A consortium of researchers dedicated to improving the understanding of the human causes and consequences of terrorism

Researcher Spotlight: Amy Pate


Researcher Spotlight: Amy Pate

A quest to understand political violence

January 24, 2013Jessica Rivinius

The path of research for START Senior Researcher Amy Pate was cemented when she was just a child. The self-described bookworm devoured pages that brought her to new worlds and offered her glimpses of what it would be like to live in a different country. After a first trip abroad as a child, she decided she had to visit all seven continents. To date, she's done all but Australia and Antarctica. Pate's work with START - from studying ethnic minorities to understanding al-Qaida's threat in West Africa - has allowed her to continue to fuel her passion for understanding other cultures. Amy Pate in Florence

Why is it important to study political violence?

I've always felt strongly that it's important to understand political violence because it has destroyed and continues to destroy lives - not just the lives of the victims, but also of the perpetrators. Political violence - and attempts to contain it - consumes vast resources globally. And it costs us in terms of lost productivity. And these costs linger long after the violence itself subsides, so it's important to get a better handle on its causes to gain a better understanding of how to contain it efficiently.

To me, asking "why study political violence?" is akin to asking a cancer researcher "why study cancer?" Understanding the theory and the mechanisms involved is intellectually stimulating and fundamentally interesting but, for me, it's really about trying to improve the human condition.

What drew you to the field?

In the summer of 1985, my family took to the skies on TWA flights and visited Spain, France, the UK and Cote d'Ivoire. We were in Madrid when ETA assassinated a Spanish army colonel and then detonated a car bomb in a department store parking lot. During that same trip, TWA Flight 847 from Athens was hijacked by Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad. So, here I was, a 9-year-old, trying to figure out why there were so many heavily armed soldiers in Madrid and throughout airports -- you just didn't see that level of security in the United States at the time.

Then, we headed off to Cote d'Ivoire, where my parents' friends traveled with us up to the border with Burkina Faso (then Upper Volta), so I saw a lot of different aspects of the country. The capital, Abidjan, was big, bustling, an economic powerhouse in the region. Then, Doropo, the village close to the border, had no electricity and no paved roads.

All the little girls that I played with were fascinated with my very blond, very straight, very fine hair.I began to realize, just a little bit, how it felt to be a minority. That summer, I was bombarded with different languages, different foods, different cultures. And I was exposed in really tangible ways to underdevelopment and political violence. That summer sparked my interest in West Africa, ethnic politics, and political violence. I came back from that trip and started reading more about other countries and cultures. So, everything just really developed from my parents opting for international travel instead of Disney World.

What's your dream "field research" destination?

I used to joke with my Minorities at Risk research team that we needed to do some field work on the separatist movement in Hawaii and ethnic tensions in Fiji. Wouldn't that be a great place to work?! Though I've only occasionally used field research in my work, in March 2010, I co-led a team conducting a conflict assessment in Cote d'Ivoire. I was tasked to train a group of NGO workers and activists on a conflict assessment methodology, lead them through the conflict assessment, and then write the final report providing analysis and policy recommendations. It was extremely challenging and extremely rewarding.

What is your favorite part of a research project?

I like the initial conceptualization of the project -- although not so much the constructing of budgets -- and I like the data collection. Literature reviews are my nemesis.

What are the uncharted waters of terrorism research today?

The study of individual processes of radicalization remains among the most difficult research topic to negotiate, as it's fraught with access issues. I also think, in general, research on political violence tends to study it in isolation rather than studying political violence along a spectrum or menu of options for actors. And that also holds with different varieties of political violence. That's slowly changing. For example, START has funded data collection on both violent and comparable non-violent political groups and research on how terrorism may be embedded in civil wars. But, there's still room for a lot of growth in this domain.

You've been with START since its beginning -- what keeps you involved? I have thoroughly enjoyed watching START grow and become established from its inception in 2005. I was a grad student researcher for START then, so I kind of feel like we've grown up together. I think START's strength is the leadership's ability to put together researchers and get them to work in complementary ways. It's not that we're all working on each other's research projects. Rather, there's a division of labor and complementarity to our work that helps us avoid re-inventing the wheel with every funding proposal. START has fostered a culture of synergy.

What book is on your bedside table right now?

I just finished "The Cove," by Ron Rash, a novel set in Appalachia during WWI. Next on my list is Zombie by Joyce Carol Oates. I typically read fiction in my leisure time -- I celebrated defending my dissertation with buying seven novels, as I had not allowed myself pleasure reading while I was finishing my dissertation. I've always loved books -- even when I was little, I would grab a book in each hand and then find a lap to climb up on to have someone read to me.

How did your undergraduate experience influence your graduate studies and career?

I loved my foreign policy class because the professor demanded a lot of students and forced us to engage in sustained research over the entire semester. We had to complete a series of analyses of the foreign policy of one country. I chose Syria under Asad, and those papers became the basis for the chapters of my undergraduate honors thesis. The class also taught me the value of breaking down a project into workable chunks and piecing individual papers together into a coherent, longer manuscript. I also loved my honors seminar in sociology on the construction of otherness that focused on white supremacist and related movements in the United States.

Being a Southerner (born and raised in Tennessee), the subject matter resonated with me. The professor used a wide variety of teaching methods. This was 1996, so most professors weren't incorporating online learning yet, but he had us lurking in white supremacist chat rooms to witness the slang and insider language that was used to create community within the group and to dehumanize those outside the group.

Which researchers have been particularly influential throughout the course of your career?

I took a class on ethnic politics with Ted Robert Gurr, which hugely influenced my choice of dissertation topic. It was also the last class he taught before retiring. He's been a mentor for me since then. I also have been influenced by Jonathan Wilkenfeld, who let me join one of his research groups my first semester of grad school. Besides their enormous contributions to the field, I respect immensely both Ted and Jon's ability to bring together teams of researchers to focus on common goals and to sustain quantitative data collection projects over many years. I also admire their ability to work on interdisciplinary projects, something that is preached more than it is actually practiced.