Can Gerrymandering be Measured? Here Come the Mathematicians

By Brian Hollenbeck and Michael Smith of Emporia State University

Just weeks ago, the U.S. Supreme Court acted to sharply limit the role of the courts with regards to partisan gerrymandering. In Rucho v. Common Cause, the Court majority upheld the Davis v. Bandemer case of 1976, reaffirming that partisan gerrymandering is a “political question” and refusing to intervene. In Rucho, the Court found that “None of the proposed ‘tests’ for evaluating partisan gerrymandering claims meets the need for a limited and precise standard that judicially discernible and manageable.” They also noted that racial gerrymandering may be held to a different standard, because “race-based decision making…is ‘inherently suspect’ [as per] Miller v. Johnson [1995].”

Are they right? In recent years, mathematicians and mathematically-trained political scientists have begun to weigh in on the gerrymandering question. While the struggle to identify and analyze instances of potential partisan gerrymandering is more than 200 years old, new insights and computer models move it into new territory. Was a state’s congressional district map intentionally drawn to favor one political party?

There are four main criteria one can check to determine if a district map should be flagged for potential partisan gerrymandering:

  1. Does a district contain significantly more or fewer voters than another?
  2. Does the shape of a district appear to be unnatural and thus indicate manipulation?
  3. Does the distribution of voters among the districts negatively affect one party more than another in an election?
  4. Does the outcome of a potential election for a particular district map drastically differ from the expected outcome of a non-partisan map?

Measuring Compactness

The first criterion is known as “one-person, one-vote” and is simple to check. This criterion requires each district contain approximately the same number of voters. In a hypothetical community of 100 people, to be divided into 4 equally-populated districts, there are 1.6 x 1057 possible configurations!

The second criterion stems from the original case of gerrymandering, where the bizarre shape of a state senate election district in Massachusetts provoked a now-famous political cartoon mocking its likeness to a salamander. States have tried to combat this by requiring the shapes of districts to be “compact.” Intuitively, this means the district should not zigzag unnecessarily around the state. But extra constraints such as county lines, rivers, mountains, and population centers necessitate the need for exceptions. Thus, deviation from perfection is to be expected for most districts in most states. To quantify the magnitude of this deviation, mathematicians have created several definitions for compactness.

One perimeter-based definition is known as Polsby-Popper, introduced in 1991. The Polsby-Popper score uses the ratio of the district’s area to the square of its perimeter. This method is advantageous because it is simple to understand and penalizes any shape that meanders a lot. However, this means any district with long borders due to rivers or other physical obstacles will also be penalized.

A second definition makes use of the convex hull of a district. The convex hull can be thought of as the shape a rubber band would make if it were wrapped around the boundary of the district. The score is calculated by finding the ratio of the district’s area and the area of its convex hull. This score can sometimes be easier to calculate than a perimeter-based score since the hull “smooths” convoluted edges. However, this feature could minimize the impact of gerrymandering on a district’s score. Convex hull scores often reach similar overall results as perimeter scores, when comparing districts for compactness.

A third definition of compactness, known as Reock, compares the ratio of the district’s area with the area of a circle that circumscribes the district. This is both simple to calculate and understand. However, the Reock score can be misleading since a district with a large distance in one dimension will automatically require a large circle to contain, thus scoring low for compactness. This is true even if there are natural formations such as a coastline, which may offer a nonpartisan explanation for why the boundary meanders.

In short, there is no one, best standard to use in measuring compactness. Real-world geographical boundaries often complicate matters too much to reach a final conclusion.

Measuring Partisan Bias

These attempts to measure gerrymandering via the district’s shape have led us to a muddle. Perhaps it is time for a different approach, one which focuses on the outcome of an election based on voter distribution, rather than the shape of a district. In this case, we are trying to identify maps drawn in which voters from one party have been spread out among several districts (known as cracking), or grouped together in a few districts (known as packing).

