Joseph Torigian: Using historical analysis to crack the code of authority in closed societies | MIT News

Joseph Torigian’s political science research is not easily categorized, making it a good choice for MIT. The doctoral student studies how the army affects political development in communist countries. Its goal is to understand the nature of authority in these regimes.

Torigian’s work covers three areas of political science: security studies, area studies, and historical institutionalism. While carving out a unique place for itself in the field, Torigian is, in a sense, a step back in time. In recent years, the discipline has relied more on quantitative methods such as multivariate regression. Torigian, on the other hand, uses a thorough historical analysis; his doctoral research is based on a rich mine of communist-era documents he discovered in China and Russia.

So how did an old-school, history-focused political scientist choose to pursue his doctorate at MIT? Torigian was drawn to MIT’s political science department by the security studies program, particularly the work of Professors Richard Samuels, Taylor Fravel, and Barry Posen. Safety studies at MIT are qualitative in nature and continue to embrace historical analysis, Torigian says. He was also drawn to the work of Professor Kathleen Thelen, who has been a leader in better conceptualizing the nature of institutional change, he says.

Torigian drew much of his methodology from Thelen and learned a great deal about the nature of civil-military relations from the security studies program. “Putting these two together has been a very productive marriage, and it’s not something you can do just anywhere,” he says. “It’s one of the few places I’ve been able to get away with a project like this.”

Torigian’s research boils down to finding discrepancies between what has been written about events in China and the Soviet Union during the Cold War and what he finds in Chinese and Russian archives. Torigian is fluent in Chinese and Russian, which has facilitated collaboration with, and confidence in, Chinese and Russian historians, who have helped him navigate the archives.

The main lesson he learned from his research is that the legacies of violence are extremely important to understanding the evolution of authority in China and the Soviet Union. For example, after the deaths of Stalin and Mao, leaders with close ties to the military managed to break the hold of the secret police in the Soviet Union and the Gang of Four in China. In particular, Deng Xiaoping’s rise to power owes more to his close relations with the People’s Liberation Army, fostered by its role in the wars against the nationalists and the Japanese, than to his reform program.

By conceptualizing the nature of authority in communist regimes, Torigian contributes to the understanding of political scientists of contemporary authoritarian regimes. This is an urgent problem, given the instability in the Middle East and the colorful revolutions around the world. “The crucial question is who the military decides to support and why,” he said.

Torigian is a visiting scholar at George Washington University while completing his doctorate. He was a Fulbright Fellow at Fudan University in Shanghai and worked at the Council on Foreign Relations. Torigian will be in the market for an academic position this fall.

Torigian’s next project is in North Korea. On his last trip to Moscow, Torigian uncovered a cache of documents about a time in 1956 when the Chinese and the Soviets tried to prevent Kim Il-sung from marginalizing members of the North Korean government who were aligned with the Chinese. and the Soviet Union. Torigian is working with James Person of the North Korea International Documentation Project at the Wilson Center to determine what led Kim Il-sung to develop a patrilineal personality cult that strongly favored the military.


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Patrick F. Williams

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