Sometimes you come across people that permanently change the way you think. About life, yourself, or an area of study. They instill a sense of resolute optimism about the world and your abilities. Bear Braumoeller was that person for us. Wise, accomplished, brilliant, humble, and kind. Anyone who can be remembered that way lived life well. Bear is one of those people. He was our professor, mentor, colleague, and friend. We were richer for knowing him, and are poorer for his passing.
We first got the chance to meet Bear during our recruitment process to Ohio State. We gravitated toward him and his research. Bear went out of his way to bring in the best and brightest graduate students to the program, and was absolutely relentless in his efforts. He took phone calls from us, discussed all of our options, and went out of his way to procure funds and opportunities for every student. Bear was known to showcase some of the best places to eat in Columbus, too. We all got along with Bear immediately, and he became a powerful force in our proverbial corner, helping us navigate and thrive in graduate school.
We’ve been fortunate to have terrific professors, but Bear was an unusually good professor. In graduate seminars, we were exposed to a wide breadth of topics in political and social science. The breadth that Bear introduced in his courses was unique for a political science class. Most importantly, he taught us how to read books and articles critically and constructively. Graduate students are often great at tearing apart a piece of scholarship. And that’s important. But published works are generally published for a reason, he reminded us, and so it’s equally important to identify their strengths in addition to their weaknesses. That approach cultivated humility (there are always tradeoffs in research) but was also encouraging. If graduate students think pieces published by top scholars in good journals are bad because we only focus on their downsides, how could we possibly do good work?
Bear’s take on the literature and the discipline was just like his research interests: complex, rich, and nuanced. He loved what he studied, and his knowledge in these areas often seemed encyclopedic. He would recommend a citation and quote on a whim, from memory. He always asked big, important questions, and he did his best to answer them. His two books, The Great Powers and the International System and Only the Dead, address two important questions in international politics: how leaders and historical circumstances jointly shape major historical outcomes, and whether war is declining. He was methodologically sophisticated, but for him it was about getting closer to the truth. He truly didn’t care what method you used if it fit the question. He had a great academic pedigree (University of Chicago, University of Michigan) but he wasn’t elitist. He wanted to hear from smart people, and he believed in demystifying the academy, making it accessible.
Bear was a formal advisor, but also a tremendous mentor to us. He helped guide many important decisions in graduate school, from the type of training we needed, our choice of dissertation topics, to the construction of our committees. Bear’s was ready to provide feedback on any idea or draft, regardless of its stage of development. He was also kind when he didn’t have to be, and when no one would praise him for it publicly. It’s just who he was. His feedback was always constructive and intended to enable better work. When we made mistakes he would correct us – firmly, gently, and privately.
Bear created the MESO (Modeling Emergent Social Order) Lab, which has been supported by NSF and the Carnegie Corporation of New York. It didn’t start as a lab, though. The first day some of us gathered in the conference room, it was just a group of people who Bear thought might be interested in an idea he had. We talked it over – a question about the relationship between hierarchical order and war – and decided it was interesting enough to pursue. One of the first things we did was to gather on a Thursday and just start working, the whole day, with no distractions, putting ideas on paper and into code. He would call them Hackathons, reminiscent of a Silicon Valley start-up. These early days made a huge impact on Bear. Numerous times after that, in presentations or conversations about what we were doing, he would mention that he had never before felt as productive as he did in those early research sessions. He realized that this was it, this was the way forward for him. This was not merely working on a project. This represented a change in how he was going to do research, in how he approached being a professor and working with graduate students.
International Relations is not known for collaborative research. The vast majority of major work in the field has a single author, more rarely two, and very rarely more than two authors. Some of us had co-authored with Bear before, but this was different. Whereas previous partnerships were more traditional co-authored research projects in which each author did their part, this was something bigger. Bear had a vision beyond group publications. He wanted us to grow into scholars who would think big, who wouldn’t be afraid to tackle questions that might seem intimidatingly broad, and who would pull the right minds together to tackle those problems. Our first project was “Hierarchy and War”, which addresses two of the biggest topics in the discipline. We were meant to say something new about both – and the relationship between them – in a single paper. The ambition was daunting, but that was Bear’s way: take big, important questions and swing as hard as you could at answering them.
As membership in the MESO Lab grew and expanded, Bear expanded the lab’s projects as well. As always, all projects are led by us, the students. Bear gave us remarkable autonomy and control over these projects: despite our status as graduate students, we had the final say over theoretical framing, modeling decisions, and data analysis. He gave us room to explore different paths, even if it meant delaying the progress of the project. In addition to developing us as scholars, he helped us develop as people. Bear understood that a good life outside of work with food, travel, and family, was of equal importance to doing great work. He expected high quality work from us, but the lab never became a source of stress or frustration. Being in the MESO Lab has been one of the greatest blessings from being Bear’s students. Just as a system is not equal to the sum of its parts, our lab produces scholarship that is more creative and fruitful than what we could individually create.
The loss of Bear leaves a gaping hole, not only in our lab but in our profession more broadly. People around the world have so beautifully expressed their appreciation and admiration for Bear, with an outpouring of tributes and memories. As is so often the case with grieving, those left behind expressed a desire for one more conversation, one more snarky comment, one more belly laugh, one more smile. His presence and reputation were felt with the same gravity and strength across the discipline. So many people felt as strongly and warmly about Bear as we did.
It is impossible to properly account for all the things Bear taught us. He taught us to be ambitious in our research. He taught us to be fearless when exploring and implementing new ideas. He taught us to be gentle and kind, with others and ourselves. His ideas and influence are all over our projects and dissertations. We will do our best to carry forward that work and legacy.
Rest in peace, Bear. It was a privilege and honor to have known you as a leader, mentor, and friend. Your memory is a blessing and you are missed.
About the authors
Maryum Alam, Andrew Goodhart, Michael Lopate, Haoming Xiong, and Liuya Zhang are political science Ph.D. candidates at The Ohio State University. Maël van Beek is an incoming postdoctoral research associate at Princeton University. David Peterson is an incoming post-doctoral fellow at the University of Michigan. Jared Edgerton is an Assistant Professor of political science at the University of Texas, Dallas.
Please consider donating to support Bear’s daughter, Molly Braumoeller.