Skip to content ↓

Joseph Torigian: Using historical analysis to crack the code of authority in closed societies

Press Inquiries

Press Contact:

Emily Hiestand
Phone: 617-324-2043
Office of the Dean, School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences
A Cold-War document reads, "General Political Department: Notification to Print and Distribute 'Directive Regarding the Political Work of the Military Martial Law Mission' #3 — May 23, 1989."
A Cold-War document reads, "General Political Department: Notification to Print and Distribute 'Directive Regarding the Political Work of the Military Martial Law Mission' #3 — May 23, 1989."

Joseph Torigian’s political science research isn’t easy to pigeonhole, which makes it a good fit for MIT. The doctoral candidate studies how the military affects political development in communist countries. His aim is to understand the nature of authority in those regimes.

Torigian’s work spans three areas of political science: security studies, area studies, and historical institutionalism. Though he is carving a unique place for himself within the field, Torigian is, in a sense, a throwback. In recent years the discipline has come to rely more heavily on quantitative methods like multivariate regression. Torigian, in contrast, uses deep historical analysis; his doctoral research is based on a rich trove of communist-era documents he uncovered in China and Russia.

So how did an old-school, historically focused political scientist choose to pursue his doctorate at MIT? Torigian was drawn to MIT's Department of Political Science by the security studies program, particularly the work of professors Richard Samuels, Taylor Fravel, and Barry Posen. Security studies at MIT has a qualitative nature and continues to embrace historical analysis, says Torigian. He was also attracted to the work of Professor Kathleen Thelen, who has been a leader in better conceptualizing the nature of institutional change, he says.

Torigian has derived much of his methodology from Thelen and has learned a lot about the nature of civil-military relations from the security studies program. "Putting those two together has been a very productive marriage, and it's not something that you could do just anywhere," he says. "It's one of the very few places that I could get away with a project like this one.”

Torigian’s research boils down to finding gaps between what was written about events in China and the Soviet Union during the Cold War and what he’s discovering in the Chinese and Russian archives. Torigian is fluent in Chinese and Russian, which has made it easier to collaborate with — and gain the confidence of — Chinese and Russian historians, who have helped him navigate the archives.

The principal lesson he’s learned from his research is that legacies of violence are extremely important for understanding the evolution of authority in China and the Soviet Union. For example, after the deaths of Stalin and Mao, leaders with strong ties to the military were able to break the grip of the secret police in the Soviet Union and the Gang of Four in China. In particular, Deng Xiaoping’s rise to power owes more to his close relationship with to People’s Liberation Army, which was fostered by his role in the wars against the Nationalists and the Japanese, than to his platform of reform.

By conceptualizing the nature of authority in communist regimes, Torigian is contributing to political scientists’ understanding of contemporary authoritarian regimes. This is a pressing issue, given the instability in the Middle East and the colored revolutions around the world. “The critical question is who the Army decides to support and why,” he said.

Torigian is a visiting scholar at George Washington University while he completes his doctorate. He was a Fulbright Scholar at Fudan University in Shanghai and had a stint at the Council on Foreign Relations. Torigian will be on the market for an academic position this fall.

Torigian’s next project involves North Korea. During his last trip to Moscow, Torigian discovered a cache of documents about a moment in 1956 when the Chinese and Soviets tried to keep Kim Il-sung from marginalizing those in the North Korean government who were aligned with the Chinese and the Soviet Union. Torigian is working with James Person of the North Korea International Documentation Project at the Wilson Center to determine what led Kim Il-sung to develop a patrilineal personality cult that heavily favored the military.

Related Links

Related Topics

Related Articles

More MIT News