PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — New investments in research on global inequality. Conferences convening world leaders to confront critical geopolitical issues. Data informing policy and practice domestically and abroad. And amid all this, myriad opportunities for students working to become leaders in effecting social change globally.
Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs is building on these and other strengths as its reputation grows internationally as an esteemed policy center. Pursuing its mission of promoting a more just and peaceful world, with a growing focus on finding solutions to global inequality, the institute is addressing many of today’s most pressing social challenges.
“Watson integrates and enhances work across the social sciences at Brown with an emphasis on first-rate scholarship that is relevant to policymaking,” said director Edward Steinfeld. “As the institute is already demonstrating, Watson has the opportunity to become a leading center of knowledge and learning, fully calibrated to the needs of the 21st-century world.”
Founded 28 years ago in the waning days of the Cold War, Watson’s aim from inception was to promote peace through international relations research and policy. Following a charge in Brown’s strategic plan to invest in scholarship that helps to create peaceful, just and prosperous societies, the Watson Institute has been expanding since 2014 to support ever more interactions between scholars and practitioners, hands-on opportunities for students and research with a global reach.
While the institute has evolved considerably, its core goal remains — and now it extends even more broadly to teaching and public engagement. Home to 10 centers and initiatives, and uniting faculty from academic departments across campus, it is committed to conquering systemic issues that affect communities worldwide, from poverty and inequality to climate change and rapid urbanization.
“Now more than ever, our society needs what Watson has to offer,” said University Provost Richard Locke, who led the institute from 2013 to 2015. “Factors that threaten the peace, prosperity and stability of our societies must be understood analytically so that they can be addressed in more effective and lasting ways. This is what Watson does.”
Research to inform policy and practice
With an increasing focus on research in support of the public good, Watson Institute faculty have successfully shed light on some of the most intractable challenges of inequality and injustice across the world. Their research helps give voice to the voiceless and representation to the underrepresented, efforts that have earned the attention of world leaders and sparked public discussion that at times leads to significant legislative and policy changes.
Watson-affiliated economists such as John Friedman and Emily Oster investigate differences in economic opportunity across the United States and connections between disease outbreaks and vaccination rates, respectively. Sociologist Jayanti Owens offers new insights on how the social contexts of schools, families and workplaces can lead to disparities in educational and economic outcomes. And public polls conducted by the institute’s Taubman Center for American Politics and Policy add to the public discourse on topics as diverse as the cost of living, the value of democracy and the price of security.
Among the experts immersed in addressing inequality through research is Catherine Lutz, a professor of international studies and anthropology at Brown. Working with Boston University colleague Neta Crawford, she has identified a connection between war and the economic turbulence that leads to inequality.
In 2010, as the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks loomed, Lutz and Crawford realized that much information on the consequences of the ensuing American military conflicts was missing. With the aim of stimulating public discourse and encouraging better-informed policymaking, the two launched the Costs of War project to provide the fullest possible account of the human, economic and political costs of these wars.
“It’s not dollars and cents alone, nor is it only blood,” Crawford said. “It’s the ripple effects in the economy. We want to help people understand that the effects of war don’t end when the war terminates or when troops are withdrawn.”
Costs of War research has earned massive national and international news coverage and has catalyzed countless conversations in Congress about financial, social and political costs of military spending on wars. Most recently, lawmakers referred to a map of every current conflict in which the U.S. is engaged, which was created by Watson Institute research associate Stephanie Savell.
“It’s fundamentally about accountability,” Steinfeld said of the Costs of War project. “It’s the accountability of policymakers, the accountability of societies. You need to have data and evidence for real accountability.”
Not all high-impact, evidence-based scholarship at Watson is data-driven, a point exemplified by Nadje Al-Ali, a professor of international studies, anthropology and Middle East studies. Al-Ali’s research on women, feminism and gender-based violence in the Middle East is qualitative: She engages with feminist activists, ordinary women and community leaders, observing and participating in their activities, listening to and recording their life stories and asking them specific questions relative to her research.
Al-Ali’s published work, which draws from field research in Egypt, Iraq, Turkey and Lebanon, demonstrates that when societies see an increase in militarization — owing to foreign occupation, internal conflict or a regime change — they also see a rise in gender-based violence. In 2018, when the Carnegie Foundation invited Al-Ali to present in New York and Washington, she had a chance to confront world leaders with the research, urging them to take gender into account when considering strategies to combat violence.
But Al-Ali notes that the power of her research has, on occasions, been even greater in the hands of the very women she studies. In the early 2000s, while in Iraq, Al-Ali met women activists who knew gender-based violence had increased in their country but were fearful of sharing details of the incidents, given the country’s conservative social standards. So Al-Ali gathered the activists for workshops on conducting qualitative research.
“My workshops taught them to use research methods to gather evidence of increases in gender-based violence and other instances of gender-based discrimination,” she said. “They were able to use that research as evidence for policy recommendations they presented to the Iraqi government and international organizations.”