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Shea Streeter examines the circumstances surrounding police violence and protest

Shea Streeter

Shea Streeter

Post developed by Katherine Pearson

Shea Streeter began her graduate work in political science as a comparativist interested in state repression around the world. When the protest movement in Ferguson, Missouri exploded after the killing of Michael Brown, Streeter turned her attention to police violence and protest in the United States. As a President’s Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Michigan, she’s examining how race and gender shape the ways that people experience, perceive, and respond to incidents of violence.

“Racial animus is in the air we breathe,” Streeter says, “but when we look at police violence, we can get distracted by race and ignore other important factors.” Her dissertation included an experiment to examine how the race of victims of police violence determines whether the public sees the violence as just. Surprisingly, she finds that the race of the victims is less salient than expected. Instead, the social context strongly shaped the attitudes of the respondents. Those who were predisposed to consider societal and institutional forces were less likely to believe the victim deserved the outcome, compared to respondents who place sole responsibility on the individual. 

Racial differences in rates of protest 

Half of the people killed by police each year are white, and yet the rate of protest over white victims of police violence is very low. A dataset that Streeter is currently completing includes all publicly available information on police killings and any protests that happened in 2015-2016. For those two years, about a third of the police killings of African Americans led to some sort of protest, but when whites were killed by police, protests occurred only five percent of the time. “I argue that it’s the biggest racial gap related to policing,” Streeter says. “There are a lot of reasons we could point to why African Americans would be protesting. But why wouldn’t whites also be protesting when their community members are killed?” 

When conducting field research in several different cities in the United States, Streeter asked community organizers about protests for white victims of police violence. The organizers told her that they reach out to the families of white victims, but those families often do not want to be involved with protests. Instead, many white family members express understanding and forgiveness toward the police. Streeter makes sense of these reactions by tying them to the psychological concept of a belief in a just world. The idea is that people get what they deserve and they deserve what they get. Streeter observes that even when people who hold this belief lose a member of their own family, their trust in the police remains unchanged. “If you have these beliefs, it can be like a double loss,” Streeter notes, which may explain why there are fewer protests for white victims of police violence. 

The role of mentorship

Mentorship has played a large role in Streeter’s academic career. Christian Davenport became a mentor to her when she was a senior at Notre Dame. At that time, Streeter was thinking about her career but hadn’t considered pursuing research. While working as a research assistant for Davenport, he encouraged her to pursue graduate work in political science. Streeter cites this support as a key reason she decided to come to the University of Michigan. She also gives credit to David Laitin and Jeremy Weinstein at Stanford, who pushed her to study the United States when she was training as a comparativist. “I had confusion about what my identity as a scholar would be if I changed paths, but they put my fears to rest, so I give them a lot of credit for helping me pursue this research path,” Streeter says. 

Looking forward 

In addition to her ongoing research on police violence, Streeter is turning her attention to the ways interpersonal violence affects the way that people think and act politically. She sees connections between different types of violence, including mass shootings, domestic violence, and suicide. “We don’t often see these as political violence, but they affect how people operate in the world,” Streeter says. She’s especially interested in the ways violence affects people differently based on gender. Streeter’s work is innovative and varied, but united by a common theme, which she sums up as “How does violence affect our world, and what are the aggregate consequences of that? That’s the big picture.” 

Political Communication Meets Big Data

Post developed by Mike Traugott and Katherine Pearson. 

How do voters make sense of the information they hear about candidates in the news and through social media? This question was at the heart of a collaboration between researchers at the University of Michigan, Georgetown University, and Gallup to study political communication that took place during the 2016 U.S. presidential election. 

Mike Traugott, Ceren Budak, Lisa O. Singh, and Johnathan Ladd presented findings from the study at the Michigan Institute for Data Science (MIDAS) Seminar on November 14, 2019. The panel discussion, moderated by Rayid Ghani, covered results that will be published in a new book, Words That Matter, in May 2020. 

Rayid Ghani, Jonathan Lass, Lisa O. Singh, Ceren Budak, and Mike Traugott at the MIDAS symposium.

Rayid Ghani, Jonathan Lass, Lisa O. Singh, Ceren Budak, and Mike Traugott at the MIDAS symposium. 

Genesis of the project

The project began when Gallup contacted Mike Traugott, a scholar of political communication who works in the area of attention to media using survey methods. In the four months leading up to the 2016 presidential election, Gallup conducted 500 interviews per day, asking respondents whether they had heard, read, or seen anything in the last few days about each of the two major-party candidates. In addition, the research team analyzed a sample of tweets from the public and from journalists. Finally, they compiled a database of news articles about the election, and also conducted an analysis of fake news. 

Data visualizations were an important part of this work, said Traugott. As data was gathered and interpreted, the researchers created visualizations and analyses that were published on the Gallup website and in The Washington Post and other news outlets. Excellent graphics were essential to show complex data in an easily interpretable way. 

