Jeffrey Checkel (front) with guide, climbing the Rimpfischhorn (Switzerland)

International Studies, Research, Awards

Jeffrey Checkel, International Studies, wins Humboldt Research Award

March 13, 2015

The Alexander von Humboldt Foundation in Germany has awarded SFU Simons Chair in International Law and Human Security, Jeffrey Checkel a Humboldt Research Award. The award, worth €60,000, goes to academics “whose fundamental discoveries, new theories, or insights have had a significant impact on their own discipline and who are expected to continue producing cutting-edge achievements in the future.” In August 2015, Checkel will travel to Germany and—based out of the Free University Berlin—spend 9 months giving workshops, guest lectures, and cooperating with colleagues on research projects such as violence and civil war paramilitary groups, or the relevance and functioning of global regional organizations.

Checkel is known for his research on European regionalism and European identity, violence in contemporary civil wars, and his work on process tracing, a key analytical method used in the social sciences. Checkel was named a Global Research Fellow at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) in 2014. Before coming to SFU in 2008, Checkel spent 7 years as a professor of political science at University of Oslo, Norway. Checkel actually began his academic training as a physicist, earning his undergraduate degree in Physics at Cornell University. After graduating and working for some years in a physics lab, Checkel had what he calls a “mid-life career crisis,” and enrolled in a political science graduate program at MIT, where the department was looking for candidates with a technical background. Checkel’s dissertation at MIT focused on Cold War arms control and Soviet foreign policy, was completed in 1991, around the same time as the Cold War ended.

Checkel’s dissertation was published in 1997 by Yale University Press as Ideas and International Political Change: Soviet/Russian Behavior and the End of the Cold War, but Checkel says the ending of the Cold War forced him to shift his research focus completely and he subsequently spent the next 10 years of his academic life focusing on human rights, European immigration, European Identity, and the European Union. He says much of the research in European Identity (Cambridge 2009) questioned what role regional organizations play in creating community. Regional organizations, he says, are complex entities: “Much of my research asks the question, ‘what do these organizations actually do for states?’ ” Sometimes, he says, they are ineffectual like the World Health Organization, which some criticize as being seriously underfunded. “Many times these organizations do very little or make matter worse as in the case of the Rwandan genocide; the UN had a very big and unfortunately bad role in not stopping that genocide. And it was not just America. There was some serious internal dysfunction there. So much of my work was, and is, trying to understand these organizations as living, breathing entities and whether they help us cooperate, collaborate, or go off the rails.”

Checkel says his 2014 edited collection, Transnational Dynamics of Civil War (Cambridge), marked a return to his roots in security studies, but with a focus on paramilitary or rebel groups in civil war, and their use of violence. While in Germany, Checkel will expand upon this research and investigate the concept of socialization in paramilitary groups, specifically what encourages some paramilitary groups to use intensive violence while others do not. Checkel notes that in some cases, paramilitary groups actually establish social services and tax citizens. In the complicated case of ISIS, he says, they actually do both: “They’re providing huge social services that the central Iraqi state was not providing but they are also threatening to cut hands off it someone disobeys their very strict interpretations of the Islamic law.” Checkel says the project is “a theoretical and empirical exploration” that asks whether or not group dynamics are the same in paramilitary or rebel groups as they are traditionally with socialization. In the case of child soldiers, where children are abducted and forcibly recruited, he and his colleagues have noted that even when “the coercion goes away, many of these youth soldiers will stay with these rebel groups because there is a sense of community or family.”

The other project Checkel hopes to work on while taking up the Humboldt in Germany, reaches back to his work on regional organizations. “Expanding across the globe, I’m looking at regional organizations in places like Africa; Africa now has a regional organization called the African Union, modeled after the European Union. We have MERCOSUR which encompasses a number of Latin American countries and ASEAN covering South East Asia.” He says the crucial question this project starts with is to what extent organizations like these initially need a sense of community to operate and how they create community at their inception.

Process Tracing: From Metaphor to Analytic Tool, a co-edited collection with Andrew Bennett, is Jeffrey Checkel’s latest publication.

Ironically, Checkel disliked his first methods course in graduate school at MIT, and never envisioned writing a methodology book.