Fresh Faculty: Jonathan Obert
Issue   |   Tue, 12/02/2014 - 23:47

Assistant Professor of Political Science Jonathan Obert received his bachelor’s degree in history and social science from Wheaton College and his master’s degree in social science and doctorate in political science from the University of Chicago. His work focuses on violence and guns in American politics.

Q: What did you do before coming to Amherst?
A: I was a graduate student at the University of Chicago before coming to Amherst. Before that, I did a whole bunch of odd jobs: I worked at an outdoor education camp in Colorado, I worked for the Post Office, I was a teaching assistant at a primary school and I worked at a bookstore.

Q: Why did you decide to come to Amherst?
A: Amherst is a fantastic place to work — the setting, the students, the colleagues and everything is a major draw for any scholar. The Department of Political Science at the college is full of wonderful, creative thinkers, and I was very excited to have the opportunity to work with them. Moreover, Amherst’s commitment to both research and teaching is also really unique ... I am very deeply committed to a liberal arts education, including the chance to work with teachers and students from a variety of disciplines, and the ideals lying behind that approach are more clearly found here than almost anywhere else. The thing that really stuck out to me when I was deciding whether or not to accept the college’s offer, though, was the interaction I had with several students during my first visit to campus. The level of enthusiasm, curiosity, engagement and maturity they demonstrated was unlike anything I’d ever seen in undergraduates before. I could not wait to work with such a wonderful group of young people.

Q: What is your primary research area, and why do you find it interesting?
A: My work focuses mostly on violence and American politics. In particular, I am interested in a couple of things. First, I use a range of techniques, such as network analysis, archival research and other approaches, to explore how public and private actors organize violence — when and why, for instance, police forces were organized in American cities, or the causes and effects of vigilantism in U.S. political history. I have also written some work on the “social network” of gunfighters in the West, depicting them basically as an interconnected group of mercenaries, helping both businesses and the government manage various kinds of threats to property.
Second, I am really interested in the political and economic role of guns in the United States. The Pioneer Valley was one of the most important manufacturing centers for personal firearms in the United States for much of the 19th and 20th centuries, and I am very interested in doing some archival research to investigate the implications of the New England firearms market for local and national politics. I got interested in this work because I was fascinated by the issues surrounding the Second Amendment and the government’s responsibility to protect residents in the United States. On the one hand, Americans have a long common law tradition of relying on themselves and their local communities to protect their homes and their well being, but on the other hand, they have, at the same time, built one of the most powerful domestic security bureaucracies ever seen. Most of my research tries to explain this seeming contradiction.

Q: Can you tell me about the classes you are teaching right now?
A: Right now, I’m teaching two sections of Introduction to American Politics. The class is focused not only on learning about the core “national” political institutions like the presidency, Congress and so forth, but also on how patterns of social conflict and cooperation enable and constrain those institutions. We spend a lot of time reading about and discussing the role that power and ideology play in the U.S. civic life, for instance. We also talk about where those institutions come from and discuss how they have changed over time. I consider the boundaries between history and political science pretty ambiguous some times, and I like to put our discussion of contemporary politics in a deeper historical context.

Q: How does Amherst compare, as a community, to the other places where you have worked?
A: Well, I went to graduate school in Chicago, so Amherst is a real change of pace. Although I miss some of the restaurants and cultural activities of the “big city,” I grew up right outside of Boulder, Colorado, so the Pioneer Valley, with its beautiful hills, forests and trails, feels a lot like home already. In particular, I am enthusiastic about finally having the opportunity to do something fun in the winter that doesn’t involve holing up in the library!

Q: How do you hope to contribute to the Amherst community?
A: I am really looking forward to getting to know my colleagues at the other members of the Five College Consortium, as well as attending concerts and Amherst sporting events over the winter. In the longer term, I am very interested in putting together an interdisciplinary group in the Valley in order to discuss and think about the larger matter of guns and politics not just in the U.S., but elsewhere as well. This is a vitally important issue, and there are some wonderful folks to whom I plan on reaching out to build a local network of scholars. I also plan on finding some opportunities to work with local high school and junior high school students to help prepare them for college. My mother was a librarian in an elementary school, and she impressed upon me the value of viewing teaching not merely as a job, but as a calling, with a particular focus on helping those who might need it the most.

Q: What do you do in your spare time?
A: I love reading (of course), listening to jazz and podcasts, driving, hiking easy to moderately difficult trails and spending time with my family.

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