PROFESSOR KELEBOGILE ZVOBGO DISCUSSES TRANSITIONAL JUSTICE AND STUDENT RESEARCH AT WILLIAM & MARY
Published: April 5th, 2022 – Written By: Jessica Liu
Professor Kelebogile Zvobgo, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Government at William & Mary, began her work at W&M in the Fall of 2019. Professor Zvobgo received her B.A. in International Relations and French Language & Literature from Pomona College in 2014. Later, she received her PhD at the University of Southern California (USC). Her research focuses on human rights, transitional justice, and international law and courts. Transitional justice involves acknowledging past human rights abuses, providing redress, and taking measures to prevent repetition.
Professor Zvobgo’s research interests on international justice are rooted in her undergraduate days, specifically during her study abroad experience in Paris, France. During her undergraduate study abroad experience at the Institute of Political Studies in Paris (Sciences Po), Professor Zvobgo situated her interest in transitional justice within the broad field of human rights.
Over time, her research began to focus on the role of commissions, which are non-judicial, non-retributive transitional justice measures that are implemented to gather evidence from witnesses, victims, and perpetrators about political violence. Commissions are used to construct a comprehensive narrative of the past and provide an authoritative national history that is fact-based, and to prevent past tragedies from reoccurring. These bodies also provide a range of policy recommendations, such as information disclosure, reparations, judicial reforms, and legal reforms.
Professor Zvobgo’s undergraduate senior thesis was based on the research she began in France, focusing on the role of perpetrators at truth commissions and how the design of these commissions can facilitate or hinder their participation.
“The idea is to construct a comprehensive narrative on the past so that you can have an authoritative national history that is fact-based.” This focus pivoted her broader research and interests in transitional justice.
At W&M, Professor Zvobgo founded the International Justice Lab (IJL), which is based at the Global Research Institute. IJL has allowed students to work side-by-side with Professor Zvobgo. Students have published academic papers in peer-reviewed journals and published articles in mainstream outlets like Foreign Policy Magazine and The Washington Post. Professor Zvobgo wanted to introduce a new and innovative research field that W&M students could explore within the Global Research Institute.
“In the Fall of 2019, I wanted to create opportunities for students to engage in research with me and on research on topics that … were not part of the focus of other labs at the Global Research Institute,” said Professor Zvobgo.
The pandemic has shifted how IJL members engage. However, Professor Zvobgo said that the transition from in-person to online meetings was seamless, with weekly meetings conducted online in the spring of 2020 and the 2020-2021 academic year. In-meetings resumed last fall. The lab outlines plans and discusses individual progress on research projects and other individual tasks. Although the online setting can inhibit the human connections the lab facilitated, working over Zoom opened many avenues for research and created a broader network for student research opportunities that were not limited to geographical location.
“My co-author [Daniel Posthumus, a student working at the IJL] was based in Japan. It was six in the morning for him when we would meet at 5 pm here in Eastern Time,” said Professor Zvobgo. “Had we not been using remote technologies, we potentially might not have been able to work together. We were able to have students based in Williamsburg, or who were zooming in from home, outside of Williamsburg, or half a world away.”
Professor Zvobgo has aimed for the topic of international justice to become more accessible to all students at W&M. In Spring 2022, she is teaching a GOVT 404 course called Transitional Justice in Question(s) and a COLL 150 course called Constructing Human Rights. Also, she is continuing her research with the IJL fellows. In the fall, she will teach International Law.
Professor Zvobgo previously spoke on a panel with the SSRMC in February of 2019, focusing on more sensitive topics (political violence and state responses to such violence) and research ethics. She hopes to collaborate with the SSRMC in the future.
Currently, she is completing her book, Governing Truths: NGOs and the Politics of Transitional Justice, using data collected with IJL fellows and, previously, students at the University of Southern California’s Security and Political Economy (SPEC) Lab. She hopes that in the following years, she and her student researchers will be able to travel to conferences to present their research together, similar to what Professor Zvobgo previously did with students in the SPEC Lab. Additionally, Professor Zvobgo plans to publish more research and papers within the IJL, and chase more intriguing and vital questions revolving around transitional justice and human rights.
BROADENING THE SSRMC’S ACADEMIC REACH VIA ITS DIGITAL ARCHIVE
Published: March 28th, 2022 – Written By: Jessica Liu
The Social Science Research Methods Center (SSRMC) helps students develop their research methods and data analysis skills in the social sciences. Student members of the SSRMC’s affiliated research labs produce excellent research, but often, it’s challenging to publish research as an undergraduate student. One step the SSRMC has taken to archive student research and make it accessible to the public is overseen by the SSRMC Web Developer, Aaraj Vij, who developed the SSRMC’s Digital Archive.
Vij first joined the SSRMC through the SSRMC’s Political Psychology and International Relations (PPIR) Lab, directed by Professor Marcus Holmes. Later, Vij became the SSRMC’s Web Developer and is responsible for managing the SSRMC’s webpage.
Since Vij joined the SSRMC, he has focused on building and maintaining the tools that support the SSRMC’s mission in developing undergraduate students’ skills in social science research. In addition to his tasks as the Web Developer, Vij works with the SSRMC leadership team to keep the SSRMC’s website up-to-date with research method training modules, student opportunities, interviews, and podcasts.
Additionally, Vij is developing the Digital Archive. The Digital Archive is designed to uphold the SSRMC’s mission of disseminating political and social science resources to undergraduate students, and serving as a hub for the research students and faculty affiliated with the SSRMC produce. With higher education learning and resources facing an unprecedented shift to online platforms, the establishment of the Digital Archive will become a valuable tool in providing supplementary resources to developing and promoting undergraduate political and social science research.
The Digital Archive will function like other databases, but its primary focus will be political and social science research for undergraduate students. Users will be able to search using keywords and categories to find research manuscripts. The SSRMC aims to curate a cohesive and accessible resource for undergraduate students and its broader audience.
“While students in groups like the Political Psychology and International Relations Lab and the Social Networks and Political Psychology Lab conduct amazing research, it can be difficult to publish as an undergraduate student. We wanted to build a platform that allows students to both share their own work and read their peers’,” says Vij.
Vij is currently working on a new feature for the Digital Archive: the ability to upload reports from the Social Networks and Political Psychology (SNaPP) and PPIR labs. Once each lab report is submitted to the Digital Archive, it will go through the SSRMC’s editing processes before a finalized product is entered into the system. More information on how to upload and view research will be provided soon.
If you are interested in the process of uploading your research and/or the status of the Digital Archive, please subscribe to the SSRMC email network by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also find the Digital Archive at the SSRMC website.
EMERGING FROM THE PANDEMIC
Published: November 3rd, 2021 – Written By: Jessica Liu
The pandemic shifted the way we live and interact with others, and the Social Science Research Methods Center (SSRMC) has not been an exception. During the pandemic, the SSRMC transitioned to a fully-online format. It remained connected with students via the Omnibus Project—the survey released each semester to undergraduate students completing government courses—there was a strong turnout for online events, and the SSRMC research labs met virtually. With the return of on-campus engagement this academic year, the SSRMC is preparing for more in-person events and opportunities for student research presentations during the Spring 2022 semester.
