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 those who are trying to write a term paper, junior paper, senior thesis or a dissertation for the first time and do not know where to start or what to do.

Topics for Spring 2024 Include:

Monday, 1:30-4:00 PMXu 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 celebrated the dawn of the Internet Era in the hope that information communication technology (ICT) would become a powerful tool for promoting freedom and democracy, widespread authoritarian collapse has not been observed in the two decades since the advent of this information era. In contrast, there is increasing evidence that authoritarian governments and non-state actors are harnessing digital technologies to control information and maintain power. In this course, we aim to understand how ICTs—including the Internet, social media, mobile devices, and computational methods—influence the ability of authoritarian regimes to exert control over their citizens. 

Specifically, we will address the following questions: Do the Internet and social media spell the end of authoritarian regimes? Do new technologies enable greater degrees of information control and surveillance? How do authoritarian governments employ censorship, propaganda, surveillance, and responsiveness to manage the ever-growing deluge of information? What factors influence the dynamics and mechanisms of information control? What are the implications of information control in authoritarian countries?

To answer these questions, we will review articles from leading social science and policy journals, as well as chapters from seminal academic books. A central objective in policy contexts is evaluating whether policies “work.” As such, this seminar will introduce students to methods of social science research and policy evaluation, especially experiments and causal inference. The insights and skills garnered from this course will equip students to undertake original research on information control in authoritarian regimes.

Xu Xu is Assistant Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University. Xu studies digital authoritarianism, political repression, and the political economy of development, with a regional focus on China. He is currently working on a book entitled Authoritarian Control in the Age of Digital Surveillance. His other ongoing projects examine the political aspects of artificial intelligence, social media propaganda, public opinion on state repression, and state-society relations in China.

Monday, 1:30-4:00 PMEmily Pronin

Political partisanship and polarization sometimes seem to be the norm in American politics. We will study the psychological roots of these problems. This seminar will explore the psychological causes and consequences of people’s tendency towards partisanship and polarization in the political realm.  The problem of political partisanship generally involves bias in favor of a particular cause or group, at the expense of a more objective, fair, or rational analysis. The problem of polarization involves real – or, often, perceived – vast differences between political factions that become barriers in reaching agreement, achieving compromise, and otherwise communicating peaceably and effectively. This course will introduce students to psychological research concerning fundamental aspects of human cognition, social interaction, and intergroup perception of relevance to partisanship and polarization. We will focus on careful readings of experimental (mostly) research, with the interest of growing your capabilities in processing psychological research, thinking about it critically, and developing research questions. Furthermore, you will be challenged to apply psychological findings and theory to current political problems of polarization and partisanship that are of particular interest to you, as you practice bridging the gap from basic psychological research to real-world problems. 

Emily Pronin is Professor of Psychology and Public Affairs.

Monday, 1:30-4:00 PM Robert Basedow

European integration is much more than the common currency shared by 20 of the 27 members of the European Union (EU). It is a process that has brought peace to bitter historical enemies, facilitated the economic growth of its members, and served as an attractive beacon that has stabilized the whole region and beyond. Yet it is now facing a multiplicity of simultaneous crises, from the Russian war in Ukraine to the fallout from Brexit and the COVID-19 pandemic, from challenges posed by refugee flows to challenges to the rule of law. 

In this seminar, we will learn about the history, institutions, and policy functions of the European Union. We will analyze successive stages in the integration process and ask why member states transferred so much power to the EU over the years. We will read and discuss sample works using different empirical strategies and methodologies, which examine the political consequences of these transfers of power and competences to the supranational entity, both at the domestic and at the international levels. And we will reflect on the simultaneous crises currently challenging European integration from all angles. 

The main purpose of the seminar is to give you all the tools, both substantive and methodological, to be able to produce independent research and write an academic-style paper. The main challenge will be for you to do three things simultaneously: learn substantively about European integration; familiarize yourself with the analytical research skills taught in the Methods Lab; and produce independent research in your JP. 