The efficiency gap was introduced by Stephanopoulos and McGhee in 2015 and is calculated by finding the number of wasted votes for each party. A wasted vote is any vote that did not contribute to a party winning its district. Any votes above the minimum needed for a party to win the district are considered unnecessary and therefore “wasted.” Likewise, all votes cast by the losing party in a district are also wasted. The efficiency gap is calculated by finding the difference between wasted votes for the two parties and expressing this difference as a percentage of the total number of voters in a state.

One cannot assume that a high compactness score will always correspond to a low efficiency gap. Alexeev and Mixon have concluded in some situations, “a small efficiency gap is only possible with bizarrely-shaped districts.” In fact, they proved that every districting system will be flagged by at least one of our first three criteria.

Furthermore, convoluted attempts to undermine the minority party can have unintended consequences. The Court’s majority opinion in Rucho noted, “Democrats also challenged the Pennsylvania congressional districting plan at issue in Vieth. Two years after that challenge failed, they gained four seats in the delegation, going from a 12-7 minority to an 11-8 majority. At the next election, they flipped another Republican seat.”

Best Outcome among Many Possibilities

Criterion #4 requires simulation to find the most common outcomes for thousands of random maps. A map could be deemed “gerrymandered” if its election outcome does not fall into one of the expected distributions of seats. This is what the dissenting opinion proposed in Rucho: “Suppose now we have 1,000 maps, each with a partisan outcome attached to it. We can line up those maps on a continuum – the most favorable to Republicans on one end, the most favorable to Democrats on the other … And we can see where the State’s actual plan falls on the spectrum – at or near the median or way out on one of the tails?”

So, that is exactly what we did. Here at Emporia State, we randomly chose 100,000 possible maps for a hypothetical district of 100 people, divided into four districts. In this district, one party has a 52% majority, the other 48% supports a second party. For the sake of simplicity, these maps did not require the districts to be contiguous. While such districts might not be practical in reality, it does guarantee the most non-partisan maps possible since “urban electoral districts are often dominated by one political party-can itself lead to inherently packed districts” (Rucho). This simulation shows that for a state of 100 voters, about 54% of non-partisan maps will lead to the majority party winning two seats. Another 40% will yield three seats to the majority, while 5% will give the majority one seat.

However, results change dramatically when the parameters for a state are tweaked. As the table below shows, the expected distribution of seats quickly changes if the advantage of the majority party increases.

Number of votes out of 100 for Party X (the majority party)

Seats won by X 50 52 55 60 65 70
1 17% 5% 0% 0% 0% 0%
2 66% 54% 24% 2% 0% 0%
3 17% 40% 63% 43% 14% 3%
4 0% 1% 13% 54% 86% 97%

These trends become more pronounced as the population of a state increases. As the next table indicates, even a slim 52% majority will eventually guarantee Party X wins all four seats if the population is large enough. This fact was recognized by the majority opinion in Rucho: “[i]f all or most of the districts are competitive … even a narrow statewide preference for either party would produce an overwhelming majority for the winning party in the state legislature.”

Distribution of random map outcomes for various populations when Party X has 52% of the vote

Seats won by X 100 voters 1000 voters 10000 voters
1 5% 0% 0%
2 54% 19% 0%
3 40% 64% 5%
4 1% 17% 95%

A more sophisticated simulation will generate different results. The fact that states generally do not have all their districts vote in favor of a single party indicates that contiguousness of districts affects the outcome. In other words, party affiliation is not randomly distributed across a state. Thus, the minority party is likely to have enough votes concentrated in one region of a state to win at least one district. Simulations that take into account contiguousness, county lines, or other state-specific restrictions will be less random and more likely to benefit the minority party.

North Carolina 2016 House Districts Map

Now let’s try a real-world example. Consider the 13 congressional districts of North Carolina. In the 2016 election, 49.8% of voters selected the Republican nominee for President while 46.2% chose the Democratic nominee. Despite this slim difference, ten of 13 districts voted Republican. Using the given percentages from 2016, suppose we assign each of North Carolina’s 2,706 precincts a voter preference – Republican, Democrat, or neither. We next randomly distribute those precincts into 13 districts of approximately the same size. We repeat this experiment 1000 times.

