“I am drawn to doing research in tough places,” says political scientist Fotini Christia. “The questions I’m interested in involve a dimension of conflict.” Her resume teems with references to Afghanistan, Bosnia, Iran, Syria—a veritable atlas of unrest.
For her recent book Alliance Formation in Civil Wars, Christia interviewed Afghan warlords and mujahideen. Her “counterintuitive” finding was that alliances among warring factions were fluid, owing more to pragmatic power dynamics than to religious or ethnic identities. She discovered, however, that identity narratives were often retrofitted to justify shifts from foe to friend and back again.
In another study, Christia evaluated the role of local councils in Afghanistan’s largest development aid program. She observed that mandating female inclusion in development councils appeared to bolster women’s standing in other aspects of community life. This notion—that compulsory inclusion might beget genuine teamwork— reverberated in her field work in Bosnia. She layered her own measures for diversity and cooperation on top of the “natural experiment” the city of Mostar created by integrating two of its Croat and Muslim high schools. When she asked students to play public goods games in which they distributed resources, kids from the ethnically integrated schools showed more willingness to contribute to the greater good.
Christia’s newest project, focused on Yemen, involves integration of another kind: she’s collaborating across disciplines. Together with Munther Dahleh, director of the Engineering Systems Division, along with computer scientists from Stanford University and network scientists from the University of Pennsylvania, she will analyze a massive body of anonymized cell phone records spanning the events of the Arab Spring. Though the content of calls and texts is unknown, the researchers will form a picture of how Yemeni civilians mobilized by zeroing in on key locations and timeframes. “It’s not just about how protests affected the way people communicate,” Christia explains, “but also how communication affected the way protests happened.”
The foray into big data “is not an idea that comes intuitively to a political scientist,” Christia says. “Having connected with these brilliant individuals from very different disciplines, I figured this was an opportunity to think of a project where we could leverage our unique interests—a project none of us could be doing on our own.”
Christia’s investigations in Yemen echo the themes of conflict and coalitions that define her previous work, and which have fascinated her since growing up in northern Greece. Yugoslavia’s disintegration was common dinner conversation, she recalls of her childhood, but Greece’s own civil war five decades past remained so divisive that it wasn’t taught in schools. Her interest in political upheaval was reignited in college by events in Kosovo. In the six years since she completed her PhD in public policy at Harvard, she’s become the Mark Hyman Jr. Career Development Associate Professor of Political Science; her expertise on Afghanistan has been endorsed by the former director of U.S. Central Command; she’s weighed in on international crises for publications including Foreign Affairs and the New York Times; and she’s earned an entry in the Washington Post’s WhoRunsGov, an online catalog of “key players in the Administration, Congress, and federal agencies.”
The dynamics of one conflict zone cannot be applied wholesale to other regions—or extrapolated to times of peace, Christia emphasizes. But as she moves her gaze to Yemen, she continues to ask questions that matter deeply to anyone interested in Afghanistan, or Bosnia, or the Arab world, or anywhere ravaged by violence.
“In periods of conflict, how do you get people to join your side?” she wants to know. “How do you get from instability to stability? How do you get to some sort of equilibrium?”