Political Science Graduate Student Conducts Fieldwork in Africa


By Bai Linh Hoang (Doctoral Student in American Politics)
Nov 20, 2012

Jessica Steinberg at Kilamanjaro 2012

Jessica Steinberg at Kilamanjaro 2012

Jessica Steinberg, a doctoral student in Comparative Politics, spent six weeks in Africa this past July and August to conduct fieldwork in the Copperbelt regions of Zambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo and in the coal regions of Mozambique.  She visited a total of six sites in these regions.  Jessica’s research and travel to Africa was funded by the Rackham International Research Award, of which she was one of the few 2012 recipients.  

The work Jessica conducted in Africa supports a component of her dissertation research, which poses the question: When do local populations receive distributive benefits from natural resources extraction nearby, and when do they miss out on such benefits?  Regions rich in natural resources with substantial local populations present central governments with choices: governments assess the economic benefits of extraction and the value of political support in the region and make a calculation about how to best manage the tradeoffs that arise. According to Jessica, preliminary fieldwork demonstrates that there are some cases in which local populations receive benefits in the form of public goods from the extraction of resources in their regions, while others are resettled, repressed, or ignored.  The fieldwork, mostly in the form of interviews and participant observations, provides qualitative case work to trace the mechanisms proposed in a formal model Jessica developed to explain the distribution of benefits to local populations in natural resource enclaves.  

Over the course of her trip, Jessica interviewed members of the Zambian, Congolese, and Mozambican governments, local populations in the Copper Belt and coal regions of the countries, and members of several extractive firms operating there.  She was able to better understand the way each of these actors perceive the others, and the way their interactions and perceptions of each other can lead to different distributive outcomes.  The case work helped her to evaluate and update her formal model, and will provide the illustrative cases in her analysis.

Jessica’s interest in her dissertation topic comes out of her curiosity for some time now about the large-scale inquiry regarding the conditions under which governments willingly subcontract goods and services to other actors.   In other words, why do we see uneven sovereignty over states?  Jessica’s attention to this question “was a function of having travelled a lot before grad school.”  Even when Jessica continued travelling while attending graduate school, she persistently saw “that you can go to different places in the same country, and the extent to which the traditional functions of government are performed varies significantly.”  In other words, there are regions where the presence of the state is clear – laws are enforced and public goods are provided – and there are regions where the state seems to be absent.  However, these regions might actually be instances where the government, under certain circumstances, has ceded its authority to other actors, in exchange for revenue.

The Rackham International Research Awards (RIRA) is administered on a competitive basis and is intended to support doctoral and master’s students conducting research outside the United States and Puerto Rico.   The proposed research must be related to the student’s dissertation or thesis.  Among the criteria for selection are a strong academic record, outstanding scholarly and professional promise, and if applicable, the requisite language and other skills to complete the proposed research.

Drawing on house wall in Zambia depicting wait for promised benefits 2012

Drawing on house wall in Zambia depicting wait for promised benefits 2012