The next table shows the results of this simulation, assuming any tied districts went equally to Republicans and Democrats. Notice about 40% of these maps will result in Republicans winning at least 10 seats. On the other hand, a less random simulation, conducted by an expert witness that takes into account North Carolina districting criteria, had zero maps out of 3000 give Republicans a 10-3 advantage or better (Rucho). In other words, the state’s districting criteria actually lead to a smaller Republican advantage than would be predicted by a random simulation.

Simulation of percentage of North Carolina districts won by Republicans

# of districts won by Republicans 7 or less 8 9 10 11 or more
% of maps 5% 18% 36% 30% 10%

Conclusion

Instead of viewing gerrymandering as a tool to pad the majority, it may make more sense to view it as a tool that may be used to increase minority representation. Furthermore, as political scientists have noted for years, multimember districts with proportional representation—while not required by the Constitution or Court rulings—remains by far the more effective method to ensure fair representation for minorities. However, this method is rarely used in U.S. Congressional or state legislative elections.

About the Authors: Bran Hollenbeck is a Professor of Mathematics at Emporia State University and Michael A. Smith is a Professor of Political Science at Emporia State University where he teaches classes on state and local politics, campaigns and elections, political philosophy, legislative politics, and nonprofit management. Read more from Smith on his blog and follow him on Twitter.


The views and opinions expressed on this blog are solely those of the original authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the Midwest Political Science Association, MPSA staff, and/or other site contributors.

Rethinking the Political Science Major – MPSA Roundtable (audio)

Image - A classroom without students

This roundtable Rethinking the Political Science Major (audio), chaired by John T. Ishiyama of  University of North Texas and featuring J. Cherie Strachan of Central Michigan University, Whitney Lauraine Court of College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University, and Amber Dickinson of Oklahoma State University, examines trends within the discipline rethinking the structure and function of the undergraduate political science major in the context of shrinking enrollments within the major, changing student demographics, and evolving workforce demands.

Topics include:

  • Discussion about ways the major can revitalize itself in the face of changing times, growing undergraduate participation by female, minority, and non-traditional students, and declining political ambitions among female and minority students uncomfortable with the combative climate of modern-day politics.
  • Ideas about how the discipline can restructure itself and engage in strategic planning to meet the needs of diverse student populations and encourage political participation by underrepresented groups.
  • Conversation about ways that the major could better prepare students with in-demand skills required by employers and re-brand itself to emphasize workforce relevance and encourage increased interest from undergraduate students.

Listen in!

MPSA Members can log in to access a variety of recordings from highlighted MPSA conference presentations.  

 

 

How Ideology, Economics and Institutions Shape Affective Polarization in Democratic Polities

Summary by Noam Gidron, James Adams, and Will Horne

Concerns over the health of democratic norms and institutions have intensified in recent years (e.g., Levitsky and Ziblatt 2018), with political polarization often cited as a key driver of democratic dysfunction. The rise of affective polarization in the mass public, defined as dislike and hostility across partisan lines (Iyengar et al. 2012), is especially disconcerting because it damages trust across partisan lines. Yet most of our knowledge about this important phenomenon is drawn from the American case. Analyzing affective polarization in a comparative perspective may improve our understanding of its causes and effects, as well as what is, and is not, unique about the American case. In our comparative study we find that the United States actually displays relatively moderate affective polarization when compared with other democratic polities. We also find evidence that institutional and economic conditions shape affective polarization.

