Policy Research Seminars

Policy Research Seminars focus on critical thinking and methodology.

In the seminars, faculty members supervise small groups of students engaged in research on a specific topic in public and international affairs. Students also participate in a research-methods lab designed to teach them quantitative and qualitative research methods.

For more detailed information, please access the SPIA Undergraduate Program Guide to Junior Independent Work.

Topics for Fall 2020 Include:

Remote meeting schedule: Tues/Thurs 7:30-9 p.m.
Charles Cameron

Does electing state court judges distort their impartiality? If so, what are the policy implications from electing versus appointing judges? Are Supreme Court justices’ decisions political? If so, what are the policy implications for government programs that will be reviewed and modified by the Supreme Court? Are judges affected by the race, gender, ideology, and religion of the judges with whom they hear cases? If so, what are the policy implications of diversity in the federal judiciary? Are judges racially biased in sentencing? If so, what are the policy implications of legislatively restricting judicial discretion in sentencing? Are police officers racially biased in arrests? If so, what are the policy implications for administering law enforcement in different ways?

This seminar explores these and other controversial topics surrounding courts, judges, and the decisions they make. In studying these questions, we will evaluate the state of the contemporary American judiciary and justice system.

To understand these topics, we will read papers published in the past decade in leading social science journals. Therefore, you will learn to read, understand, and critique contemporary empirical social science. This means thinking hard and clearly about causality, systematic observational and experimental evidence, research design, and statistical inference. In addition, you will learn basic facts and frameworks for understanding how courts operate and how judges make decisions. Together, these skills and knowledge will help you undertake original research on courts and judicial institutions.

Charles Cameron is Professor of Politics and Public Affairs.

Remote meeting schedule: Monday 1:30-3 p.m. and Monday 7:30-9 p.m.
Carles Boix

Politics in democratic countries is today in a state of turmoil. Trust in national institutions has reached a historical low. In advanced industrial economies, slightly over one in three people expresses confidence in their governments. Only 20 percent of Americans think that politicians care about their opinions — a number sharply down from almost four in five in the late 1950s. In France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, the proportion is even lower, at around 10 to 15 percent. In turn, such a wave of disaffection has given way to growing disengagement from traditional party politics. In Western Europe, electoral abstention has doubled since the 1970s, mainly among the youngest cohorts. Amongst those electors that vote, close to one quarter are casting their ballots for far right and far left parties. Populist and nationalist alliances now govern a handful of European countries. In a context of increasingly polarized politics, in 2016 close to half of American voters elected a president that promised to remake the international system of global cooperation and open economies that the United States designed and built after World War II.

This seminar will examine the performance and overall health of our democratic institutions. In particular, we will examine the following questions: 1) How do representation and representative institutions work in democratic regimes? 2) How do politicians and parties compete in elections? 3) Which are the sources of the critical trends (populist, political alienation, etc.) we are witnessing today? 4) How well informed are citizens? Does it matter for democracy? 5) What is (and should be) the relationship between technical knowledge (generated by economists, the medical profession, etc.) and democratic decision-making? 6) Why and how do countries democratize and remain democratic? 7) Does globalization constrain democratic rule?

The purpose of this course is to introduce students to methods of assessing different ways to think about the democratic policy process, electoral politics and the policy-making community. The seminar will require students to actively participate in class and will culminate in student presentations of a proposed research project that could potentially become the basis for a senior thesis.

Carles Boix is the Robert Garrett Professor of Politics and Public Affairs.

Remote meeting schedule: Monday 1:30-4 p.m.
Meg Jacobs

In 1932, in the depths of the Great Depression, Americans voted Franklin Roosevelt into office. Roosevelt promised the country a “new deal” to combat the economic hardship millions were facing since the stock market crash of 1929. The New Deal provided jobs, relief, a social safety net, electrification, labor rights, and more. This seminar will explore the political and policy obstacles and accomplishments of the 1930s as a way of thinking about contemporary economic challenges. Students will learn about what succeeded and what failed nearly a century ago to shed light on current policy proposals. After learning about the New Deal, students will then design their own research question, using history as a lens through which to evaluate and better understand policy solutions.

