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.

Getting Started in Data Analysis: Topic Selection and Crafting of a Research Question - Independent research projects start with the selection of a topic and the crafting of a feasible research question. This video maps the initial steps to help...

Topics for Fall 2021 Include:

Monday, 7:30-10:00 PM - Brittany Holom-Trundy

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 examine 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. Considering changing international norms and rising nationalism, we will analyze how the growing focus on human security has impacted policy formulation and assessment, as well as obstacles its proponents face and why the concept remains controversial. While deliberating what constitutes a “successful” human security strategy, we will investigate 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, 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-Trundy is a Lecturer in Public and International Affairs at the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs.

Monday, 1:30-4:00 PM - Xu Xu

Today, roughly half of the world’s population lives under some form of non-democratic government. Although policymakers and human rights advocates have long been celebrated the dawn of the Internet Era in the hope that information communication technology (ICT) would become a powerful tool to promote freedom and democracy, we have not observed widespread authoritarian collapse in the two decades since the advent of this information era. By contrast, there is increasing evidence that authoritarian governments and non-state actors use digital technologies to control information and maintain power. In this course, we seek to understand how ICTs---Internet, social media, mobile, computational methods---affect the ability of authoritarian regimes to exert control over citizens.

In particular, we will examine the following questions: 1) Do the Internet and social media spell the end of authoritarian regimes? 2) Do new technologies allow for greater degrees of information control and surveillance? 3) How do authoritarian governments use censorship, propaganda, surveillance, and responsiveness to control over ever-increasing amounts of information? 4) What factors shape the dynamics and processes of information control? 5) What are the consequences of information control in authoritarian countries?

To answer these questions, we will survey papers in leading social science and policy journals as well as chapters in influential academic books. A key goal in policy settings is evaluating whether policies “work.” Therefore, this seminar will also introduce students to methods of social science research and policy evaluation, including experiments and causal inference. The knowledge and skills from this course will prepare students to conduct original research on information control in authoritarian regimes.

Xu Xu, Assistant Professor in Politics and Public Affairs

Monday, 1:30-4:00 PM - 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.

Meg Jacobs is a Lecturer in History and Public Affairs.

Tuesday, 7:30-10:00 PM - John Londregan

The workshop has a dual purpose, on the one hand we will survey the literature on the consequences of regime type. On the other hand, this seminar will represent the first installment of your apprenticeship as contributors to the academic literature, and so we will delve into the craft of writing a research paper on the consequences of regime type. Of course, these goals complement one another in a very natural fashion; the more you know about how research is conducted, the better you will understand the strengths and shortcomings of the existing literature on political regime type, while it is self-evident that knowing more about the subject will enhance your effectiveness as a researcher.

A repeated theme in the course will be the futility of attempting to separate the central issues of dictatorship, democracy, and development into “economic” and “political” spheres, the subject matter of this course is an alloy of economics, politics, and even philosophy. Some of the readings are technical, and I will indicate which these are. You are encouraged to work through the more technical papers, but you are not required to master them in detail.

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

Monday, 1:30-4:00 PM - Allison Schnable

The twin forces of globalization and digital technology are transforming civil society. Citizens engage with each other and with organizations through new technologies—Twitter, online petitions, and analytics-driven messaging. Globalization creates new social problems and makes old ones newly visible to activists. Activists are creating new organizational forms to pursue the goals. And while the late 20th century heralded an “associational revolution” in which the growth of civil society around the world was the norm, the last decade seems to have brought a “closing space” thanks to states’ new regulations of civil society. This seminar will draw on research in political science and sociology to consider these themes and the implications for policy. Most research on this topic will be qualitative, but the course is also open to students interested in quantitative analysis.

Allison Schnable is a visiting faculty member at SPIA and Assistant Professor in the O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs, Indiana University

Monday, 1:30-4:00 PM - Nolan McCarty

The past several years have been a time for reflection about the state of American politics and its current deep ideological, cultural, racial, regional, and economic divisions. One aspect that the contemporary discussions often miss is that these fissures have been opening over several decades and are deeply rooted in the structure of American politics and society. Indeed, long before the historically divisive presidential elections of 2016 and 2020, the polarization of American politics has been an important concern of scholars, journalists, and elected officials.

In this seminar, we will examine the polarizing dynamics which have played out over the past forty years. In doing so, we will carefully parse several related trends related to policy disagreement, ideological conflict, and extreme partisanship.  Special attention will be paid to the roles of economic inequality, social and cultural change, and racial and ethnic conflicts.  We will also critically examine several alleged institutional causes such as those related the US electoral and campaign finance systems as well as the impact of changes in the political media environment. Finally, we will discuss the impact of polarization on American democracy and the quality of governance.

The seminar will also use the substantive debates about political polarization to help the students see how modern social scientific methods and theories can help illuminate important questions of social concern.  Students will have the opportunity to combine historical analysis with quantitative data to develop a research project related to some aspect of political polarization in the United States.

Nolan McCarty is the Susan Dod Brown Professor of Politics and Public Affairs and the Director of the Center for Data-Driven Social Science.