Interdisciplinary strengths

Researching political communication using big data and data from multiple sources was an exciting challenge for the members of the team. When survey respondents are asked to recall what they’ve heard, read, or seen, there is the potential for error stemming from everything from memory problems to social desirability bias. Working with an interdisciplinary team was an opportunity to use new methods to analyze big data and mitigate such errors. 

Closed-ended survey questions can be difficult to interpret; researchers sometimes try to find out what people actually mean by asking open-ended follow-ups. The surveys in this study only collected open-ended responses, allowing respondents to give more meaningful answers. With such a large sample of open-ended responses about what people remembered about the candidates, it was essential to find innovative ways to analyze the data.  

Lisa Singh and Ceren Budak, both computer scientists, contributed expertise in computational social science and experience working with social media data. A variety of techniques were used in the analyses contained in the book: frequent word analysis, topic analysis, network analysis, sentiment analysis, and more. The open-ended text from the survey responses was so noisy and short that the algorithms were not enough to interpret the results. It took a team effort to interpret the data through a semi-automated process. The team at Gallup and the political scientists sorted words into topics and created synonym dictionaries to clean the data and remove inconsistencies. Developing these tools to be applied in domains where the text is not as rich and complete will be a focus of future work. 

A long-lived narrative is worth more than many explosive stories

Ladd noted that by analyzing text data – tweets and open-ended survey responses – the research team found that people repeatedly remembered Hillary Clinton’s emails throughout the campaign. The fact that this one story dominated the narrative about Clinton seemed to have an effect on voters, and Ladd points out that Clinton echoed this finding in her book, What Happened, employing one of the project’s graphics in the text. On the other hand, people remembered many different news stories about Donald Trump over time. These stories appeared and disappeared quickly, and no one story made a big impression on respondents. 

This figure highlights the changing topics that Americans remember about Clinton since July. The x-axis shows the date and the y-axis the fraction of responses that fall into a particular topic.

This figure highlights the changing topics that Americans remember about Clinton since July. The x-axis shows the date and the y-axis the fraction of responses that fall into a particular topic.

Another major finding of the study is that there were differences between the news that survey respondents recalled hearing and the text analysis of media articles, and both of those were different from what journalists were tweeting about. By analyzing streams of data from multiple sources, the researchers were able to conclude that journalists’ tweets and the text of newspaper articles did not favor either candidate. 

Singh noted that Trump was masterful in keeping the issue of Clinton’s emails central to the campaign narrative. When the researchers analyzed new articles and tweets from journalists, email was not a dominant topic, as it was in the survey responses. She said that it was the Trump campaign that kept the narrative about the emails in the public’s awareness. 

Connecting media coverage and voting behavior

Members of the research team who were not available to participate in the panel discussion contributed further analyses to the book. Stuart Soroka conducted a sentiment analysis of the open-ended responses, and Josh Pasek did work on story life and length of time an item was in the news. One limitation of this study was that Gallup did not collect any direct measure of voter preference, although they did collect favorability ratings of the candidates every day, which gave the researchers an indirect measure to work with. There was a lagged relationship between the net sentiment of Trump and Clinton in the news and the relative favorability of the two candidates. 

We can’t know how fake news influenced votes, said Budak, who analyzed social media data in the 2016 election cycle. In a chapter on fake news in Words That Matter, she examined Clinton’s net favorability and found a strong relationship between fake news and her favorability rating. Specifically, Budak found that Clinton’s favorability would move first, and fake news responded to that. The creators of fake news were attuned to what was happening in the campaign and responded accordingly. 

When Budak analyzed retained information data according to political leanings, she found that Republicans retained fake news coverage about Clinton, but not for Trump. The conversation about Trump changed a lot over time, while the narrative about Clinton stayed focused on her emails. According to Budak, “we can’t say fake news caused the outcome of the election, but it shaped the agenda.”

Angela Ocampo Examines the Importance of Belonging

Post developed by Katherine Pearson and Angela Ocampo

Feelings of belonging are powerfully important. A sense of inclusion in a group or society can motivate new attitudes and actions. The idea of belonging, or attaining inclusion, is the centerpiece of Angela Ocampo’s research. Her dissertation exploring the effect of inclusion on political participation among Latinos will receive the American Political Science Association’s (APSA) Race and Ethnic Politics Section’s award for the best dissertation in the field at the Fall 2019 APSA meetings.

Dissertation and Book Project

Dr. Ocampo’s dissertation grounds the theory of belonging and political participation within the literature. This research, which she is expanding into a book, finds that feelings of belonging in American society strongly predict higher levels of political engagement among Latinos. This concept represents the intersection of political science and political psychology. Dr. Ocampo draws from psychology research that belonging is a human need; people need to feel that they are a part of a group in order to succeed and have positive individual outcomes, as well as group outcomes. She builds on these psychological concepts to develop this theory of social belonging in the national community, and how this influences the perception of relationship to the polity. 

