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Faculty Spotlight: James Druckman

A scholar of political science and purple pride

James Druckman

IPR political scientist James Druckman investigates what affects, and changes, our opinions.

Purple pride flows strongly through James Druckman’s veins: His father, Daniel, graduated from Northwestern with a PhD in 1966. The junior Druckman went on to not only attend Northwestern as an undergraduate, but also eventually found his way back to the University as a professor, mentor, and one of the nation’s leading political scientists. 

“Northwestern is a very unique place in terms of its size and the available interdisciplinary opportunities,” said Druckman, who is an IPR fellow and also its associate director. “You can really be in touch on a personal level with undergraduates and get them involved in research.”

His research—which he often works on with both undergraduates and graduate students—focuses on the study of public opinion. Growing up in Washington, D.C., led to Druckman's interest in politics. That interest, joined with another in psychology, led him to study public opinion, which he sees as probing “the psychological but in a political domain.” 

But perhaps more importantly, examining how citizens form opinions and how governments respond to those opinions “gets at the heart of studying the quality of democracy,” Druckman said.

Why Is Framing Important?

When Druckman started working on his PhD dissertation at the University of California, San Diego in the 1990s, he realized that “framing” was inconsistently used across the social sciences. So he zeroed in on it.

Frames can influence how we talk and think about issues. For example, politicians, pundits, and others seek to evoke certain perspectives, or frames, by using particular words, images, and phrases.

In a 2004 Presidential Studies Quarterly article, Druckman presented an experiment that revealed how then-President George W. Bush primed Americans, just a few months after 9/11, to think more about terrorism and homeland security over other issues. Bush did this by devoting half of his 2002 State of the Union address to the topic. Why? In the intervening months, Americans had shown a growing interest in the economy, where Bush’s approval rating was much lower, while his approval rating on national security was at 86 percent. Hence he sought to focus citizens on national security, which in turn would lead to higher approval ratings.    

While that was just one frame, Druckman has also explored how competing frames fare. In the Journal of Communication in 2007, Druckman and his co-author Dennis Chong of the University of Southern California, a former IPR fellow, identified that a particular frame “wins” based on its availability, accessibility, and applicability: An individual has to connect the frame and the issue at hand, the frame must come to mind when thinking about the topic, and it must be either persuasive or compelling.

Effective Science Communication

While Druckman’s body of work has broached many pertinent topics from more accurately measuring college athletes’ alcohol and drug use to how candidates use the web in their political campaigns, it is his work on energy policy and science communication that has taken on a growing importance—especially in an age where bad press threatens good science.

Druckman lays out the three key threats to effective science communication. First, people often rely on inaccurate or irrelevant information. In a 2015 article that appeared in Nature Climate Change, Druckman found individuals base their beliefs on available information, such as the temperature that day—which in the experiment Druckman presented was 10 degrees higher than normal. However, he was able to mitigate this “local warming effect” by prompting survey respondents to consider the weather over all of the last year. Inducing individuals to think about longer-term climate circumvented reliance on the temperature from a particular day.

Partisan polarization is the second threat, as people tend to seek out information that confirms their partisan beliefs. They also typically view evidence consistent with their partisanship as stronger. In a survey about the 2007 Energy Act, which had mixed party support, Druckman and his colleagues, IPR social policy expert Fay Lomax Cook and Toby Bolsen, a former IPR graduate research assistant now at Georgia State University, found respondents increased support when they were told about an endorsement from their political party. When the endorsement came from the opposite party, they reduced support. Druckman and his co-authors did find, however, that this type of partisan reasoning could be overcome when respondents were asked to justify their opinions.

A final threat is the politicization of science, in which individuals exploit the uncertainties about science to cast overall doubt on the science. This causes people to default to known situations or technologies rather than risk trying new ones. A 2014 Public Opinion Quarterly study found telling respondents about the relative environmental advantages of nuclear energy increased support for its use. However, politicizing the issue (i.e., reminding respondents that science is selectively used for partisan purposes) counteracted this effect, and overall support decreased.

Improving Quantitative Methods

In addition to his groundbreaking working on public opinion and framing, Druckman has also made a significant investment in improving methodology in the field and in the social sciences generally.

Starting in 2012, Druckman in league with former IPR fellow Jeremy Freese, now at Stanford, brought Time-Sharing Experiments in the Social Sciences (TESS) to Northwestern. Funded by a National Science Foundation Grant, TESS is a platform where researchers can conduct general population experiments.

TESS is able to run multiple surveys at once among a representative sample, allowing for an economy of scale for research. Druckman said the program is opening up avenues for novel research among different areas of the social sciences, with hundreds of papers written using TESS data over the years. 

A single study in TESS costs about $15,000, compared to about $500 on Amazon's Mechanical Turk. In an article that appeared in the Journal of Experimental Political Science, Druckman, along with Freese and current and former IPR graduate RAs Kevin Mullinix and Thomas Leeper, compared the results of TESS studies to identical ones run on Mechanical Turk. Results show that under certain conditions the cheaper sample is sufficient, but the authors stress that Mechanical Turk is often not a substitute for population samples.

His Greatest Accomplishment: Mentoring the Next Generation

Inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, one of the nation’s highest honors for academics, when he was in his early 40s, Druckman brushes off such heady accolades. Rather, he cites his work with his students as his most significant achievement, eclipsing the more than 90 journal articles he has published over his career. 

“I think helping students learn the methods of sound research and collaborating with them is one of the most important things I can do,” Druckman said. “They can then move on and work on more applied studies, and sometimes they will go on to teach their own students.” 

Bringing students into the research process is not the only work Druckman does for the research community. As the organizer of the Chicago Area Political and Social Behavior Workshop, he takes pleasure in connecting people with different research interests who might eventually collaborate.

“I try to create a community of scholars that can connect across disciplines,” Druckman said. “IPR is so important to me because it provides this type of community.”

James Druckman is Payson S. Wild Professor of Political Science, IPR associate director, and an IPR fellow.