Meg Jacobs is a Lecturer in History and Public Affairs.

Remote meeting schedule: Monday 1:30-3 p.m. and Monday 7:30-9 p.m.
John Londregan

This workshop will focus on the integral relationship between regime type and policy outcomes; at the more mundane level, it asks whether dictatorships are better or worse at vaccinating their people, are autocracies more or less likely to embrace free trade, or to preside over innovative economies. We will look at whether democracies are better at staving off famine and adapting to natural disasters, and at whether democracies are less likely to become involved in warfare. But we will continuously encounter the futility of attempting to separate the central issues of dictatorship, democracy, and development into "economic" and "political" spheres. Because the consequences of regime type, especially and most directly with respect to political freedom, are so fraught, the policy implications of this research are particularly salient. This isn't simply an interesting problem on intellectual grounds. It is almost impossible not to care about the outcome.

John Londregan is Professor of Politics and International Affairs.

Remote meeting schedule: Monday 1:30-3 p.m. and Monday 7:30-9 p.m.
Edward Freeland

This research seminar examines the “democratic deconsolidation” hypothesis, namely the claim that recent trends in public opinion data show that people in the US and many other countries are losing confidence in democracy as the best possible form of government. Students will critically examine the literature of this debate and carry out some exploratory analyses of data from the General Social Survey, the World Values Survey and other sources. The class will explore what it means to be a citizen in a democratic society through reading, discussion, and debate. Among the questions we will explore: Are people really becoming more open to alternatives to democracy? Or does the problem lie in the survey questions themselves and the ways that support for democracy are being measured?  And what about behaviors such as voting, volunteering, and staying informed about the issues? How are these measured and do they matter as much as or more than attitudes and opinions?

We will begin our approach to the problem through in-depth, in-person interviews to be conducted with a small sample of local residents. Based on these qualitative findings and a critical review of current survey measures, the students will then design a survey questionnaire that addresses weaknesses in current methods used to measure support for basic democratic values and institutions. The survey will be administered online to a nationally representative sample of Americans. Students will use data from the survey to answer questions about whether Americans really are losing confidence in democracy and what might be driving this shift in attitudes. The key research skills to be developed are qualitative in-depth interviewing, survey design and measurement, and analysis of survey data.

Edward Freeland is a Lecturer in Public Affairs and Associate Director of the Princeton University Survey Research Center.

Remote meeting schedule: Monday 7:30-9 p.m. and Thursday 7:30-9 p.m.
Brittany Holom

In 1994, the United Nations Development Programme first developed the concept of “human security” in its annual Human Development Report, spearheading a fundamental shift in the conversation on international security. But what is “human security” and how does it relate to the traditional concerns of security policy? How has this paradigm shift from an emphasis on the security of the state to the security of people influenced the assessments and actions of political decision-makers — if it has changed them at all? What role does the military play in this new paradigm, and what implications does this have for intervention, arms control, and other recurring challenges of the tumultuous foreign policy stage?

This seminar will begin by exploring the development of human security as a framework. We will explore the shift from the traditional security focus on defense spending and containment strategies during the Cold War to the global human security framework introduced in the 1980s and 1990s as the Soviet era came to an end. In light of international norms and rising nationalism, we will analyze how the growing focus on human security has impacted policy formulation and assessment. While considering what constitutes a “successful” human security strategy, we will examine the influence of international organizations, militaries, public opinion, and economic factors in shaping state decision-making and policy outcomes.

With the concept of human security touching on topics from health and human rights to military strategy and personal security, students will have the opportunity to choose their JP questions from a wide range of issue areas. Past students have written on a variety of topics, including North Korea, cybersecurity, the opioid epidemic, refugee repatriation, gun control policy, religion and nationalism, sanctions and the Venezuela crisis, and maternal health in Africa. Seminar members will be challenged to consider pressing puzzles of foreign policy through the lenses of multiple countries and to apply relevant qualitative and quantitative analytical methods to produce in-depth findings and policy recommendations for a more secure future.

Brittany Holom is a Lecturer in Public and International Affairs.