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What do we better understand about the world because of Will H. Moore?

(Credit: Will Moore)

Recently, the community of political scientists suffered the loss of Will H. Moore, a professor at Arizona State University. After his passing, many have written moving tributes to Will as a friend, mentor and community builder. I wish to address his intellectual legacy. What do we understand about the world thanks to Will Moore?

Will helped shape the systematic study of violence and repression. He began his career at the end of the Cold War. Most scholars had been studying wars between states rather than the violence that occurs within them. The Soviet Union still loomed in people’s minds, with the threat of nuclear war ever present. Heck, we grew up with “duck and cover” drills in school; teachers had students put their heads underneath their desks to prepare for “the bomb” being dropped.

Will did not just move away from studying inter-state wars to intra-state wars. Instead he took a much broader look at violence and its dynamics. He moved to study dissident mobilization and rebellion, then discrimination, then the relationship between external and internal conflict — and then took a deep dive into the dynamic interaction between governments and challengers. Systematic studies of the complex dynamic interactions that result in repression, violence and peace were at the heart of Will’s most significant contributions.

For example, Will was never quite satisfied with simplistic, structuralist explanations for conflict, in which some huge, macro characteristic like economic inequality led into fighting. Rather, he showed us such things as how structural inequalities do not directly influence conflict, but lead to collective mobilization, which in turn can result in conflict (something he worked on with Ronny Lindstrom, a graduate student).

In two other seminal pieces, Will forced researchers to move past simplistic models in which government and challenger tactics could be analyzed one at a time or without considering what the opponent was doing. He reveals that one needs to simultaneously consider: 1) multiple tactics of a single actor (as they substitute activities during conflict to avoid costs) and 2) the activities of the opponent being confronted (which determines which tactic is likely to be the most effective).

Will’s research also responded to the world around us. After 9/11, I was trying to explore how exceptional the torture at Abu Ghraib prison had been — but was not quite able to figure out how to approach it. Will more effectively ran with the topic, prompting him (with Courtenay Conrad and Jilliene Haglund — both graduate students) to generate new data and analyses on torture allegations. Their work detailed which agencies of the state (the policies, military and so on) were accused of torture and by what types of victims (prisoners, political activists and so on). They showed that governments rely upon torture quite frequently — and that some democratic institutions could sometimes suppress torture, but could be overridden by major security threats (like 9/11).

At the dawn of the new millennium, Will moved in many directions.

In one part of his work, he continued to try and figure out what, if anything, could help end state repression. Troubled by overly grandiose conceptions of democracy, Will wanted to try and pin down exactly what about these political systems influenced state repression. This led him to examine judicial power (with Jeffrey Staton), the media (with Conrad) and public naming/shaming by human rights groups and other civil society institutions (with Conrad, Haglund, graduate student Daniel W. Hill and Bumba Mukherjee). He seemed to be most positive that courts had an effect — but was intrigued by the influence of the media.

In another part of his agenda, Will continued exploring how political scientists collected data and how that influenced what we could know. This is most brilliantly revealed in his piece with Daniel Hill and Bumba Mukherjee regarding the complex interaction between news organizations and international NGOs like Amnesty International as to how the number of NGOs in a country influenced the production of information, despite pressure from papers and others.

But what might be Will’s biggest contribution is one that is simultaneously the hardest to measure and the least valued by political scientists, in a field to which he dedicated a large part of his life. In short, Will helped others think more brilliantly, in a myriad of ways.

It’s hard to describe, but let me try. If you had an idea, Will would help you clarify it; if you had some theory, Will developed it further; if you had some data that you were wondering about, Will had some notion of what it could test; if you had a professional or personal problem, Will helped you resolve it; if you needed a break, he had some time. Whatever the issue, Will had the ability to find you in that dark place and guide you to the light. He made us all better social scientists. He made us better humans.

For a great example, watch the Conflict Consortium’s Virtual Workshop (CCVW), which we ran together for the last four years and across approximately 50 1-1/2 hour sessions. Listen to how he talks to the younger scholars. Always helpful. Always respectful. Always positive. Always moving things toward perfection and truth. It’s a thing of beauty.

This was the gift of Will H. Moore. As Billy Bragg would say, Will was “The Milkman of Human Kindness.” Yeah, Will did all this with some quirks and he was not always comfortable. You could occasionally hear some Scooby-Doo noises when he got surprised by something or an awkward transition to something that seemed to make no sense, at the time. But that was a small price to pay for how he enlarged and clarified your thinking and your life.

Will had that ability to keep a department unified and moving forward with an eye toward excellence – not just in scholarship but humanity, which he believed were connected. He appreciated, wanted and cultivated the well-rounded. The profession that he worked within did not generally acknowledge or reward such behavior, which is a shame. Perhaps the profession will come to see Moore-ing as something of value. That would be not only part of Will’s legacy but part of ours as well.

Christian Davenport is a professor at the University of Michigan, Research Professor at the Peace Research Institute Oslo and co-director of the Conflict Consortium, with the late Will H. Moore. Find him on Twitter @engagedscholar.