The book will explore the social inclusion of racial and ethnic minorities, and how that shapes the way they participate in politics. Dr. Ocampo argues that the idea of perceiving that you belong, and the extent to which others accept you, has an influence on your political engagement and opinion of policies. For the most part, Dr. Ocampo looks at Latinos in the US, but the framework is applicable to other racial and ethnic groups. She is also collecting data among Asian Americans, African Americans, and American Muslims to look at perceived belonging. 

Methodological Expertise

Before she began this research, there were no measures to capture data on belonging in existing surveys. Dr. Ocampo validated new measures and tested and replicated them in the 2016 collaborative multiracial postelection survey

While observational data is useful for finding correlations, it can’t identify causality. For this reason, experiments also inform Dr. Ocampo’s research. In one experiment, she randomly assigned people to a number of different conditions. Subjects assigned to the negative condition showed a significant decrease in their perceptions of belonging. However, among those assigned to the positive condition, there were no corresponding positive results. In both the observational data and experiments, Dr. Ocampo notes that experiences of discrimination are highly influential and highly determinant of feelings of belonging. That is, the more experiences of discrimination you’ve had in the past, the less likely you are to feel that you belong.

Doing qualitative research has taught Dr. Ocampo the importance of speaking with her research subjects. “It’s not until you get out and talk to people running for office and making things happen that you understand how politics works for everyday people. That’s why the qualitative data and survey work are really important,” she says. By leveraging both qualitative and quantitative methodologies, Dr. Ocampo is able to arrive at more robust conclusions. 

A Sense of Belonging in the Academic Community

Starting in the Fall of 2020, Dr. Ocampo will be an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Michigan and a Faculty Associate of the Center for Political Studies. She says that the fact that her work is deeply personal to her is what keeps her engaged. As an immigrant herself, Dr. Ocampo says, “I’m doing this for my family. I’m in this for other young women and women of color, other first-generation scholars. When they see me give a class or a lecture, they know they can do it, too.” 

Dr. Ocampo is known as a supportive member of her academic community. She says it’s an important part of her work: “The reason it’s important is that I wouldn’t be here if it wouldn’t have been for others who opened doors, were supportive, were willing to believe in me. They were willing to amplify my voice in spaces where I couldn’t be, or where I wasn’t, or where I didn’t even know they were there.” She notes that in order to improve the profession and make it a more diverse and welcoming place where scholars thrive, academics have to take it upon themselves to be inclusive. 

Improving Research on Subnational Violence with xSub

Post developed by Yuri M. Zhukov, Christian Davenport, Nadiya Kostyuk, and Katherine Pearson.

How can scholars of political conflict and violence apply research in different settings? Too often, data that are collected and analyzed in one setting cannot inform us about situations in other regions. The problem is not a lack of data. Instead, researchers are unable to make comparisons because variables, definitions, and units of analysis are inconsistent between sources.

xSub, a new freely available resource, solves these problems by building the infrastructure to compare data on political conflicts and violence at a subnational level (i.e., states, cities, and villages).

In a newly-published paper [1], Yuri M. Zhukov, Christian Davenport, and Nadiya Kostyuk introduce xSub, a database of databases that allows researchers to construct custom, analysis-ready datasets. xSub includes data on conflicts in 156 countries, from 21 sources. The project is also collecting data on countries with little or no publicly accessible information about what takes place within them. Additionally, scholars can contribute data they have collected for use by other researchers for future studies.

Why xSub?

Zhukov, Davenport, and Kostyuk describe five main problems with existing datasets:

  1. Most studies of political conflict aggregate data to the country level (i.e., the situation in Afghanistan or the United States writ large, rather than specific locations and contexts);
  2. Most micro-level studies focus on very few countries;
  3. Cross-dataset comparisons are rare;
  4. Operational definitions of variables (including event categories, actors, and spatial units) vary;
  5. There are no consistent units of analysis, which might otherwise enable direct comparisons.

To address these problems, xSub provides barrier-free access to data in an analysis-ready format, with consistent definitions, measures, and units. Without the effort to build this infrastructure, the field of study cannot move forward.

What’s in xSub?

xSub makes it easy to compare data across countries and sources because it organizes these data into consistent categories. Here’s what users will find:

  • Data sources: 25,112 datasets on the location, dynamics, and intensity of conflict events, in 156 countries (1969–2017), from 21 data sources, with consistent categories and customizable spatiotemporal units.

    Number of unique data sources per country

    Number of unique data sources per country

  • Actors: xSub organizes data on those involved in conflicts into four categories: government (Side A), opposition (Side B), civilian (Side C), and unaffiliated (Side D).
  • Actions: there are 4 general and 27 specific categories of actions, including any use of force, indirect force (e.g. shelling, air strikes, chemical weapons), direct force (e.g. firefights, arrests, assassinations), and protests, both violent and nonviolent.
  • Covariates: In addition to conflict, xSub includes multiple variables frequently used in subnational research: e.g., local demographics, geography, ethnicity, and weather.
  • Units of analysis: xSub provides event-level and spatial panel datasets. Researchers can choose the geographic units (e.g. countries, provinces, districts, PRIO-GRID cells, and electoral constituencies) and units of time (e.g. years, months, weeks, and days) to analyze. The units that a scholar chooses will affect the distribution of the data, allowing for a more precise description of findings.