We analyze 76 national election surveys across 20 countries between 1996 and 2015 using data from the Comparative Study of Electoral Systems. We first create a measure of country-level affective polarization that captures how much the average partisan in the country dislikes all parties other than the one they support. This allows us to compute an affective polarization score for each election in each country in our data set. We find that affective polarization in the American public is not high in comparative perspective. Only a handful of the countries in our study display notably less intense mass-level affective polarization than the US.  Figure 1 displays the average and range of affective polarization scores in each country over the period of our study, where higher values on the horizontal axis denote more intense affective polarization:

MPSA-GAH-Figure1.png

To analyze variations in affective polarization, we first evaluated whether affective polarization was driven by increasing levels of elite polarization. Using different measures of elite polarization, we found no consistent evidence that out-party dislike is driven by greater ideological differences between rival parties’ elites. In contrast, unemployment is strongly associated with affective polarization: in cross-national comparisons we find that countries with higher unemployment display more intense mass-level affective polarization, and in within-country comparisons we find that affective polarization intensifies as the national unemployment rate rises. We also find cross-national evidence that economic inequality intensifies affective polarization (McCarty et al, 2006).  Finally, in support of arguments originally developed by Lijphart (1999), we find that countries whose political systems foster more power-sharing between parties display markedly less affective polarization in the mass public, all else equal. Taken together, these findings suggest that affective polarization is driven more by structural economic and institutional factors than by ideological differences between rival parties’ elites.  Figure 2 displays the predicted levels of mass affective polarization across a range of values for the institutional, economic, and ideological variables that we study:

 

MPSA-GAH-Figure2
Notes: In each figure the vertical axis displays the predicted level of affective polarization in the country, where higher values denote more intense mass-level affective polarization.  In Figure 2A the horizontal axis is the level of ideological polarization that voters perceive between rival parties in the system, where higher numbers denote more intense ideological polarization.  In Figure 2B the horizontal axis is the degree of income inequality (the Gini coefficient), where higher numbers denote more income inequality.  In Figure 2C the horizontal axis is the national unemployment rate, and in Figure 2D it is the district magniture of the first tier of the electoral system, where a higher value means a more proportional electoral system.  For these computations all independent variables except the focal variable on the horizontal axis were set at their mean values.   

Our analysis is a first step towards a comparative research agenda on mass-level affective polarization. We have shown that the American case is not an outlier, which suggests that American politics scholars may learn more about their case by placing it in a broader comparative context.  In future research we will extend our analyses of the link between elite ideological polarization and mass-level affective polarization to consider more focused dimensions of policy debates, including elite disputes over nationalism and over economic policy.

MPSA_Awards_RecognizingOutstandingResearchAbout the Authors: Noam Gidron is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science and the Joint Program in Politics, Philosophy and Economics (PPE) at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. James Adams is a Professor in the Department of Political Science at UC Davis, and Will Horne is a graduate student in the Department of Politics at Princeton University. They received the 2019 MPSA Kellogg/Notre Dame Award for their research “The Causes of Mass-level Affective Polarization in Advanced Democracies”.

References

Iyengar, Shanto, Gaurav Sood and Yphtach Lelkes. (2012). ‘Affect, Not Ideology.’ Public Opinion Quarterly, 76(3):405–431.

Levitsky, Steven, and Daniel Ziblatt. (2018). How Democracies Die. New York: Crown.

Lijphart, Arend.  1999.  Patterns of Democracy: Government Forms and Performance in Thirty-Six Countries.  New Haven: Yale University Press.

McCarty, Nolan, Keith T. Poole and Howard Rosenthal. (2006). Polarized America: The Dance of Ideology and Unequal Riches. Cambridge: MIT Press.

 

How War Changes Land: The Ecological Consequences of the US Bombing of Cambodia

By Erin Lin

How War Changes Land: The Ecological Consequences of the US Bombing of Cambodia
Example of bomb found during fieldwork: B42 cluster bomb in the center-right, and a rock is on its left. (Photo courtesy of Erin Lin)

 

The village of West Father Long lies about five kilometers out of Kampong Thom town, Cambodia, in the southerly direction. Dirt paths run east and west, letting bicycles and farmers travel from the hamlet to the rice paddies, but the only route that travels with any suggestion of efficiency is Highway 6, a paved, two-lane road on which tour buses, jammed full, carry tourists from Phnom Penh, the capital, to the Angkor Wat ruins near Siem Reap. The landscape is remarkably verdant, but unattended: lopsided rectangular plots of paddy land; pools of fresh rainwater that fill the plots, bordered by raised clay to separate them; the rattan overgrowth and vine-like weeds that take over most paddies, except for certain edges near the dirt paths, where villagers have planted some rice seedlings.Cambodia administrative map

