Tower Center Associate Idean Salehyan has several research interests, all centered around domestic political conflict. The Tower Center sat down with him to talk with him about his latest projects and goals. Salehyan is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of North Texas and the co-Director of the Social Conflict Analysis Database project (SCAD).
What have you been working on most recently?
Most recently I’ve been looking at protests and repression dynamics. I’m part of a project called the Social Conflict Analysis database. We look at Africa, North Africa, and parts of Latin America to understand when protests turn violent and when the government decides to step in and repress protesters, and so I have a couple of papers along those lines. One is focused on when and under what conditions governments repress nonviolent protesters. When is nonviolent protest met with lethal force? And another paper is looking at electoral protests and which elections are more likely to lead to mass protests and violent contestation of the outcome.
I’ve had this longstanding interest in forced migration and refugee studies, so I am also in the process of guest editing a special issue of the Journal of Peace Research on the global migration crisis focusing on Syria and the Middle East refugee crisis.
What have you found most interesting?
Interesting or depressing? What keeps me motivated is the actual people who are affected. This is not just an academic pursuit. A lot of us are interested in what we do because, even though we conduct research as good social scientists, we have a normative commitment to the people we’re focusing on. Unfortunately with refugee crises, there’s always the next one. When I was in graduate school it was Bosnia and Kosovo, now it’s Syria, then it’s Burma, and in the next year it will be something else. As long as there’s people who are forced to flee their homes because of persecution or violence, there will be a need for this research to hopefully impact policy in a positive way.
How do you cope with studying such heavy topics?
It’s easier for me than for the people I study. As a social scientist, you do this sort of objective research, I deal with mostly statistical analysis, so it does become a data-oriented process where you can look at statistics and write results, and so on, so I think it’s the opposite issue. For me, anyway, and for a lot of people who do work on conflict and civil war, it’s not how do you divorce yourself emotionally from the populations you study, but it’s how do you bring the humanity back?
What do you do to bring the humanity back in?
We have migrants and refugees all around the DFW area. If you go and talk to people, you can hear their stories. At same time, my parents were political refugees from Iran. That’s a personal “in” to the research. More generally I work with nonprofits and NGOs that are working on refugee resettlement. As academics we tend to be three steps removed from these conflicts, where as the NGOs and the nonprofits are dealing face-to-face with these people. So I try to keep an in with those organizations and talk to them whenever I can.
Is there an issue or topic you are most passionate about studying?
The refugee and forced migration issue because of my personal background. My parents were immigrants and they saw the Iranian revolution and the effect it had on our family. I have family in London now, and Germany, here. I have the most personal stake in that issue.
And then seeing stories of people fleeing Syria or the Rohingya refugee crisis — I don’t know what it’s like to lose my entire family, the town I grew up in, all my possessions and live in a refugee camp. Those stories hit especially hard. If I was to pick one thing it would be the refugee issue; I keep coming back to that. Even if I branch off to other things, I keep coming back to the refugee and forced migration issue.
What inspired you to become an academic?
It was actually someone that Jim Hollifield (Academic Director of the Tower Center) and I know really well; it was Wayne Cornelius. I was an undergraduate at the University of California at San Diego and I was studying political science. I thought I was going to go to law school like every other political science major. The more I studied law and learned what a legal career meant, I thought, “that’s kind of boring.”
Then I took Wayne Cornelius’ politics and immigration class. He had so much passion for the topic and he knew it so well, and I just knew right then that I wanted to pursue a master’s and potentially a PhD. So what I did between undergraduate and graduate school was I worked for Wayne Cornelius at the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies, to get my feet wet and see if this was what I want to do. I also did an undergraduate thesis on U.S. and Canadian refugee policy. Then I just had a passion for research — and for teaching too.
Is there an accomplishment or paper that you are most proud of?
I’m most proud of my PhD students who go out and get jobs. That’s an awesome feeling. I publish books, you get awards, that’s wonderful — you get a plaque and people applaud and that’s it. But when I see my graduate students who are now getting jobs, I have a lifelong relationship with them because they’re now colleagues. I see them at conferences and stuff and I’m like, “You were in my class.” So that’s a reward that keeps giving.