I defended my dissertation prospectus today! For the uninitiated, the prospectus defense is the dividing line between my status as a “PhD student” and a “PhD candidate.” The defense means that I’ll spend the next two-and-a-half years on a book-length research project. Without dwelling too much on our present moment, it’s a refreshing marker of progress in a year defined by an abundance of personal and global uncertainty.
The dissertation will focus on explaining pogroms, which I define as a relatively brief episode of multiple violent acts against people and physical structures associated with a select social community, by an informal group but involving some pattern of state complicity. Gaps in both academic and common-wisdom discussions of pogroms motivate this focus. Because both pogrom participants and rioters use similar violent tactics such as damage to physical structures (or “property damage”), it’s common for scholars to treat pogroms and riots as observationally equivalent and for public commentators to condemn riots (or violent protests) as a specter of group-targeted violence. The instinct that motivates this project is that this tendency towards equivalence is analytically and normatively incorrect. My premise is that our understanding of political violence and practical efforts to prevent pogroms will be richer if we interpret and theorize about pogroms as a separate form, process, and pattern of violence.
My prospectus introduces a “symbolic theory” of pogroms, in which organizers of these episodes mark certain groups, their members, and their practices as objects of social exclusion by engaging in public, targeted violence against them. In the literature about closely-related forms of violence and contention, scholars emphasize the causal influence on pogrom violence of pre-existing attitudes, intergroup competition, and different types of community associations. At the same time, a large body of work also suggests that “context matters”: in short, that the explanatory power of these attitudes, patterns of competition, and associational life vary across different types of societies and political relationships. The symbolic theory that I plan to elaborate on and test in my dissertation gives structure to the variations in political order that shape pogrom violence, in particular the interaction between the informal organizers of pogroms and the state.
Empirically, my research in the coming years will focus on four cases: the antisemitic violence of the Kristallnacht pogrom in Germany and Austria in November 1938; anti-Black and anti-Mexican violence in the early-20th century United States; and a 1958 pogrom against Black Britons of Caribbean origin in the Notting Hill neighborhood of London. I have multiple methodological reasons for my interest in these cases, but my case selection strategy also responds to broader academic and popular calls for comparative study of both the events of the Nazi Holocaust and group-selective violence in American political life. In my prospectus, I observe that those who have organized and advocated against group-selective violence in the United States—in particular, Ida Barnett-Wells and W.E.B. Du Bois—have seen the global concept of pogroms as a salient analogue of group-selective violence against Black Americans. The task of comparison here illuminates how categories of violence that we reserve to the unthinkable Holocaust or as artifacts of American history can be both products and causes of political orders that we confront today, at home and worldwide.
I’ll save my acknowledgments and detailed words of wisdom for the dissertation, but a few interim maxims: Once you have an idea for a project that you find fascinating, that’s your dissertation topic. Reading good historical work is the most important thing you can do as a political scientist. Your work improves when you are generous in both receiving feedback from and offering it to others. If you haven’t yet joined or started organizing your graduate union, start tomorrow; solidarity is uncertainty’s surest cure.
If you’re curious to read more about my preliminary thoughts on this topic, here are the slides (PDF) and prepared remarks (PDF) from my defense. I’m also happy to share the full draft of my prospectus with the caveat that I continue to discover errors, typos, and half-formed thoughts in the document, as with any work-in-progress. Please reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like to see the document, or if you’re working on these topics as a scholar or practitioner and would like to talk about potential collaborations in the coming years. For everyone else, I hope to share more in a few months once I’ve made progress on my empirical work.