The loose, high-absorption soil, called Krakor locally, makes the land ideal for growing rice. For a good harvest, fertilizer need not be applied, nor irrigation lines installed. The village’s location, too, makes it easy to sell surplus rice since it is a short ride on Highway 6 to Kampong Thom market, the busiest in the province. But in reality, half the village’s plots lay fallow. Those who do cultivate their land only grow enough for their own consumption, planting 15 to 30% of their yield. No one brings their crop to market. And, most of the villagers are poor.

In 2012, the median amount a household spent on non-food items was $502 – for the entire year. This is approximately the cost of a used motorbike. By comparison, in Sweet Gum Tree village, only two and a half kilometers down the road, the median household spent $300 more on non-food purchases that same year. Here, the rice paddies are lush, well-tended, and planted 40 to 50% of their total capacity. Farmers produce triple the amount of rice as in West Father Long Village, both by weight and by price, and excess rice is sold to market.

Unlike in West Father Long, a thick layer of sandy soil, known as Prateah Lang, covers much of the area surrounding Sweet Gum Tree village. It is dry and constantly loses water, so irrigation tubes and makeshift water pumps are necessary to supplement the rain. When the water seeps through the surface soil to the subsoil, it takes nutrients with it. To help out the seedlings, most farmers spread chemical fertilizer after transplanting.

So why do people, where the land is worse, grow more rice and make more money – especially when farmers in both villages have good access to the nearby town market to sell their surplus? I believe part of the answer lies in the region’s history of conflict. Both villages were part of a targeted area in two US aerial strikes (one in 1971 and another in 1973). More than 12,000 unique bombs, weighing a total of 49,000 tons, were dropped in the district, an area roughly one-third the size of Manhattan.

Between 1965 and 1973, Cambodians saw 500,000 tons of US Air Force ordnance drop onto its rice fields, villages, and people, in an effort to root out Vietnamese Communists from the Cambodian countryside. More than a half-century later, it seems as if the effect of the bombing is somewhat mixed. On some bombed land, one can see “crater lakes” in the rice paddies, visible pock-marks of the bombing, which do not seem to hinder agricultural production today. Other bombed areas remain untouched or sparsely planted. This paper examines the ecological consequences of the US bombing of Cambodia while answering a very basic question in comparative politics: what is the historical legacy of violence on development?

To answer this question, I explore the role of soil fertility and bombing intensity on present-day agricultural output and planting decisions. Within the weapons literature, it is common knowledge that fertile ground provides more of a cushion for the bomb upon impact; thus, the trigger fuse is less likely to detonate. I examine the long-term impact of this mechanical failure on land production. I find that, in fertile land, as the level of historic bombing intensity increases, today’s farmers are more likely to subsistence farm and produce less rice due to the risk of encountering unexploded ordnance. This mechanism does not apply to less fertile land: since it tends to be harder and drier, bombs were much more likely to explode upon impact.

I use a unique historical dataset of 114,000 sites targeted in 231,000 US Air Force sorties flown over Cambodia from 1965 to 1973. I identify the location and types of ordnance, and compare them to the 2012 agricultural output of 3,617 geo-referenced household plots. After matching household plots according to prewar economic and geographic conditions, I run a multi-level OLS model with an interacted term for a household plot’s exposure to bombs and land fertility. The findings support the hypothesis about the differential relationship between land fertility and the legacy of bombing. In highly fertile land, bomb intensity is significantly related to a decline in rice production and in the amount of rice sold to market. In less fertile land, the relationship is negligible. The results demonstrate empirical limits of macro-economic measures in the post-conflict reconstruction literature, and emphasize the impact that local ecological changes have on long-term development.

MPSA_Awards_RecognizingOutstandingResearch
About the Author: Erin Lin is an Assistant Professor of Political Science and Global Food Politics at the Ohio State University. Lin was awarded the Best Paper in International Relations Award this spring for her research “How War Changes Land: A natural experiment of bomb-induced economic change in Cambodia” presented at the 2018 MPSA conference.

