Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs

Global Complexity Drives Institute's Evolution

March 30, 2010

Created during the Cold War to diminish the risk of nuclear confrontation between two superpowers, the Watson Institute is at work today in a world of far greater complexity. Indeed, in this time of global transformation, “one of the most pressing issues facing us is precisely the absence of a single problem defining threats to global well being,” according to Institute Director Michael D. Kennedy.

“The Watson Institute should be the site in the world known for recognizing this global complexity – for addressing the relationships among critical international issues with innovation and consequence,” Kennedy says.

In his first year as director, Kennedy is advancing this engagement as he also expands the Institute’s use of the methodology of reflexivity. As such, Watson will not only consistently engage the challenges of a world in transformation but simultaneously study how it is that scholarship influences those changes.

Increasingly, the Institute’s study of global transformation is coordinated around the problems of inequalities, in such areas as economic and social development, and flows, in such areas as border controls and militarization. It is also focusing more on the agents who can make a difference, from policymakers and civil society to knowledge institutions and networks.

“Bringing scholarship into practice, and practice into our research, the Institute not only develops new theories about how the world works, but collaborates with scholars, policymakers, and public figures from across the world to help bring good ideas into the public good,” Kennedy says. “We must always look for the best ways to bring scholarship, policy, and practice together in making a more peaceful, prosperous, just, and sustainable world.”

Watson is not only convening scholars and global leaders to change the quality of the relationship between the academy and the public sphere. It also supports the development of new kinds of policies and institutions – as well as new forms of social organization and communication – that more appropriately recognize the complexity of the world and the ways in which new kinds of collaborative learning might matter.

“It is in dialogue across distances, and differences, that new imaginations of what we might become and how we might not just survive, but thrive, are made,” he says.

As Kennedy shapes this course of action, he is drawing on his own sociological research on the relationship between global transformations and the organization and transmission of knowledge – particularly in Eastern Europe and on the question of energy security. And he is bringing to bear the experience of a seasoned administrator who was the University of Michigan’s first vice provost for international affairs and director of its Weiser Center for Europe and Eurasia.

Recent public programs, publications, and major grants reflect this approach to collective scholarly work in what is becoming the hallmark of the Watson Institute. Among them are the following:
• a National Science Foundation grant to advance doctoral training and research on economic, social, and political inequalities in developing countries;
• a two-day public analysis of “The European Union in a Moment of Crisis” involving European political leaders Romano Prodi and Alfred Gusenbauer;
• an award-winning documentary on US military strategy; and
• new published research on international sanctions, global finance, violence in illicit markets, and development.

In line with the Institute’s research, “we are at work giving the undergraduate international relations concentration an accent befitting its Watson pedigree,” Kennedy says. “In the end, much like Brown University itself, it is in the impact that our research and graduate training moves into undergraduate learning that we might have our most immediate – and long term – effect.”

Selected Quotes

On Inequalities –
“Watson has a longstanding program on development, a term that has new meaning today. It’s basically a question of inequality – to understand its dimensions, its causes, and consequences.”

On Flows – “The study of flows focuses on how different types of connections among peoples and places create opportunities or dangers, and therefore inspire concerns for facilitating or limiting flows. Consider migration, foreign investments, nuclear proliferation, militarization – there is no compelling cross-disciplinary framework that understands well how these flows are related to each other.”

On Publics – “Right from the start, my predecessors at Watson assembled scholars and practitioners to develop concepts and mechanisms to reduce the likelihood of violence. Today, given the democratization of societies and the explosion of new media, one cannot only think about the ways in which elites figure out solutions; publics, within and across nations, must be brought into the conversation. In fact, they very well may shape it.”

On Knowledge Institutions – “We need to bring together knowledge institutions and networks in a strategic fashion that will enable us to articulate the quality of ties among our most pressing global issues, and the means among policymakers and publics to address them. We will each do it in our own niches, but we want Watson to bring it together.”