Tracing incarceration along family trees

Developed by Katie Brown in coordination with Rosemary Sarri

Photo credit: Thinkstock

Photo credit: Thinkstock

In June of 2013, Sesame Street debuted its first character with a parent in prison. The Sesame Street website now features a page of video clips and guides to help children facing this situation. But how likely is it a child will see his or her parent go behind bars?

The U.S. has a high rate of incarceration, about 760 per 100,000. The rates are higher than peer countries – five times the rate of Britain, and eight times the rate of Germany. But are the rates even higher for families with criminal pasts?

Center for Political Studies (CPS), School of Social Work, and Women’s Studies Professor Emerita Rosemary Sarri studies social policy, with an emphasis on children in the justice system. In a paper just published with Irene Ng and Elizabeth Stoffregen in the Journal of Poverty, Sarri considers the intergenerational nature of incarceration.

The study grew from a larger effort to understand preparation of youth returning from detention to the community. Data analysis revealed high levels of parental imprisonment among the youth in the sample. So the researchers considered the issue in more depth.

The researchers broke their participants into three groups: low, medium, and high levels of parental incarceration. Then they performed a cluster analysis to determine if these three groups varied along different factors.

The results indicate that higher levels of parental incarceration correspond to negative life events, parental substance abuse, receiving federal assistant, placement in foster care, neighborhood quality and instability, stigma, and negative youth outcomes. The graph below displays four of these associations by level of parental incarceration.


So having a parent in prison not only increases the risk of a child facing juvenile lock up, but is also associated with other negative experiences. The troubles appear to perpetuate along family trees. A staggering 53% of the juvenile offenders in the study have children themselves. Further, most of the male participants expected little future contact with their children.

It would be easy to be pessimistic given these results, but the results highlight a situation that needs to be addressed.  In response, Sarri calls for a re-examination of imprisoning parents. She argues that these families and society at large could benefit from community programs that support families. Such community programs demonstrate long-term positive effects for both parents and children. When used for non-violent offenses, like drug abuse, such community programs protect public safety while potentially redirecting the growth of ill-fated family trees. Sarri also suggests parenting training, substance abuse and mental health treatment, workforce development, and community organization to relieve disorganization. These preventative services could help redirect families before there’s a problem.

Strife in Egypt – using the Arab Barometer to understand the relationship between Islam and MENA politics

Post developed by Katie Brown in coordination with Mark Tessler.

Egypt attracted international attention as a key participant in the Arab Spring. Along with Tunisia, it was among the first countries to witness the fall of a decades-long authoritarian regime. In early 2011, protestors demanded that then Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak step down. In February 2011, Mubarak relented, turning over power to the military.

Photo credit: Thinkstock

Photo credit: Thinkstock

In November of 2011, the country held parliamentary elections and these were won by the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party. In June of 2012, the Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi was elected president of Egypt. Over the next year and a half, Morsi pushed remaining officials from Mubarak’s reign out of government, all the while consolidating his power.

With the economic situation deteriorating, and with conflicting claims about who was responsible, anti-Morsi protests spread throughout Egypt in summer 2013. Then, on July 3, 2013, in response to the growing unrest, the military removed Morsi from office. Violent clashes between the military and supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood followed and have continued sporadically since that time.

A key question raised by these events, and by post-Arab Spring developments in a number of other Arab countries, concerns the role to be played by Islam in government and political affairs.  As expressed by Egypt’s Grand Mufti in April 2011, following the ouster of Mubarak, “Egypt’s revolution has swept away decades of authoritarian rule but it has also highlighted an issue that Egyptians will grapple with as they consolidate their democracy: the role of religion in political life.”

Center for Political Studies (CPS) Researcher and Samuel J. Eldersveld Collegiate Professor of Political Science Mark Tessler is making major strides to understand what ordinary citizens in Egypt and other Arab countries think about the complicated and contested relationship between religion and politics in the Middle East. Among the data on which Tessler is drawing is the multi-country Arab Barometer survey project, which Tessler co-directs.  Arab Barometer surveys in Egypt in 2011 and 2013 offer insights about how recent events have influenced the way the Egyptian public thinks about Islam’s political role.

One finding from these surveys is that most Egyptians believe democracy and Islam to be fully compatible, and this view did not change between 2011 and 2013.  On the other hand, while most Egyptians have confidence in Islam itself, there has been a dramatic decrease over this period in the proportion that believes that the country is better off when religious people hold public office. Some Egyptians describe this as wanting Islam but not Islamists.

