Interview with Professor Kathleen McNamara

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Every week, we will be sharing interviews with professors in order to showcase the research being done here at Georgetown.

Our first interview is with Professor Kathleen McNamara, Associate Professor of Government and Foreign Service, Director of the Mortara Center for International Studies, and our new faculty advisor for the Walsh Exchange this year! Her work focuses on the politics of international economic relations, with a specialty in the European Union, the Euro and the European Central Bank, and she just finished up her latest book entitled Imagining Europe. Read on to learn more about her research.
Why did you go into research? Have you always wanted to pursue a career in academia?
I would say like most of the Georgetown undergrads, I was a huge nerd already in college. I did a senior thesis in my last year and really enjoyed the process of researching and writing, but I was pretty tired of being in school. So when I graduated I went and got a job on Capitol Hill as a legislative assistant. I had a real commitment to and love of policy, so I went on to get a Master’s at Columbia in their international affairs school. While I was there, I ended up taking some Ph.D. classes as well and found that I really loved having the time to dig deeply into complicated policy issues that you can only skim over the top of when you work on the Hill. So I decided to get the Ph.D. and try to be a professor.

You’ve authored several articles, books, and papers on different topics. Can you highlight some of your favorite or most meaningful works?
I’m very proud that my work on the euro has stood the test of time, and I think it’s because I rejected the notion that the single currency was merely a technocratic or technical solution to an economic problem. Instead, I argued that it was a very political process. It should be understood as something that came about because of the various social relationships and the perceptions of the people involved. I have questioned the notion that there’s one guiding economic rationality; instead, I argue that politics has to influence how we think about what is the best economic policy solution. It’s important to remind people to demand that we question a lot of the received wisdom about a particular economic policy, and ask who’s really benefiting from that policy and who are the losers. That’s meaningful to me.

Can you tell me more about the central focus of your current research?
My earlier research was focused around trying to understand why and how Europe moved to a single currency, the euro, and the politics around that. I then became interested in a bigger question around whether we should think about the EU as a new emergent political form: should we try to study it in a comparative sense like the rise of nation state, or earlier political forms like the Italian city state or the Hanseatic League? My particular emphasis is on the role of symbols and the cultural foundations for this new political authority. That is, how does the EU get its legitimacy, how does it build it, and looking at the everyday things that people experience in Europe.

For example, in airports there are signs in the border control area that will say “European Nationals” along with a separate line for “Foreigners”. Everybody who is a member of an EU member state now gets a standardized burgundy passport, that has both “European Union” and their national emblem and name on it, replacing their old sovereign passport. Everyone from Germany, Italy, etc.—they all have these passports that simultaneously make them citizens of their country and the EU, so they can breeze through passport lines because there are no internal borders to movement in the EU. And I thought, that has to matter on some basic level that you experience a change in the way you feel boundaries and the way you get categorized politically. My book is about a lot of those smaller, every day interactions, and how that might reframe the way people think about themselves as citizens. It’s a big book, it’s really messy, and at the end of it it’s been really painful but I’m looking forward to finishing it soon.

What are the skill sets that you use in your research?
This book that I’m doing now is much more synthetic in the sense that I’m reviewing a lot of literature and trying to connect them together to get people to think about the EU in a new way. I’m not doing a lot of original on the ground data collection. I’ve done some interviews, but a lot of it is reinterpreting data that other people have. So it’s a different kind of book than things I’ve done previously. You always have to figure out what’s the right method of research to do for your question.

What issues do you think the international research community should focus on more?
I think that the financial crisis really exposed how my field missed an opportunity—or even worse—ignored a lot of what was going on in the US financial system. We really didn’t pay attention to what was happening until the financial crisis broke. We tended to think that debt crises and financial crises were things that happened in developing world, and we tended to turn a blind eye to the American political economy. I think that people who study international political economy should re-engage with studying the American political economy, because it’s not clear that everything is hunky-dory and fantastic in our own political economy, and that has huge implications for the rest of the world.

Can you talk about your role as Director of the Mortara Center and what the Center is trying to achieve?
As Director, I’m focused on trying to develop intellectual communities around different topics, and to provide infrastructure support to help people come together in research clusters and develop strong collegial ties. We have a series of research seminars with faculty and grad students on international history, political economy, international relations, etc. and those meet every couple weeks. People present works in progress, people come from around the world to present their work, and it’s been a really nice way to create an institutionalized sense of community in these different intellectual areas.

One of the big things we’ve been doing recently is focusing on undergrads and thinking about how to bring you into these research communities. So a couple years ago, we started the Mortara Undergraduate Research Fellows Program—the MURFs. This funds three students per class to work with a professor as a research assistant and by their senior year, they’re only doing their own research. We’ve also started to hold workshops and symposiums that are open to everybody on various aspects of doing research, presenting your research, and so on. It’s important to me and the staff at Mortara to try to reach out to undergraduates and make sure we support them in every way we can as producers of knowledge.

What inspires you when picking a research question to study?
I always tell my students this: the good research is research that comes out of your own curiosity about the world—that something will sort of spark you, that you’ll just want to find out the answer to the question. With my own students, I always try to make sure that they can write papers on questions that they really want to know the answer to. I’m personally intrigued with the combination of political logics and economic logics: when you have these different types of logic—political power dynamics and market dynamics geared towards efficiency and profit—and when these two kinds of logics clash against each other, you always have very interesting questions that arise. This emphasis on political economy is something I’ll always have. Your research focus is a very personal thing and you need to make sure that you’re excited by your research question before you commit to it.

Anything else that you would like to share?
I would say that every year I’m more impressed with Hoyas. The undergrads that I’m in contact with are really taking advantage of the opportunities that they have on the Hilltop. That’s exciting to see their curiosity and their openness and willingness to get out there and try things and potentially fail. As a professor it’s a really great place to be teaching and I look forward to engaging with students going forward.

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