MPSA Member Profile: Ajenai Clemmons

MPSAMemberProfile-ClemmonsAjenai Clemmons is a Ph.D. Candidate in public policy with a concentration in political science at Duke University. Her academic research focuses on the most important factors that help and harm the police-community relationship, focusing especially on African Americans and European Muslims. Ajenai’s dissertation uses comparative in-depth interviews between young Black men in the U.S. and young Muslim men of Bangladeshi background in the U.K. to answer research questions about civilian preferences in policing, civilian assessment of police performance, and civilian responses to policing. In her other research, she has conducted a national survey experiment to test the effect of perceptions of African Americans on civilian preferences for police reforms, and she has examined police fatalities of civilians in the United States and systemic barriers to accurate reporting of deaths.

 For the past four years, Ajenai has traveled to Europe to engage with police practitioners, activists, community and religious leaders, and academics on police-community relations in the U.K., Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Montenegro. She has also conducted trainings on coalition-based advocacy for inclusive policies in Belgium, Italy, Germany, and France.

From 2010-2015, Ajenai served as Policy Director of a national association of 700 African-American state legislators based in Washington, D.C., overseeing all policy programming and communications as well as brokering meetings with the White House, Administration, and Congress. Prior to becoming policy director, she helped establish a new government agency with the City and County of Denver. Ajenai served five years as Community Relations Ombudsman at the Office of the Independent Monitor, a civilian agency overseeing internal affairs investigations for Denver’s police and sheriff departments. She has served on several boards of directors, including the Women’s Foundation of Colorado as an officer. Ajenai earned her B.A. in International Relations, Latin American History, and Spanish at Drake University and her Master of Public Policy at the University of Denver.

Here we ask her a few questions about her experiences:

Q: What projects are you currently working on?
I am currently working on two research projects. In the first, I examine fatalities of civilians by law enforcement, advance a typology of deaths, and analyze the likelihood that certain types of deaths will be categorized accurately by the government. I offer policy recommendations to improve both the accuracy of reporting and classification as well as potentially change the way in which police fatalities are defined and counted. My second study is based on in-depth interviews of young men living in more heavily policed areas relative to fellow city residents. My questions help me understand what they desire from police in terms of safety, how they assess police performance, and their responses if they determine police have not met their expectations. I compare African American men in the U.S. to Muslim men of Bangladeshi background in the U.K.

Q: Who has had the greatest influence on your research and/or career?
In my previous capacity advising legislators, I had the tremendous fortune of learning from collaborating scholars Dr. Manuel Pastor, a demographer and economist from USC; law professor Sharon Davies, now the Provost of Spellman College; and law professor john a. powell, who now heads the Haas Institute for Fair and Inclusive Society at Berkeley. Not only did I receive direct training from them on structural racism, unconscious bias, and multi-ethnic political mobilization, I teamed up with my counterparts who advised legislators in sister organizations to arrange joint trainings by these public scholars. I was inspired by the capacity of scholars to educate and empower policymakers to become more effective.

Q: What is the best career advice you have ever received?
“Leverage your unique strengths and build on your expertise.” After 13 years working full time and having graduated from a master’s program that successfully prepared me to lead policy organizations more than produce academic research, I underwent shock my first semester in the Ph.D. program. My advisors assured me of my valued experience and analytical perspective in the program and encouraged me to begin there. Just because I was learning from scratch on several fronts did not mean I had to learn from scratch on every front! This led me to focus on my passion—improving police-community relations, an area in which I have a decade of related professional experience.

Q: Do you have a favorite writing resource or process to keep you motivated?
I really enjoy reading the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity tips and advice. There is always some timely information that helps me to focus on the right things as well as allocate my time and energy.

Q: Do you have work/life balance secret you’d like to share?
I’ve gotten a lot better at saying no (though I’m sure this is a life-long struggle). I’ve become much more attuned to what my body needs to be energized and what my spirit requires to be renewed. And, I’ve felt increasingly liberated to take action once I am aware of that need.


