Christian Davenport: Scholar and Artist

Headshot of Christian Davenport

Christian Davenport. Photo by courtesy.

Before you read any further, imagine the fingers of both your hands entwined. Now juxtapose this against two fists being up against one another. This is political science professor Christian Davenport’s personal definition of peace. Davenport is a faculty associate at the Institute for Social Research’s Center for Political Studies (CPS), and counts “trying to put political serial killers out of business” as one of the biggest rewards of his job.

The native New Yorker first knew he wanted to study peace and conflict in the early 80s when he was in his sophomore year at Clark University. “I got an A on an exam, and a bunch of other grades that were not As, on a host of other topics,” Davenport recalls. He went on to earn his M.A. and doctorate from Binghamton University, and today his primary research interests include the conception, causes and after-effects of political conflict such as human rights violations, genocide & politicide (the killing of a particular group because of its political or ideological beliefs), torture, political surveillance, civil war, and social movements.

Book Cover of The Peace ContinuumTo say that Davenport’s achievements are ample would be an understatement – he’s authored many papers and several books. His most recent book, The Peace Continuum: What It Is and How to Study It, was published by Oxford University Press earlier this year. and 2018 has been a busy year for Davenport. He earned another feather in his cap when he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences for his prolific work and contribution to his field. Grateful for such an honor, Davenport recounts that his initial reaction was shock. “I actually confused them with the American Association for the Advancement of Science for about a day,” he says. “I had to google the name, and then I remembered who they were. I had forgotten that I had been nominated years ago.”

It’s easy to forgive Davenport for forgetting such a detail as he has many irons in the fire (his rather charming and diplomatic “Email Rules of Engagement” found under his email signature politely gives fair warning that he receives 100-145 pieces of online correspondence a day). One of Davenport’s primary commitments is leading the Costs of Contention research project. The enterprise is funded by The Research Council of Norway to assess what impact various forms of conflict (such as genocide, human rights violations, terrorism, counter-terrorism, revolution, and counter-revolution) has on politics and economics (think mass participation, economic development, and foreign direct investment). “People either study one form of contention or one type of cost. To get a true accounting we need to consider both – broadly,” Davenport says.

He also co-directs the Conflict & Peace, Research & Development group in CPS. Members share a deep care and concern for peace and political conflict. They employ rigorous, evidence-based research in their mission to address knowledge gaps in these areas. “It is among the best political conflict, violence and peace groups in the United States with amazing faculty and grad students,” Davenport says. “We meet professionally once a week to discuss research, and socially about once a month to forget what we normally do by bowling or playing a board game,” he adds.

It’s not too surprising that Davenport would enjoy occasionally unwinding with a good board game, as he himself is the creator of several that center around various themes of his work. Indeed, he has given considerable thought to what scholars can do to express themselves outside of a hard analytical and academic context. He writes about this in the art section of his personal website: “I began to think that writing academic work was only one way to try raise awareness of conflict, violence, survival and struggles to improve the world.”

His musings in this area have led Davenport to begin giving artistic expression to one of the most moving experiences he’s had in the course of his career — in the form of a graphic novel. “They [graphic novels] are perhaps the best way to engage a wide and diverse audience,” he says. The event in question occurred 18 years ago, when he unexpectedly stepped into a room of frozen corpses in Rwanda. “I was there to see what had been done. A door was opened, and I was invited in. I didn’t know ahead of time what was there,” he recalls. The deeper impressions and emotional impact of his time in Rwanda is hard for him to fully express with just words, but his “in-the-works” graphic novel will be his attempt to shed light on his experiences within an artistic framework.

He points to Juliet Seignious, his mother and a fine artist, as the influence on his artistic leanings, and he surmises that perhaps his attraction to artistic expression was inevitable because of her. The power of his mother’s influence was evident when he got snowbound during a visit with her. “I decided to paint, and with some direction from her, I came up with some interesting stuff.” He attempted to explore the interaction between protesters and police as an emotion, using color and the movements of a palette knife. Davenport recalls that, without his knowledge, Seignious submitted his work. That was how, surprisingly, that early painting was featured in a gallery show called Protest and Resistance: The Art of Revolution.

Davenport will also point you toward various artists of different mediums when he talks about what he wishes people knew about him. For instance, he wishes everyone on earth could read the works of Indian politician, economist and social reformer Bimrao Ramji Ambedkar. Why? Because, “Ambedkar is an amazing intellect who thought through a broad range of issues in a passionate, systematic and complex manner,” says Davenport. And who does he wish everyone on earth could hear? “Stevie Wonder,” he says. Because, he explains, “the album, Songs in the Key of Life, will change you.” Another bit of revealing insight: Davenport says that The Dictionary of Imaginary Places, a book that The Economist said “no self-respecting dreamer should be without,” also changed his life.

As it stands, Davenport is in the process of bringing a dream of his own into fruition in order to create change in others’ lives. “I’m writing a book to prompt a collective a-ha moment about the vulnerability of nation-states, and how much power we actually have as citizens,” he says. He stresses that people cannot be truly free until they understand how they are controlled and how much power they actually have. “Without this knowledge, they are simply slaves,” he stresses.

And speaking of being free, Davenport will unreservedly say that there is nothing free about his time, and that it is all accounted for. “As one of the few African Americans with a Ph.d. in America, and now with the honor of being a full professor at one of the most prestigious institutions on the planet, I have way too much justice to try to facilitate,” he says. Referring to a song from hip hop artists De La Soul, he adds, “stakes is high.”