The goal of the SSRMC is to provide support and resources to help undergraduate students integrate into the social sciences and engage in research with faculty. It is a great opportunity for students to explore personal research interests by piloting studies via the Omnibus Project or collaborate on research projects hosted by one of the SSRMC’s labs: the Social Networks and Political Psychology (SNaPP) Lab with SSRMC Faculty Co-Director Jamie Settle; Political Psychology and International Relations (PPIR) lab with SSRMC Faculty Co-Director Marcus Holmes; Systematic Text Analysis for International Relations (STAIR) with Professor A. Maurits van der Veen; and Professor Manna’s research team.
The SSRMC team is excited about the academic year, as they prepare new ways to engage students and build community. Rachel Smith, SSRMC Director of Operations, shared her thoughts on the SSRMC during COVID, as well the transition back to campus.
“I started working with the SSRMC in Fall 2020. Due to the pandemic, I didn’t have the opportunity to see the SSRMC in action with students studying in the conference rooms and working as Omnibus proctors. This semester, most of the SSRMC’s functions are virtual, but things are slowly returning to normal. In the morning, students sequester themselves in the study rooms, and the research labs meet later in the day.”
Smith mentioned some of the upcoming opportunities for students, as well as plans to expand its influence on the campus. “We’re also excited about some new initiatives this academic year,” said Smith. “We want to establish a scholarship fund for student research, and we’re making plans for SSRMC students to present their research during the Spring 2022 Undergraduate Research Symposia.”
“In addition, the online Omnibus will be sent to students this semester, and we expect strong participation that is similar to what we had during the pandemic. In Fall 2020, when we partnered with the University of Georgia, 472 students engaged. In Spring 2021, 303 students engaged.”
Additionally, the SSRMC website features a new digital archive. This digital archive includes past research papers conducted by faculty and students within William & Mary, demonstrating what students can accomplish with the assistance of the resources and faculty at the center.
Professor Settle is excited about the SSRMC’s return to normal operations.
“It is exciting to be meeting in-person again in the SSRMC with my students. While the pandemic is still affecting our ability to collect data in the lab, we’re busy working on a research project that uses data collected online.”
If you would like to know more about getting involved with the SSRMC, please email us (email@example.com), or visit us in person! We’re located in the basement of Blow Hall.
SENIOR BRADLEY WILDING INVESTIGATES THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN “SNAPSHOTS” AND FOREIGN POLICY
Published: May 14th, 2021 – Written By: Rachel Smith
Bradley Wilding, a senior majoring in Government and Psychology, was featured in the International Affairs Forum, a publication of the Center for International Relations (CIR). CIR is a non-profit organization engaged in the distribution of ideas related to economics, international relations, and intelligence.
Wilding’s article, “Reinforcement, Flashbulb Memories, and Personality,” reviews research related to the impact images have on foreign policy. These images are called “snapshots” and become “flashbulb memories, where highly emotional, detailed, and vivid memories are recalled.”
Researchers investigate whether a relationship exists between a snapshot’s power (i.e., the degree of violence or gruesomeness it expresses), and the magnitude of a governmental response in terms of policy development and/or military action. The premise is that videos, such as the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center, and photographs, such as the Napalm Girl, “produce profound effects on the individual in their cognitive processes” and influence decision-making.
Wilding states it is important to consider governmental responses to snapshots because they can be used for “defending state interests” or “upholding issues of morality.” Thus, a gruesome snapshot, which contains more power, might yield a stronger governmental response. Or, a snapshot’s power might cause a nation to engage in self-defense to protect its interests. Consequently, these dynamics highlight a snapshot’s influence in terms of its ability to guide decision-making and shift public opinion.
Check out Bradley’s article here to read more.
PROFESSOR MARCUS HOLMES EXPLORES HOW AMERICANS ASSIGN INTENTIONALITY TO FOREIGN POLICY DECISIONS IN A NEW JOURNAL ARTICLE
Published: November 10th, 2020 – Written By: Leslie Davis
According to philosopher Joshua Knobe, people display systematic biases in the way they understand intentionality. People often interpret moments with bad outcomes as intentional, rather than outcomes with good or neutral results. William & Mary Professor Marcus Holmes, California State University Professor David Traven, and Stanford University lecturer Jonathan Chu realized Knobe’s ideas could have deep implications for International Politics, a discipline filled with questions about intentionality in foreign policy decision-making.
The three scholars examined this puzzle in their new journal article published in September 2020 entitled “Inferring Intentions from Consequences: How Moral Judgments Shape Citizen Perceptions of Wartime Conduct.” The article originated from a discussion the authors had about the 1999 NATO bombing of Belgrade, which resulted in the deaths of three journalists when the city’s Chinese embassy was hit.
“We were thinking that this [idea of intentionality] explains the Belgrade situation,” Holmes said. “People died and it was a bad outcome. If the Chinese people were looking at it and saying it was intentional, that might explain their reaction to it.”
Using Knobe’s idea, the three authors examined public perceptions on intentionality of wartime conduct. They found that Americans are likely to see wartime actions as intentional when they result in bad outcomes compared with identical scenarios with good outcomes.
Before fielding their experiment on a more representative sample of Americans through Mechanical Turk, the authors tested their experiment on the Omnibus Survey—a biannual survey the Social Science Research Methods Center administers on William & Mary undergraduate students.
Using a series of vignettes, the authors found that the students taking the survey behaved much like the broader sample of Americans. People hold biases that encourage them to think a scenario is intentional when the outcome is bad. The authors didn’t find huge differences between various subgroups within their sample, such as between Democrats and Republicans or liberals and conservatives.
“These kinds of biases don’t really map onto political ideology all that well,” Holmes said. “If you are a Democrat or a Republican, you are simply just as likely to have a sense of what’s intentional and what is not. There is nothing about the morality of these types of things that map onto Democrats and Republicans, so it makes sense that we wouldn’t find big differences between these groups, but I was still a little bit surprised not to find more of an effect.”
As the middle-ground perspective between Traven, who is a moral philosophy expert, and Chu, who specializes in political science experiments, Holmes described their efforts as a natural collaboration. Based on what they found, Chu, Holmes and Traven have a few ideas to extend their findings through future research.
They plan to pair qualitative case studies with their quantitative experiment to see if historical context and other factors impact how people assign intentionality to different scenarios. The authors also want to explore if the same results hold when examining decisions made in groups.
“There is some evidence to suggest that groups might be slightly more rational and less likely to have the types of biases that we are talking about, so one of our thoughts is let’s see if these results replicate if we have groups of people together and they have to talk to each other before they make a decision.”
Additionally, the authors hope to develop policy recommendations and offer guidance as a result of the study. According to Holmes, the policy recommendation generated from this study is to not jump to conclusions when assessing a scenario and the intentions behind it. Holmes said it is important to wait until the facts and data come in before making a judgement call.
“I think the recommendation is very straightforward, which is to say just don’t jump to conclusions,” Holmes said. “I think the NATO bombing is a great [example]. Immediately after the building gets bombed, all these people are jumping to conclusions saying it was obviously intentional. But why was it obviously intentional?”
