Richard Locke’s research has taken him all over the world, from Italy and Germany to Brazil and several Asian countries, and has taken several forms. But one thread that has tied all of his work together is his desire to affect social change.
His interest in the topic began at a young age, when he began researching working conditions after seeing a picket line of farm workers outside his local Brookline, Mass., grocery store.
“I began to realize that there are many people working long hours for low wages and under terrible conditions and I thought that something should be done about it. Since then, issues of labor justice are always at the back of my mind,” Locke said.
Locke added another layer to his self-education when, as a teenager, he took an interest in the Italian Communist Party (PCI) that governed Tuscany, where his family would summer. Asking his Italian friends why they supported a party that he had been taught was fundamentally anti-American, Locke said he soon came to realize that politics were much more complex than he had thought as a child and that the PCI was an agent of both social justice and economic prosperity in central Italy during those years.
Locke went on to Wesleyan University and after a short stint as a pre-med shifted his focus to history, literature, and political science. Locke studied briefly as a visiting student at the Universita Degli Studi di Milano before earning his M.A. in education at the University of Chicago and a Ph.D. in political science from Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
It was in his later education, inspired in part by his childhood summers in Italy, that he turned his attention to the European country and what would become his first major research project. At the time, Italy was seen as the black sheep of Europe, a country riddled with crime, corruption, weak governments, and an unstable economy. But digging into its economic data, Locke found some surprising information.
“In terms of labor productivity, exports, net growth of new enterprises, Italy was actually doing better than some of its supposedly more stable neighbors. So I became very fascinated,” Locke said.
Locke spent two years in Italy, funded by a Fulbright fellowship and a Social Science Research Council grant, studying the economy and three of its major industries — textiles and apparel, autos, and petrochemicals — to figure out the secret of its success.
“I came up with an argument in that early work that you shouldn’t really understand economies as coherent systems, but rather as agglomerations of distinct local or regional economies with their own logics. Italy's economy was more like a patchwork quilt as opposed to a coherent system. I also found that these local economies were very much shaped by the local social and political environment in which they are embedded,” Locke said.
Locke eventually turned that work into a book, Remaking the Italian Economy (Cornell University Press, 1995).
Locke began teaching at MIT in 1989. The Berlin Wall fell soon after, and sensing a research opportunity, he returned to Europe on a German Marshall Fund fellowship to study Germany’s reunification, looking at the diffusion of West German political and economic institutions to the former German Democratic Republic. While working in eastern Germany, Locke became increasingly interested in economic development, and he soon found himself in Brazil.
“I just fell in love with the place because the kinds of problems the country had — uneven economic development, poverty, environmental degradation, injustice — were exactly the issues I cared most about and it seemed wide open to study,” Locke recalled.
With this third project, Locke focused mainly on how local firms could collaborate to improve not only their individual business models, but also the larger local network of firms to promote more inclusive economic development.
Development is still very much at the heart of Locke’s research, but on a more global scale. He plans to return to Brazil soon to investigate how local firms can integrate into world markets in a way that benefits, not undermines them.
He’s also added another area to his work, one that also speaks strongly to his interest in social change. For the last several years, Locke has been studying improving labor standards and global supply chains of some of the world’s biggest companies. Locke recently completed a book on his work, Improving Labor Rights in a Global Economy (Cambridge University Press, 2013). Locke and his students have visited hundreds of factories and done more than 700 interviews in 10 different countries, working with global companies like Nike, Hewlett-Packard and Coca Cola. Locke said he’s already seeing some results from his work, with Nike altering some of its factory monitoring practices and including links to Locke’s papers in its corporate responsibility report. Still, he conceded that there’s more work to be done.
“What we hope is that this work will help improve the wages, working conditions, and labor rights for the thousands of workers making the goods we purchase every day. If we played a small role in moving things in the right direction, that would be something”.
Locke has also begun a similar project with Apple, where he will serve as chair of its academic advisory board for its supplier responsibility program.
“We’ll be looking at their audit data and visiting the factories of their suppliers to try and figure out what interventions could be promoted among the suppliers that allow them to not only produce cool products but to do so in ways that also enhance the well-being and citizenship rights of their workers,” Locke said.
Locke comes to Brown from MIT, where he was the Class of 1922 Professor of Political Science and Management, head of the MIT Political Science Department, and deputy dean in the Sloan School of Management.
Since arriving at Brown and beginning work in his role as the new director of the Watson Institute for International Studies, Locke has hit the ground running, forming a steering committee soon after his arrival to help guide his first few years as director. Plans are in the works to hire more faculty and add to the existing faculty fellows program. A redesign of the institute’s website is also nearing completion. The institute’s programming and research will be guided by three core themes: development, security, and governance.
On a larger scale, Locke said he aims to raise national awareness of the Watson Institute and its expertise in international studies and public affairs.
And here at Brown, Locke hopes to foster more collaboration with other groups, including the School of Public Health and the Environmental Change Initiative, as well as hosting a seed grant competition, to open the Watson Institute to a larger campus community. “I’d like us to be known as more than a brick building on Thayer Street. We want people to come in and engage in our very exciting intellectual community.”