In Conversation with PIIRS Director Deborah J. Yashar

Deborah Yashar portrait Deborah Yashar. Photo by Sameer A. Khan/Fotobuddy

Deborah J. Yashar, professor of politics and international affairs, was appointed director of the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies (PIIRS) and the Donald E. Stokes Professor of Public and International Affairs. She assumed her new duties on July 1, 2022.

Yashar envisions PIIRS as “an intellectual home and multidisciplinary crossroads — one that brings people together at Princeton to pursue innovative scholarship; one that fosters research and teaching abroad; and one that emphasizes our collective responsibility to partner with colleagues around the globe in the co-production and sharing of knowledge. How do we build community? How do we engage in research that is relevant, ethically engaged and dynamic, both during the school year and during the summer? These are the essential questions.” 

Princeton International spoke with Yashar about her research, PIIRS as a space for conversation and collaboration, and the importance of international engagement in a forever-changed world.

How do your research interests intersect with the mission of PIIRS?

I’m a political scientist whose central concerns focus on political regimes, citizenship, social movements, violence in illicit economies, migration and border crossing, as well as state capacity and public-goods provision. These are all fundamentally political questions that I’ve pursued by drawing on multidisciplinary scholarship. My work has tended to focus on the global South, particularly Latin America, and I’ve had the good fortune of working with excellent collaborators in the process of researching and writing about these questions. 

PIIRS has been a great home for this kind of research. It’s an institution that supports and promotes global, regional and country-based knowledge. So, too, it’s a place where scholars from different disciplines can come together to engage in generative conversations. The directorship offers an exciting opportunity to learn about other people’s work and to facilitate cutting-edge research and teaching about the world around us. In this regard, my research aligns with PIIRS’ core mission.

What is your vision for PIIRS?

First, PIIRS is and should remain a dynamic, generative, intellectual meeting place. This will happen in both physical and virtual form. Indeed, as we return to campus, we need to self-consciously embrace and facilitate rigorous and compassionate forms of education and exchange — especially following the extreme disruption associated with the pandemic. For some this will be a return; for others it will be an invitation to join for the first time. In both cases, we aim to bring people physically together while also deploying digital technologies to foster global conversations and critical engagement about international and regional studies — both broadcasting seminars while also inviting colleagues around the world to take part. The newly designed PIIRS website and the Princeton International website will be critical in this endeavor. For students, we invite them to attend PIIRS events, pursue certificate programs, take advantage of opportunities to conduct research abroad and enroll in our Global Seminars and to propose new ways of becoming involved. For faculty, we rely on their intellectual initiative and leadership as they advance innovative research and teaching. For visitors, we hope they will enhance and amplify our globally engaged conversations.

Second, I envision PIIRS as combining the best of regional international studies and thematic, problem-driven research. This includes initiatives both on campus and abroad. At present, PIIRS has excellent regional programs, centers and labs. We will continue to support this place-based knowledge and international research, which is critical to our ability to understand, interpret, explain and address what is happening in a given place — for example, democratic backsliding in Hungary, migration flows across the U.S. southern border, the war in Ukraine, deforestation in Brazil, food security in Sub-Saharan Africa. I envision complementing this place-based work with theme-based research clusters that evaluate a core question that cuts across regions. I look forward to working with faculty to forge these news research clusters, building on existing research initiatives and faculty strengths. The new monthly seminar on Global Existential Challenges will provide one such forum for initiating these kinds of comparative, thematic conversations on campus.

Third, we will forefront ethics in the research that we undertake going forward. This is a moment to think about the ethics of how we do regional and international work. Older models were often extractive. We have the opportunity to forge more collaborative partnerships and knowledge production to then share those results with our colleagues around the world. We’re fortunate to be at a university with so many resources. PIIRS has the ability to help to facilitate these conversations to imagine and affect a new model for doing and sharing research. We have to think creatively about how we facilitate collaborative exchanges, not only with institutions and colleagues where it’s easy, but also with institutions and colleagues who don't have the same capacity and resources. These kinds of intellectual partnerships and collaborations are imperative.

Why is international engagement important to Princeton?

We live in a globalized and yet highly unequal world — one with great opportunities and great constraints. We can celebrate and learn from the creativity and bravery of those around the globe. But so, too, we have much to understand and redress, including climate change, health crises, democratic backsliding, economic precarity and racial injustice, among other issues. Princeton is fortunate to have faculty and students who are eager to understand the world in which we live. So, too, the University is fortunate to have the resources to support cutting-edge research and teaching. These are privileges not afforded all institutions around the globe. And with that great privilege comes great responsibility. It’s in this context that PIIRS has not only an institutional but also a normative responsibility to interrogate the human condition writ large and to promote international engagement.