précis Interview: Noah Nathan

  • Spring ∕  Summer 2024
précis Interview: Noah Nathan

Noah Nathan, an associate professor of political science at MIT, recently sat down with précis to discuss his latest book, ongoing research, work with the Global Diversity Lab (GDL), and his teaching in the political science department. Nathan, whose research focuses on electoral politics, political economy, and urban politics in Africa, earned his PhD in government from Harvard in 2016. His most recent book, The Scarce State: Inequality and Political Power in the Hinterland (Cambridge University Press, 2023), was named one of the "Best Books of 2023" by Foreign Affairs.

SPRING/SUMMER 24 :: précis Interview :: Noah Nathan
Noah Nathan
June 24, 2024

précis: In a nutshell, what is your latest book, The Scarce State, about? 

NN: Political scientists often describe the states in many developing countries as weak, but the term "weak" can be vague. In some aspects, these states are incredibly influential, even if they appear weak in others. The book is an attempt to disaggregate what we mean when we say “state weakness” and identify specific areas in which the state is less effective—alongside those in which it is quite powerful.

précis: What inspired you to research this topic?  

NN: This was a project that I've wanted to do for basically my entire career. It was really fun for me to come back to it after [wrapping up] my first book on the politics of Accra, Ghana’s capital and largest city. Alongside studying Ghana’s urban politics, I've always been intrigued by Ghana's rural regions, especially the far north, which I first visited during a summer in college to conduct interviews. Later, as I read the classic literature on state weakness and rural peripheries in Africa, I kept thinking, "The place that I’ve visited is really different from the place in the literature.” 

précis: How was your experience different from the literature’s depiction?

Everyone would teach you that the state is weak, absent, and unimportant in some rural parts of Africa. In some sense, that did seem to be, in fact, the case. For example, my latest book starts with an anecdote from a small, remote town called Saboba in northern Ghana. There's only one bus per day that leaves at dawn, so after a week of interviews there, I got up at three in the morning to catch it. While waiting in the dark, I chatted with the one other person there: an employee of the district post office who was heading to Accra, about a 15-hour bus ride away. He hated being posted in Saboba and tried to spend as little time there as possible. He was basically an absentee employee in the district government because apart from going there to collect his checks, he wasn't actually around very much. This fits the stereotype of state weakness; even the few bureaucrats who do get posts don't even want to be there. 

Yet, during my interviews, people kept talking about how state policy had dramatically reshaped their lives following a violent ethnic conflict in the 1990s. Essentially, there was a paradox. On one hand, you could argue, “the state doesn't really exist here, and even the few people who are here are trying to flee,” but you could also argue that “the state is the central causal force in people's lives.” This book is essentially me coming back to that paradox years later. 

précis: How do you approach that issue in your book? 

NN:  In the book, I explore the long-term origins of inequality. Instead of assuming there's inequality or the existence of elites, I ask, "Where did those elites come from?" I show that even in areas where the state is largely absent or inactive, the few actions it does take can significantly alter the societal structure. The book focuses on how long-term state-building processes have shaped societies today, even in places where the state seems to have done the least. Surprisingly, in areas with minimal state intervention, the few actions taken by the state can have the most significant long-term impacts because they stand out in an otherwise inactive environment.

Surprisingly, in areas with minimal state intervention, the few actions taken by the state can have the most significant long-term impacts because they stand out in an otherwise inactive environment.

précis:  How has the book shaped your future research agenda?

The book is part of a broader research agenda on the idea that state capacity is endogenous. Traditionally, social scientists have viewed state capacity through long-term historical factors, like colonialism, which set countries on paths of either good or bad institutions. My book contributes to a new perspective by recognizing that many developing states are strategically weak rather than inherently weak. Thinking about endogenous political variation is important, and it’s a theme in the book that I’m picking up in some of my newer research. 

In a side project, other questions that I’m continuing from the book are, “What are the origins of the political elite?” and “Why is it that these are the particular people who are running these countries?” Part of that involves thinking about the deeper historical backgrounds; in this project, I’m working with Diana Zhu and two colleagues at LSE, to evaluate the colonial bureaucracy in Ghana and its long-term effects. During the Africanization of the colonial civil service, local people were gradually hired into the British colonial government towards the end of the colonial period. These individuals then transitioned into roles within the post-independence government. We're researching how this process of colonial state-building influenced who became political or economic elites after independence, and the long-term effects on the country's politics.

précis: What else are you working on right now?