How to access xSub

Anyone interested in analyzing xSub data is already able to access it because it is available in a user-friendly web interface and an R package. Removing barriers to access means that anyone from undergraduates to senior researchers will be able to work with these data, gauging whether or not patterns in one country apply to others in the same region or throughout the world.

The interactive web-based interface is available at cross-sub.org. Here scholars can select countries, data sources or units of analysis, preview the data, and download a zipped archive with the requested data and supporting documentation.

More advanced researchers can access the xSub R package at https://cran.r-project.org/package=xSub. This package provides additional functionality not supported by the website, including direct import of data into R and merging of datasets across countries.

By developing xSub, Zhukov, Davenport, and Kostyuk have created a public good that will advance a more meaningful understanding of political violence. With this new tool, researchers are now empowered to answer questions and share data in a way that was impossible until now. With numerous additions underway, the project looks to continue to advance the field into the future.

 

[1] Zhukov, Y. M., Davenport, C., & Kostyuk, N. (2019). Introducing xSub: A new portal for cross-national data on subnational violence. Journal of Peace Research. https://doi.org/10.1177/0022343319836697

‘13 Reasons Why’ and Young Adults’ Risk of Suicide

By Michael Rozansky. Original post for the Annenberg Public Policy Center.  

One of the most heavily watched and debated fictional portrayals of suicide in recent years was the Netflix series “13 Reasons Why,” which raised outcries about potential contagion stemming from its portrayal of a female high-school student’s suicide.

Google searches about suicide spiked after the release of Season 1, physicians said that several children created lists of “13 reasons why” they wanted to kill themselves, and one hospital saw an increase in admissions of children who exhibited suicidal behavior. But two studies conducted after the series was released found some beneficial effects.

Given the series’ popularity and its potentially harmful effects, researchers at the University of Vienna, the University of Leuven, the University of Michigan, and the Annenberg Public Policy Center (APPC) conducted a study to more fully understand the effects of the show through a survey of U.S. young adults, ages 18 to 29, before and after the May 2018 release of its second season.

In the study, published today in the journal Social Science & Medicine, researchers found that:

  • Viewers who stopped watching the second season partway through reported greater risk for future suicide and less optimism about the future than those who watched the entire season or didn’t watch it at all;
  • Students – who were nearly 60 percent of the sample – were at an overall higher risk for suicide. Of the viewers who dropped out of watching the series midway, students were at a significantly higher suicide risk than non-students (see Figure 1);
  • The show appeared to have a beneficial effect on students who saw the full second season: They were less likely to report recent self-harm and thoughts of ending their lives than comparable students who didn’t watch the series at all. And viewers in general were more likely to express interest in helping a suicidal person, especially compared with those who stopped watching;
  • Netflix’s warning about the show’s potentially disturbing content that preceded Season 2 mainly appeared to increase viewing but did not appear to prevent vulnerable viewers from watching the season.

“Although there’s some good news about the effects of ‘13 Reasons Why,’ our findings confirm concerns about the show’s potential for adverse effects on vulnerable viewers,” said Dan Romer, APPC’s research director and the study’s senior author. “It would have been helpful had the producers done more to enable vulnerable viewers to watch the entire second season, which is when the show had its more beneficial effects.”

Fig. 1: Predicted suicide risk

Background on the study

Suicide is the second-leading cause of death among 15- to 29-year-olds. Media portrayals of suicide have been shown to have helpful and harmful effects. Stories of suicide in news and fictional media can elicit suicide – especially when they explicitly show suicide methods – in a phenomenon called the Werther effect, after Goethe’s novel “The Sorrows of Young Werther.” By contrast, news stories about people who have overcome a suicidal crisis have had a positive impact, a more recently documented phenomenon that is known as the Papageno effect, after the character in Mozart’s opera “The Magic Flute.”

For this study the researchers surveyed 18- to 29-year-olds, who reported having access to Netflix, both shortly before the second season was launched and a month later. A total of 729 respondents completed both the initial internet survey and the follow-up, which used validated scales to measure future suicide risk, hopelessness, recent self-harm, and related outcomes. Women were over represented in this sample (82 percent), perhaps because “13 Reasons Why” involved a female protagonist.

An indicator of distress

“13 Reasons Why” seemed to be particularly upsetting for young people who were already at a higher risk of suicide and who empathized with the main character, 17-year-old Hannah, who is bullied and sexually assaulted before deciding to end her life. As the researchers wrote, “We hypothesized that watching only some of the series could be an indicator of distress that led those viewers to discontinue exposure to the upsetting content.” The results appeared to support that idea, in that those who watched only some of the second season showed elevated risk of future suicide, an outcome that was stronger for current students.

