In Memoriam: Joel Barkan

Joel Barkan tragically passed away on 10 January 2014.  He was on a family vacation in Mexico City with his wife Sandra, son and daughter-in-law, where he suffered a pulmonary embolism. 

Joel was one of the leading scholars of African politics.  He was the author of five books, including Beyond Capitalism Versus Socialism in Kenya and Tanzania (1995) and most recently Legislative Power in Emerging African Democracies (2009), and contributed pieces to many of the discipline’s leading journals such as the American Political Science Review (1987, 1976), World Politics (1989), Democratization, (2000), Foreign Affairs (2004, 1998), Journal of Democracy (2012, 2008, 1998, 1995, 1993) and Journal of Modern African Studies (1991, 1989).

Joel’s scholarship linked the first generation of American scholars who applied the new methods of political science to the systematic study of Africa’s newly independent states, like his mentor Joseph Coleman, and the most recent cohort of Africanists who regularly use survey and experimental research.  Joel was one of the very first scholars to carry out a representative survey of African citizens (as well as of local elites and members of parliament), in his seminal analysis of the role Kenyan MPs played in linking rural, peripheral communities to the political centre (published with Chong Lim Kim, Ilter Turan and Malcolm  Jewell as The Legislative Connection: The Politics of Representation in Kenya, Korea and Turkey).  At the time of his death, he was working with us to complete the African Legislatures Project, a comparative study of 17 African legislatures that used direct observation, key informant interviews, and mass and elite surveys.  This project represented the culmination of his life’s work. 

After receiving his PhD from UCLA in 1970, Joel taught for three years at the University of California, Irvine and then for 24 years at the University of Iowa.  Following his 2005 retirement from Iowa, he was Adjunct Professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, Visiting Lecturer at the Woodrow Wilson Center at Princeton University, and at the time of his passing was Senior Associate at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.  During his distinguished career, he was a Fulbright Scholar and established important relationships with university-based scholars at Makerere (Uganda), Dar Es Salaam (Tanzania), Nairobi (Kenya) and Cape Town (South Africa).  He was also awarded fellowships at the National Endowment for Democracy, US Institute of Peace, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (New Delhi), Centre d’Etudes et de Recherches Internationales (Paris), and the Centre for Social Science Research at the University of Cape Town.

Joel loved to step out of the academic world into the world of policy.  As the preeminent American authority on Kenyan politics, and a leading scholar of Africa, his advice was sought by government officials and elected representatives on both sides of the Atlantic.  He worked in Nairobi from 1992 to 1994 as the first regional democracy advisor for the US Agency for International Development’s Eastern and Southern Africa program and regularly briefed American Ambassadors to Kenya.  He consulted for the US State Department, USAID, World Bank, UK Department for International Development, National Democratic Institute, and the United Nations Development Program. 

After his retirement from Iowa, Joel moved to Washington DC, where he lived a life that was the envy of many of his colleagues.  Freed of teaching, faculty meetings and committees, Joel’s typical day began with email exchanges or skype conversations with students and colleagues in Africa, followed by a trip downtown to a briefing or seminar at a think-tank, and then back home in the afternoon to work on an article, chapter, or consulting project.  Early evening would sometimes find him back downtown to appear on Al Jazeera, BBC, CBC, CBS, CNN, France24, NPR, PBS or VOA.  He was frequently invited to testify in Congress, and last year joined a team of scholars to brief Secretary of State Hillary Clinton ahead of her trip to Africa.

Joel is widely remembered by his students and peers as generous with his time and advice, and always a source of lively and thought provoking conversation and debate.  Many fondly recall stimulating dinners at his Washington home off of Rock Creek Park with Joel and his wife Sandy, whom he met in a freshmen year political science course at Cornell University.

For the two of us, Joel was a colleague, mentor and friend.  The three of us were usually busy working on our comparative legislatures project whenever we got together in Cape Town, with Joel prodding us to finish the book manuscript.  But he was also the first one to suggest that we take a break from our work and enjoy South African wine and jazz, which he loved.

We will miss him deeply.

Robert Mattes
University of Cape Town

Shaheen Mozaffar
Bridgewater State University