Political Scientist Combines Social Awareness, Comparative Outlook

Origins with Rachel Beatty Riedl

By Thom DuncanOctober 20, 2016

Start counting the factors that affect governmental policies across Africa and one quickly realizes what a monumental job it is to understand how even one country operates. Yet Rachel Beatty Riedl, political science, has developed expertise that spans several sub-Saharan nations, a region that includes considerable volatility.

Riedl’s core focus is on democracy and institutions, looking at subjects such as term limits and contested elections, and how to develop political systems that work well on behalf of citizens. A related research area is public policies in local governance and decentralization. Theories suggest that a government close to the people is optimal, since citizens can participate more vigorously in public life and hold the government accountable for its actions. Yet, the reality is more complicated. Issues such as capacity to manage effectively at the local level, and whether or not budgets are transferred from the national to regional government, can make or break policy implementation, she finds.

Religion and politics is a relatively new direction in Riedl’s research. She studies the ways that religious actors and groups engage to advance an agenda and seek representation. To explore that complex subject, she employs a historical and comparative perspective across African countries.

“I focus on factors like political parties, party-system competition, and democratic rules because human development is directly impacted by how political systems operate and by the choices they give to citizens,” says Riedl, a faculty fellow at Northwestern’s Institute for Policy Research and author of the award-winning book Authoritarian Origins of Democratic Party Systems in Africa. “These factors impact the ability of people to live in peace and security, and that’s what matters to me.”

To develop her expertise in international politics, one might assume Riedl was raised in a cosmopolitan environment. Yet her roots in a rural Wisconsin farm town tell a different story. Research News sat down with Riedl to discuss that transition and her professional path.

As a kid, did you dream of becoming a political scientist?

Growing up in a rural area, I was not exposed to many of the ideas and places I now engage with daily. My childhood was really shaped by living in the countryside, surrounded by farmland. In some ways, there was not a lot of diversity; in other ways, there was a great deal of socioeconomic diversity. Some classmates were in precarious economic and family situations, but I was less aware of it at that time.  As I moved from our small-town elementary school to high school in Madison, and then to university and internationally, the sphere of what I was exposed to became broader.

Were you especially curious as a child?

More than curious, I would say observant. I was always aware of what people around me were doing in order to learn from that world and take out of it what I wanted to. For example, when I went to Madison for high school, I had to adapt to fit into that new environment. While Madison may not be the most cosmopolitan city, it was not my world. I’ve used that social awareness at different stages of adaptation. That’s what I enjoy about my work: I’m continually exposed to different ways of thinking and I enjoy connecting on a human level to people living different lives.

Do you recall an early “global” experience that proved influential?

The first time I traveled abroad was in high school, when a science teacher led a summer course to Belize, where we studied different ecosystems. For me, that was a formative moment. The summer after my freshman year in college, I wanted to go to France but needed to pay my own way. So I got a job as an au pair in Normandy. I quickly realized I didn’t understand much French, even after taking it for five years — and I needed to keep three children alive. I would fall asleep with the dictionary on my chest, thinking what phrases I wished I had known that day, like, “Stay on the sidewalk.”

How did you develop your interest in Africa?

In college, I spent a year studying abroad in Senegal in 1998–99. I selected Senegal because I wanted to engage more deeply with questions surrounding human development, and I could continue to work on my French there. For an independent research study, I chose the topic: What is the value of an opposition political party in a system where the opposition has never won? I was influenced by conversations among students and the people in Dakar, which were about what the political party could and could not do, and what the opposition could and could not offer. The hope for change was really palpable.

That question played out in my dissertation research and my first book, Authoritarian Origins of Democratic Party Systems in Africa. So those questions have always motivated me. Yet even when I visited universities to apply to a PhD program, and I was introduced as “the Africanist,” I didn’t self-identify with that term at all. I was just interested in these thematic questions about democracy and development, and I happened to have spent time in Africa.

Is an interdisciplinary focus important to your work?

Yes. I’m really fortunate to be the faculty coordinator of Afrisem, the interdisciplinary graduate student colloquium. It’s amazing: students from all across campus who have an interest in Africa come together to present their research in progress. So I get to see students in performance studies, comparative literature, history, anthropology, sociology. They all learn so much from each other. It’s a testament to what the University can be when the students are able to communicate their findings and receive meaningful feedback that advances their education and inspires a new way of thinking about the problem they’re exploring. It’s often your peers that define your experience, and this program is doing that for our graduate students.

How does your IPR research influence your teaching?

Being a faculty fellow at Northwestern’s Institute for Policy Research is something I take very seriously. This inspiring intellectual community shapes my research questions and approaches as I engage with and learn from colleagues who are also interested in making a difference in the world. Additionally, my interest in policy is one way I can relate to my undergraduate students. Many of them are taking political science courses and I hope to be able to guide that interest in ways that are useful for their career trajectories. I keep in touch with many of my former students, and I love to see how their experiences here shape their future successes.

Rachel Beatty Riedl