At the same time, students who watched the entire second season reported less self-harm after watching than those who did not watch at all. Thus the findings suggest that over the course of a month following the second season, the show exerted a beneficial effect on some students.

The researchers added: “One explanation for the beneficial finding is that those at higher risk who persisted to the end were able to empathize with the challenges faced by the main characters and to take away a life-affirming lesson applied to their own lives.” The second season may have conveyed this message with more effectiveness than the first season, which mainly focused on the harm that the suicide inflicted on the victim’s friends and family.

“Given that we know that the Werther effect is a real phenomenon with detrimental consequences, the public outcry about potential contagious effects as a response to the first season is justified,” said the study’s lead author, Florian Arendt of the University of Vienna, Austria. “However, the second season appeared to have more content that could engender a beneficial effect than the first season, and this may have helped those who watched it in its entirety to walk away with more beneficial outcomes.”

Viewers who watched the full second season were also more likely to be sympathetic to a hypothetical friend who appeared to be suicidal. Here again the findings suggest that the show may have succeeded in creating empathy for those in a suicidal crisis.

Evidence the show “can harm some… and may actually help others”

In an accompanying commentary on the study in Social Science & Medicine, Anna S. Mueller of the University of Chicago’s Department of Sociology and Comparative Human Development said the findings “offer the strongest evidence to date that 13RW can harm some youth and the results demonstrate that it may actually help others, which is rarely considered in the media and suicide literature.”

Mueller, who was not connected with the study, said, “It also has important implications for what scholars should do next.” That includes “unpacking how exposure to suicide – whether through media or a personal relationship – transforms an individual’s vulnerability to suicide.”

What should Netflix do?

Romer said, “Producers of shows such as ‘13 Reasons Why’ need to be aware of the potential effects of their shows, particularly on vulnerable audiences. One way to do this would be to make the series less aversive to people who are sensitive to a story about suicide, because they may not get to the parts of the story that have more uplifting effects.”

The researchers noted that the study had limitations, including the one-month time frame for the observed effects. Also, it did not assess respondents’ experiences surrounding sexual assault, an important element in the series in both seasons, which could have influenced reactions.

Romer and Arendt’s co-authors are Patrick E. Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Health and Risk Communication Institute at the Annenberg Public Policy Center; Sebastian Scherr, of the School for Mass Communication Research, University of Leuven, Belgium; and Josh Pasek, of the Department of Communication Studies and Center for Political Studies, Institute for Social Research, University of Michigan.

The study “Investigating harmful and helpful effects of watching season 2 of 13 Reasons Why: Results of a two-wave U.S. panel survey,” is published in Social Science & Medicine.

 

Winners and Losers:
 The Psychology of Attitudes Toward 
Foreign Trade

Post developed by Katherine Pearson and Diana Mutz

Foreign trade is a complex issue, but the public still has strong opinions about the issue. Diana Mutz demonstrated that social psychology can help to understand attitudes about trade when she delivered the 2019 Miller Converse lecture. A recording of her talk “Winners and Losers: The Psychology of Attitudes Toward Foreign Trade” is available below.

Most people rely on small-scale social experiences to understand large-scale interactions such as international trade. From this understanding, people tend to embrace beliefs about trade that are not necessarily accurate. For example, folk beliefs suggest that impersonal transactions are more dangerous than personal ones, that trade is zero-sum, and that trade “deficits” mean that a country is losing more jobs as a result of imports than it gains due to exports. These beliefs are inaccurate, yet understandable, generalizations from the world of face-to-face social exchange.

Contrary to popular wisdom, trade preferences do not reflect people’s economic self-interest. Mutz demonstrates that, surprisingly, these attitudes are not influenced by a person’s occupation, industry of employment, community job loss, geographic location, or individual job loss. Instead, perceptions of what is in the collective economic interest determine attitudes toward trade. Coverage of trade in the media has a large influence on these perceptions. Media coverage of foreign trade was mostly negative until 2016. As media coverage of trade has become more balanced since 2016, support for trade has also increased.

Politicians from all parties have been unwilling to champion trade when running for office because foreign trade is seen as a political liability in the United States. As the world economy changes, Mutz asserts that leaders will need to advocate for trade and for safeguards against its negative effects. She cautions that it’s unhelpful to leave the public out of that conversation altogether as has been common in the past.

For an additional perspective, Mutz compares attitudes about trade in the United States and Canada. She finds that attitudes about trade in the two countries are different due to differing attitudes toward competition. Americans value competition more, and believe in the fairness of unequal outcomes. In the U.S., nationalism reduces support for foreign trade, but in Canada the opposite is true. Canadians who hold the strongest beliefs about national superiority want to promote more trade and immigration.

