Research News

Encouraging Interdisciplinary Dialogue

Scholars discuss race, political participation, news data, and more

The University of Michigan's Donald Kinder discusses prejudice and public opinion as they relate to the 2008 presidential election.

The ninth annual Chicago Area Political and Social Behavior (CAB) Workshop previewed some cutting-edge social and political science research to the 80-plus faculty and graduate students at Northwestern University on May 8. The conference melded scholars from a host of disciplinary backgrounds, including those outside of political science, all of whom who used an array of methodological approaches to produce thought-provoking research.

The conference’s variety “made it truly reflective of IPR’s interdisciplinary and multimethod foundation,” said IPR political scientist and associate director James Druckman, who organized the workshop.

“There also, once again, seemed to be wonderful interactions between students and faculty,” he added. “I can imagine some of these relationships will result in collaborations. I am very much looking forward to next year.”

Taking History Seriously

Many hailed President Barack Obama’s election in 2008 as the dawn of a post-racial era—but was it? Examining data before and after the election from the General Social Survey and the American National Election Study, the University of Michigan’s Donald Kinder discovers that racial prejudice shaped public opinion on certain policies more post-election than it did pre-election. The president is constantly in the news, Kinder explained, and each time President Obama appeared, it reminded Americans that he is black. As such, they were “primed” to think of some issues in a racial light that, ostensibly, had little to do with race before the election, for example, the Affordable Care Act and income inequality, because a black president was bringing attention to them. Kinder also finds that political parties were more divided by race after the election than before it, with black voters increasingly voting Democrat. These results illustrate “how far we have to go before race disappears from our politics,” Kinder said.

Political Participation in the Digital Age
Cathy Cohen presents a web survey of "participatory politics."
The University of Chicago’s Cathy Cohen and Christopher Berk say that the affordances of interactive and peer-based new media engender “participatory politics” among young adults. Unlike traditional methods of political engagement, such as campaign work or donating to elections, participatory politics is not guided by deference to elites or elite institutions. Moreover, in some cases people with less income and resources, such as low-income black youth are most heavily engaged in this domain. While engaging in participatory politics might not predict a person’s involvement in traditional politics, or their likelihood of voting, Cohen and Berk argue that looking at this “participatory culture” will provide new insights into how 21st century democracy works. They will investigate the topic using nationally representative survey data collected from more than 2,500 15- to 25-year-olds via the MacArthur Research Network on Youth and Participatory Politics.

Survey Sampling

Researchers launching a survey must consider how to get the most for their money, as well as think about what they are trying to infer when they ask different research questions of different groups of respondents, noted IPR sociologist Jeremy Freese, who co-directs a major national survey and an NSF program for embedding experiments in surveys. They also have to pay attention to survey response rates, which have eroded over time. Michael Stern of the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago discussed an alternative approach: They ran a web survey, then conducted home visits on a random sample of nonrespondents. The home visits, while expensive to conduct, did improve the response rate and boosted underrepresented groups in the initial survey—for instance, 25- to 49-year-olds, and corrected others that were overrepresented.

Do Voters Contribute More to the Public Good?

Are voters more cooperative in general than other citizens? Do conservatives and liberals respond differently when asked to contribute to the public good? Using actual voter turnout data from elections between 1990–2008 and water meter readings for more than 100,000 households in Cobb County Georgia, Georgia State University’s Toby Bolsen set out to answer if voters were more responsive to a randomized pro-social request to conserve water compared to less frequently voting households. Households in a treatment group received a first-class letter highlighting the importance of conserving water during a drought, from a tip sheet for reducing water, to a letter informing them that they used more water than their neighbors. He found that nonvoters reduced their water consumption by 690 gallons on average upon receiving a request to conserve water, while the most frequent voters reduced their consumption by an average of 3,197 gallons over the summer months of 2007. Bolsen also examined party affiliation and voting frequency in primary elections, finding that Democrats and Republicans responded similarly to the request for action during the local drought.

Rachel Davis Mersey describes partnerships to access news data.

Capitalizing on News Data for Political Research

Tapped by a major international news organization to design a news app for 18- to 34-year-olds, IPR mass communication scholar Rachel Davis Mersey was astounded at the variety of data being collected, from audience demographics to information about users’ leisure activities and favorite brands. Becoming partners was a win-win proposition, she said. It allowed the organization to benefit from her expertise in interpreting the data, and she was able to use it for her own research. Mersey urges political scientists to think about creating “the right kind of partnership,” one that helps an organization advance its mission, while offering a valuable opportunity to develop research.

James Druckman is Payson S. Wild Professor of Political Science and an IPR fellow and associate director at Northwestern University. Donald Kinder is Philip E. Converse Distinguished University Professor of Political Science, Professor of Psychology, and Research Professor at the University of Michigan. Cathy Cohen is David and Mary Winton Green Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago. Christopher Berk is a doctoral candidate in political science at the University of Chicago. Jeremy Freese is Ethel and John Lindgren Professor of Sociology and an IPR fellow at Northwestern University. Michael J. Stern is a fellow at the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago. Toby Bolsen is assistant professor of political science at Georgia State University and a former IPR graduate research assistant. Rachel Davis Mersey is associate professor of journalism and an IPR fellow at Northwestern University.