Meet 2019 Carnegie Fellow Benjamin Lessing, University of Chicago

The Andrew Carnegie Fellows Program recognizes an exceptional group of both established and emerging scholars, journalists, and authors with the goal of strengthening U.S. democracy, driving technological and cultural creativity, exploring global connections and global ruptures, and improving both natural and human environments. 

How will the Andrew Carnegie Fellows Program impact your research and overall career?

I’m thrilled and honored to join the community of Carnegie Fellows, including this year’s impressive cohort. I am also deeply grateful to The University of Chicago for believing in this project and nominating me as this year’s junior candidate (in a happy coincidence, I joined Michael Greenstone, this year’s senior nominee, as the first UChicago faculty to ever win the fellowship.).

The timing of the award could not be better: This coming year I’ll be winding up fieldwork on my second book, tentatively titled Criminal Leviathans: How Gangs Govern, Organize Crime, and Challenge the State from Behind Bars, and will then spend 2020/21 on leave, holding a book conference and completing the manuscript. The powerful prison gangs the book studies are the unintended consequence of decades of resorting to repressive strategies to address underlying social problems. The research that this fellowship makes possible will, I hope, illuminate the dangers of mass incarceration, which has not only failed to eliminate crime but fostered criminal shadow-governments that impact millions of people in slums and prisons throughout the Americas.

What research topics do you primarily focus on? How can people access your work?

I study what I call “criminal conflict”—organized armed violence involving non-state actors who, unlike revolutionary insurgents, are not trying to topple the state. My first book, Making Peace In Drug Wars: Cartels and Crackdowns in Latin America (Cambridge Studies in Comparative Politics, 2017), examines militarized armed conflict between drug trafficking organizations and the state in Colombia, Mexico and Brazil. My second book project, Criminal Leviathans, which I’ll be working on during my Carnegie tenure, explores the counterproductive effects of mass-incarceration policies, fostering the growth of powerful armed criminal groups at the core of the state’s coercive apparatus. A co-authored article from this project, “Legitimacy in Criminal Governance: Managing a Drug Empire From Behind Bars” was recently published in the American Political Science Review. Additionally, I study criminal governance and armed electioneering by paramilitary and criminal groups. Links to all of my academic work is available on my personal website. I’m also a regular contributor at the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog.

The research that this fellowship makes possible will, I hope, illuminate the dangers of mass incarceration, which has not only failed to eliminate crime but fostered criminal shadow-governments that impact millions of people in slums and prisons throughout the Americas.

Do you have any advice for students in political science, including tips on how to find funding and support for research projects?

I’m a bit of an outlier, because my research interests–drug cartels, prison gangs, and such–initially lay outside of traditional topics and literatures in our discipline. People would say “That’s interesting, but is it political science?” So part of the challenge was convincing folks that challenges to the state’s authority are central to our discipline’s core concerns whether they come from ideological rebels or seemingly “apolitical” criminal groups. In terms of funding and support, an initial downside was not fitting into standard disciplinary tracks and categories. But the upside was that the underlying issues were real and of growing concern; a broad range of funders were increasingly open to supporting research on drug war–not only my own but an entire cohort of researchers over the last 10-15 years. Often the “trick” was just helping funders see how drug war and criminal conflict could “fit” into their missions and priorities.

So my advice is three-fold: first, develop a research focus that is substantively important and that you care about. Follow your instincts and study what truly fascinates you or demands your attention. Second, think about your comparative advantage–what do you bring to the topic that others, especially people from the countries and contexts you are studying, lack? Craft a project that plays to your strengths while respecting and building on the contributions of those who have been studying your topic for years or decades. And third, think about things from funders’ perspective. Funders want to support work that is important, and that might not happen without their support (yes, funders estimate the counterfactual!)  If you’ve chosen a good topic and developed a good research proposal, you won’t need to oversell it or distort it; just help them see how it is in line with their institutional and intellectual goals.