Differing perspectives on trade in these countries can be explained by variation in two different types of ingroup favoritism. First, Americans in Mutz’s studies systematically preferred trade agreements in which their fellow Americans benefited more than trading partners. In fact, there was no level of job benefits to foreign countries that would justify the loss of even a single American job. This was not the case among Canadians. In addition, Americans demonstrated their competitive attitudes toward trade by demonstrating greater support for trade agreements that not only benefit their country but also disadvantage the trading partner. Canadians, in contrast, preferred the kind of “win-win” trade agreement that economists suggest benefits all countries involved.

Attitudes about race drive attitudes about trade and Mutz finds that the reverse may also be true. In a study that asked respondents to select which students should be admitted to college, participants who had just watched an ad against foreign trade were less supportive of admitting Asian-American students, as well as students from Asia.

Mutz concludes that, while many of these results are distressing, attitudes remain malleable. Efforts to change opinions toward trade that emphasize similarity and shared values are more effective than efforts emphasizing pocketbook gains. Since 2016, her data shows that there has been an increase in support for foreign trade and a realization that it comes with benefits as well as negative consequences.

Divided by Culture: Partisan Imagery and Political Evaluations

Post developed by Katherine Pearson and Stuart Soroka

When you think of a Prius, what political party comes to mind? What about country music? Increasingly, Americans associate partisan leanings with otherwise non-political objects. Dan Hiaeshutter-Rice, Fabian G. Neuner, and Stuart Soroka examine the consequences of these associations in their paper “Divided by Culture: Partisan Imagery and Political Evaluations”, which they will present at the Midwest Political Science Association meeting on Saturday, April 6, 2019.

The cultural and political divide in America receives considerable media and scholarly attention. Republicans and Democrats have different preferences for everyday things like cars and drinks – most people are familiar with stereotypes of latte-drinking liberals or truck-loving conservatives. These differences even extend to their children’s names, the places they live, and the amount they give to charity.

The authors of this paper took a closer look at the extent to which non-political objects, activities, and places are associated with partisanship and ideology. Participants in the study were first prompted to list objects and activities they associate with either liberalism or conservatism. Following this open-ended question, respondents were asked to rate a list of 26 objects and activities based on ideology or partisanship.

The results of the open-ended question are illustrated in the figure below, which shows the words most strongly associated with Democrats (blue) and Republicans (red).  The figure makes clear the ease which which respondents name objects and activities often associated with the two partisan groups.

Hiaeshutter-Rice, D., Neuner, F., Soroka, S. 2019, “Divided by Culture: Partisan Imagery and Political Evaluations”, paper presented to the 77th Annual MPSA Conference, Chicago, IL, April 4-7, 2019.

In subsequent studies, the authors examined  respondents’ reactions to a series of photos of political candidates standing in front of different backgrounds, including a NASCAR race, an organic food store, and a shooting range. Not all treatments made a difference, but the shooting range (and another image of a gun shop) in particular affected the way that respondents perceived the candidates’ ideology and policy proposal.

As more politicians use social media to share images of their campaigns, it is essential to be aware of the ways in which voters evaluate candidates. Nonverbal political communication conveys information that can help shape public opinion and political behavior. Will voters be manipulated by objects and scenery in political messages? The authors suggest that even as respondents can attach partisanship to wide range of non-political activities, their candidate-photo experiment finds only limited effects of hypothetical press-conference backgrounds. They conclude on a comforting note: “The fact that voters are readily able to attach partisanship to objects and activities, but yet barely take this information into account when rating candidates and policies, may be good news for representative democracy.” 

Faida Zacharia Addresses the Challenges of Fresh Water Access in Tanzania

post developed by Katherine Pearson

Faida Zacharia studies access to energy and water resources for smallholder farmers in Dodoma Region in Tanzania. As a visiting scholar at the University of Michigan, she worked closely with Professor Kelly Askew to further her research on “Small-scale Groundwater Irrigated Agriculture and Livelihoods in Drylands Areas: The Case of Dodoma Region, Tanzania.”

Faida Zacharia

Faida Zacharia is an Assistant Lecturer in Development Studies at the University of Dodoma, Tanzania. She came to the University of Michigan as a member of the University of Michigan African Presidential Scholars (UMAPS) 2018-19 cohort.

Addressing groundwater irrigation in Dodoma

Water wars” are on the rise around the world as access to fresh water becomes ever more limited. Countries around the world are facing increased demand for water at a time when fresh water is becoming an ever more scarce resource. Food security and economic development depend on access to water, hence developing countries like Tanzania are seeking new means of increasing access to water for all the needs of its population.

In Dodoma, a semi-arid region in Tanzania, access to fresh water is a challenge. Climate change, industrial activities, and political conflicts all threaten the available water supply. The region has various reservoirs to collect surface water, among them Msalato reservoir, Mkonze dam, Hombolo dam, Bahi dam and Makutupora dam. Mtera dam, the largest dam in Tanzania, is also the primary source of electricity for the national grid. But despite all of these resources, Dodoma faces a shortage of water.