In doing so, Holmes described that all three members of their team share the commitment of using research to further policy insight or guidance.
“We are not doing this research just for the sake of doing it,” Holmes said. “We want to create recommendations for policy makers or have some sense in which we can provide guidance for how to make better policy, and we all share that normative commitment as well.”
NEW ASSISTANT PROFESSOR ISRAEL-TRUMMEL TALKS POLITICS OF IDENTITY, RESHAPING THE NARRATIVE OF AMERICAN POLITICAL BEHAVIOR RESEARCH
Published: September 14th, 2020 – Written By: Leslie Davis
William & Mary’s newest government faculty member, Professor Mackenzie Israel-Trummel, was introduced to political science in a non-academic setting. As a sophomore at Occidental College, she and a cohort of fellow students traveled to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina to gut flooded houses. She also witnessed the politics of the storm and learned the city’s racial history.
Israel-Trummel said that her experience in New Orleans, and the student surveys she conducted of her classmates, which measured how their attitudes towards race changed due to the experience, led her on a path towards a summer research project, a senior thesis, and her first publication in graduate school.
“That experience made me super interested in how people form conceptions about the role of government, who deserves what from the state, and how those things play out in a white supremacist system, so that was how I got interested in political science,” Israel-Trummel said.
Israel-Trummel’s research in American political behavior reflects many of the themes she began studying as an undergraduate student. Her research examines how people form political beliefs and contemplate political participation, as contextualized through the lenses of race, gender, and governmental institutions like immigration enforcement and the carceral state.
One of Israel-Trummel’s current research projects explores how people’s evaluations of the police are impacted by policing in their areas and their individual experiences of being stopped by the police. Through this project, Israel-Trummel and her colleagues found that routine traffic stops degraded trust in police among white and Black Americans and increased their political participation. According to Israel-Trummel, this paper will be the first to connect both individual experiences with the police and local policing context to views of police behavior.
Race is one of the primary cleavages in American politics. Israel-Trummel emphasized how race is intertwined with every piece of American politics and how it has always been an integral topic in understanding American politics and history, rather than a topic that’s in vogue.
“It’s never not an interesting time — or never not an urgent time — but for some reason, people always think this moment is different than before,” Israel-Trummel said. “These things have been relevant and at the center of American politics for the entirety of our history.”
She also mentioned how much of the literature on race has been fairly marginalized by the field of political science, even though that is improving.
“It’s impossible to understand any piece of American politics or any piece American history if you are not thinking deeply about race, class, and gender and about how those things intersect with each other,” Israel-Trummel said.
To address these intersections, Israel-Trummel developed a course five years ago called Minority Political Behavior, which she is teaching in Spring 2021. The class focuses on how US minority groups behave politically, primarily focusing on identities concerning race and ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and religion.
Israel-Trummel said the young scholars entering the academy have transformed the field of minority political behavior into active space for research. By expanding and diversifying the discipline, there has been a shift in the dominant narrative within American political behavior literature, which according to Israel-Trummel, typically explains the trends associated with the political behavior of majority white populations.
“Within the democratic political context, thinking about groups that don’t have majority status is really important because it’s often very hard to claim power through the democratic process when you don’t have majority status,” Israel-Trummel said.
Israel-Trummel also mentioned that these areas are flourishing partly due to lower barriers to entry with certain research methods. For example, surveys have become significantly cheaper in recent years to collect data, especially on “blind spots” within the literature.
With her current project, the lack of questioning on interactions with the carceral state and poor documentation of policing data were two challenges Israel-Trummel faced.
“One of the primary ways that people interact with our government is through things like the police, and most political science surveys never asked about it. And most surveys that asked about it didn’t ask political science questions,” Israel-Trummel said.
Israel-Trummel navigated some of these issues by using surveys as her research method. She said that while surveys are not as good at getting at the “why” questions, they can provide vast explanations on larger trends.
“We lose the nuance of humans,” Israel-Trummel said. “That said, what we get from it are broad patterns of understanding of what’s happening and understanding in a more macro way, why we see the world that we see. And to me, that is worth it.”
NEREESE WATSON ’21 EXPLORES THE CONSEQUENCES OF PRIVATE PRISON SYSTEMS IN HER THESIS
Published: April 21st, 2020 – Written By: Leslie Davis
Just last fall, Nereese Watson ’21 joined the William & Mary community as a transfer student. One semester later, Watson began pursuing a year-long thesis project on an issue systematically impacting the U.S. justice system: the incentives of private prisons to exacerbate mass incarceration.
Watson shared more about the process of developing her topic and fostering relationship to her thesis advisor in the following interview.
Q: Tell me about the moments that led you to your thesis topic idea.
A: “I took a few Sociology classes that introduced the concept of the “School to Prison Pipeline” and private prisons, profiting from criminal justice policies that target Black and Brown people. Professor BenYishay recommended the documentary “13th,” which introduced me to the pre-trial detention piece.”
Q: Why is your thesis topic important to you?
A: “I have a strong interest in education policy and law. I see how these policies can have terrible consequences on students and family structures that set their descendants back. As someone who has benefited from migrating to the U.S. and well-resourced educational institutions, I take great objection to that.”
Q: Tell me about the relationship you have with your advisor, Professor BenYishay.
A: “I transferred to William & Mary as a junior last fall and Professor BenYishay was my pre-major advisor. The process of getting transfer credits and placing out of requirements can be very complicated and daunting and he was really supportive throughout my transition.
When I was brainstorming thesis topics, I reached out to him to get more information about the general honor thesis process. I was not sure whether I could complete my capstone project in a one-semester independent study or if it would be better suited as a thesis. In talking about the scope of my potential topic in private prisons, Professor BenYishay told me had been working on a project involving prison data and had a lot of resources that were very helpful.”
Q: What is one thing you hope people will take away from your research?
A: “I hope we continue to question who our institutions serve and at whose expense. My research should also be a reminder of the role of interest groups and think tanks in the political process. We all have an onus to be that counterbalance in the political process and hold our elected officials to democratic ideals.”
To learn more about Watson’s thesis or to donate to her project, visit the Charles Center fundraising website. Fundraising closes April 25 at midnight EST.
HOW ASHLEY HERNANDEZ ESTRADA ’21 DEVELOPED AN HONORS THESIS IDEA THROUGH HER FAMILY’S EMIGRATION STORY
Published: April 21st, 2020 – Written By: Leslie Davis
Even as students and faculty brace the coronavirus pandemic miles away from campus, research is still ongoing at the College of William & Mary. Among these research projects are undergraduate honors theses – the pinnacle research opportunity for students looking to complete their college careers and dive deeply into a year-long, individual project.
Ashley Hernandez Estrada ’21 is an honors thesis student, who was inspired by her mother’s emigration to create her honors project in the government department. Estrada shared more about the moments that shaped her project and her relationship with her research advisor in the following interview.
Q: Tell me about the moments that led you to your thesis idea.