These Arab Barometer surveys are part of a larger dataset pertaining to Islam and governance that Tessler has constructed with support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The dataset pulls together information from 44 nationally representative surveys conducted in 15 countries in the Middle East and North Africa and includes not only respondent political and social attitudes but also major characteristics of the country of which the respondent is a citizen.

Tessler’s analysis of these data will be published in a forthcoming book, Islam and the Search for a Political Formula: How Ordinary Citizens in the Muslim Middle East Think about Islam’s Place in Political Life.  The book will offer a deeper understanding of the desired role of Islam in politics across the Middle East, a religion and region often misrepresented in American media, politics, and minds. In addition, the database will be placed in the public domain for use by other scholars who study the relationship between religion and politics.

Why did Assad use chemical weapons in Syria?

Post developed by Katie Brown in coordination with James Morrow.


Photo credit: Thinkstock

The horror in Syria has gripped international attention, especially in recent weeks with the release of images of those killed by chemical weapons. But why would Bashar al-Assad, the President of Syria, use chemical weapons when he is winning the civil war against insurgents?

Center for Political Studies (CPS) Research Professor and A.F.K. Organski Collegiate Professor of World Politics James Morrow recently spoke to this issue on MSNBC’s The Last Word. Assad’s target was a rebel controlled neighborhood in Damascus, the capital of Syria. A large chemical attack would scare other civilians, inducing them to flee for safety.  After they left, Assad could move his forces into one the few remaining rebel areas. Morrow also highlights the timing of Assad’s chemical strike: it occurred after the rebels began to lose ground across Syria. Assad used chemical weapons precisely because he is winning.

Morrow’s comments on MSNBC are grounded in his research. In a forthcoming book, Order Within Anarchy, Morrow models violations of the laws of war, like the use of chemical weapons. Violations typically come early in war. When they come later – as in Syria – violations tend to be perpetrated by the winning side. The violation itself increases the perpetrator’s chance to win the war. Thus, Assad’s deployment of chemical weapons could be seen as a coup de grâce.

Yet, Assad also faced a strong global backlash. Obama declared a red line crossed and seemed poised to order counter-attacks on Assad. Such a strike could undo any gain from the chemical weapons. But, Russia – who, with China, blocked approval to counter-attack Syria in the United Nations – proposed an alternative solution: order Assad to surrender his chemical weapons for destruction by international monitors. Obama and Assad agreed to this approach. Last week, Assad received praise for his steps to chemically disarm. And also last week the Nobel Prize committee awarded the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons with the Nobel Peace Prize for its efforts to disarm Syria. But the gains of his use of chemical weapons remain.

Making (political) science accessible, relevant

Post developed by Katie Brown in coordination with Arthur Lupia.

Photo credit: Thinkstock

Photo credit: Thinkstock

The future of funding for political science research is in danger. Under particular threat is National Science Foundation (NSF) aid, a key source of support for political research. Pressure from congress led the NSF to review its criteria for grants, and even cancel the latest round of applications.

Yes, the sequester and general state of the economy play a role. But also under fire is a perceived lack of relevance of science to public discourse. That is, science – including political science – often seems too far removed from everyday life.

How can we change this perception? That is, how can scientists make their work accessible and relevant?

Center for Political Studies (CPS) researcher and Professor of Political Science Arthur Lupia explores these questions in a recent article published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in the United States.

Making science relatable is no small task. Changing beliefs actually requires changing the structure of brain cells within neural networks. Scientists attempting to change beliefs face two challenges. First, audiences must pay attention to learn. Second, even with attention earned, politicized environments create resistance.

What can be done? Lupia incorporates cutting edge research on persuasion, communication, and knowledge to offer concrete tips to scientists seeking to connect with a broader audience.

1. Present information so that it’s easy for the audience to comprehend. The more understandable the content, the more likely people will listen. On the flip side, the more challenging the information, the more prior beliefs will interfere.

2. Keep the information non-threatening. When faced with threatening facts, people tend to create counterarguments.

3. Create common ground between speaker and listener. Overlapping interests increase source credibility.

Lupia champions these strategies as a way to connect to and inform diverse audiences without losing the value of the research. These tips target both political scientists and science researchers in general. Lupia concludes:

“If we take the time to make presentations that produce relevant and credible new memories for our audiences, we can help them to replace false beliefs with knowledge that scientists have evaluated and validated. Our claims can be memorable and persuasive while staying true to the science that we have discovered.”