People in Dodoma rely on smallholder farming and livestock keeping for their livelihoods, but the recent rapid growth of this region has put additional pressure on water resources necessary for agriculture. When President John Magufuli was elected in 2015, he declared that Dodoma City would be the political capital of the country, and required all government ministries relocate from Dar es Salaam to Dodoma. People came to Dodoma from other regions of Tanzania, increasing the demand for water for household uses, for industry, and for agriculture beyond what the reservoirs could sustain. Tapping into groundwater resources may provide a solution.

Zacharia is developing new research that will explore how groundwater irrigation in Dodoma region contributes to agriculture and food security, and how it helps poverty reduction in the drylands of central Tanzania. Her research maps the groundwater in the region to establish how much there is and where it is located. This baseline data and knowledge will help to initiate, implement, and sustain groundwater irrigated agriculture in Tanzania.

Zacharia wants to know who benefits and who does not when groundwater irrigation is established in smallholder farming communities. Groundwater irrigated agriculture may prove to have great potential as a strategy that mitigates the impact of climate change on agricultural communities. These findings will inform the policy decision-making process and strategies related to small-scale groundwater irrigated agriculture to enhance the livelihoods of drylands communities.

Zacharia’s research supports sustainable development of infrastructure through an integrated approach to water management to balance the competing needs of agriculture, human consumption, industry, and environmental conservation. In the rush to secure more water, she cautions against a lack of planning that lead to the present water crisis in Cape Town, South Africa and other sites in China, India, and California where groundwater aquifers have been depleted.

Experience of a visiting scholar

Zacharia says that her time at the University of Michigan has been essential to advancing her research. Her fellowship allowed her to work closely with her mentor to receive support and feedback on her research. Zacharia presented research at two conferences during her visit: the Sustainability and Development Conference at the University of Michigan, and the African Studies Association annual meeting in Atlanta, Georgia. She said that the experience of attending the conferences and presenting work to her peers was one that she is eager to repeat. “It has changed my entire outlook and attitude towards life of academics,” Zacharia said.

Access to the university libraries was another important benefit of her time as a visiting scholar. Zacharia said that the wealth of research resources, and the efficiency of accessing them, was important to conducting her work. She worked closely with experts in geographic information systems (GIS) to map groundwater data. Other visiting scholars, especially those from Uganda, Ghana, and Nigeria, supported Zacharia’s research by reviewing her work and providing new insights. She expects that the relationships she has built during this program, with faculty and other scholars, will extend long into the future. “It’s not easy to find someone to give you the support like I get here,” said Zacharia. “That support makes me more comfortable to start my research.”

Zacharia returns home to Tanzania at the end of February, where she will apply to PhD programs to continue her work. We wish her all the best and look forward to future partnerships with her.

It’s Up to Us – Transparency and the Public Value of Science

post developed by Katherine Pearson

There are people all over the world who need the social sciences to reconcile the problems of their lives. At the Open Social Science Conference in Mannheim, Germany, Arthur Lupia told attendees that this is why social scientists must work to ensure that their work is transparent and credible. Lupia delivered his keynote address “It’s Up to Us – Transparency and the Public Value of Science” on Friday, January 25, 2019. A recording of the talk is available online.

Lupia studies how people make decisions when they don’t have much information. Quantitative researchers, he notes, make scientific claims backed up by proofs. A proof allows others to understand the thought process and produce the same result. It allows researchers to go beyond their own understanding, and bring others along.

It’s not always sufficient to show evidence, however. The scientist must also consider the person who receives the information: what they pay attention to, how they make sense of that information, what they understand. In order to create change, social science research must first reach its audience. The way scientists communicate knowledge makes a difference.

What makes social science research valuable to people who use it?

The mission of social science researchers, according to Lupia, is to offer people a better understanding of the relationship between things they can see and things they can do.

The amount of information available has increased greatly within our lifetimes. An abundance of information is available online. So why should anyone seek out rigorous scientific research? If information can be found for free, why should anyone fund social science?

To answer these questions, Lupia starts by explaining that decisions rely on evaluations of evidence. The essential criteria for evaluating evidence are:

  • Credibility – there is something about the claim that is trustworthy?
  • Legitimacy – is this claim developed in accordance with recognized principles?

Challenges facing scientists

While scientific inquiry fosters greater honesty in evaluations, the incentives that scientists face present challenges, as well. Scientists have a strong incentive to discover novel findings and publish them. The marketplace rewards claims that go viral. On the other hand, the incentives to explain how these discoveries emerge are very weak.

These incentives threaten the meaning and the value of the research. If scientists publish only astonishing results, but ignore more mundane studies that disagree, scientific credibility and legitimacy are eroded. If social scientists want to advance research that improves quality of life in the world, then credibility and legitimacy matter a lot.

Opportunities to improve transparency

Transparency in scientific research can be improved by creating better incentives. Because researchers already have strong incentives to publish, Lupia suggests that it makes sense to focus efforts on academic journals. He gave several examples of incentives that help journals increase transparency.

