Scholar Spotlight: Professor Lisa Blaydes, Political Science

Lisa Blaydes

Each month, we will be spotlighting an Abbasi Program affiliate on campus. This month, our spotlight shines on Abbasi Faculty Director and Professor Lisa Blaydes, from the Department of Political Science.

Thank you for taking the time for this interview, Professor Blaydes! Tell us a little about your work and what excites you most about your research.

Most of my research is related to the study of political institutions – especially the types of institutions that are common in authoritarian regimes. I am interested in understanding how societies are able to cultivate institutions associated with executive constraint, or the ability to decrease a ruler's scope for unilateral action. Sometimes constraints on an executive are associated with powerful societal actors or changing economic circumstances. In general, the conditions for human flourishing tend to occur in places where states are strong enough to provide social order and public goods but not so strong as to empower an autocrat or ruling elite to engage in unchecked predation on society. Societies around the world struggle to strike this balance. My previous research has focused on the types of political institutions promulgated by Arab autocrats seeking to maintain power and political control in the face of countervailing economic and social factors.

In recent years, I have also become interested in the ways that historical global encounters help us to understand the interdependence of systems, cultures and peoples through time. To this end, I have written a set of papers that seek to engage with the study of world politics before the rise of European colonialism. The Islamic world was the only major region to maintain sustained and direct contact with all other major regions of Eurasia for a millennium. As a result, Muslim societies play an oversized role in historical economic and cultural exchange in Eurasia. In particular, my research considers how the rise of Islam influenced forms of state formation in Europe; how European seafaring breakthroughs in the early modern period may have damaged the economic prosperity of Muslim cities; and how political instability in Central Asia disrupted economic exchange between Muslim societies and China. I am currently revising a paper that examines historical patterns of overseas diaspora creation. Middle Eastern merchants were among the most intrepid of long-distance travelers, often establishing diaspora trading communities in South Asia, Southeast Asia, and China. But the absence of Middle Eastern trade diaspora communities in Europe, and the relative paucity of Chinese trading settlements outside of Southeast Asia, raise unanswered puzzles about general patterns associated with diaspora formation. If there existed returns to the creation of merchant diaspora communities, how can we understand historical patterns in the presence – and absence – of merchant diasporas?

You have been a Professor of Political Science at Stanford since 2007. How have the fields of Islamic Studies and Middle East Studies grown over the years at Stanford?

Stanford has seen tremendous growth in the fields of Islamic Studies and Middle East Studies over the last fifteen years. Joel Beinin, who retired recently, had been mentoring undergraduate and graduate students focused on the modern Middle East for decades. The study of Muslim societies was relatively underdeveloped, however, in other social science and humanities departments until Stanford launched its "International Initiative" in 2005. Since then, the university hired scholars focused on Muslim societies in the departments of Anthropology, Comparative Literature, Music, Political Science, Religious Studies, and Theater and Performance Studies (TAPS) while working to maintain Stanford's strengths in History. We now have faculty members across a large number of departments in addition to our outstanding faculty at the Stanford Language Center.

Beyond hiring new faculty who offer a wide range of courses on Muslim socieites, we have also seen complementary developments in other parts of the university. For example, the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies established the Program on Arab Reform and Democracy at the Center for Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law with the goal of understanding the social and political dynamics taking place within Arab societies. The Program on Arab Reform and Democracy has worked to promote critical discussions about questions of political change in the Arab world. As part of this work, Amr Hamzawy, Hesham Sallam, and I have a new volume forthcoming entitled Struggles for Political Change in the Arab World: Regimes, Oppositions, and External Actors after the Spring (University of Michigan Press, 2022) which reflects on political developments a decade after the Arab uprisings.

Archivists at Stanford have also sought to increase resources available for researchers. For example, in 2010 the Hoover Institution acquired the Iraqi Memory Foundation collection which includes over 10 million digitized documents and associated materials recovered by US-led forces after the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The collection includes more than two decades of records of the Iraqi Ba'th Party. For scholars interested in understanding the inner workings of authoritarian regimes, getting access to government documents and data can be very difficult. The arrival of this collection at the Hoover Institution has made Stanford an important location for scholars focused on the study of Iraqi history and politics.

Stanford has also increased opportunities for student engagement overseas. In 2015, the Bing Overseas Studies Programs launched a program in Istanbul, hosted at Koç University. This was the first Stanford overseas program to be established in a Muslim-majority country. Students who participated in the program had the chance to study the history, politics, and architecture of Istanbul while enjoying cultural opportunities of the city. The Bing Overseas Studies Program also has an upcoming short course in Jordan for interested students. In addition, the Abbasi Program provides grants for undergraduate and graduate students who are interested in short term research or language study opportunities. 

What courses are you offering this year? What are you most looking forward to in the New Year?

I just finished teaching Authoritarian Politics, a course that considers politics and governance in societies around the world, including the Middle East. I am hoping to teach this course again next year. In Authoritarian Politics, we try to understand why autocrats hold elections and maintain parliaments, even when policy decisions are made by the autocratic leadership; how oil-rich, rentier states distribute economic resources within their societies; why authoritarian regimes repress their populations (and how repression influences identity formation); and how authoritarian regimes cultivate a "political culture" that helps to sustain their rule.

In the coming year, I am hoping to teach Paths to the Modern World: Islam and the West, a course focused on comparative economic and political development. In this class, we explore forms of institutional similarity and difference within what some scholars have called the "Western Core" (i.e., Europe and the Middle East). In particular, we try to understand why autonomous cities were common in medieval Christian but not Muslim societies; why representative political institutions emerged in Europe (and not elsewhere); and how different Muslim and Christian rulers grappled with the emergence of new technologies, like firearms or the printing press.

What would you say to a student potentially interested in minoring in or entering a graduate program in Islamic studies/Middle East studies?

I would encourage students to reach out to our faculty to learn more about course offerings and research opportunities on campus. We have a very welcoming community of scholars who can provide mentorship and ideas for future study.