A: “It started with my mother. She immigrated to the United States in 1995 to give her children a better life, leaving her entire family behind. Her story is characteristic of millions of the world’s marginalized people, many of whom are forced to move from their homes to pursue their livelihoods elsewhere. In my hometown, I frequently observed similar patterns of movement in which minorities were often displaced too, here as a result of high-end housing developments. Understanding the causes of this movement to be political and systematic, I wanted to study where marginalized people, specifically racial and ethnic minorities, live and move to in the United States and how their movement may affect local politics.”
Q: How did you refine your topic?
A: “I focused my topic by deciding to explain the levels of racial and ethnic diversity in an area over time as a possible result of income disparities between racial and ethnic groups and local housing availability and policies. To tie it to my political interest, I then adapted my topic to analyze how this shifting of racial and ethnic diversity may impact local politics through county-level voting. I hypothesize counties with a wider range of housing options and values will have more racial and ethnic diversity and that that diversity, in turn, influences that area’s voting patterns.”
Q: Why is your thesis topic important to you?
A: “In my parents’ home country of El Salvador, there is a severe wealth inequality which translates into real-world divisions of space, where the poor can only live and move in one area and the rich in another. In my hometown here in Virginia, I witnessed firsthand how people were restricted in where they could live when they had to move to make space for high-end housing developments and could find no other affordable place to live in the county. To me, displacement and restrictions of any kind are unjust as people have a right to remain where they have chosen to live and to access the resources tied to that area. With many American counties confronting serious shortages in affordable housing, displacement of American households seemed to be an incredibly important topic to study.
With phenomena like gerrymandering that systematically serve to disenfranchise people, I think it is extremely important to determine if the displacement of people due to a lack of affordable housing options within a county serves a similar purpose. If counties do not push for affordable housing options and prioritize high-end homes, then low-income people, frequently minorities, will just simply have to move away or end up homeless. Both that movement and the insecurity of a stable home can have a significant effect on how and where people vote. Housing policies may play a critical role in shaping local politics by perhaps moving or disenfranchising low income groups. These are high stakes for a topic that is extremely understudied.”
Q: Tell me about the relationship you have with your advisor, Professor Manna.
A: “When I first began studying at William &Mary, I had no idea what research was, let alone an honors thesis. As I began to learn about research, I had no real confidence in my abilities to ever even dream of becoming a researcher. Professor Manna was definitely among the first to make me realize what I was capable of doing. Through taking Research Methods and Quantitative Methods with him, I developed skills that I became excited to use in my own projects. He also frequently reached out to me, encouraging me to pursue opportunities he knew I would be well-suited for, including research opportunities. When I decided I wanted to do a thesis, largely as a result of his classes and his support, my choice for a thesis advisor was obvious. Not only does he have the methods expertise that I need for my project, Professor Manna is more importantly someone who I know values my ideas and input and will provide the support and constructive critiques I need to succeed.”
Q: What is one thing you hope people will take away from your research?
A: “I hope, above all, that my project expands people’s worldview. I know that if you are reading research papers or doing research yourself, there is likely an incredible amount of privilege involved. On my part, I know that reading research papers would never be a part of my experience if I did not have the ability to go to college. Higher education requires an incredible amount of wealth. Even for those of us who manage to attend through other ways such as loans or scholarships, it is far too easy to sit at a beautiful institution, or end up working a high-paying job, and still take that luxury for granted. So, in reading my research, I hope that people can take another look at their lives, their homes, and their neighborhoods. I want them to ask themselves questions they never have before such as: Who lives in my town and have they always lived there? Is it feasible for people of backgrounds other than my own to live here? Does everyone living here vote? With these questions, I hope people can reimagine the spaces they are living in with more objectivity and eventually work for increased accessibility, affordability, diversity, and political participation.”
To learn more about Estrada’s project or donate to her thesis, visit the Charles Center fundraising website. Fundraising closes April 25 at midnight EST.
PROFESSOR SHARAN GREWAL DISCUSSES PASSION FOR DEMOCRATIZATION STUDIES, RESEARCHING CLOSED INSTITUTIONS
Published: February 20th, 2020 – Written By: Leslie Davis
As an undergraduate at Georgetown, Professor Sharan Grewal decided to study abroad in Egypt to learn more about the Middle East in a post-9/11 and post War in Iraq context. He didn’t know at the time that watching Egypt shift from authoritarianism to democracy six months after the Arab Spring would spark his interest in democratization studies.
“I got to see Egyptians excited about an election for the first time, so that got me super inspired about democratization – about democratic transitions,” Grewal said. “And then fast forward two years and Egypt’s transition totally fails. It ends in a military coup. Even before that, you had this Islamist party come to power and you govern very exclusively – not cooperating with other parties. And so that got me thinking about when do democratic transitions succeed and when do they fail and what are the factors that can influence that?”
Eight years later, Grewal continues to study democratic transitions and political Islam as a new assistant professor in the College of William and Mary’s government department.
Grewal used his study abroad experience in Egypt as a foundation for his dissertation. In this project, he compared Egypt’s failure in its transition to a democracy to Tunisia’s success. Grewal found that the greatest factor in a transition’s success was the military’s role and interests in staging a coup.
“In Egypt, you had this very powerful military that had been running the show for 50 years,” Grewal said. “Under democracy, it saw its interests encroached upon. It lost its monopoly over national security decisions, over political decisions. And so, it felt aggrieved by democracy in a way that gave it fodder for a coup. In Tunisia, you saw the opposite. You had this very weak, neglected military that actually gained power under democracy. And so, it supports the transition, in fact, and supports democracy even more so than the average Tunisian.”
In order to understand the perspectives of those working in the military in Tunisia and Egypt, Grewal used a combination of interviews and targeted surveys.
Grewal used interviews to understand how the political parties, military personnel and transitional government perceived the transition. To analyze how a large sample of military personnel felt about the democratic transitions in both countries, Grewal used an ad campaign on Facebook, targeting those who had an interest in the military as detected by Facebook’s algorithms.
“We were doing these surveys to the general public,” Grewal said. “We did one in Turkey and then in Egypt and Tunisia of the general population. And then we noticed that as you’re buying these advertisements, you can target them on, you know, not just in gender and age, et cetera, but also in terms of their interests. So, we thought, ‘Why don’t we use these interests to target it to who we want?’ It made sense then to target them to military personnel in this case.”
Building from his past research, Grewal is now pursuing a research project with Professor Phillip Roessler on the perspectives of the military and protestors in the democratic transitions found in Sudan and Algeria. The pair is currently fielding a survey, using the same targeted ad technique as Grewal used for shis dissertation.
“In Phil’s case, it’s going to be incredible that he has this wealth of knowledge about Sudan,” Grewal said. “I can bring this new method about doing targeted surveys through Facebook and this interest I have on military. I think we’ll have a nice synergy between us because we have different substantive interests, but also country focuses and methodological differences as well.”
For his first year at William and Mary, Grewal said he is excited to teach his capstone course on political Islam in the fall and Middle Eastern politics in the spring. Grewal said he looks forward to seeing how undergraduates at the College engage with narratives about the Middle East and address common preconceptions.
“I’m excited to see what William and Mary students think about the region,” Grewal said. “What are their existing preconceptions about the Middle East? Are they similar to the stereotypes that I had when I was an undergrad? I want to see how they’ll engage with different perspectives about the Middle East.”