The Data Access and Research Transparency (DA-RT) Statement increases transparency in social science. The statement was signed by 28 academic journals that promised to “commit to greater data access and research transparency, and to implementing policies requiring authors to make as accessible as possible the empirical foundation and logic of inquiry of evidence-based research.”

The Transparency and Openness Promotion Guidelines are a model for increasing transparency in publishing. Created by the Center for Open Science, over 8,000 journals have committed to these guidelines. CoS badges

The Center for Open Science has created badges to show when a study has preregistered, uses open data, or uses open materials. Research has shown that implementing these badges dramatically increases the rate of data sharing.

The Election Research Preacceptance Competition, led by Lupia and Brendan Nyhan, asked researchers to design a paper using data from the 2016 American National Election Studies (ANES) and submit the design to a participating journal before the data were available for analysis. In return, selected entries were offered an award of $2,000 and placement on a panel at a major political science conference. This challenged researchers to share ideas regardless of whether the analysis yielded the expected results. Lupia noted that they received fewer submissions than they expected. He suspects that it’s difficult for researchers, especially younger ones, to take the risk to publicly share an idea without knowing what the outcome will be.

The value of social science is up to us

When was the golden age of social science? Lupia says it is dawning right now. Scientists must ensure their work has value to those who can use it to make change, and that’s why they need to commit to greater transparency. Increasing transparency requires creating incentives and improving infrastructure for openness. Most people who consume scientific research will never read the evidence that went into the findings. Instead they take the results on faith. Lupia cautions that if researchers don’t uphold standards of transparency, they lose their value as credible sources of knowledge. 

Portrait of a birther: White conservatives with political knowledge more likely to believe Obama conspiracy

Post developed by Morgan Sherburne for Michigan News.

White conservatives who not only have racial animus but are also knowledgeable about politics were the most likely group to believe that former President Barack Obama was not born in the United States, according to a University of Michigan Institute for Social Research study.

Michael Traugott and Ashley Jardina

Michael Traugott and Ashley Jardina

The study, published in the Journal of Race, Ethnicity and Politics, teased out motivations of white voters for believing the so-called birther rumor. It found that white conservatives who ranked as having a high amount of knowledge were most likely to support the idea that Obama was not born in the U.S.

“This is a piece of social science research about biased perceptions in the political world and what their consequences might be,” said the study’s co-author Michael Traugott, a researcher at the Center for Political Studies at ISR. “It’s relevant because the whole concept of fake news is about devaluing information that doesn’t conform to either what you believe or what you want other people to believe, therefore suggesting a basis upon which it can be discounted or thrown away.”

Traugott and co-author Ashley Jardina, a former U-M doctoral student and now an assistant professor of political science at Duke University, say politically knowledgeable conservatives may be more likely to believe the rumor because they may follow what’s called a “motivated reasoning model.”

“One of the most interesting things about the motivated reasoning model is that the more resources the person has—which could be political information—the better they are able to argue against new information that doesn’t fit their worldview,” said Traugott.

Traugott and Jardina explored a portrait of a birther among white Americans using data from the 2012 American National Election Study. The ANES, conducted in person among a nationally representative sample of respondents, asked several questions assessing belief in contemporary conspiracy theories.

As recently as 2017, nearly a third of U.S. adults believed it was possible Obama was born outside the U.S., according to the researchers.

The survey also assessed participants’ knowledge by asking them to identify the office held by several political figures. A respondent’s score on the scale was the proportion of correctly answered questions.

The researchers found that 62 percent of very strong Republicans reported that Obama was born in the U.S. compared to 89 percent of very strong Democrats. Thirty-eight percent of very strong Republicans reported that Obama was probably born in another country, while 11 percent of very strong Democrats reported the same.

To estimate the impact of racial attitudes on the birther rumor, the researchers compared two conspiracy theories detailed in the 2012 ANES survey: the Obama birther rumor and the existence of the Affordable Care Act “death panels,” or, the idea that the ACA authorized government panels to make end-of-life decisions for people on Medicare.

Additionally, the researchers found:

  • Strong Republicans with higher levels of racial animus are more inclined to believe the birther rumor, but not the death panel rumor.
  • Republicans both low on resentment and low on knowledge are also more inclined to believe the birther rumor.
  • Democrats with higher levels of racial resentment are not significantly inclined to adopt either rumor.
  • Democrats low on knowledge and high on resentment are more likely to adopt birther beliefs.
  • High-knowledge Democrats with high levels of racial resentment are less likely to believe the rumor.

“Until recently, the relationship of party identification to things like voting behavior had weakened, but it has strengthened again,” Traugott said. “We expected partisanship would play a role in attitudes about Barack Obama, and because he was an African American, racial attitudes would play a role as well. These things are now increasingly important because of this kind of tribalism that’s infecting contemporary politics.”

 

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