Jenny Trinitapoli and Paul Staniland

From its founding, the University of Chicago was instrumental in defining the field of international relations and the research to support it. Throughout its history, the University has built a globally respected research community where leading faculty, doctoral, and post-doctoral students conduct groundbreaking research and field work conducted across the globe. This issue, Dialogo sat down with Jenny Trinitapoli, associate professor in the Department of Sociology, and Paul Staniland, associate professor in the Department of Political Science to discuss why field research is so important to studies of international political and social trends, and how the Division of the Social Sciences supports the research goals of faculty and students alike.

Jenny Trinitapoli is director of the Center for International Social Science Research (CISSR) and associate professor in Sociology. Trinitapoli’s work bridges the fields of social demography and the sociology of religion, and she has written extensively about the role of religion in the AIDS epidemic in Sub-Saharan Africa. Since 2008, she has been the principal investigator of Tsogolo la Thanzi, an ongoing longitudinal study of young adults in Malawi, which asks how young adults negotiate relationships, sex, and childbearing in the midst of a severe AIDS epidemic. Trinitapoli is the co-author of Religion and AIDS in Africa (Oxford University Press, 2012).

Paul Staniland is associate professor of Political Science and faculty chair of the Committee on International Relations (CIR). He co-directs the Program on International Security Policy and Program on Political Violence. His research focuses on political violence and international security, particularly in South Asia. Staniland's book Networks of Rebellion: Explaining Insurgent Cohesion and Collapse (Cornell, 2014) won several awards, and he has published widely in academic and policy journals. 

Dialogo: Let’s start with a little about your research interests and how you pursue those questions.

Trinitapoli: Most of my research is set in Malawi and Sub-Saharan Africa and centers on questions of social change and decision-making for young adults living with a major AIDS epidemic all around them. That brings together questions of religion and population, culture, young adulthood, sex, marriage, death, babies and births. Fertility is a huge focus of my research. I do mostly survey studies, but I also use other methodologies, including in-depth interviews and quasi ethnographic approaches.

As the director of CISSR, I am really interested in field work practices because it puts me in conversation with people doing empirical research in the social sciences on international, transnational, and global issues, and asking questions that don't clearly conform to national boundaries. CISSR is committed to supporting all kinds of work on these issues, but field work in particular has certain demands for resources that we are poised to support.

Staniland: My work focuses on political violence and international relations. A lot of my earlier research was on insurgent groups and other kinds of armed groups – how they mobilize, how they organize, why they fall apart, and what they do. My current research looks more at how governments deal with armed groups, from the range of extremely intense, very violent civil wars all the way over to pro-state paramilitaries, armed political parties, and thugs associated with ruling governments. I've also done research on civil military relations, the politics of foreign policy, and other topics related to governance and conflict particularly in South Asia and Southeast Asia.

Over the years I’ve done quite a lot of field research, through interviews and some archival research. I'm moving more now into doing various kinds of quantitative data collection in parallel with historical case studies. For instance, I'm part of an unexpected project on the use of social media in the Pakistani general election campaign looking at 15 million tweets.

Trinitapoli: I find that early research questions sometimes lead to growth of new branches. Some of them are short and stumpy, and others grow into viable projects of their own, sometimes larger than the original. For example, early in my research I was focused on religious life and religious leaders in Malawi, but more recently I found myself thinking about how young adults make decisions about who to trust, who to marry, and when and how to have children. It focuses on a period in life that is quite short, but it is action-packed for young adults in both positive and negative ways. It is the time in which people get married and have babies and start their families, but it is also the time in which young women are at highest risk for HIV infections and maternal mortality.

Their experiences are in a context that is very different from the one that I live in, but I understand them because I had been working there for a decade asking questions about what religious leaders were saying and doing about the AIDS epidemic. I had a decade of relationships in the field, and I wanted those relationships to continue. That's one of the things that has kept me working in the same place for such a long period of time.

Staniland: I'm from a generation very much shaped by 9/11, the Iraq War, and Afghanistan. These events result in a set of questions around violence, political order, and the use or the threat of force. In my dissertation, I was interested in how insurgent groups are able to build and maintain themselves in these incredibly chaotic, very demanding environments.

For my current book project, I'm looking at the ways in which governments evaluate this landscape of armed actors, and how they make decisions about how to allocate very scarce resources to decide who they go after, who they leave alone and who they work with, which is a set of very complicated decisions. Those intellectual interests have been deeply shaped by the politics of South Asia, the region I work on most carefully, where armed politics range from day-to-day electoral politics where violence is in the background, to very intensive, very bloody civil wars and internal conflicts, like what we were seeing with the Rohingya in Myanmar.

Dialogo: Although you work in different areas of the world, and on different issues, how do each of you see your interests intersecting?

Staniland: International relations is part of the social sciences, and my research draws on sociology and questions of networks as well as issues of ideology and the creation of nationalist ideas. In many places where political order has broken down or has been negotiated among different actors, there's an important social story about norms and how different social groups relate to one another. So there is a lot of pollination across the disciplines.   

I'm also faculty director of the Committee on International Relations, which is the oldest distinctively IR-focused graduate program in the country. We prepare students for both professional and academic careers after they graduate.

CIR relies on internationally-focused faculty across these disciplines. We have a number of faculty affiliated with us from the social sciences, many of whom work with CISSR, get grants from CISSR, and are part of the CISSR board. There is a surprising amount of fusion and overlap in the faculty that both organizations rely upon. We can't run this program without a deep stock of internationally-minded faculty in the social sciences division, which is CISSR's main constituency.

