Why I Study Europe

As a black woman in political science, Terri E. Givens is constantly asked why her research expertise isn't what people expect.

August 4, 2010

This summer I spent eight weeks in Europe conducting research on immigration, antidiscrimination policy and immigrant integration. It was a very productive research trip, and I was also able to share the experience with my family. I have had an interest in Europe since I started learning French in middle school, and I always appreciate the time that I can spend there, learning more about the politics and culture of a continent that has so many linkages with the United States.

Although I have studied European politics my entire academic career, there remains a very tiny sliver of doubt about my research agenda. The sliver of doubt comes into play when I think about the fact that there are so few African-Americans in political science. So shouldn’t I be studying race and politics, a topic that is so central to my identity? Or as a woman, should I be focused on issues of gender? For me, the answer is “of course not.” I have rarely done what I was expected to do, and I have no problem with breaking out of a traditional role, whether it is that of mother, athlete, academic, or person of color. That doesn’t mean that issues of race and gender don’t inform my work, for they certainly do in many of my publications.

When I tell people what I study, they usually ask me "Why do you study Europe?" I try to assume that the question is an innocent one, but the reality is, they are curious about a black woman who studies Europe. This question has plagued me throughout my academic career. When I was a graduate student, I actually had faculty from other universities tell me that they would be willing to hire me if I studied American politics. I often worried that my area of focus would have a negative impact on my job market prospects. It is well-known that political science departments will often advertise a job in "U.S. race and politics" in order to attract minority candidates.

However, I was also always told by my advisers that I should choose a topic area that I loved and could stick with. For me, it was always Europe. From the time I started learning French I dreamed of doing international relations and traveling throughout Europe. I chose my undergraduate degree of international relations because it required study abroad and I wanted to go to France. As a first-generation college student, it seemed out of reach until I got to Stanford and my dreams became a reality.

When I decided to go back to graduate school, there was no hesitation in my mind about what I wanted to do. I would study comparative politics in Europe, learn German in the meantime, and focus on immigration. I was determined to make it as a Europeanist in the world of political science where most African-American graduate students (the few of us there are in political science) focused on the study of race politics and/or American politics. I did whatever it took to be successful: learned statistics, game theory, and qualitative analysis, and applied for the grants that allowed me to travel to Europe and conduct research.

In the long run, I have been very successful in my chosen field. However, I still get that question: Why do you study Europe? Not just from Americans, but from Europeans as well. They are surprised by my fluency in French and German and look for rationales beyond my basic language abilities. I’m happy to provide the background – perhaps it was because my grandmother was from Louisiana and spoke some French. If you go back far enough in my genealogy, there are even German ancestors there.

Given what I study, I have no illusions about the fact that there are still expectations about what people from particular backgrounds will do with their lives. However, we all need to be careful in how we approach these issues – students need to have the freedom to choose what they study based on their interests, not what society expects of them. However, I don’t want to downplay the importance of the trailblazers in particular fields like race and politics or gender studies who were told they shouldn’t study these subjects because they were black, Hispanic or female. After all, how can you be objective about your own group? Of course, that type of thinking would disqualify white males from the study of just about anything in politics…

Personal biography plays a role for many of us in our research, whether it’s the scientist who is searching for a cure for a disease that may have impacted a family member or a social scientist who studies issues that have impacted his or her group or gender. The reality is that we live in a world that likes to categorize and place people into particular roles. I have always considered it part of my job to move beyond stereotypes, and provide my students with an example of someone who has made choices that go beyond the norms that academe and society would prescribe.

These days when I hear the question, “Why do you study Europe?” I smile and say, “Because I can.” I know the trailblazers who made their mark in my discipline are the reason that I, as a black woman, can today be a political scientist -- one who just happens to study Europe. We still live in a world where this is a novelty, and I look forward to the day when it’s no longer a surprise.


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