R. Joseph Huddleston joined the School of Diplomacy and International Relations as an Assistant Professor. After getting his BA in Sociology and Peace Studies from Chapman University, he earned a Ph.D. in Political Science and International Relations from the University of Southern California. In his research, he focuses on how international actors respond to self-determination conflicts, as well as how these countries’ domestic politics influence foreign policy decision-making during times of crisis. In his work, he has employed quantitative, qualitative, and experimental research methods. Professor Huddleston will teach both undergraduate and graduate Diplomacy students starting this fall. His areas of expertise are Research Methods and the Middle East. Professor Huddleston was at the School of Diplomacy during the last open house breakfast of the season.


1) Given your experience in international responses to conflicts, do you think that there have been advancements of how the world responds to conflicts in the past years vis-a-vis the escalating number of conflicts in the world? Can you elaborate on that?

I think it is important to remember that, while we are inundated with stories of violence and civil war, violence has declined globally for many decades now, check Steven Pinker’s 2011 book The Better Angels of our Nature. The kinds of violence and the context for violence have changed. Interstate wars are much less common than they used to be, while civil wars have become the dominant kind of conflict concerning us today. Overall, important international norms have grown and matured: against killing civilians, against the destruction of cultural heritage, and supporting a right to democratic representation for every person on Earth. Prominent atrocities continue to alarm us and punctuate the conversation. However, in many ways, they prove to be the exceptions that highlight the rule. We are getting better at finding solutions to conflicts before they become violent. Still, there is much room for improvement. Third parties’ unilateral decisions to intervene in foreign conflicts are often opaque, arbitrary, and political, not driven by principle. At the international level, a few states can veto cooperative responses to conflict, and so they can control the overall response to conflict. This often locks the international community in a cycle of indecision when it matters most. However, it’s starting to look like the world is shifting away from a unipolar world to one with three or more centers of power. Because of this, I believe the international law will become more important in the coming years. I also see that as a good thing.

2) What are the best approaches to the study of conflicts?

That is definitely a trick question. There are so many facets to conflict, so many unique qualities in each case, and so much variation in the knowledge and documentation of every conflict. No single approach can provide all the answers, and the complete picture requires the complete toolset. Some questions that researchers have may require interviews with government officials to answer them. Other questions require survey data. Still, others require massive amounts of data on decades of conflict. The best approach almost always is determined by the question itself. In turn, I think the best questions come from reading a lot and sort of “discovering” questions that haven’t been answered well yet. When that happens, it is time to take a research design class and start planning!

3) What advice would you give students who are interested in studying conflicts?

Following my previous answer, I would say three ideas stick out the most for me. The first is to read a lot and read different kinds of works. Read case studies, read international theorists, read perspectives from different parts of the world and different disciplines (anthropologists, for example, still have much to teach political scientists), and read “bird’s eye” perspectives on conflict (which are often quantitative). Read international journalists and read journalists who are local to a conflict. For instance, some of the most informative news I have read on developments in Israel-Palestine comes from Haaretz and the Beirut Daily Star, rather than the New York Times. Read, read, and read. The second is to invest your time in getting the tools of research. For most, this means either language or statistics, both of which take a lot of time to acquire. Naturally, gravitating towards any particular toolset will influence the kinds of questions a person asks. That is okay! If a person continues to read broadly, they will put themselves in a position to uniquely contribute to the scholarship with their specialized skills. The third is that those interested in studying conflicts should know they will encounter many ethical dilemmas. They pop up often in conflict research (like with other topics of study). As a scholar of foreign policy and self-determination, I have had people involved in ongoing conflicts write and call me to ask for my opinion. So, have the other conflict scholars I know. It feels really nice to have someone tell you they want your expert perspective, but it is very important to remember that with knowledge comes power and responsibility. Words matter and conflict researchers must consider the ways their work affects the people they study.

4) How and why did you decide to study the Middle East?

It started out with a chance. In 2004, I spent some time working with a nonprofit in Morocco. I traveled to Tangiers, Marrakesh, Essaouira, Agadir, and Rabat. I loved Morocco, finding it to be a beautiful, colorful country that taught me so, so much. Then, in 2008, I spent the summer in the Saharawi (Western Saharan) refugee camps of Tindouf, Algeria. This is a group which conflicts with the Moroccan government. It was in the camps, getting to know both sides of this conflict, that I really became hooked on Middle Eastern and North African politics, on self-determination issues, on peace and conflict studies, and on the international influences involved. Over my undergrad years, I spent a few months studying Arabic in Cairo, a few more in Israel-Palestine, and a few more back in the camps. When I started grad school, I decided to focus on foreign policy and self-determination quantitatively, but my experience working in the Middle East and North Africa have continued to play a central role in the way I think about these topics.

5) Which one is more effective when studying international relations: qualitative or quantitative research?

Another trick question! This is another opportunity to emphasize a point that very often gets lost in the methodological debates of the field. These are tools, tools for answering questions. No single tool works for every sort of question. I will give you an example from my research. In my work, I show quantitatively that third parties trend towards supporting separatist groups once those conflicts cross a certain threshold of violence. I also show that the pattern I find is consistent with a foreign policy apparatus that emphasizes international and regional stability. However, what I can’t do quantitatively is tell you what these many small decisions look like when they are made. Some scholars might look at my work and ask other kinds of questions: How many people are involved in the foreign policy decisions you look at? Do democratic and nondemocratic governments have the same processes? Do leaders talk about violence and stability as they decide policy, or do they understand it in other ways? These are all questions that require digging into the cases, which I am now doing as I write my book. The important point is—and all my students will come to have this burnt into their brains—the best research uses the tool that matches the question. The trick is figuring out what the right tool is, and that is what we will work on starting next fall.

This blog post was written by Patricia Zanini Graca. Patricia is a first-year graduate student at Seton Hall’s School of Diplomacy and International Relations. Patricia graduated in Business Administration and she holds an MBA in Business and Marketing. Patricia is a UN Digital Representative at the Center for UN and Global Governance Studies, a Social Media Associate at the Journal of Diplomacy, and the Director of International Student Affairs at the Graduate Diplomacy Council. She specializes in International Organizations and Global Negotiations & Conflict Management.

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