NN: My big new project is about built environments and urban politics in Africa. This project is more closely connected to my first book, Electoral Politics and Africa’s Urban Transition. One of the most significant social transformations on the continent is its shift to becoming a majority urban region for the first time. By some measures, Africa is the most rapidly urbanizing region in the world. There’s a growing literature on urban politics in the developing world, but it mostly focuses on standard political science questions within cities. What I think is missing from that work is the city itself—the actual physical design and architecture of cities. My new research agenda aims to integrate urban design and architecture into the study of urban politics in developing countries, and I have a series of papers addressing different aspects of this broader topic.

One of the most significant social transformations on the continent is its shift to becoming a majority urban region for the first time. By some measures, Africa is the most rapidly urbanizing region in the world.

précis: Are there any future directions you hope to see in political science research on Africa?

NN: Some of the most exciting research on African politics sits purposefully at the intersections of fields. There's a lot to learn from branching out from traditional political science. I've tried to do that in my work, which is why my [recent] book was deeply engaged with research by historians and by anthropologists, and why I went to the archives to try to create new sources of historical data. My new work engages with research from urban planners, architectural theorists, and sociologists. Some of the work that I find most exciting right now involves scholars thinking broadly about social science rather than staying narrowly within the political science discipline.

précis: Could you talk about Global Diversity Lab (GDL)?

NN: The Global Diversity Lab has been a wonderful intellectual community and one of my favorite parts of being at MIT. It's a cross-subfield group of graduate students and faculty that has become a home intellectual base for many of us. I'm really appreciative of everything that Evan Lieberman has done to set it up.

précis: Last year you co-ran the GDL Pathways Summer Program. Could you talk about the program's origins and its goals?

NN: Pathways grew out of a widespread recognition that our field and social science in general face challenges in ensuring a robust pipeline of students from underrepresented backgrounds. We need diverse perspectives, ideas, and approaches in the field, but there are many bottlenecks preventing this from happening. One clear issue is the lack of applicants to political science PhD programs. I think that's partly because of things like serious inequities in access to role models that might lead you to think, “This is a possible career for me.” There’s also inequity in access to the networks and professionalization opportunities that make you a successful PhD applicant. 

The inspiration for the program was to find ways to diversify the study of global diversity. Many talented students don’t see academia as a viable career path. We wanted to intervene before the application stage by encouraging students to consider this path and helping them apply. The program provides research exposure to students from underrepresented backgrounds, particularly from undergraduate institutions or universities in Africa where these opportunities might be limited.

Q: What were the key milestones reached last year, and what are your plans for “Pathways” in the future?

NN: Last year, we had an incredible cohort of six students. Three of them applied to PhD programs, and all were accepted—they'll be attending Yale, Boston University, and UC Irvine next year. Other members of the cohort plan to apply in the next cycle. This summer, we’ll have a cohort of seven students. We recently received a grant from MIT Africa to fund the program through at least summer 2025, and we’re actively working to institutionalize this as a permanent program and make it a core part of what GDL does. This initiative is something I'm really committed to, and I believe it will help diversify the field in the long run.

précis: Can you discuss any significant highlights from your teaching over the past year?

NN: This semester, I am teaching  “Political Economy of Africa.” It's a class I [have] wanted to teach my whole career. At previous institutions, a minimum enrollment was required to run a class, and unfortunately, there were never enough students interested in Africa to meet that threshold. Since there’s no lower limit for class enrollment at MIT, I thought that I could offer it and end up teaching three or so students. There are actually fifteen students in my class this semester – much more than I anticipated. It’s been really fun to introduce the literature on Africa to a set of students who have predominantly never studied it before. The course has essentially become a primer for comparativists on African politics, and I hope that many have come to appreciate the relevance of the study of African politics to mainstream American political science. 

précis: How would you characterize your first two years at MIT?

NN: My time here has been great so far. I'm really excited to be in the department, working alongside a wonderful group of colleagues and PhD students. I’m looking forward to deepening my involvement within the department and across the broader MIT community.