Through his courses, Grewal said he hopes to show the variation present in the Middle East and correct potential misconceptions about political Islam as a whole.
“The majority of Islamists are non-violent political parties and mass movements as opposed to terrorist groups, so it will be nice also to correct the perceptions in some ways,” Grewal said. “The topics that we are studying and perhaps the misperceptions that are generated from media and excessive attention that are given to certain groups and not others.”
PROFESSOR FIONA SHEN-BAYH TALKS MENTORSHIP, DEDICATION TO QUESTION-BASED RESEARCH
Published: September 30th, 2019 – Written By: Leslie Davis
When Professor Fiona Shen-Bayh started graduate school at the University of California Berkeley, she knew that she wanted to study political repression and autocratic regimes. Having family who lived during the Cultural Revolution, she thought this would be in the context of China.
Years later, Shen-Bayh found herself studying the legal, judicial and repressive dimensions of autocracy in the context of Africa instead. She continues to study this area as a new government assistant professor at the College of William and Mary.
Shen-Bayh attributes being introduced to these themes in Africa to a mentor she had during her Ph.D. program. He taught Shen-Bayh in his political violence class and later became her dissertation adviser. Shen-Bayh said that her adviser shaped her path in academia.
“This is the really important part of research is finding good mentors,” Shen-Bayh said. “He was just someone who is really easy to talk to and I could go with him with my unfleshed out ideas and he’d immediately have feedback for me. Being able to find a mentor like that, it really shaped my academic and research trajectory, and so that’s one of the reasons why I chose Africa as a place to study these themes.”
It was because of her mentor that Shen-Bayh said that she received the support to complete her dissertation, a project she is currently turning into a book manuscript.
“Research, it is a very isolating process because you do it alone,” Shen-Bayh said. “These are your questions and your ideas. You’re the one who has to write it up. Everybody does a dissertation by themselves — but you don’t. Because it’s actually impossible to do alone. You need a network of support and the most important node of that network is your mentor, your advisor. What my advisor at Berkeley provided for me was unconditional support and unconditional support across all of his mentees.”
In order to study the courts in various African countries, Shen-Bayh relies on data science methods like text processing to conduct her research. She didn’t have a computational background going into her dissertation, but instead acquired her technical skills when faced with large amounts of archival documents for the project.
“I was dealing with primarily archival material and legal text data,” Shen-Bayh said. “I started getting interested in digitizing these records just as a way to organize them so I could look at them later, and then realizing once I’ve digitized this corpus of a couple thousand documents, I can actually analyze it through computational text methods. That’s what sort of got me into a data science track. Everything kind of evolved very organically.”
Shen-Bayh taught herself how to code in python, scrape the web and automatically extract text data to research the courts in different African countries. She found that throughout her experience with these research methods, the most challenging part occurs in the preprocessing and cleaning stages.
“I think what you find with this data science stuff is that 80 to 90 percent of the hard work is cleaning the data,” Shen-Bayh said. “Once you get the data trained and organized in the way you want it to — the analysis is like a couple of lines of code. It’s the preprocessing, that takes forever.”
Despite her passion for these data science methods, Shen-Bayh stressed the importance of creative questions to drive research.
“The question matters,” Shen-Bayh said. “I think it’s really tempting to try to acquire all of these methods because it’s very new, it’s very flashy, it’s very exciting. But at the end of the day — and this is something which has become really apparent to me the longer I’ve been in academia — the thing that people really care about and the thing that’s rewarded is having interesting ideas. You’re evaluated not necessarily by how fancy or flashy your method is, but are you asking a question that people care about?”
Because of the “question-based research” she describes, Shen-Bayh advises students to find research topics they can defend their passion to others.
“People aren’t going to be convinced unless you’re convinced, so at the end of the day, focus on asking a question that you care about and then accumulating the methods that would be useful towards answering that question,” Shen-Bayh said. “Don’t let the methods carry you away.”
As Shen-Bayh enters her first semester of teaching at William and Mary, she is excited to teach a cross-listed course in Data Science and Government called “Leveraging Legal Data in Comparative Context.” In addition to her book manuscript, Shen-Bayh is hiring student research assistants to help complete her side project on ethnic bias in judicial decision-making in Kenya.
PANEL DISCUSSES ETHICS IN POLITICAL SCIENCE RESEARCH
Published: February 26th, 2019 – Written By: Grace Murray
On Friday, Feb. 15, Kelebogile Zvobgo, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Southern California, joined W&M Professors Paula Pickering and Philip Roessler in a discussion of ethics in political science. The event was moderated by Professor Dan Maliniak. The panelists discussed the realities of “safe research,” including one’s obligation to informants, to the communities a researcher is working in, and to co-researchers or students.
Zvobgo’s research focuses on human rights and the ramifications of violence across communities. Zvobgo repeatedly emphasized the desire to “do no harm” with her research. Zvobgo approaches communities in the aftermath of violence in her research on truth commissions; this necessitates delicate navigation of painful topics and highlights the need prioritize informed consent in research participants. Student researchers in attendance valued Zvobgo’s insight and experience.
“As most of the research-related courses I have taken at William & Mary focused on methods and design, the political science ethics discussion was a welcome reminder of the types of questions I should ask and the circumstances I should consider when preparing to conduct my own research in the field properly,” Henry Crossman ’19 said.
The panelists discussed the intricacies of approaching communities honestly and realizing aspects of the privileges of being a field researcher from the United States. Pickering expanded on her experiences examining the tradeoff of the value of salient research and its potential consequences, as well as how a researcher should maintain the trust of an informant even after leaving the field.
“Just because you’re in a fragile state doesn’t mean you can treat it differently from your own country,” Roessler said.
For students with an interest in studying in the field, the insights offered by the panelists will be carried into action in the near future. Emily Mudd ’19 has worked abroad with Roessler in his research in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania and has also worked as a Fellow with the Open Impact Institute in Kampala, Uganda.
“The panel was a great opportunity to reflect on our responsibilities as aspiring academics and researchers, and I’m grateful to all the panelists for sharing their insights,” Emily Mudd ’19 said.
The SSRMC is thrilled to have helped facilitate student engagement in Zvobgo’s visit to William & Mary. Zvobgo’s perspective provided context to help understand the complex dialogue surrounding ethics in political science research. The ethics panel began a critical conversation which will continue throughout the William & Mary community.
SCOTT WILKINSON SPEAKS TO DATA ANALYSIS, RESEARCH CAREERS
Published: November 17th, 2018 – Written By: Grace Murray
On Nov. 16, College of William & Mary alumnus Scott Wilkinson visited the SSRMC and discussed the use of data to understand and predict human behavior. Wilkinson explained his use of data analytics and client-focused perspective and answered questions regarding real-world applications of big data. Wilkinson attended a lunch with students in research groups across campus, had a tour of the SSRMC facilities, and led a talk on data analytics.
In 2009, Wilkinson founded AlphaVu, of which he is still the president, to meet the need he saw in market research for greater commitment to messaging strategies using innovative data analysis techniques.
