Nargis Kassenova, Associate Professor, Department of International Relations and Regional Studies, Director of Central Asian Studies Center, KIMEP University
Please tell our readers about yourself – where are you from, your specialization, how long have you been involved in science/academia and how?
I was born and raised in Almaty. I was very lucky to have my formative period in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the country (first USSR, then newly independent Kazakhstan) was opening up both internally and to the outside world, when there was an amazing flow of information and ideas and a lot of enthusiasm. Opportunities seemed limitless and I had interests in various fields (from physics and math to history), so the choice was difficult and I had a windy path to what I am doing now – studying international relations/world politics.
How did you become interested in your current field? What was the inspiration and motivation behind it?
My biggest inspiration was my father who was an international relations scholar bordering on practitioner. He was the first director of the Kazakhstan Institute for Strategic Studies. I remember amazing dinner conversations that he had with our guests, prominent scholars and also policy makers. I couldn’t understand much but I could get the feeling of complexity, nuanced character and sometimes tragic or comic features of policy making. Initially as a normal teenager I wanted to do something different from what my parents were doing, however with time I was more and more drawn to studying politics.
Please tell us more about your professional journey: Do you remember the ups and downs of the process or during your graduate studies? Have you encountered any obstacles or prejudices on your way? Were there any other expectations of you (within your family or purely cultural)?
My graduate life was quite happy. I was very fortunate to receive a full scholarship from the Japanese Ministry of Education and Science and could pursue my degrees in comfort without any hurdles. I was also lucky with my academic advisors – Prof. Hisae Nakanishi and Prof. Yasutomo Morigiwa, who were incredibly supportive and generous. Morigiwa-sensei, as a professor of law, taught me to be very precise and ready to support with proof or argument every paragraph of my writing. It could take us a couple of hours to go through a page of my thesis sometimes. I try to pass that lesson to my students to the extent I can.
Was there a time when you had to balance/maneuver between family and work?
Of course, all the time. My children are small (six and three years old), so they need a lot of attention and care. It can be tough, but it also makes my life full and exciting. Without my supportive husband and my Mum who helps us a lot, I wouldn’t be able to keep this balance though.
As of now, what are you working on? Why is this project important to you? What is the most appealing aspect of your daily job?
My current research themes are EU-Central Asia relations, review of the EU strategy in the region, and Kazakhstan’s foreign policy with the emphasis on status-seeking. I am beginning a new project on religion and security in the post-Soviet space. There are some other project ideas in the pipe, but it is too early to say anything publicly. The most appealing aspect of my job is that I like doing it.
How would you describe the state of the field that you are working in – what are its major challenges and prospects, how do you hope it will develop in the next 10-20+ years?
My biggest problem with the field of political sciences is the dominance of quantitative methods that often create the illusion of solid scientific research. I also think there is a good amount of research that is largely irrelevant and scholastic, encouraged by the bureaucratised system of academic promotion.
What is your dream contribution to the field (your country or the world) that you hope to make in your lifetime?
Not ready to make my dreams public 🙂
Could you please share the names of the books and thinkers that impacted you the most?
That would be a very long list… Plato’s “Republic”, Niccolo Machiavelli’s “Discourses”, John Mill’s “On Liberty”, Carl Schmitt’s “Political Theology”, H.E. Carr’s “The Twenty Years Crisis”, Hedley Bull’s “The Anarchical Society: A Study of Order in World Politics”, Benedict Anderson’s “Imagined Communities”, Michael Mann’s writings on state power… I’ve just finished a great book by Ian Buruma titled “Taming the Gods” that I would highly recommend to those who are interested in the politics of religious revival in the world…
What would you advise or say to the women who are just embarking on their journey in academia/research? How can they succeed and what should they avoid?
The biggest challenge for women in academia is the family/work balance. It’s very important to have a partner who believes in you and is ready to share the burden together with the joys of family life. Be ambitious and enjoy the ride!