Danielle Gilbert Receives the 2021 Merze Tate Award

The Merze Tate Award is presented annually by the American Political Science Association (APSA) to honor the best doctoral dissertation in the field of international relations, law, and politics.   

Dani Gilbert is an Assistant Professor of Military & Strategic Studies at the United States Air Force Academy. She received her Ph.D. in Political Science from the George Washington University in 2020; she holds master’s degrees from the London School of Economics and George Washington University and a BA in Ethics, Politics & Economics from Yale. Dani’s research examines the causes and consequences of hostage-taking. Her current book project explores why armed groups kidnap in civil war. In other ongoing projects, she studies public opinion about hostage recovery, the use of “hostage diplomacy” in international relations, and rebel-criminal partnerships in kidnapping violence.  

Her research has been supported by the United States Institute of Peace and Minerva Research Initiative, the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, the Smith Richardson Foundation, the Institute for Security and Conflict Studies, and the Cosmos Club. In 2019, she was recognized as one of six “New Faces” in International Security by the Triangle Institute for Security Studies. Dani’s scholarly and public-facing work has been published in Terrorism and Political Violence, Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, the Journal of Political Science Education, War on the Rocks, Just Security, Political Violence at a Glance, the Duck of Minerva, and the Washington Post. Since 2015, she has served as a fellow with the Bridging the Gap Project, which supports scholars in contributing to public debates by producing and disseminating policy-relevant scholarship. Before entering academia, Dani served four years on Capitol Hill, including as a Senior Legislative Assistant and Appropriations Associate to the State Department and Foreign Operations Subcommittee.    

Citation from the Award Committee:  

Danielle A. Gilbert’s dissertation, The Logic of Coercive Kidnapping is the first systematic study of ransom kidnappings in contexts of ongoing conflict. It makes a major contribution to understanding why and how non-state political violence becomes directed against civilians. It answers the question of how we explain ransom kidnappings by violent, political organizations, including rebels, terrorists, and paramilitaries. Gilbert drills down into a phenomenon that is widely recognised but little understood. She finds that kidnapping, as a way to enforce a protection racket, is used to punish those in local population that refuse to pay tax, to recover unpaid tax, and to compel future cooperation. Uses of kidnapping vary with funding sources for insurgent organizations, rising if dependent on local tax and protection money, declining if dependent on guaranteed external funding. Frequent kidnappings require a robust enforcement infrastructure–strong local hierarchy, role specialization and selective compartmentalization. The dissertation is novel in its findings and impressively researched. Large n analysis identifies robust correlates of kidnapping and in-depth case studies identify causal mechanisms. Gilbert builds the first systematic global database of ransom kidnappings for the 1970-2015 period from multiple sources. Gilbert tests her argument statistically and confirms it through fieldwork evidence. She conducted fieldwork in Colombia, including in-depth interviews with ex-combatants from FARC, ELN, and M-19, commanders of anti-kidnapping units and hostage negotiators.  

The Logic of Coercive Kidnapping exemplifies the advantages of mixed methods research in political science and develops a new argument that links the nature of funding sources for violent political organizations to ransom kidnappings, as well as highlighting the importance of organizational structure in a way different from conventional explanations of political violence. It is a thesis that is firmly in the tradition of Merze Tate’s ground-breaking scholarship. 


APSA thanks the committee members for their service: Kimberly Hutchings (Chair), Queen Mary University of London; Clifford Bob, Duquesne University; and Quan Li, Texas A&M University.