“Our company focuses on taking data, understanding the client’s perspective, and translating that data,” Wilkinson said. “That takes understanding the client’s world and not just the data. [When hiring,] I’m looking for someone who is willing to be doing anything at any time and willing to communicate with our clients about their data.”
Wilkinson graduated from William & Mary with a degree in Government and later received his MBA. Many students attending the event sought advice on applying their degrees to different industries. However, Wilkinson was reluctant to credit his success on following a single path; he encouraged students to follow their interests rather than committing to a route.
“I’d advise not to take much advice,” Wilkinson said. “My own route was very unpredictable. You’re going to take missteps. If you’re focused on what you love doing, you’ll be surprised at the opportunities available for you.”
Students in attendance appreciated his push to find careers highlighting passions.
“I think the biggest thing I took away from the talk was how much you can take your interests and shape them to what your career path is going to be.” Emily Saylor ’20 said. “Hearing Wilkinson talk about how he created his own type of consulting with the data analysis techniques that he had learned was very interesting.”
For those currently applying to jobs and internships, Wilkinson’s talk provided reassurance that data analytics skills are transferable to a workplace environment whether they’re learned within the classroom, during collaborative research experiences, or while already in a career.
“Mr. Wilkinson’s perspective on hiring people to use data analytics is refreshing, especially since he is so much more focused on what people are willing to teach themselves instead of what they already know.” Katie DeLuca ’20 said. “As a self-designed Data Science major, I am always excited to learn that leaders in the field of data aren’t just looking for toolkit of skills but also a drive to use analytics to learn something new.”
Wilkinson’s visit highlights William & Mary’s new data science program. An emphasis on data analytics teaches students how to code in addition to showing students the tools necessary to synthesize and distill data analyses and the possible applications throughout an entire career.
“Data analysis is something that I’ve been trying to grapple with and learn more about in my time at William & Mary.” Saylor said. “I think Mr. Wilkinson really just showed me how vast that field is and how you can take it in whatever direction you want. Statistics, coding, and data visualization can be really beneficial for innumerable different situations.”
SSRMC FACILITATES WATCH PARTY, TRIVIA GAME FOR MIDTERM ELECTION
Published: November 7th, 2018 – Written By: Grace Murray
On Nov. 6, the SSRMC held a watch party for the midterm election results. Students gathered for pizza and a trivia competition with content from the current election.
“The SSRMC really wanted an opportunity for students to see more of what we do but also to be able to make predictions using their scientific understanding of politics,” said Emma Butler, the SSRMC student director. “Students applied their outside knowledge of politics, voting patterns and behaviors of American citizens. It was a good opportunity for students of all backgrounds and partisan identities to enjoy our democracy.”
While politics may be a delicate subject for some, the watch party fostered non-partisan camaraderie in students’ appreciation for the statistics portions of the evening. Each attendee was asked to place their bets on who they thought would win specific races.
“Viewing election results is more exciting when you’re with people,” Patrick Wachter ’19 said. “You can bounce ideas and predictions off each other.”
Students from diverse backgrounds across campus attended, including several international students seeking to understand what United States politics look like on the home front.
“I think American politics has an impact on the entire world,” said Sebastian Lembacher, an exchange student from Austria. “I thought I’d get some insight and some opinions from Americans on the election. That’s something I’m really interested in because for Europe in general sometimes it’s hard to understand why things happen in the United States.”
The evening’s festivities culminated with a fast-paced game of trivia led by Jakob Stalnaker ’16. Four teams of students fought through six rounds of questions targeting knowledge of state and national candidates.
“I think [the trivia] was very interesting,” said Sabina Stroband, an exchange student from the Netherlands. “At my home university I specialize in North America so also during the presidential elections it was very important to me to watch it. Since I’m here, I could watch it in my bed, but it’s more fun to come and to sit with more people and learn something as well.”
Wachter and Leah Roemer ’19 edged out the competition as the winning team. They credit their success to simply staying politically aware and regularly engaging with news.
“I really like political trivia and I didn’t realize it would pay off in this way,” Leah Roemer ’19 said. “I don’t think of myself as a political junkie, but it made me think of how often I read about politics. Probably 45 minutes each day. My family has an iMessage group chat where we just send pictures of our dog and political articles. That keeps me knowledgeable.”
While trivia was an entertaining way of engaging with the election, many attendees stayed after the game had finished to continue discussing predictions and reactions. The implications of each race resonated throughout the room.
“This is obviously a really important and key election,” Roemer said. “It’s cool that we’re young for it and seniors in college. This is going to decide our future, so I wanted to do more than just watch it on my computer in my room.”
Research Prepares, Informs Students for Career Opportunities
Published: November 5th, 2018 – Written By: Grace Murray
On Oct. 22, the SSRMC held a forum gathering questions from current students on how to best communicate research experience when looking for jobs and internships. Led by Professor Jaime Settle, Co-Director of the SSRMC, and Emma Butler, Student Director of the SSRMC, those present discussed the importance of developing skills in communicating experience beyond William & Mary.
At the end of this forum, students wrote out questions which were sent to recent alumni of SSRMC affiliate labs. In the following weeks, alumni from varying career paths responded with reflections on their undergraduate research experience and advice for current students.
Jonah Abraham, Class of 2017, is a former member of the SNAPP Lab and received a Master of Business Analytics from the Mason School of Business in 2018. Abraham is now working in strategy analytics at Deloitte.
“W&M, especially in the liberal arts department, focused on writing and clear communication which is absolutely helpful. A lot of what I do on a day to day is communicating,” Abraham said. “I might be programming but being able to distill that is key. William & Mary is all about communicating clearly, even in the business school. Another kind of big thing at William & Mary is that it helped me focus my analytical skills. This is really vital.”
A benefit of William & Mary’s focus on the liberal arts is the push to blend the qualitative and quantitative sides of subjects. As Abraham makes clear, this allows students to not only have the skills to code but to explain and analyze code as well.
“The fact that you’re able to synthesize complex ideas from academic papers is a really valuable skill. You’re adding value with your ideas, but you have presentation skills and writing and communication skills,” Abraham said. “If you’re going to do research, presenting your research is absolutely vital. That’s really impressive and it shows you have presentational skills and you’re confident in using them. That’s what a lot of your job ends up being. If you can’t get your ideas across you might as well not have done it.”
Alyssa Harrison, Class of 2017, is a research assistant at a law firm in D.C. During her time at William & Mary, Harrison was involved in a variety of clubs across subjects, including University Advancement, Economics Club and the International Relations Club. Harrison credits her close relationships with professors in the government and economics departments as key players during her job search.
“Sometimes there’s a different between saving the world and working on the microscale,” Harrison said. “I didn’t realize the importance of that until senior year and I was trying to narrow what I was interested in the long term. In preparing for my post-college plans, I needed to think ‘what steps can I take to [prepare] for grad school, what can I do’.”
Harrison emphasized how important it was to communicate with professors while still at William & Mary as well.
