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Take Two: Faculty Take Revolutionary Look at International Conflict


by Rebekah Tilley
photos by Tim Collins

George Patton once said that “Compared to war, all other forms of human endeavor shrink to insignificance.”

An idea verified all too clearly these days; we cannot turn on the television or open a newspaper without being confronted with the harsh realities of contemporary conflict. Two professors in the UK Department of Political Science have made war the focus of their research: Daniel Morey and Clayton Thyne.

Morey has the posture and clean-cut look of a man with a military background – though neither he nor anyone in his immediate family has an extensive history of military service. Morey’s research focuses on three aspects of international conflict: why conflicts start, the duration of the conflict and role of the war in post-war relations.

Morey came to the discipline of political science while still an undergraduate student majoring in history. “In history they look for a unique cause to war, while in political science we seek to have a general cause of war,” Morey notes. “Political science as a general rule believes that there is broad causality in the world of social interaction, so it doesn’t matter what you are studying – war just happens to be my topic – whereas historians look for the specific.” Morey made the switch to political science when he found that he was more attuned to recognizing the similarities rather than the nuances of particular events.

Part of recognizing the similarities of international conflict is knowing how to build and operate the data sets that find subtle areas of commonality between a number of seemingly unique conflicts. Both Morey and Thyne received their PhDs from the University of Iowa, a program known for its rigorous training in quantitative methodology. “I actually went into political science to avoid math,” Morey confesses. “The irony there cannot be helped.”Now Morey teaches the graduate level quantitative methods class that all first year graduate students are required to take.

Any day that you find out your first book has been accepted for publication is a good day and Clayton Thyne is clearly thrilled. A specialist in civil conflicts, his book on how external actors affect civil wars is due out in 2009. A former Teach for America instructor, Thyne came to international conflict after seeing firsthand the profound impact such events have on education.

“War itself is just so awful,” Thyne said. “We need to figure out ways to prevent them and end the ones that are ongoing. Not that I’m some wide-eyed idealist, but I see it on the news every day so I unfortunately have a constant reminder of the relevance of the topic I chose to study.” 

Both Morey and Thyne credit a portion of their research success to the larger community of scholars in the UK Department of Political Science. This department is going places, and you can feel the enthusiasm from the senior faculty down to the undergraduates. 

A low-key Friday afternoon in the department often involves a working paper meeting to talk over individual pieces of research authored by various professors and graduate students – sharpening the piece into quality research. This particular Friday afternoon the group is reviewing a piece by Thyne. “As a department we have a good dynamic going, and the workshop group is just one piece of that,” said Morey, who started the meetings. “It’s a great environment to try to get published and try to get tenure. We have broad support across all levels. Senior scholars in the department like Dr. Karen Mingst participate and take the time to give feedback about these papers to help us make them publishable.” 

“The senior faculty are very supportive,” Thyne echoes. “I’ve gotten reviews back from several of them on papers. One of them I didn’t even ask to review my work. He simply pulled the paper off my webpage and sent his comments to me, which I thought was pretty stunning.” 

Thyne and Morey regularly work alongside graduate and undergraduate students in the course of doing their research. Thyne recently built a massive data set that examined every coup d’etat attempt since 1950 with graduate student Jonathan Powell. And each semester Morey leads a team of six to twelve undergraduate students in data collection projects as the instructor of the senior research internship.

“The students learn how to go out and collect data with the goal that they will have a leg up when it comes to getting into law school or graduate school,” Morey explains. “They’ve done really well. It’s a real symbiotic relationship between the undergrads and myself. They learn how to do research and I get the data that I need. Working with them is one of the most rewarding things because I really get to know these students.”

The work done by Morey and Thyne may one day lead to a more peaceful world. Morey echoes General Patton when he reflects on their research: “Simply the question of why war happens and how can we avoid wars. When we start talking about these things, it just seems like the most important question to try to answer before everything else.”