Reflecting on my international relations research journey

By Peter Odhiambo

The decision to pursue an MA in International Relations (IR) stemmed from my interest to expand my perspective on the international system beyond my background in security operations. Over the course of the two-and-a-half-year program starting from June 2021 to August 2023, I found that every moment invested was profoundly rewarding.

The program at the United States University- Africa (USIU) begins by providing students with a solid grounding in the foundations of International Relations. This foundational phase encompasses key theories, legal principles, and the essentials of political science. Building upon this initial knowledge base, the program then accelerates its pace, delving deeper into the core aspects of International Relations, with a specific emphasis on the significant events and developments that shape our contemporary global landscape.

Within this program, the coursework is designed to be engaging and diverse, offering students a multifaceted learning experience. This approach includes a wide range of stimulating assignments, such as weekly seminar papers, presentations, and collaborative group projects. Through these various modes of instruction, students are exposed to different facets of International Relations, ensuring that they gain a comprehensive understanding of this dynamic field, improve on writing skill and research. The peak of this academic journey was undoubtedly when I finished my thesis, which summarized all the knowledge and skills I had acquired throughout the Masters in International Relations program in the USIU-A.

I collaborated with my supportive supervisor, Dr. Nicodemus Minde, to select a thesis topic that aligns to my research interests in international and national security issues. His guidance played a crucial role in shaping my research direction. Under his mentorship, I had come to appreciate the importance of soft power factors in shaping the international system. Initially, I had considered possibility of researching about diplomacy of the airspace focusing on the freedoms of air transport, or how Kenya’s minority community identifies with national symbols. These topics both recognize the pivotal role of institutional actors in diplomacy and domestic actors in nationalism, respectively, in the context of statecraft. After deliberations and brainstorming, we settled on the topic of ‘Negotiating Identity and Belonging among Kenyan Somalis: The Role of Kenyan-Somali Business Elites in Nairobi.’ This choice was underpinned by several factors. One was its relevance to the field of International Relations, the second was the feasibility of conducting fieldwork, and thirdly, the potential to have deeper exploration on civic actor perspectives in security matters.

The study had several highlights, including its focus on identity and nationalism as critical factors in conflicts within modern post-colonial states. This perspective holds particular relevance in today’s African states, both in internal and external politics.

The selection of this topic and theoretical framework facilitated the approach to my five-chapter thesis. The proposal phase, which encompassed the first three chapters, was conducted between January 2023 and March 2023. Guided by my supervisor, I formulated the thesis around three central research questions, which laid the foundation for the first chapter. This section served as the platform upon which the subsequent chapters were constructed which included introducing readers to the study. The extensive use of grey and printed literature during this phase expanded my knowledge and directed me towards the right path for the literature review. The literature review itself was structured thematically, highlighting key events and timelines, providing valuable insights into the relational dynamics between the Kenyan state and the Kenyan-Somalis.

Chapter three adopted a qualitative approach, aligning with the interpretivist philosophy that was well-suited for a study grounded in social construction theories. The defense of the proposal marked a significant milestone in this phase, where I argued my case and received approval to proceed with fieldwork, albeit with some adjustments.

The fieldwork phase was particularly engaging. I conducted interviews in Eastleigh – my research site in the months of June and July 2023. To establish trust and rapport with the participants, I enlisted the assistance of a Kenyan-Somali research assistant. This proved invaluable as it helped alleviate any distrust that participants may have had towards the study and me, a non-Somali as the researcher. The data collected during this phase was methodically analyzed and presented in the fourth chapter. The findings were not only gratifying but also validated the research questions, assumptions, and my own curiosity about viewing IR through a different lens after over a decade of security perspective. The culmination of the research was the defense, which proceeded as planned and was aided by the guidance of my supervisor.

Throughout this journey, the unwavering support of my supervisor, along with insights from readers and other professors on the defense panel, enriched my understanding of the topic and expanded the scope of my study. This research has become dear to me, as it has allowed me to interpret Kenya’s path towards civic nationalism, and its oscillation between civic and ethno nationalism from a standpoint of knowledge and scholarship.

Through my study journey, I appreciated more the current focus of research which centers on softer approaches to achieving national security, especially the understanding the pivotal roles of nationalism and identity. A considerable number of research on these topics agree that softer approaches are preferred over substantial investments in security hardware, which comes with drawbacks in terms of both human lives and resources. As this issue is important for stability of both local and global communities, I hope to contribute to open dialogues on this topic in the contexts of research and my involvement in aviation and security operations. 




Peter Odhiambo is a seasoned security and aviation expert, boasting 17 years of experience in these fields within the East African region.