Watson Institute at Brown University
International and Public Affairs

Welcome Letter

I extend my warmest welcome to all of you who are interested in Watson’s International and Public Affairs concentration.  

Everybody today, including all of us in the Brown University community, find ourselves living at a time of tremendous global dislocation and transformation. Some of these transformations, like climate change, have been observed building over time, and have long been anticipated. Others, like the resurgence of populism and nationalism worldwide, seem to have come upon us suddenly and without warning. The societal challenges of our time and the questions surrounding them demand both rigorous inquiry and urgent action. Why within a single city can some citizens access civil rights, extensive public goods, and abundant life opportunities while other citizens access almost none at all? Why do some communities suffer repeatedly from violence, conflict, and incarceration, while others do not? What is causing the spread of illiberalism across so many of the world’s advanced industrial societies? What can be done societally to mitigate the impact of climate change? What impels some governments to pursue weapons of mass destruction, and how should other governments respond? How can we deal with both the promise and perils of new technologies like artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things, and genetic engineering? 

These questions and more are the subject of the Watson Institute’s International and Public Affairs undergraduate concentration. The concentration, reflecting the mission and faculty composition of the Watson Institute, seeks to understand societal challenges from a multidisciplinary perspective. Moreover, the concentration focuses on understanding how these challenges are affected by power and hierarchy. In what ways across the world do the historically powerless suffer, and how can they be empowered to avoid such wrongs? How can more equitable, just, and peaceful solutions be realized -- whether locally, regionally, nationally, or internationally? And, how do issues of power affect the very knowledge we produce and consume? 

Of course, many of these questions are also examined by concentrations in Brown University’s outstanding social science departments: Anthropology, Sociology, Political Science, Economics, and History. Watson’s International and Public Affairs concentration, like the Institute itself, though, differs in several important respects. Rather than seeking to understand the world through a single disciplinary lens, International and Public Affairs takes a multidisciplinary perspective. For any given societal challenge we study, we consider the pros and cons of choosing one disciplinary lens of analysis over another; we examine how to analyze a single problem from multiple disciplinary perspectives; and we consider how different disciplinary perspectives can be brought together to form a comprehensive solution. In addition, International and Public Affairs is globally comparative by definition. Whether examining issues at the level of the city, the nation, or the international system, we seek to situate problems in a globally comparative perspective. We believe that no place is intrinsically exceptional, and none is beyond comparison. All places, whether in the global South or North, face challenges to justice, peace, and prosperity. Furthermore, all societies, whether rich or poor, peaceful or war-torn, embody knowledge and wisdom that should be learned from and respected for the greater benefit of humankind. In all that we do, we seek to provide students with opportunities to acquire a wide range of analytical skills, ranging from traditional quantitative and qualitative methods, to coding, GIS, and text analysis.

I very much hope you will give our concentration a try. But, even more important, whether you are a Watson concentrator or not, please share your knowledge with us, learn together with us, and join us in the quest to realize a more peaceful and just world. Never, at least in my life, has this mission seemed more urgent.


Edward S. Steinfeld