Interview with Professor Kathleen Cunningham, interview conducted by Dr. Kate Seaman.
Professor Cunningham will be giving a lecture on the 15th of February in the Special Events Room, 6th Floor, McKeldin Library, University of Marlyand. To find out more and to RSVP visit the website of the Bahá’í Chair for World Peace.
Q. Professor Cunningham, what first sparked your interest in your research area and how have your interests developed over the course of your career so far?
My interest in nationalism began while studying Shakespeare in England one summer of college. I ended up stuck on an overcrowded train going to Scotland and talking with people about what it meant to be Scottish as well as British. The distinctions seemed fundamentally different than the way we think about hyphenated identity in America. I returned to write an honors thesis on the Scottish nationalist movement, and later a Ph.D. on politics of these movements more generally.
Q. Why is it important to understand the successes and failures of secessionist and autonomist movements?
These disputes play a big role in global politics, and in the past 20 years, have been the most common issue civil wars are fought over.
Q. What can these movements teach us about how the world is changing?
Identity is a central issue today. Whether people identify with their local group, or with a global religious movement (such as Islamic State), or a broader regional identity such as the European Union, impacts how they choose to participate in politics.
Q. Following the Arab Spring in 2011 the impact of the nonviolent protests and the success in promoting regime change was much discussed. Given the developments since then, how have these movements changed your understanding of nonviolent campaigns?
The Arab Spring events have influenced my understanding on nonviolence in a number of ways. The transformation of the nonviolent Syrian opposition to its current incarnation as a fragmented civil war suggest that we don’t understand the dynamics of how and why nonviolent movements succumb to violence, rather than maintaining their nonviolent character. The variation and success of these campaigns did not reveal an obvious pattern in when nonviolence is successful. Finally, the upswing in attention to nonviolent campaign has really opened the door for more research on nonviolent strategies more broadly.
Q. Can an increased understanding of nonviolent campaigns, and the strategies of success they utilize, have an impact on reducing the outbreak of violent conflict?
This is an interesting question. I don’t think we have a good understanding of the link between nonviolent resistance and violent resistance yet. My own work suggests that the strategy choices both among nonviolent tactics and across violent and nonviolent tactics are interdependent. But we are just at the beginning of empirical exploration of these links and a broad cross national context.
Q. Why is it important for students to study different types of political movement and what do you hope students, and other academics, take away from your teaching and research?
I think the study of nonviolence is critical for students. So much of our research has focused on violent conflict. I think it’s fair to say that for a number of years, scholars have treated a lack of war as synonymous with peace. But we know this isn’t the case. If we are to understand why different types of activism occur, when they’re likely to succeed, and in what cases we would expect transitions amongst strategies like a move from nonviolence to violence, we need to be paying attention to the wealth of tactics that are used. Moreover, I think we are entering a period in American politics where more and more people are turning to nonviolent means, and to protest in particular, in order to voice discontents with status quo politics and policies.
Kathleen Gallagher Cunningham is an associate professor at the Department of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland and is affiliated with the Center for International Development and Conflict Management. Her primary research interests include self-determination, secession, civil war, leadership in rebellion, and nonviolent resistance. She received her PhD from the University of California, San Diego, in 2007 and has been a Fulbright scholar and a senior researcher at the Peace Research Institute Oslo.
Kate Seaman is the Assistant Director to the Bahá’í Chair for World Peace where she supports the research activities of the Chair. Kate is interested in understanding normative changes at the global level and how these changes impact the creation of peace.
For more information about Kate: Twitter.