This post is part of a series of interviews with our members. Read more MPSA Member profiles.

Show Me the Money: Securing Research Funding

By Charmaine N. Willis of University of Albany

Word map with various currencies scattered around edges
One of the most important parts of conducting any research project, regardless of its methodology, is securing research funding. The recent MPSA conference offered several roundtables dedicated to research funding; in this blog, I cover the roundtable co-sponsored by the Midwest Women’s Caucus, the Gender and Politics section, and the Professional Development section. The panelists offered several useful pieces of advice when considering where and how to apply for research grants that are applicable for researchers at any stage, including graduate students.

Explaining Your Research

A key theme that the panelists touched upon was the importance of being able to explicitly and succinctly summarize one’s research. While this is a piece of advice that many of us have heard before, the roundtable provided some specific suggestions on how to do it. Firstly, a grant application should provide the bottom line up front (BLUF). Grant reviewers must review hundreds or thousands of pages-long grant applications for funding. Therefore, it is important for applicants to succinctly present key information about their projects such as what the project is, what it will do, and why it is important in the first part of the application. Relatedly, a researcher should also think about a keyword or key phrase that summarizes their research. For example, my dissertation examines the causes of variation in anti-US military protest mobilization in Japan, the Philippines, and South Korea. Keywords and key phrases would include “mobilization” and “anti-US military protests”. Identifying the keywords allows a researcher to tease out the core of their research project, and in doing so, may make it easier to communicate their research to funders who may not be familiar with the broader research area.

Contextualizing Your Research

A related roundtable theme was the importance of contextualizing one’s research. Researchers need to be mindful of the fact that funding sources vary widely, and, in many instances, may come from outside one’s discipline. Therefore, it is important to keep in mind that funders may not be familiar with disciplinary jargon or literature and researchers should write their applications accordingly. Even for those funders who are familiar with the discipline or the research area, grant applicants need to spell out the significance of their projects. Questions to consider include:

  • How does this project fit and contribute to the broader disciplinary literature?
  • How does this project aid or advance the sciences?
  • How does this project help people?

The ability to highlight the importance of one’s research to the discipline and society at large may mean the difference between receiving funding or not.

The panelists also emphasized the importance of understanding funders’ priorities.

  • What are the goals of the funding organization?
  • What projects have received funding in the past?

Researchers should use these cues to emphasize the aspects of their project that align with organizational priorities to improve their chances of getting funded.

Research Collaboration

Finally, panelists emphasized the importance of collaboration in securing research funding. First, researchers in search of funding should consider public sector partners who may be interested in their research and accordingly, may be willing to provide some research funding. Public sector partners may include municipal, state, or national governments or public non-governmental organizations. Second, researchers may want to consider collaborating on a research project. Collaborative proposals, especially cross-disciplinary or cross-university projects, tends to be more likely to be funded. Additionally, adding contributors from different disciplines or institutions may open up the types of grants for which researchers can apply. While it may be difficult to identify potential collaborators, the panelists suggested that graduate students and early researchers contact their advisors or other faculty mentors for recommendations.

About the Author: Charmaine N. Willis is a PhD Student in the Department of Political Science at the Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy at the University at Albany, SUNY. Her research focuses on civil society and contentious politics. Her current project examines the role of framing in anti-US military contention in East Asia. You can also find Charmaine on Twitter and her website.


Fieldwork: Ethical Considerations, Funding, and Data Collection Methods

By Charmaine N. Willis of University of Albany

Photo by Ryan Tauss on Unsplash

The recent MPSA conference offered many valuable roundtables related to professional development for a variety of populations including graduate students. I had the opportunity to attend the roundtable about how to do fieldwork, an important one for any researcher needing to travel to a particular place to collect data, whether in one’s home country or abroad. The roundtable offered several useful insights for graduate students, many of which I have found helpful during my own fieldwork.