Trinitapoli: That’s true. The main thing that we do is gather internationally active researchers in a single place and help them talk to one another and get to know more about each other's research. I supervised two IR students a couple of years ago, even though I'm not directly an IR person. Both were doing HIV-related projects looking at health as it relates to security but not from a national boundaries standpoint, which made the collaborations natural and obvious.

Staniland: Having people like Jenny affiliated with CISSR is essential for CIR to bring students the best research in the field and have them taught by skilled and knowledgeable scholars.

Dialogo: Why is site research is an important part of this kind of social science research?

Trinitapoli: The primary goal of CISSR is to advance social science research on questions of enduring global significance, and to nourish empirical, international research across the disciplines. One of the key ways CISSR honors that goal is by supporting student-led field research efforts through travel grants. Supporting graduate student and faculty research in this vein is the single most important thing that we do at CISSR.

Staniland: The University's graduate programs work best when they draw on research-active faculty who know what's being taught across the discipline and who are producing cutting-edge research. It is the calling card of a research university education that you are in the classroom with faculty who really are at the leading edge. That is why it is essential to have institutions like CISSR that provide the resources and the space and facilitation for maintaining this stock of faculty.

Trinitapoli: When you're talking about original data collection endeavors, it either is going to happen or not happen based on the actions of a person or small group of people at a particular time, and they need resources to make it happen. We don't have the resources to launch multi-million dollar projects, but we do have the resources to send people to do pilot data collection, follow-up data collection and revisits, and we can help them build the foundation of research they need to launch much larger projects.

Staniland: Much of the work that goes on can't happen unless it's resourced, but it can be really hard for faculty and students to secure field research funding.

This is especially true for graduate students. My students have benefited enormously from what can seem like relatively small amounts of money – even $3000 can go a really long way in getting a Ph.D. student out into the field for the first time. But if you don't have a place that provides that kind of funding, it can have a huge negative impact on their future careers.

There is a whole set of conditions that have to be in place to be competitive to win research funding from outside the University, and if you don't provide the initial startup then you're going to get graduate students who are just not competitive. They need to be able to show that they’ve done a pilot project and spent some time in the field. So having a dedicated place where both faculty and graduate students can get resources to do this kind of work is absolutely essential.

Dialogo: How does the opportunity to do field research inspire students in their future endeavors?

Trinitapoli: There are limits to what people can figure out on their own simply by reading secondary sources. At a certain point, you have to go to the source, and being able to facilitate that for the right kinds of students is the best thing that we can do.

My first trips to the field were facilitated by tiny ‘good luck grants’. They barely covered my plane tickets, but it was momentous as far as the course of research. When I left, all I had was an exciting topic, but I came back with a clear research question and data to start answering that question. I also had support from other people who were experienced field researchers who knew how to leverage budgets toward their research projects.

Most people I know doing this type of research have a similar story. The difference is that there used to be a lot of funding streams and foundations to support these types of projects, but many of those sources have dried up. Being able to preserve that as a priority, even in the face of a changing resource base, is something that I think is important for setting graduate students on a good path.

Staniland: I totally agree with all of that. For me, going in to do field work was a transformational moment, professionally and intellectually, and I think that's true for tons of people. Field work is also really important for building new generations of researchers who are embedded in broad disciplines but have expertise on particular parts of the world.

Staniland: I've been impressed with the places on campus that will fund master’s student-level research. Here, MA students have opportunities to take research-focused classes, develop research skills, and even be funded to go out into the world to pursue their intellectual interests through research. That is different from the cookie-cutter professional development programs seen at many universities.

Trinitapoli: The encouragement and support that we've gotten to rethink CISSR as being research-focused, first and foremost, is a good indicator of that support. We've had encouragement and positive feedback from the dean and from others in administrative leadership for these programs. For example, we needed extra readers to look at the proposals from graduates for the CISSR travel grants, because we got so many more than we expected, and colleagues showed up. They did it because they believe it is important to award money to graduate students for this work, and to do it fairly and on a competitive basis.

Dialogo: How do you prepare students to make the most of these research opportunities?

Staniland: In the CIR program, there are classes they can take on everything from ethnography to survey methods to field-work specific courses. I think those are important grounding.

Trinitapoli: There are also informal workshops where experienced graduate students share advice from the importance of good travel insurance and having multiple back-up systems, to how to keep yourself and your data safe. Many of those strategies are exchanged informally.

Dialog: What research topics would you describe as among the most relevant for students and faculty today?

Staniland: We're seeing a return to interest in classical international relations. For the last 15-to-20 years, there was a much bigger focus on terrorism, civil war, and state failure but now with China, Russia, Iran, and U.S. foreign policy, interest in nuclear weapons is back. I think there are a lot of students who are returning to some of these older questions that really may have been seen as back burner issues since the end of the Cold War.

There are also questions about the structure of international politics and how that has changed in the last few years. Because of the Trump administration and a broader set of structural dynamics, some of the really fundamental assumptions about the way the world works are very much being called into question right now.

Trinitapoli: I agree. Issues around authoritarianism, populism, and democracy in crisis are far and away the topics where we're seeing the most interest. There is less interest in health and population research, but I think that's part of the ebb and flow of what cohorts are interested in. You think of the formative experiences of the students who are applying now, and that is often what motivates their questions and intellectual interests.

Staniland: One thing that always become clear is that students respond to what they're facing, what they see in the news, and what they are experiencing in their personal lives, especially in the social sciences. There is a real connection between what's happening in the world and the kinds of questions that people feel haven't been properly answered in academia.

I'm certainly seeing that with the MA and Ph.D. students with whom who I work. There is a real sense of crisis and uncertainty, and unanswered questions that people didn't think needed to be answered because they didn't seem relevant 20 years ago but now they are.