My research interests centre on the emergence and evolution of states and the elites that dominate them, as well as the interactions between these elites and societies that they govern. In particular, I am fascinated by processes through which populations—including communities hitherto governed by non-state political systems—are integrated into states and by the interactions between state-managing elites and the leaders of such populations (who in different circumstances may resist state domination or become coopted by or integrated into those state-managing elites). Because of the geographic focus of my research, I am especially interested in state-making processes in Sub-Saharan Africa, including in the role of ethnic fractionalization and other social cleavages in shaping states and state-society relations, as well as in other aspects of African politics.


PhD project

My PhD project investigates the strategic interactions of agents involved in a struggle over the establishment of state structures in a territory that had never previously experienced effective state control and their impact on the nature of these structures. Specifically, it examines the efforts of the governments of Ethiopia, Kenya, and Uganda to extend their power into the dryland areas located along the borders shared by the three nation-states, the (frequently violent) reactions of their pastoralist inhabitants to this encroachment on their autonomy, and the ensuing strategic interactions between state administrators and the leaders of pastoralist communities. Because it affords a rare opportunity to explore the causes, dynamics and consequences of construction of new state structures as it happens, the project makes a valuable contribution to the important literature on state-making.

The drylands historically attracted little attention from the governments of the three nation-states, which made only very limited efforts to extend their reach into the region. This situation changed radically in the early twenty-first century. First, all three governments have begun forceful expansion of their presence in the region. Second, the previously preeminent customary governance systems have been increasingly challenged by new categories of political leaders, whose authority derives largely from their relationship with the governments. Third, violence appears to have escalated in the region. However, the properties and outcomes of extension of state power, the degree of erosion of customary governance systems and the intensity of violence vary significantly both within and across the three countries.

Field Research Locations

The project takes advantage of this variation to enable rigorous investigation of the causes, dynamics, and consequences of the ongoing political transformation of the drylands. To this end, it takes the form of a natural experiment made possible by the distribution of some of the pastoralist groups in the region, which live on both sides of national borders. The methods used in the project were selected specifically to take advantage of this quasi-experimental research design. For this reason, data collection for the project involved both qualitative methods that provide rich, contextual depictions of developments in specific research sites and (experimental and observational) quantitative techniques that allow rigorous comparison of the situation in these locations. It took place in 56 research sites in six areas of the three countries (Borena Zone and Nyangatom Woreda in Ethiopia; Marsabit, Turkana, and West Pokot counties in Kenya; and Karamoja in Uganda) from January to December 2016 and had three components: interviews, a survey, and choice experiments (factorial vignettes). In the course of field research, I conducted 235 interviews and collected 1143 survey responses and 3304 choice experiment responses.

Analysis of the collected data informs the construction of an analytic narrative of the political transformation of the drylands that provides a rigorous explanation the causes, dynamics, and consequences of this phenomenon, including the changing properties of state presence, violence, and pastoralist governance systems. The analytic narrative reveals that the phenomenon can only be explained with reference to strategic interactions of political agents involved in the process of extension of state power in the drylands. This insight demonstrates the inadequacy of models comprised exclusively of aggregate variables and points to the limitations of the existing state-making literature, which has been chiefly concerned with “big structures, large processes, huge comparisons” (Tilly, C. 1984. Big Structures, Large Processes, Huge Comparisons. New York: Russell Sage). To counteract this flaw, I develop a novel theory of dynamic state-making. This theory is built on the insight that aggregate social processes such as state-making are reducible to strategic interactions between individual agents, which form the basic building blocks—or microfoundations—of these processes. Strategic interactions are necessarily dynamic and this dynamism translates into aggregate-level effects. As a result, states are continuously made and remade to reflect the interests of various groups, leaders, reconfigurations of power relations in the form of alliances, etc. State-making should be seen, therefore, as such a continuous, dynamic process. I present the theory formally using a game-theoretic model.

I am currently finishing the dissertation (which I expect to submit and defend in 2018). In the meantime, sections of the dissertation are now available as working papers and under review in academic journals. The working papers can be found here.


Other projects

My interest in the drylands and in pastoralist societies extends beyond my PhD project. In 2016 I completed an evidence synthesis intended to identify, synthesize, and evaluate existing evidence on both the short- and long- term impacts of in-kind food assistance on pastoralist populations and their livelihoods in humanitarian crises. The project was part of the Humanitarian Evidence Programme, a joint research initiative of Oxfam Great Britain and Feinstein International Center at Tufts University. The protocol is available here and the final report here. I am currently preparing a version of the report for journal submission.

In addition, prior to starting my PhD, I worked in Karamoja (in northeastern Uganda) for BRAC and the International Organization for Migration. During that time, I wrote reports on the transformation of the Karimojong customary governance system, perceptions of poverty in the region, income-generating activities of adolescent and young adult women, the causes of child migration from Karamoja, and the reintegration and resettlement experiences of former child migrants.

Soon afterwards, I worked on two research projects—a labour market survey and a randomized controlled trial (RCT) investigating access to credit and investment in agriculture—in South Sudan. Initial research (including a baseline survey for the RCT) was completed in 2013, but both projects were halted following the outbreak of civil war in the country later that year.

More recently, I have completed two projects on political identities and cleavages. The first of them (begun as part of my PhD project) explores the complex ethnic politics in Marsabit (in Northern Kenya). I expect that a journal article on the subject will be published in early 2018. The findings from the second project, on the effect of regional and linguistic cleavages on redistributive preferences, have been published in Regional and Federal Studies.


Future projects

In the future, I plan to investigate two themes that have emerged from my doctoral research and, I believe, can offer important insights into political behaviour.

First, due to the dynamics of strategic interactions between members of state-managing elites, the outcomes of the process of extension of state power in the dryland region have varied considerably; these outcomes have been far more socially deleterious in Ethiopia and Uganda than in Kenya, where powerful political agents faced an incentive structure that led them to reach an agreement that resulted in the adoption of a new constitution, devolution of political power—including to leaders of the pastoralist communities in the drylands—and further consolidation of democracy. In my future research I would like to explore such elite accommodations in a broader range of settings and, in particular, investigate the political conditions under which the interests of elites lead them to pursue strategies that either benefit the societies they govern (which has been the case in Kenya) or (as in Uganda and, to a lesser degree, in Ethiopia) are detrimental to the needs of those populations.

Second, despite the wealth of research on elections, ethnic politics, and neopatrimonialism, the interactions between politicians and their constituents—that is, the ways in which political agents manage their support bases and clients influence their patrons’ actions—and the formation of such relationships remain, in my assessment, underexplored. My research in the drylands, where both the emergence of political agents involved in state-based politics and the creation of patronage networks (based on ethnic and sub-ethnic identities and other politically salient social ties) on which these agents rely are very recent, offers some valuable insights into this phenomenon. In the future I plan to examine the applicability of my findings to other settings.