Q&A with Zachariah C. Mampilly

Zachariah Cherian Mampilly, a Member in the School of Social Science, studies violent and non-violent movements for political transformation, focusing on Africa and South Asia. Previously his work has focused on governance by armed groups and the rise of popular protest movements in Africa and beyond.

He is currently the Marxe Endowed Chair of International Affairs at the Marxe School of Public and International Affairs at Baruch College as well as an affiliated faculty member in the Department of Political Science at the Graduate Center, CUNY. He is the Co-Founder of the Program on African Social ResearchThis Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

How do you describe your work to friends and family?

I study violent and non-violent movements, both revolutionary and reformist, with a focus on Africa and South Asia.

As an academic, it is always memorable when you get the chance to engage directly with movements that you study. It was an important reminder that while writing can feel like an abstract exercise, for the communities we write about, it is very real.

What question(s) within your field do you most want to answer and why?

How does the shifting nature of the global political economy impact local struggles over basic rights, inequality, and climate change? Are there alternatives to global capitalism emerging from the countries of the Global South or within marginalized communities in the Global North and what kinds of futures are they imagining?

Who or what has had an outsized influence on you in your academic career?

I grew up between pre-liberalization India and the American Midwest as a minority in both countries. Having been able to see and experience such diverse environments at a formative age always made me feel both out of place and at home everywhere and continues to influence how I approach my work today.

What is one of your most memorable moments as an academic?

I had the opportunity to participate in the Popular University for the Education of Citizens organized by the Afrikki Network of Social Movements in Dakar, Senegal in 2018. As an academic, it is always memorable when you get the chance to engage directly with movements that you study. It was an important reminder that while writing can feel like an abstract exercise, for the communities we write about, it is very real.

Why IAS?

My work is historically informed but deeply concerned with the present. As such, I’ve always been drawn to scholarship produced outside of my disciplinary home of political science. I was drawn to IAS so I can immerse myself in an environment where I can engage with scholars from different disciplines and methodological orientations as I work on my book project.

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Zachariah C. Mampilly
Mural on the side of the road in Juba, South Sudan, critiquing government repression, 2017

How might the reopening of campus (and society at large) influence you and your work?

The pandemic pushed me away from my preferred method of immersive fieldwork. Without the ability to spend time among the communities I write about, I’ve spent my time thinking about larger, more structural forces and how they shape local politics. I’m hoping to draw more of these connections between the local and global in my future work now that I may be able to travel again.

How can we make academia more inclusive?

The social sciences remain dominated by scholarship emanating from the Global North. Too many of us based in such places assume that this reflects the strength of our work rather than a structural reality that privileges the insights of the already privileged. A more inclusive academy must recognize that every society is always engaged in a constant interrogation of its own culture and politics that deserves attention and respect rather than hoisting our frameworks and analysis on others. Until we in the Global North recognize this basic truth, we will continue to replicate the colonial and capitalist logics that continue to exclude knowledge production emanating from sites beyond our zones of comfort. 

Where is your favorite place to think?

I love walking around the Bronx, where I live. The streets are teeming with people from all over the world as well as offering lots of green space when I need to get away from the beautiful noise.

What other activities or pastimes do you enjoy?

Live music, nature, and renovating the 110-year-old house I’ve lived in for the past six years.