Posted on 07 February 2020
What could an ex-physicist, a sovietologist and a mountain climber have in common? They all are Professor Jeffrey Checkel
, who recently took up the Chair in International Politics in the EUI's Department of Political and Social Sciences.
Professor Jeff Checkel in his office at Villa Sanfelice.
Born in Delaware, Jeffrey Checkel started his academic life as a physics student at Cornell University, with an interest in researching theoretical physics. After coming to terms with a certain incompatibility with the field, he turned to experimental physics, working at Cornell University’s particle accelerator laboratory, which he called a ‘much smaller version of CERN’.
Years later, he still sounds unimpressed by his first venture in research. ‘Basically, it’s like playing with Lego, except it’s made out of lead’. He is referring to the lead used to protect researchers from X-rays, as they ‘accelerate beams, [that] crash into each other and make all kind of particles’.
It was chance that led him to Political Science, at a time in which Gorbachev’s Soviet Union and Reagan’s United States were butting heads. ‘I started hanging out at the Peace Studies programme [at Cornell University], which had a lot of interesting seminars on the Cold War’.
His interest caught the eye of the Peace Studies programme director, who suggested Checkel apply for a Ph.D. in Political Science at MIT, which was on the lookout for scholars with a strong technical background.
In 1991 Professor Checkel completed his Ph.D from MIT, becoming a sovietologist. ‘It was a big mistake, as the timing was poor,’ he says. Roughly eight months later the Soviet Union collapsed. His specialisations now sounded painfully obsolete.
‘I had a midlife career crisis much earlier’ he explains.
Professor Checkel now researches European identity, which led him to the EUI. ‘My work here is looking at how identity is formed and what role institutions such as the EU play, or can play, in shaping peoples’ sense of who we are’. The supranational nature of the European Union poses its own challenges in creating a unified identity, as the EU cannot rely on tools such as education to shape citizens’ sense of belonging. Education, Checkel explains, is widely regarded as one of the most effective socialisation tools, but member states have jealously guarded their hold on educational policies. After all, education gets painfully close to ‘who we are as a nation’ he concludes.
His research has tracked the waxing and waning of European identity throughout the continent, at a time in which national sentiments are on the rise.
Checkel's analysis goes beyond his training as a political scientist. ‘I am coming back with a new theoretical and methodological tool kit, at least in part from social anthropology’ he says, discussing the use of ethnographic techniques to observe the formation of European identities. He says venturing outside of his academic specialty means he gets ‘thrashed by real anthropologists’ but is ‘very intellectually exciting’.
With the UK now in its first week post-Brexit, Checkel’s research on European identity could not come at a better time.
When he is not working on decodifying the weakening and strengthening of national identities, Checkel can be found climbing in the Swiss Alps.