Ethical Considerations

First and foremost, researchers needing to collect data from the field must consider the impact of their research on their subjects. Of course, this need applies more to researchers conducting interviews, focus groups, surveys, participant observation, or using other ethnographic techniques than archival work. Many vital questions in social science involve vulnerable populations, which can include marginalized communities, survivors of sexual assault, former members of a terrorist organization, and many others. It is the researchers’ responsibility to consider the ways in which their research may impact the lives and safety of their subjects. Considerations might entail keeping the subject’s identity anonymous in the publication of the research or even where an interview takes place.

A consequential question raised during the roundtable was what to do if an interviewee reveals something unexpected that might be damning to a public figure. Should a researcher publicize everything reported to them by their interviewees? While it might be tempting to drop a proverbial bombshell and provide a surprising insight, the panelists cautioned against rushing to judgement about such revelations. One should carefully consider the ramifications of making that revelation public. It may or may not be true; the researcher should try to verify the claim through other sources. Even if the claim is true, the researcher should consider the implications for their interviewee. Will it put the interviewee’s safety at risk? Will it otherwise harm the interviewee (i.e. reputational costs, employment impacts)?

The Logistics of Fieldwork

The panelists on the roundtable also brought up several logistical considerations important for researchers going to the field to consider, from funding to how to get the data. Most of the panelists did their fieldwork over the course of several trips (the majority did research abroad). Many began their projects with a preliminary trip of a few weeks and then returned to their site; most of the panel stayed in their research site consecutively no more than a year, often less.

An audience member also asked about one of the most imperative parts of doing fieldwork: getting it funded. As one panelist noted, it is difficult to get funding for fieldwork, depending on the type of research one is doing and the institution with which one is affiliated. Fortunately, there were a few roundtables in the #MPSA19 program dedicated solely to research funding, one of which I will cover in a future blog. One tip that a panelist mentioned was one that I have heard from many experienced researchers; for researchers staying at their research site for a semester or more, it is sometimes possible to draw an income by teaching at a host university. Those doing research outside of their home countries often seek institutional affiliations for a variety of reasons, including access to resources such as libraries or teaching opportunities. Researchers not affiliated with a local university or college can also contact nearby institutions about teaching opportunities.

The roundtable also included various points about collecting the data itself. The panelists cautioned against “parachuting” into a research site. Researchers (should) go to the field not to quickly gather data and leave (“parachuting”) but to go to the field to get a better sense of the area and the culture. Understanding the research site, of course, should begin long before one actually arrives. At the same time, understanding the research site through secondary sources cannot substitute for firsthand experience. In my experience, immersing yourself in the culture, sometimes called “soaking and poking”, is as important to the research as the data collection is itself. Understanding the context is essential for understanding the data one collects: how do the insights from the interview fit into the big picture? Furthermore, gaining knowledge about the area through experience may make interviewees more likely to open up; it shows a respect for their home country and community.

Preparation prior to each interview is integral to data collection as well. The panelists emphasized “doing one’s homework” to get the most out of each interview. Are there questions for which a certain person can give better insights than others? Not only can preparation maximize the utility of the interview, but adequate preparation also signals to the interviewee that the researcher is serious and knowledgeable about the topic of interest, which may make them more comfortable to share information.

The format of the data collection may also influence how open interviewees are. One panelist mentioned that their experiences with focus groups yielded some insights that a one-on-one interview may not have. The researcher interviewed military personnel, a group from which it may be difficult to garner unfeigned answers, and found in a few instances that when one person was candid, the rest of the group also opened up.

The roundtable on fieldwork was one of my favorite sessions at #MPSA19, offering insights from researchers who have valuable firsthand experience in conducting fieldwork from which graduate students and researchers at all levels can benefit. I hope that similar roundtables continue to be offered at future MPSA conferences.

About the Author: Charmaine N. Willis is a PhD Student in the Department of Political Science at the Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy at the University at Albany, SUNY. Her research focuses on civil society and contentious politics. Her current project examines the role of framing in anti-US military contention in East Asia. You can also find Charmaine on Twitter and her website.