For Professor Christine Sylvester, the often abstract theorizing that characterizes the field of international relations can make it difficult to appreciate the connections ordinary people have to global events.
Sylvester, who holds joint appointments in political science and women’s studies and is also affiliated with the School of Global Studies at Sweden’s University of Gothenburg, is currently researching how complex wars can be analyzed through the everyday experiences of ordinary people.
“In my field, studies of war focus more on causes, types, and strategies than on people,” she says. “People get hidden away in terms like ‘collateral damage.’”
Sylvester just returned to Storrs last month from work in Rwanda interviewing women and men who survived the 1994 genocide. “It’s somewhat akin to some anthropological research, going to ground, tramping through the mud, and viewing everyday people as sources of authority about the wars they have experienced,” she says. “It’s very unusual scholarship for the field, but interest in my approach to war is growing in international relations.”
In 2008, she was profiled as one of ‘Fifty Key Thinkers in International Relations,’ along with other leading academics including Samuel Huntington and John Rawls, in the second edition of Routledge’s Key Guide of that title.
Her latest books are War as Experience: Contributions from International Relations and Feminist Analysis, and an edited collection published in 2011 as Experiencing War, both with Routledge. Sylvester also edits a series for Routledge called “War, Politics, Experience,” and has two earlier books on feminist international relations published by Cambridge University Press.
Studies of war focus more on causes, types, and strategies than on people. People get hidden away in terms like ‘collateral damage.’
Sylvester has spent significant time in 10 African countries and shorter times in Indonesia, Korea, and Thailand, as part of her related interest in development studies. Prior to coming to UConn she was professor of international relations and development at Lancaster University in Britain, and professor of women, gender, development at the Institute of Social Studies in Holland, Europe’s largest and oldest graduate center in development studies. She has two books on development experiences in Zimbabwe and says “again, I like to focus on local people and not on the application of grand theories.”
Another interest atypical for the field of international relations is Sylvester’s study of art and museums and their role in global affairs, which formed the basis for her 2009 book, Art/Museums: International Relations Where We Least Expect It (Paradigm Publishers).
Touching on everything from the plunder of Iraqi museums in the wake of the 2003 invasion to the debate over the Museum of Modern Art in New York’s role in the cultural Cold War, the book underscores Sylvester’s contention that complex international relations can often be seen in contexts that the field would usually ignore.
A Connecticut native, Sylvester came to UConn in 2012 after working extensively outside the U.S., including at The Australian National University and as a visiting professor at Lund University in Sweden.
While overseas, she was awarded the Swedish Research Council’s Kerstin Hesselgren Professorship for Sweden for 2010-2011. Other recent awards include a Leverhulme fellowship at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies; the Susan Northcutt Award of the International Studies Association (ISA); Eminent Scholar of the Feminist Theory and Gender Studies Section of the ISA; the inaugural J. Ann Tickner Award of the ISA, and ISA Vice-President.
Sylvester arrives at UConn during a time of unprecedented expansion, highlighted by programs such as President Susan Herbst’s plan to hire nearly 300 new tenure-track faculty members. The overall atmosphere of progress is in stark contrast, Sylvester says, not only with other major U.S. universities, but with institutions of higher education in Europe as well.
“The focus on austerity and cutting back is especially severe in England,” she said. “What impresses me about UConn is the emphasis on doing what it takes to move forward and upward.”