“If I could offer one single piece of advice, it would be to encourage people to reach out to people that do really cool things. One of the bet parts of the William & Mary education is our faculty that believe very strongly in our undergraduate research,” Harrison said. “There’s a lot of value in reaching out to people that inspire you and to ask questions and ask for advice. I would also say take classes that are hard. It is really good to push yourself out of your comfort zone. Failure doesn’t define you and learning how to struggle teaches you a lot about critically important situations.”
Shannon Caietti, Class of 2017, was a member of the SNAPP Lab, the Vice Chair of Honor Council and an Orientation Area Director through First Year Experience. She is now working as a paralegal with the Brookings Institution.
“[Undergraduate research] gave me exposure to what I can do outside of college in the world of academia,” Caietti said. “I developed a basic skill set in doing research with literary databases, programming languages, and presentation platforms that has made me a marketable candidate for jobs. [This] instilled confidence in me to explore and become familiar with more complex technology in my workplace. You don’t just [use research] skills in an academic or research driven environment.”
Whether undergraduate students are looking to enter the consulting world, academia, or law, research lends transferrable experiences for all. The SSRMC is always eager to link students with potential labs or professors – don’t hesitate to reach out!
Welcome back to the SSRMC!
Published: September 9th, 2018 – Written By: Grace Murray
As the fall semester takes off, and the City of Williamsburg recovers from Hurricane Florence, we are excited to see you soon in the SSRMC. With a packed schedule ahead, there is ample opportunity to learn more about student research and get involved with our learning opportunities. Here’s a look at events to come!
Originally scheduled for Thursday, September 13th, and with a new date to be announced, Professor Holmes will be giving a talk on his new book – Face-to-Face Diplomacy: Social Neuroscience and International Relations. Professor Holmes’ book studies the continuing importance of face-to-face interactions in international relations. More on his book can be found here.
The SSRMC’s open house took place on Friday, September 14th. All SSRMC affiliated students should contact our director, Emma Butler, in order to confirm that they are all set with paperwork for the new school year.
“We kicked off the year with an excellent presentation by Professor Cantu,” Student Director Emma Butler said. “We have several events coming up in the next few months that should be good. I’m excited to meet some really interesting political scientists and data scientists, and the opportunities of getting to hear from speakers that we wouldn’t otherwise have if the SSRMC wasn’t here.”
Professor Settle will be acting as sole director this semester as Professor Holmes fully enjoys his sabbatical. Emma Butler will be taking over as Student Director and Hayden Le will be taking over the behind-the-scenes work as our Technical Director. Caroline Fagan and Grace Murray will continue as Omnibus Director and Science Writer, respectively.
“The Omnibus applications this year were due September 21st,” Fagan said. “This year is going to be fun because we have an in-person component, which we did not have last year. [Students] will have the experience of participating in a lab experiment.”
Looking ahead, the Omnibus Project will launch this October. If you interested in learning more about the project, check out our website for more information! We are also thrilled to host Scott Wilkinson this November – he will speak on applications of data science in the political space.
The SSRMC will host Data Science Consultants this semester. Stop by for assistance in data science classes, or to speak about the consultants’ experience.
“The biggest part of the job is helping people get over the mental block that coding is something they can’t do,” said Le, a Data Science Consultant and our Technical Director. “[Coding] is a syntax people aren’t used to, but when you get over the shock of learning a new language, you can start to articulate yourself better in that language.”
ALUMNUS PRESENTS WEBSCRAPING, API WORKSHOP
Published: December 15th, 2017 – Written By: Grace Murray
On Thursday, Nov. 30, Justin de Benedictis-Kessner, a member of the College’s Class of 2011, guided students and faculty through a tutorial on webscraping and data analysis in R, a statistical computing software and language.
de Benedictis-Kessner received his PhD from MIT in June 2017 and is now working for the Boston Area Research Institute, an organization that partners with Harvard and Northeastern to promote advanced interuniversity research. In the light of his post-graduate success, de Benedictis-Kessner credits his time at the College for planting the seeds of academic interest which have led him to return.
“[Professor] Rapoport got me really interested in research in political science and taught me that playing around with data that has not been explored yet can be really rewarding and fun. You can learn new skills, and it also can be part of your career,” de Benedictis-Kessner said. “I ended up going to grad school and realizing that a lot of underexplored data sources are on the internet. So I thought it would be good to show some of the ways that I’ve gathered data for my research and also the way that a lot of different companies are gathering data or interacting with humans. It could be a fun skill for undergrads to pick up at a much earlier stage than I was able.”
Graduating with a B.A. in Government and Psychology, and as a member of Phi Beta Kappa, de Benedictis-Kessner wrote an Honors Thesis for the government department on “The Tea Party In American Politics.” His work evaluated social and political movements in an attempt to understand the placement of the Tea Party movement and its function. de Benedictis-Kessner still focuses on American politics and political behavior, but with an increasingly data-focused and empirical lens. In 2014 he co-authored an article with Professor Rapoport further analyzing the impact of third parties and their candidates.
The chart of de Benedictis-Kessner’s research displays the evolution of his outlook towards research methods. His time at MIT, and the extremely challenging methods classes he took, have given him an appreciation for the opportunities made available through data analytics.
“I think there has been an arms race in terms of quantitative methods and I definitely opted-in to that. It was really tough, but that was the rewarding part of it. Some of the training you come out of grad school with is great for a variety of purposes. For research, yes, but also if you want to get a job [outside academia]. That’s pretty cool to say you came out of grad school with marketable skills for a variety of career paths.”
Many of the students attending the workshop hoped to take away knowledge which would set them up similarly for the career options which de Benedictis-Kessner has obtained.
“I’m a data science major, and I want to try and learn web-scraping to get data off the internet,” said Daniel Tay, a senior and a former member of SNaPP lab attending the workshop. “A lot of data is available online but people just don’t know how to access it. I just started the data science major this semester but I’m really excited by the prospects of data analysis and what we can do to learn that.”
Not only will a knowledge of webscraping and data analysis set undergraduates up well in the long run, but students will also be able to undertake more challenging and relevant research while still at the College.
“More and more, when students want to do research, they want to use stuff you can find online, and it is enormously beneficial if you can get that in an automated way rather than going item by item,” Professor Maurits van der Veen said. “Any type of automated webscraping is going to make it easier for students to do their own research projects rather than relying on someone else to gather the data. The more students can develop their own data sets and their own data, the more interesting their research can be.”
Undergraduate research certainly played a role in de Benedictis-Kessner’s experience, and he has advice for students hoping to move in an empirically-driven research direction.:
“Definitely start asking faculty members if they can help advise you on research projects early on, and start thinking of ideas that test hypotheses as early as you can,” de Benedictis-Kessner said. “That’s the process of research that’s really exciting and that’s what it’s all about. The data gathering that we [talked] about today is just one piece of that. If you don’t have an interesting research question, getting all of the data in the world will not help you. What’s more useful is to consider ‘what’s a unique data source?’ that you can use to test some political phenomenon that you want to know about.”
Though data analytics are frequently depicted as meticulous and difficult, there are numerous options available to William & Mary students. The data science track, new this year, allows students to learn both programming skills while simultaneously developing research design skills and grappling with the ethics of data science . Additionally, the SSRMC offers numerous tutorials and modules for students interested in expanding their knowledge outside the classroom.
