Thompson Hall

Office Hours:
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Degree: Ph.D., Yale University; B.A., Wheaton College (IL)

Area of Study: 

  • Comparative politics

  • Political theory

Program: Political Science


I write about how violence becomes normal in societies that pride themselves on being civilized.  For my book every twelve secondsI worked for nearly six months in an industrialized cattle slaughterhouse in Nebraska and used that experience to think about power and violence in modernity.  In 2020, every twelve seconds was selected "best scholarly book of the decade" in the Chronicle of Higher Educationand it has inspired engagements with writers, artists, activists, and thinkers across disciplines, including in the American Political Science Review in 2022 and 2024.  

I also write about power and research practices.  I'm especially interested in ethnography.  I like its emphasis on immersion.  I like the questions it raises about our ways of making knowledge about the world.  I explore these likes in among wolves, a play featuring a one-eyed wolfdog who can see the future, and in essays such as, "ethnography: fifth-stanza method," "the tyranny of light;" "dispatches from the kill floor;"  "the ethnographer's potion;" and "we call it a grain of sand."   In 2019, among wolves was awarded an Honorable Mention for the Charles Taylor Book Award from the Interpretive Methodologies and Methods Conference Group of the American Political Science Association.   

At UMass, I enjoy teaching, in a non-boring way, a large undergraduate General Education course boringly titled, "Introduction to Comparative Politics" (POLISCI 111).  I lead graduate seminars on ethnography, research methodology, and other topics.  I value students who ask big questions and are willing to take intellectual and political risks to answer them.  I've been honored to chair dissertations, many award-winning, on topics like the Red Shirt Movement in Thailand; how sound functions as a modality of political power in Palestine, Israel, Algeria, France, and Morocco; experiences of displacement and identity formation among Syrian asylum-seekers in the United States; the politics of water infrastructure in Mumbai; and a bicycle-powered, trash-collecting worker's cooperative in Northampton, Massachusetts.  

I've held fellowships at the Institute for Advanced Study (2020-1) and at an Advanced Seminar at the School of Advanced Research (2024).  These and other experiences continue to nurture several ongoing writing projects, including on the tricky relationships between violence and transparency and the political history of glass as an architectural material.

I try, every day, to be a better writer.  I often fail. 


This section includes an explanation of my approach to working with graduate students, followed by brief descriptions of some of my graduate seminars and undergraduate courses:

Note on working with graduate students:

I think of my work with graduate students as an intellectual partnership.  I believe in providing students with space to develop daring research programs, to take intellectual and creative risks, and to push back against some of the boundaries of their disciplines. At the same time, I insist on their fluency in the dominant disciplinary languages, and always require them to engage in the necessary tasks of translation and bridge building when their own approach diverges from those dominant languages.  Rather than seeking students who conform to one particular substantive research area or methodological approach, I am most interested in working with students who are eager to cultivate the following qualities of mind and intellectual sensibilities: an openness to messiness; a tolerance for ambiguity; the intentional cultivation of new lines of sight through an expansion of literary and experiential resources; the disciplined practice of maintaining a childlike wonder and awe over what one encounters; an appreciation for the ways in which the research world interacts with the presence, disciplinary categories, and positionality of the researcher and is never revisited in the same way twice; a commitment to keep the research question in flux and to avoid premature evidentiary closure; a love of writing and attention to the relationships between narrative, genre, and form; and a foregrounding of questions and analyses of power, domination, resistance, and subversion.

Political Ethnography (graduate seminar):

What, we'll ask, does it mean to study politics from below?  How does immersion of the researcher in the research world contribute to the study of power? What are the promises, and perils, of social research that invites the unruly minutiae of lived experience to converse with, and contest, abstract disciplinary theories and categories? In this practice-intensive seminar, we explore ethnographic and other qualitative fieldwork methods with specific attention to their potential to subvert, generate, and extend understandings of politics and power. Readings draw on exemplary political ethnographies as well as discussions of methodology and method in political science, sociology, and anthropology. Participants will have the opportunity to craft and conduct locally based ethnographic research projects related to their primary areas of interest and will be expected to make significant weekly commitments to field research. The seminar is intended as preparation for students planning to conduct independent fieldwork for their MA or PhD research, but those interested in the epistemological, political and ethical implications of studying power from below are also welcome.

Introduction to Comparative Politics (undergraduate large lecture):  

Every course tells a story.  In this course, the focus of our story is on the origins, rise, and consequences of the modern world.  We begin (week one) with the tale of an innocent remark at a birthday party in Sarajevo that turned out to have some not-so-innocent consequences. We examine how this tale illuminates some of the central abstractions that lie at the heart of comparative political analysis: state, economy, culture, identity, and violence. We ask: “What is the study of comparative politics and what is it good for?”  Next (week two), we turn our attention to the world that existed before the world we live in, thinking critically about our choice of starting points and why it matters.  In week three, we examine the emergence and rise of the modern nation-state and of free market capitalism, two dominant, seemingly inescapable features of our time.  In week four, we take account of those who intentionally resisted these structures, adapting their geography, agriculture, and cultures to repel the states that sought to “civilize” them.  In weeks five and six, we turn to the political and economic trajectories of Britain, France, the United States, and Germany, four modern democratic capitalist states that exhibit striking variation despite their key commonalities.  In weeks seven through ten we look closely at the enormous gaps in power and wealth that have been produced since the ascendancy of these and other “advanced” nation-states, focusing in particular on the world’s two most populous countries: India and China.  In these weeks, we attend not only to the big structures of state, economy, and culture, but also to how these structures make themselves felt in the everyday lives of ordinary people.  We will immerse ourselves in the lives of the Zhang family as they travel 2,100 kilometers across China in the world’s largest human migration (week nine), and, along with twelve year old Sunil and sixteen year old Abdul, we will become embroiled in the horrific aftermath of the suicide of a one-legged woman in a slum of Mumbai, India (week ten).  After this, we pivot sharply to one of the most central and enduring questions of comparative politics: the classification, measurement, and evaluation of regimes, focusing in particular on democratic and non-democratic regimes (weeks eleven and twelve), and ending with a close examination of the political and economic trajectories of Russia, Iran, and Nigeria (week thirteen).  In our final week (fourteen), we draw on the 2011 catastrophic meltdown of three nuclear reactors in Fukushima, Japan in order to zoom back out to a planetary level where we will conclude our semester together with the urgent question: what might it mean to do comparative politics in the age of the Anthropocene?