Growing new ideas with seed grants

By

Sarah Lords

Picture a shared dinner table as a venue for increasing awareness about the immigrant experience. Or consider how a newspaper archive could serve as a foundation for conceptualizing democratic futures in the Middle East.

These ideas reflect the innovative projects and possibilities that the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict kickstarts through its annual seed grant program.

“Globalization has created a more integrated world, meaning problems that start in one place often cascade into another,” says John Carlson, interim director of the Center.

“Today’s challenges are like knots, where political, social, environmental, economic and cultural issues are often tangled together. Unraveling some of these knots requires new and sometimes unconventional approaches.”

The Center launched its seed grant program shortly after its founding in 2003. Since then, it has leveraged the entrepreneurial spirit of the New American University model by creating  opportunities and incentives for faculty to participate in multi-disciplinary initiatives that cut across the humanities, sciences, and social sciences. By offering pilot funding, the seed grant program promotes the growth of new ideas and encourages faculty to push past traditional constraints. 

“The payoff that we have seen from this program is profound,” Carlson says. “We have watched novel ideas grow into expansive, in-depth research projects that have generated substantial contributions to scholarship. Investing early in these ideas has paid huge dividends, not only financially in terms of the external grants they have generated, but in terms of human understanding as well. Many of these projects would not have moved forward without the catalyzing force of Center seed grants.”

 The First Seed Grant: Muslim Identities in Europe

Carolyn Warner, a professor of political science in the School of Politics and Global Studies, was awarded the Center’s first seed grant in 2003. Her project was focused on Muslim identities in Europe and involved researchers from ASU and several other universities.

“When the project first started,” says Warner, “there was all of this focus on the idea that Islam was a single monolith—which we knew was not true—so the question then became how and why different groups of Muslims became allies or opponents when it came to political issues.

“Beyond that, many pertinent questions about how religious ideas and structures affected all sorts of political behavior had largely been ignored in the field,” says Warner. “This gave a new angle and urgency to our work.”

Warner explored these questions with the seed funding she initially received from the Center, strategically building out a foundation of research that she would later use as a springboard to pursue a bigger grant with the National Science Foundation (NSF). 

Although she did not win the first NSF grant she applied for, the findings from Warner’s project were groundbreaking within her field, and she went on to publish a number of important papers as a result of that project. She also became part of a Center-sponsored research collaborative that focused on intergroup conflict and cooperation. The cohort included faculty from diverse disciplines including psychology, art history, communications, and religious studies.

The collaborative environment stimulated and sharpened Warner’s research inquiries. Before long, Warner—building upon the insights accrued from a $17,000 seed grant investment—went on to win not one, but several NSF grants as well as private foundation funding, totaling over $2.3 million. Today, Warner is regarded as one of the top scholars in the field of religion and politics.

“The seed grant I received from the Center provided me with important access to the tools necessary to move my research forward,” Warner reflects. “It offered me an opportunity to further develop my ideas which, in turn, allowed them to blossom into substantial new projects.”

According to Carlson, Prof. Warner’s work exemplifies the program. Awarding seed grant funding is about believing in the power of an idea and supporting the faculty so they can realize their vision and share it with others. “Ultimately, we are looking for creative, bold responses that  address pressing problems of our time,” says Carlson.

The projects awarded seed funding this year do exactly that. They engage timely topics—immigration, democracy in the Middle East, and the impacts of the unfolding refugee crisis—in an effort to pioneer new approaches and generate innovative, new solutions. Seed grants support faculty in their efforts to build out initial concepts, generate pilot data, and apply for external funding to carry out a major research project. 

Dinner Table Dialogues: Immigration and Christianity in the U.S.

Douglas Kelley, a sociology professor and a recipient of one of this year’s Center seed grants, explores how cross-cultural conversation and storytelling can be used to understand attitudes about immigration. Kelley’s work draws the contested political topic into an atypical, yet approachable space: the dinner table.

Kelley’s project facilitates dialogue between immigrant families and evangelical church members over a shared meal. His goal is to explore the various ways in which immigration has come to be represented, and to assess how different sources of information—such as fact sheets, biblical narratives, and personal storytelling—affects church members’ views.

The project is especially concerned with understanding the role that religion plays in these attitudes. Because there are strong admonitions to care for the immigrant and the stranger in biblical texts, the pilot project focuses on evangelical Christian communities.

“There is much in the scholarly literature that suggests that using concepts of dialogue and narrative transforms intergroup differences and helps to manage conflict,” says Kelley.

The project is designed to test this hypothesis, looking especially at how a shared meal creates opportunities to experience different types of storytelling to see which type is most effective in reducing conflict.

Chronicling Democracy in the Middle East

Anand Gopal—a journalist, sociologist, and another recipient of a seed grant this year—is similar to Kelley. Gopal, too, seeks to utilize the power of collective experiences as he pilots a unique approach to understanding a critical issue in our world today: the yearning for democracy  in the Middle East. The proposed medium by which Gopal aims to explore such issues is perhaps, like Kelley, rather unexpected.

Gopal’s project begins with an amassed collection of over 1,500 newspapers by which he hopes to document examples of democratic self-rule prior to and during the Syrian civil war. Amid fierce conflict, local newspapers from rebel territories represent the most complete, real-time record of Syria’s experience with self-governance, according to Gopal.

The initiative has worked to collect, digitize, and catalog the newspapers, creating an archive that can serve as a major new source of data for scholars, policymakers, and peacebuilders. It will ensure that key actors are not written out of history while reminding Syrians and the rest of the world that peace and democracy were briefly achieved in Syria and could be achieved again in the future.

Identity Politics and the Refugee Crisis in Europe

Imagination, when mobilized, can serve as the foundation for new social movements—for good or ill—a phenomenon that political scientists and seed grant recipients Lenka Bustikova and David Siroky seek to further understand. Their research initiative also considers the implications of conflicts in the Middle East, but through a different lens: they seek to understand how public perceptions of refugees fleeing the Middle East to Europe have come to be shaped.

“The migrant wave in 2016 transformed European politics,” Siroky says, “but one dimension not readily considered is how the influx of refugees contributes to the rise of populism and illiberalism in the Balkan states.”

Through their project, Bustikova and Siroky explore the subsequent impact that the refugee crisis has had on Central and Eastern Europe, with particular attention to understanding the ideological foundations of political polarization.

“Our project will look at two countries: the Czech Republic and Hungary. Both have recently experienced a boom in populist politics due to the migration crisis,...but when they were faced with a similar scenario in the past, they have historically responded differently,” says Bustikova.

“In the 1990s, both countries experienced significant migration of Bosnian Muslims as a result of Yugoslavia’s collapse, but this did not lead to political contestation.

“The interesting thing about this case is that Bosnian Muslims are ethnically Slavs and Europeans, whereas the current refugees are Muslims too, but not of a European origin. This presents us with an interesting puzzle,” according to Bustikova. “Is political polarization driven by ethnicity or religion?”

The long-term plan of the project is to investigate the role of political polarization in weakening democracies—does it precede it or accelerate the process? Similarly, this project hopes to further understand how the “othering” of a group may contribute to radicalization and the unraveling of liberalism internationally.

“While we are thrilled about the projects we were able to fund this year, we know that this is only the beginning,” Carlson notes. “The Center works with faculty over long periods of time to help bring these projects to fruition.”

Since its inception, the Center has awarded over $240,000 in seed grant funding, which has directly generated nearly $8 million in externally funded grants. But more significantly, the program has helped advance basic and applied research about the dynamics of religion, conflict, and peace in the contemporary world.