“Watch tutorials,” Professor van der Veen said. “Lots of students are intimidated but there’s not that much to actually be intimidated about. If you watch or read a tutorial online, you’ll notice pretty quickly that you don’t actually need to know that much to do this kind of data collection yourself.”
Many of the tutorials needed to get started are already provided on our website. The SSRMC’s modules cover the basics of R, webscraping, experimental design, and more. The staff of the SSRMC is currently in the midst of a campaign to raise funds to create more modules as part of a Methods Mastery Series. These modules would increase access to data science tutorials and guidelines, thereby increasing the use of methods such as de Benedictis-Kessners. If you’re interested in donating, please check out our funding page in order to further the success of students interested in programming and empirical methods.
The slides from de Benedictis-Kessner’s presentation, and more information regarding his career and studies, are available on his website.
ROUNDTABLE DEBATE EVALUATES SOCIAL SCIENCES’ EVIDENCE
Published: November 12th, 2017 – Written By: Grace Murray
On Wednesday, Nov. 8, the SSRMC hosted a roundtable debate discussing the use of evidence within the social sciences. Arguing in defense of their preferred form of research, Professors Kaplow and McKinney evaluated, and debated, their use of evidence in their research in front of a packed house.
Professor McKinney’s work centers on a philosophical restructuring of the debate on reproductive rights. She characterizes this as a hermeneutical approach, or an interpretational method of evaluation. Professor Kaplow researches nuclear weapons’ impact on diplomacy and ways to predict future policy change, such as which states are most likely to acquire and retain nuclear weapons. This depends on empirical evaluation and an assessment of statistical significance.
Professor Holmes, acting as debate moderator, opened up by asking both academics to expand on how they conceptualize evidence.
“The way I like to think about evidence is very contextual. Evidence is anything that is useful in persuading somebody in the legitimacy of an idea,” Professor McKinney said. “That means a couple of different things; it means both that this is highly dependent on the ideas you’re trying to propose and that it’s highly culturally contingent. When we think about evidence we always have to think about what is the aim and what is the audience.”
On the empirical side, Professor Kaplow characterizes his work as understanding the function of the world. He likened it to the job of a car mechanic; although most people understand a bit about how a car works, the mechanic sees how it all works together and can attempt to predict or resolve any issues.
“It’s nice to have the opportunity to think more about what we mean when we say evidence and how we use it. Sometimes we don’t interrogate how we’re doing research,” Professor Kaplow said. “I conceptualize evidence in a couple of ways: first, I’m concerned that the evidence represents the theoretical construct that I’m trying to interrogate…Another way is in terms of probabilities. We don’t conceive of our theories in a deterministic way. We want to look for some bigger trend or bigger picture.”
In addition to discussing the use of data within their respective disciplines, the professors acknowledged the shortcomings and inherent difficulties they both experience. Professor Kaplow emphasized the lack of comprehensive data sets, and the fact that parts of his research are only working with fragments of information available.
“All of us who are doing empirical political science, especially using datasets that are out there in the world being used over and over again, are struggling with the fact that this data has problems,” Kaplow said. “So whenever you set out to use it, you need to understand how those problems are going to bias your findings. That’s our protection against using bad data. I don’t think we should stop doing science as we wait for data to get better.”
Professor McKinney emphasized another area in which data abuse occurs by pointing out potential shortcomings in the peer review process.
“What you’ll discover in the process of peer review is confirmation that there is no golden standard for the production of knowledge,” Professor McKinney said. “We’re actually deeply within knowledge communities that have standards and ways of keeping the gates up letting things in that are within it and excluding things that are without it.”
A crowded room of students witnessed their amicable debate and had the chance to ask their own questions after the discussion slowed down. Ranging from the impact of the 2016 election on statistical evidence to the importance of peer review, the discussion fluctuated between disciplines.
“I’m interested in international affairs and how you can use data to predict,” freshman Danielle Batterman said. “I think it was really interesting how different people use data for different reasons, and how they define it differently. I feel like that can influence how people perceive different datasets and different findings.”
Students present had varying levels of research experience, but all had the opportunity to learn as there were such diverse areas of research represented. Students in statistically based labs were newly exposed to Professor McKinney’s logically evaluative approach, while students in more theory-heavy classes learned more about Professor Kaplow’s use of empirical data.
“The approach that we take in STAIR lab is a lot of text analysis so we take a pretty data driven approach,” junior Ryan Semsil said. “But then Professor McKinney’s approach is just something that we don’t consider more or less but it’s something that is valid and really important. Even though we do a really data driven approach, there are different approaches with equal merit.”
The debate was called a draw, as both professors were judged to have defended their perspectives thoroughly and thoughtfully. The exchange fostered a broad conception of evidence and highlighted the ability of students to find research that draws their interest. The drastic differences in the professors’ conceptions of evidence and application thereof share a glimpse of the variety of forms that data may assume, while underlining that both are crucial to the social sciences.
SSRMC OPEN HOUSE WELCOMES, INFORMS STUDENTS
Published: November 5th, 2017 – Written By: Grace Murray
On Friday, Oct. 27, Professor Amy Oakes’ Research Methods students flooded the SSRMC. Throughout the afternoon, staff members from the SSRMC and lab members from PPIR, SNAPP, and ITPIR spoke with students to outline the research and career opportunities open to them.
“[I learned about] all the different opportunities the international relations, government, and public policy programs offer and how you can do so many different types of research here at William & Mary and within the government department,” freshman Anna Fridley said. “Also, [I learned] how to apply to the different programs and how to get credit for it as well. It was a really cool opportunity. I’m excited William & Mary has all these things and how students have gotten published.”
In addition to becoming familiar with the SSRMC facility itself, the open house served to inform students of the plethora of academic and professional choices at their fingertips. The social sciences contribute a heavy portion of research on campus; the government research labs available within the SSRMC offer intense application of real skills. William & Mary ranks seventh for undergraduate research in public universities across the nation. The research groups affiliated with the SSRMC help contribute to this accolade.
“I didn’t realize that [research groups] were all under one giant umbrella. There are a lot of research opportunities that are funded that I had no idea existed,” Hannah Richmond said. That’s cool and a little scary at the same time because you feel like you want to get involved in so much. I think that was the biggest thing that I learned.”
Research within the SSRMC moves at quick pace, but students are closely guided by professors to facilitate growth. This not only fosters important academic relationships, but also allows students to realize what they are capable of accomplishing. Speaking directly with lab members showed Professor Settle and Professor Holmes’ impact on their students’ time and course of study.
“I got to speak to the students about the layout of PPIR, specifically about the kinds of assignments you do, the workload, and the like,” junior Nora Logsdon said. “I also tried to allay any anxieties they might have about taking on an independent research project by emphasizing how helpful and supportive Professor Holmes is throughout the process. Hopefully I was able to convey what a valuable experience it is, and maybe convince some of them to become a part of this lab.”
Although the open house only lasted the afternoon, opportunities to access the SSRMC never end. From stopping by to talk to lab students to actually joining a lab, growing comfortable with undergraduate research opens up the future for William & Mary students.