Research Initiative: Intellectual Priorities for a Global Era

From its genesis in the middle of the last century, the MacMillan Center has been the University’s primary vehicle for encouraging interdisciplinary, international, and area-focused research and teaching. The constituent councils, committees, centers, and programs have made tremendous contributions to our understanding of the world and have trained generations of scholars. Now, with so many of the world’s most intractable and immediate problems requiring collaborative, interdisciplinary, and regionally expert inquiry, the MacMillan Center is focusing its activities, so that all dimensions of these inquiries—research, teaching, convening, and publishing—will concentrate on the three substantive areas outlined below. These topics are not intended to be the preserve of, nor exclusive to, any particular academic discipline or geographic area. Rather, they are intended to complement and draw on the existing intellectual and financial resources resident in the MacMillan Center. One hallmark of these inquiries is a conscious emphasis on the global implications of these topics.

These three focal areas are obviously not distinct, and the need for intellectual research that bridges, for example, the work of those who study identity and those who study justice and distribution has been made very clear by the racial justice movements around the world in 2020.

Identity, Security, and Conflict

Religious, national, racial, ethnic, and other identities are among the most powerful sources of human motivation. They structure much human conflict, and they are integral to the age-old human search for meaning and security. Identities have proved more resistant to the forces of modernization and globalization than many influential theories predict, and they are not easily accounted for by the dominant explanatory models in the social sciences. Moreover, their normative dimensions are complex, because they often live in tension with widely held commitments to democracy and individual freedom. Nor are the various types of identity obviously alike, despite the common scholarly tendency to classify them together. Yale seeks to illuminate identities from multiple disciplinary perspectives, account for their similarities, differences, and resilience, and explore their implications for the study of security and conflict—subnational, national, and international.

Democracy: Past, Present, and Future

The last quarter of the twentieth century saw the advent of democracy in more than a third of the world’s countries. Yet the great majority of the earth’s population continues to be governed by undemocratic regimes, and the number of “illiberal democracies” around the world is growing. In the older democracies, organized interests, urban neglect, and violence at home and abroad, growing wealth and income inequality, and the need to confront global pandemics challenge institutional capacities in unprecedented ways. The very idea of democratic citizenship is hotly contested. Some see it as a universal right, others as little more than a coveted ticket to membership in an exclusive club. There is no reason to assume that democracy’s survival, let alone its spread, is guaranteed. Yale seeks to advance our understanding of how to create and sustain democracy, how the tensions between democracy and other goods—notably efficiency and liberty—are best managed, and how established democracies can renew themselves in the face of internal and external challenges.

Justice and Distribution: Local, National, Regional, Global

In an era of unprecedented global integration—of markets, information, technology, and travel—the political organization of the world remains centered on nation states. As the main organs of political accountability and collective enforcement, national governments remain the central focus of demands for justice and redistribution. Governments confront many limits to their effectiveness in such a world, along with profound moral dilemmas. Should international courts and transnational legislative bodies be strengthened, and if so, how and at what cost? To whom will they be accountable? How will the many local struggles for racial and ethnic equality and justice affect the international community, and be affected by it? When public goods like clean air must be provided globally, how can national governments—often in competition with one another for power and influence and under massive pressure from private interests—do the providing and the regulating? Yale seeks to study these moral and practical dilemmas from multiple disciplinary vantage points.