Interview with Dr. Felix Bethke (Postdoc Fellow)

Written by Diana León-Espinoza, March 12th, 2015


“The more experience I get, the more comfortable I am with bridge the gap between academics and politics by breaking down complex findings into bullet point.”

Dr. Felix Bethke comes from Düsseldorf, Germany. He studied Political Science in Duisburg and Frankfurt. Before joining the Centre, he worked at the Institute for Development and Peace (INEF) in Duisburg and at the University of Greifswald, where he pursued his Ph.D. degree.

Why did you choose your research field and topic of specialization in particular?

Photo taken by the Käte Hamburger Kolleg’s team

Photo taken by the Käte Hamburger Kolleg’s team

F.B: When I was doing my Ph.D. in African politics, I studied how rulers in general and dictators in specific manage to stay in office. For instance, rulers of Sub-Saharan Africa dominate the current list of longest ruling heads of states in the world. To explain this phenomenon, I analyzed the elite management of African rulers. This means who gets appointed to the government, who gets appointed to the military, etc. For Sub-Saharan Africa there is a large body of literature, which points to different styles of elite management and, most importantly, to the concept of ‘divide and rule’. This concept implies that by frequently exchanging cabinet ministers and military commanders, rulers foster uncertainty and create conditions where ministers are unable to establish a power base and challenge the ruler. Using a large data base on cabinet and military appointments I found robust evidence that this is an effective strategy to foster political survival for African rulers.

At what point in your life did you realize that you want to be a researcher?

F.B:  Being a school dropout, it took a while until I ended up in academia. Before I started studying at the University, I worked as a sound engineer and a couple of other jobs for which I lacked skill, talent and enthusiasm. When I began to study Political Science, I was surprised that I was actually good at it. In Frankfurt, during my graduate studies, my supervisors Lothar Brock and Stephan Hessler were very inspiring. They made curious to discover the world of social science research.

Why did you come to the Käte Hamburger Kolleg?

F.B:  I came to the Centre for academic and personal reasons. On a personal level I wanted to live in the Ruhr area again. Regarding my academic career the Centre looked like the perfect fit for a young scholar, who just finished his PhD and wants to explore new areas of research. However, I had to come up with a very good research project because I had not done any research on global cooperation before. I tried to design a research project that addresses the main questions that the Centre seeks to answer, namely what are the conditions for global cooperation, the challenges, the drivers, etc. I figured that one major requirement for global cooperation is a common perception of foreign policy events. To my knowledge, the question of whether there is a universal perception of foreign policy event or if there are cultural differences in event perception has not been analyzed empirically before. For instance, people in East Europe may perceive the recent Crimea crisis differently than people in Western Europe, or people in Latin America, or people in Asia, etc. This is what I am doing at the Centre. I am try to analyze the perceptions of foreign policy events with a web survey of foreign policy experts. I designed a questionnaire for the measurement of event perception, which I am sending out to foreign policy experts in the US and China. I want to test if the perceptions of foreign events differ between experts from these two countries, which are known to be culturally very different.

What would you say is interesting or capturing about your research topics?

F.B: Usually, in International Relations there is a dominance of the so called ‘Rational Actor Model’, which is used to explain foreign policy decisions and the international interactions of states. This model assumes that when states or governments make foreign policy decisions they act rational, i.e. seek to maximize their utility. However, other scholars working here at the Centre, especially Dirk Messner and his colleagues, pointed to important behavioural aspects that influence human decision-making. Among these aspects perception of events is of crucial importance.

Furthermore, many academic studies that use quantitative analysis to study international politics use events data from newspapers reports (Reuters, BBC, etc.). Scholars compile data sets from these reports and count events of conflict and cooperation between states.  Scholars also try to scale events in order to measure the degree of conflict and cooperation between states. One very common scale in this literature is the so called ‘Goldstein Scale’. Essentially, it ranks foreign policy events according to their degree of cooperation or conflict. For instance, the event of economic sanction is assumed to be a conflictive event, which is however less conflictive than dropping a nuclear bomb. In this sense, you can basically rank these foreign policy events. These scales and rankings like the Goldstein scale are widely used in academic research and they also determine the conclusions, we as researchers draw from our results. However, the Goldstein scale is based on the expert judgment of just a couple of US scholars, who were involved in designing it. Therefore, it captures an US-centric view on the world. My project tries to find out whether this US-centric view is actually universal or if Chinese people perceive foreign events differently than people from the US.

Which topics do you consider to be more crucial right now and should be researched more?

F.B: I think most crucial right now is a dialogue between International Relations and Cognitive Psychology. When I started with this work, I did a lot of reading on Cross Cultural Psychology and it provided me with many new ideas and tools regarding cognitive processes and basic principles of human behaviour, which speak directly to important theories of International relations. I think this is a huge area for further research.

Another crucial topic is the so called ‘Data Revolution’. Gary King, a famous Harvard professor, once said that we are living in the Golden Age for Social Sciences. We have access to vast amounts of data on social interactions due to the technological revolution, i.e. the internet, social media platforms etc.. Furthermore, it takes only a couple of hours to compile a large data base and start analyzing. For instance, in 2014 I was able to analyse the protest dynamics in Burkina Faso which deposed president Compaoré directly after the events actually happened. I based my analysis solely on data that I downloaded from Twitter, which used the hashtag “Compaoré Dégage”, a common slogan of the protesters to call for Compaoré’s resignation. Even though, this kind of analysis has clear limitations in terms of its analytical scope, it shows the potential of such an approach. We need to put more effort in training scientists to process and analyze large amount of data. I think we are not far away from answering some of the key questions of social interaction.

How is your work bridging the gap between social research and practical life?

F.B: The longer I do academic work the more I try to get involved in dialogues with practitioners, i.e. policymakers, NGO staff etc. For instance, there are a lot of workshops, where academics meet with policy makers and NGO staff in order to discuss important problems in international politics. In these workshops you get a feeling of what kind of literature practitioners read. If you work for an NGO or for the government you cannot waste your time with a long academic article that is written in a very technical language. You need a summary with the most crucial points that are based on multiple studies and which were found to be robust explanatory factors for phenomena that is relevant to your work. However, as a scientist often times it is not that simple and not that easy to frame issues in bullet points. The more experience I get, the more comfortable I am with bridge the gap between academics and politics by breaking down complex findings into bullet point. However, I always try to be cautious with it.

How would you describe your experience in Duisburg during your stay?

F.B: It has been great. When you finish your Ph.D., usually you are close to burnout depression because you worked so much. At the same time, you want to do something new. Therefore, it was a great year here in Duisburg for me because I had the opportunity to get many new ideas, new impressions from all the different disciplines, cultures and all sorts of interesting people. Also, I feel that it was a really productive time, where I could finish a lot of work.

Can you name some books that you have read and have remained meaningful to you over the years? 

F.B: I want to name three that are the most important for me. My favourite books are ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ by George Orwell. The second, Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s ‘Crime and Punishment’, and finally, ‘Short Stories’ by Edgar Allan Poe.

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