asking the wrong questions about protest

Originally published in Race, Politics, Justice About protest as a complex multi-actor field.

We social movement scholars are in the news a lot these days. There have been massive protests since the election of Donald Trump. Reporters want to know: will the protests be effective? Do protests work or are they just ego-trips of protesters? How can protesters be sure they can win? These are the wrong questions because they presuppose that people can just make the right choices and gain victory.  Continue reading “asking the wrong questions about protest”

the voter fraud investigation: an opportunity for science?

President Trump’s announcement that he will launch an investigation of voter fraud is interesting for many reasons. Some of these have been well-documented, such as that he continues to believe massive voter fraud caused his popular-vote loss, and that the main “evidence” cited for such fraud has been thoroughly debunked.

In the context of other recent announcements, it’s also interesting because it may offer an opening for demonstrating the value of evidence-based, systematic inquiry: that is, of science as a basis for policy.

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why i resigned from the political instability task force

The below is a guest post from Colin J. Beck, Associate Professor of Sociology at Pomona College.

Since 2012, I have been a member of the Political Instability Task Force. The PITF is a US government funded research project that brings academics together with intelligence analysts to provide advice on how to anticipate episodes of political conflict and violence of various forms. I am no longer able to continue this work, and am disappointed that I am the only scholar of the two dozen affiliated with the project that appears to feel this way. Below is my explanation as to why I resigned from the PITF on January 20, 2017.
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structure beats culture; culture roars back

In American Democracy, I argued that there are times in American politics when culture beats structure: when the popular will—the democratic culture, as Tocqueville imagined it—is represented even though political and electoral structures seem to interfere with or prevent such representation.

This was not such a case.

Earlier, colleagues and I wrote about four cases of what we called postmodern electoral crises. These events are characterized by actors strategically deploying structural tactics designed for unusual situations in the service of normal politics. Thus tools designed to represent the demos are used to shape or distort it.

This was closer to such a case.

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the downside of fact checking

The below is an excerpt from my book that seemed relevant to the current moment. It’s presaged by this post from 2012.

Fact-checking during campaigns helps make sure the truth is communicated–but also teaches voters that there is a “right answer” and trains them to listen for true vs. false instead of right vs. wrong.

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a dangerous lack of skepticism

Last weekend, Slate announced the use of social scientific tools similar to those used by campaigns themselves to anticipate results over the course of the day. Slate rejects, in editor-in-chief Julia Turner’s words, the “paternalistic” stance of the traditional media embargo on publishing results during Election Day.

Slate is making a bold move by ignoring the embargo, but in doing so they also appear to be ignoring the flaws of data science and a sacrosanct principle of both social science and journalism: skepticism.


Image by Robert Palmer via Flickr

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vague questions for fragmented publics

Timothy Carney wrote an article earlier this week decrying what he calls the “rampant abuse of data” by pollsters and the press this election season. He faults North Carolina’s hometown polling company, Public Policy Polling (PPP), among others, for asking “dumb polling questions” such as the popularity of the erstwhile Cincinnati Zoo gorilla Harambe; support for the Emancipation Proclamation; and support for bombing Agrabah, the fictional country in which the Disney film Aladdin is set.

While I agree with Carney that many of the interpretations of these questions are very problematic (and I should note that I have used PPP many times to field polls for my own research), I think he’s wrong that these are dumb questions and that the answers therefore do not constitute “data.” Quite the opposite: asking vague and difficult-to-answer questions is an important technique for assaying culture and, thereby, revealing contours of public opinion that cannot be observed using conventional polling.

Continue reading “vague questions for fragmented publics”