Dr Robert Basedow is an Associate Professor for International Political Economy at the London School of Economics (LSE). His research focuses on trade and investment policy, and the politics of commercial and economic law. Prior to joining the LSE, he was an international civil servant at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in Paris focusing on trade and international regulatory cooperation and worked as a policy consultant for the European Institutions and German government. He studied politics, law, and economics at the Institut d’Études Politiques de Paris, the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO), the University of St. Gallen, and the LSE. He was a Max Weber Postdoctoral Fellow at the European University Institute in Florence. Email: j.r.basedow@lse.ac.uk 

Monday, 1:30-4:00 PMTimothy Nelson

The United States has a higher poverty rate than almost any other developed nation. Between one-fifth and one quarter of American children live below the poverty line, despite our government declaring a “War on Poverty” over fifty years ago. The causes and consequences of poverty touch a number of domains, including jobs, housing and neighborhoods, race and gender dynamics, families, schools, the criminal justice system, and local and national political structures.

In this seminar, we examine how poverty has been defined and measured, consider its underlying causes, and spell out its consequences for people’s lives. We will examine theories of the culture of poverty, discrimination, concentrated poverty and housing markets, work and family as well as other contributors such as unequal schooling and mass incarceration. We will survey the history of US policy designed to address domestic poverty, both more generally and through targeted means, and we will assess the nation’s current programs as to their effects and adequacy.

Timothy Nelson is a Lecturer in Sociology and Public Policy.

Monday, 1:30-4:00 PMSarah Staszak

While the U.S. judiciary has often been described as the “least dangerous branch” of government, over the course of the 20th century questions of law, politics, and policy have become increasingly intertwined. During the rights revolution era in particular, courts became an alternate venue for individuals and groups facing profound barriers to pursuing their interests through the traditional political process, and even government actors themselves began to look to the courts to settle questions not only of law, but also of policy. As more individuals and groups look to the courts to settle more types of disputes than ever before, judges today play an important role in policymaking and social change, potentially blurring the distinction between “law” and “politics.”

This seminar will focus on the role that judicial institutions play in politics and policy, and how this role has transformed over time. Readings will center on issues of whether law is separable from politics, how the judiciary has evolved in its form and function, why we increasingly look to the courts to address matters of politics and policy, and the costs and benefits of doing so. In their research, students will have the opportunity to explore theories of legal change, debates about judicial policymaking, social movements and their relationship to law and courts, changes in the judiciary and legal profession, and current and/or historical intersections of law, politics, and policy.

Sarah Staszak received her PhD in Politics from Brandeis University and is a Research Scholar in Politics and the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs. Her research and teaching interests are at the intersection of public law, policy, and American political development. She is the author of No Day in Court: Access to Justice and the Politics of Judicial Retrenchment, which examines the politics and implications of efforts to constrain access to courts and the legal system in response to the dramatic expansions of the Civil Rights era.  Her forthcoming book, Privatizing Justice: Arbitration and the Decline of Public Governance (Oxford University Press, 2024), investigates the institutional, legal, and political development of the expanding use of private arbitration. Other ongoing research projects involve medical malpractice reform, provisions of the Americans With Disabilities Act that protect mental health rights, gender and campaign finance, and the politics of informal bureaucratic rulemaking.

Monday, 1:30-4:00 PMMeg 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 Senior Research Scholar in Princeton School of Public and International Affairs.

Tuesday, 7:30-10:00 PMMarkus Prior

Does public policy—laws, rules, and regulations—reflect what the public wants? This seminar offers an introduction to public opinion and its role in the policy-making process. How do we know “what the public wants”? What if “the public” cannot agree or does not know what “it” wants? What are the channels by which public opinion affects lawmakers? Under what conditions do elected officials ignore the public?

The seminar will prepare students to analyze survey data. This entails understanding question design, questionnaire development, as well as operationalization and measurement of issue opinions and policy preferences. Substantive topics include identity, the role of political knowledge, and non-attitudes. Readings and discussion will focus on the United States, but students may examine public opinion in other countries for their independent papers.

This seminar will involve hands-on explorations of survey datasets by students. Students will be required to use quantitative analysis methods in their JP, so they must choose to attend the quantitative methods lab. Students will need basic knowledge of a statistical software (opening a dataset, producing a cross-tab, etc.) Examples in the seminar will use STATA, but students will be welcome to use a statistical package of their choice for their individual research.

 Markus Prior is Professor of Politics and Public Affairs, Princeton School of Public and International Affairs.