especially important in the context of the pandemic, which has upended the field work of so many of our students.

Through both the research clusters and these grants programs, the Center can support collaborative research initiatives alongside the individual research agendas of our affiliates. It will be exciting to see what organically arises from the interest of groups of faculty based at Harvard in the coming years.

CENTERPIECE: Do you have ideas for new initiatives or clusters? 

MELANI CAMMETT: While I am director, I’d like to build an initiative based at the Center that focuses on conflict and intergroup relations. In particular, the initiative would explore how conflict deescalates, and how groups that have been in conflict with each other learn to live together.

I say “learn to live together” purposively because I have no illusions that people sing “Kumbaya” and are truly reconciled in the wake of horrible conflict, whether it’s waged in the name of ideology or a seemingly sticky category like ethnicity or religion. To me, this is a vital research agenda. Much of the social science research right now emphasizes experimental interventions at prejudice reduction. This is an important line of research, and we have some top-flight scholars at Harvard who do this kind of work. I firmly believe we need a parallel line of work that also looks at how communities have worked this out themselves over time more organically, through an observational approach and from a historical perspective.

In this initiative, I hope to bring together scholars from different methodological and disciplinary orientations to work on issues related to conflict management and postconflict processes. 

I also envision integrating the Center in a larger network of scholars and institutions around the world, with relevant expertise on this question. I have relationships with colleagues who work on these questions at a number of research institutions in Europe, Latin America, the Middle East, and South Asia, and hope to leverage the Weatherhead Center’s established relationships with scholars in other regions and institutions. I hope that these centers and their affiliates can become integral to a collaborative, cross-institutional initiative looking at these questions. We clearly have a lot to learn from each other.

CENTERPIECE: It sounds like you intimating the idea of putting research into practice?

MELANI CAMMETT: You hit the nail on the head here. We have an opportunity to capitalize on the tremendous convening power of the Weatherhead Center, and of Harvard more generally, to bring together scholars across Harvard, and from other institutions in the US and abroad, to be in dialogue with policy makers and civil society actors. Perhaps once a year, it would be great fun and quite stimulating to convene a workshop to draw out the policy-relevant implications of the research our scholars are doing and to discuss them directly with actors in the field. It doesn't mean that researchers need to turn into policy analysts, but it would provide opportunities to directly dialogue with people that work in the practical realm and see how their experiences resonate with what we've learned and how we might inform each other’s approaches. I would welcome the opportunity to organize those kinds of events—more likely in a postpandemic world.   

I recall when I was at Brown University, one of my colleagues spearheaded a very successful event called “New Approaches to Poverty in the Global South” in which regional center directors each brought a minister and a scholar to discuss and analyze the ways that different countries across the world had tried to tackle the problem of poverty alleviation. The event was so effective because there was a heavy emphasis on scholarly research on this question, but also high-level government actors reflected on research findings and talked about what worked and what didn't work in their ministries.

That kind of event was really productive, and it would be exciting to have something analogous at the Weatherhead Center, of course focusing on topics relevant to our researchers’ areas of interest and expertise.

Melani Cammett and Yuhua Wang sit on a panel discussion in the Bowie-Vernon room at the Weatherhead Center

CENTERPIECE: An ambitious research agenda like yours should be complemented with some serious down time. What do you enjoy doing in your nonacademic time?

MELANI CAMMETT: First and foremost, I love to spend time with my family. This has been one of the few silver linings of the pandemic, because I am not on a plane going somewhere every week.

Frankly, I hope to reduce my carbon footprint going forward, because we've discovered so many ways in which we can hold at least some productive conversations on Zoom and other platforms.

I also really love doing crossword puzzles and a big achievement for me during the pandemic has been that I have improved my ability to do the New York Times crossword puzzle. I guess we need to celebrate the little things in life, too. 


  1. Melani Cammett. Credit: Alexandria Mauck
  2. Melani Cammett conducting fieldwork in South Lebanon for her 2014 book, Compassionate Communalism. Credit: used with permission from Melani Cammett
  3. Yuhua Wang and Melani Cammett, right, participate in a Weatherhead Center orientation panel session titled “Authoritarianism and Resistance” on August 27, 2019. Credit: Lauren McLaughlin