UC Berkeley News


John Lie: thinking globally, researching competitively
The dean of International and Area Studies explores new ways to bring the world to Berkeley and get Berkeley out in the world

| 08 February 2006

John Lie jokingly calls his program "kind of the rubbish can of anything international at Berkeley." The reference is not to the quality of work done under the auspices of International and Area Studies, but to the sheer volume and variety of its academic output.

John Lie

From his office in Stephens Hall, Lie, a South Korean-born sociologist who became dean of IAS in July 2004, oversees a rich jumble of globally oriented research and teaching, along with services including student-exchange programs and International House. Area studies, he explains, "basically cover the whole world," from Canada and Latin America to Africa, east Asia, and the Middle East. Add to that 10 teaching programs offering interdisciplinary degrees at all levels of study - about 500 Berkeley undergraduates are enrolled as majors, with roughly one-tenth as many students earning credit toward advanced degrees - and it's easy to see why Lie views IAS as "sort of a hodgepodge."

Since taking over the reins at IAS, however, Lie has been actively working to impose a sense of order on this thriving, but unruly, academic enterprise. Two new initiatives, centered on China and India, have been in place for a year or so. Three others - organized around such increasingly crucial global concerns as science and technology, religion and politics, and human rights - are priorities for the year ahead.

Both the China and India initiatives, Lie says, aim not only to facilitate the study of these two major economic and political powers but to enable Berkeley to keep pace with its own competitors in Cambridge, Mass., and Palo Alto.

"Berkeley has traditionally been one of the intellectual powerhouses in China studies," he explains. "But it turns out that places like Harvard and Stanford are investing very heavily in recruiting Chinese-studies faculty and attracting Chinese students. So these initiatives have been designed to counter some of the threats from our rivals, and to make sure that Berkeley remains the premier institution for research and teaching in Chinese studies."

China was off-limits to Western researchers for many years, notes Lie. Now, though, Chinese scholars, "many of them trained in North America and outside of China," have become more integrated into the global research community, and U.S. scholars need to take a fresh look at research in, and on, modern-day China.

Like its counterpart for India, the Berkeley-China initiative is intended both to promote opportunities for student exchanges and to attract leading scholars to the Berkeley campus. Equally important, however, is "trying to think about what it means to do research in China in the 21st century."

"You can't be a top program by standing still," says Lie. "You have to keep running pretty hard."

The same philosophy drives Lie's three other fledgling programs as well. Each attempts to provide a focus, both physical and intellectual, for the campus's diverse energies, and to plant the seeds of interdisciplinary cross-fertilization in international studies.

A self-described "generalist," Lie says a new Science, Technology, and Society Center will be "a research and training ground" for scholars from a number of interrelated fields. Berkeley has "a really strong history in these areas," he adds. "But in this day and age, science and technology penetrate every sphere of social life - if you look at stem cells, for example, it's not just pure science that we need to understand, but also the ethical, legal, and commercial ramifications of stem-cell research.

"It's one of those areas where departments can't really devote too many resources because, obviously, engineers and scientists are busy doing engineering and science. And while they may be aware that we need to understand the social context of innovation, or the legal structure of reproductive medicine - yes, the scientists or sociologists or economists may be interested, but their departments don't often focus on these fields. So they're kind of lost in the middle."

Similarly, IAS's new human-rights initiative addresses an area in which Berkeley scholars are already active. "It turns out, again, that on campus there are six or seven programs or initiatives on human rights," Lie observes, from Boalt Hall to the College of Letters and Science. "The idea is to bring people together, try to beef up our research and teaching in human rights, and possibly to think about ways to create minors for an M.A. program in human rights," which he calls "one of those growth areas" in the NGO labor market.

A new IAS program on religion, politics, and globalization, by contrast, focuses on a field largely overlooked by Berkeley's secular scholars, who, Lie observes, "have kind of ceded it" to such institutions as the Graduate Theological Union.

"We cannot afford any longer not to study these phenomena, because they've been so central to our understanding of the world," he says. "And what's more, religion has exploded beyond national boundaries, most obviously in terms of radical Islam, but also in terms of Christianity. And it provides a way to rethink the past as well - the spread of world religions, the pervasive impact that religious institutions and ideologies have had on social and political arrangements."

From Sino-American relations to stem-cell research, Lie is working to make IAS "a center for research where scholars can get together," and where they can find help with funding for colloquium series and conferences, secure staff assistance in applying for grants, and take advantage of what he terms "sort of an intellectual infrastructure for them to realize their vision."

"What's remarkable is that Berkeley is such a large institution, and so internally complex," he says. "In China studies, for example, it turns out that there are over 70 scholars here on campus who have a serious academic or research interest in China, and it's really striking how many of them actually didn't know these other people existed."

It's not unusual, he adds, for scholars to be introduced to one another at international conferences, where they're told, "Meet your colleague from Berkeley."

If Lie has his way, that will be an increasingly rare experience.