Alumni Spotlight - Robert H. Bates, PhD, 1969:
De-Marginalizing African Studies

In a world that has placed increasingly high value on globalization, interconnectedness, and mutual knowledge, the continent of Africa has traditionally stood on the margins – not just economically and culturally, but also in the academic world.

Robert H. Bates (Ph.D. '69) has worked to remedy that situation throughout his professional life. Currently the Eaton Professor of the Science of Government at Harvard University, Bates has dedicated his long career to ensuring that others – particularly his students – understand the importance of Africa on the world stage.

"I wanted a generation of Harvard students to believe that Africa was as much a part of the world as Russia, China, or Brazil," Bates says of his decision to join the Harvard faculty in 1994, after stints at the California Institute of Technology and then Duke University. At a time, he recalls, Harvard "didn't do Africa."

Bates had a vision: to "use my post as a bully pulpit and empower people on other campuses to say, 'Harvard is backing African studies.'" That strategy has succeeded well, as Bates's students are now making their marks in the academy, and training an even younger generation about the "forgotten continent."

As Bates puts it, "The field of African studies is now one of the most dynamic and creative in the discipline, in no insignificant part because of the contributions by graduate students from our programs at Duke and Harvard…I am profoundly proud of how they have changed the climate of opinion – and the expectations – that so deeply shaped the study of Africa in political science."

Bates's passion for Africa has deep roots. He made his first trip there in 1958, as part of a program designed to introduce high school students to life in less-privileged areas. And while he was drawn in the 1960s to MIT's young political science program because of the discipline's emphasis on close reasoning and empirical evidence, he acknowledges, "there is part of me that recognizes I chose the field because political scientists could be paid to go to Africa. What a deal!"

During his time at Duke, Bates conducted field research in Zambia, Kenya, Sudan, and elsewhere, and discovered that some standard academic assumptions did not stand up to firsthand scrutiny. "While living in villages in the Luapula Valley of Central Africa, I met no traditionalists who were norm-governed and politically deferential," he notes wryly. "Rather, I met canny, skilled rational actors, who were poor and powerless simply because when nature dealt the cards, it dealt them a bad hand."

Bates needed time away from Africa during the early 1980s, after researching the Ugandan coffee industry during the Obote II administration – what he describes as "a time of grim and relentless killing." The violence depressed and distressed him to the point where he opted to shift his research focus to Colombia and Brazil, where he continued work that would lead to his book, Open Economy Politics: The Politics and Economics of the International Coffee Market (1997).

But that shift in perspective brought home a greater truth. "I learned," recalls Bates, "that violence was NOT an Africa problem. It was a development problem, one that I could understand, and had to understand." He went on to undertake extensive research on the political economy of development, violence, and state failure. Resulting publications include his most recent book, When Things Fell Apart: State Failure in Late-Century Africa (2008), and his co-authorship of The Political Economy of Economic Growth in Africa, 1960-2000 (2007).

As part of his broader mission to elevate the standing and impact of African studies, Bates has framed his research in broadly applicable terms: the politics of rural marginalization, the sources of political order, and the origins of the rule of law. He has also probed questions of methodology -- most notably, the use of deductive reasoning in empirical research, the subject of his book Analytic Narratives (1998). Fundamentally, he seeks to be a social scientist as well as an Africanist.

Simultaneously, Bates has worked to build the intellectual infrastructure of African studies, in part by co-editing Africa and the Disciplines: The Contributions of Research in Africa to the Social Sciences and Humanities (1993). The collection of essays features writing from prominent figures in literature, philosophy, art, history, economics, anthropology, and political science, and builds a substantial case that, as Bates wrote in the book's introduction, "the study of Africa has shaped – and will shape – major fields of knowledge."

Bates came full circle this past summer, studying the rule of law in Ghana, a nation he first visited in 1958. He describes his newest work as "virtually a bookend" to the look at state failure in When Things Fell Apart, noting, "the legal system and the courts constitute a near-perfect substitute for self-help and violence."

By: Peter Dunn and Kathryn O'Neill