Lis Clemens and Sue Stokes

Photo: Sue Stokes (left) and Lis Clemens - Credit: Aubrey Christofersen

Voter participation and the evolution of democracy have long been anchor topics for sociologists and political scientists alike, and the current political landscape has brought these issues to forefront -- in classrooms, research, and social discourse. Dialogo sat down with Professor Susan Stokes and Professor Lis Clemens to discuss how their research interests have evolved in response to social and political trends, and where they see connections between their work.

Elisabeth Clemens is the William Rainey Harper Professor of Sociology as well as editor of the American Journal of Sociology and a former Master of the Social Sciences Collegiate Division. Her research explores the role of social movements and organizational innovation in political change. Clemens refers to herself as a “political and organizational sociologist” focused on American political history. Her forthcoming book, Civic Gifts, traces the tense but powerful entanglements of benevolence and liberalism in the development of the American nation-state.

Susan Stokes is the Tiffany and Margaret Blake Distinguished Service Professor and Director of the Chicago Center on Democracy, a new center at the University focused on threats to democracy and its sources of resilience. Her research interests include democratic theory and how democracy functions in developing societies, along with distributive politics and comparative political behavior. Stokes is a comparativist expert, which means she tends to study systems outside of the U.S. Although her newest book, coming out in November, draws considerably on the experience of the U.S.. The book is entitled Why Bother? Rethinking Participation in Elections and Protests.

While Clemens and Stokes have never worked together on a project, their research and inquiries frequently overlap.

Dialogo: What are the social or political questions that drive your research?

Clemens: I'm interested in how models of action and institutional structures are created and how they change over time. This interest in mobilization and innovation means that I look for moments of political ordering and political unraveling, rather than starting with an assumption that this kind of regime works in this particular way.  This began in graduate school with  a question that I probably could not have asked had I been a political scientist, because the answer would have been so obvious: ‘where do these interest groups come from?’  I was puzzled by the refusal of agricultural groups in California to publish the votes of legislators on key policy issues.  That one passage in a report from the 1890s turned an assumption about American politics into a question.

I think coming from outside of political science helped me to see  a  puzzle about a transition in American politics from a party-dominated system to one that was much more  electorally open to pressure by private and voluntary groups. My focus has also extended to the role of private organizations -- both voluntary civic groups, and private firms -- as components of a system of governance.

Stokes: My original area of regional expertise is Latin America, however I'm broadly interested in how democracy works and doesn’t work in developing countries. I co-authored a book, called Brokers, Voters, and Clientelism (Cambridge, 2013), about vote-buying and clientelism in democratic systems. I've also written about why politicians sometimes run for office promising one set of policies and  then, when they win, immediately adopt the opposite ones. This happened a lot in Latin America, where presidential candidates promised not to implement economic shock treatment and then did exactly that, once in office. My recent work has brought me back to questions of political participation -- voting, but also protest participation, which has lead me to read work from sociologists who do great work in this space.

Dialogo: How do your individual research areas intersect?

Stokes: There are always trends or waves that break over the social sciences, or start in one social science field and then spill over onto others. One of the things that's been very influential in recent years is network theory, which offers a way of thinking about how individuals’ behaviors are influenced by the people whom they have contact with in their day-to-day lives. Sociologists have known about this longer than the rest of us, but there is a huge amount of political science interest in social networks.

I think it's such a good thing when disciplinary boundaries erode. I always enjoy interacting with political theorists and philosophers, who can help us figure out what questions we should be asking, by clarifying the normative underpinnings of the phenomena that empirical researchers study. The recent influence of sociology on political science, in the form of network theory, has also been a stimulant to my field. There are some great recent books by political scientists about social networks as ways of explaining this issue of people's participation in public goods. So we borrow heavily from one another, and I think that this is a particular moment when that precise sort of influence has been very strong from sociology to political science.

Clemens: The intensity of the interaction between disciplines  also varies with the sense of ‘settledness’. It is something of a cliché in  studies of American politics that  political science looks at the inside where the power is, and political sociologists focus on the outside where the aggrieved and the dispossessed are.  This divide has always been much blurrier in comparative politics and comparative political sociology, making those subfields particular rich sites of intellectual interaction.

But at this moment, because there's such a sense of the constructed and fragile character of political orders, it's a  vibrant time for cross-disciplinary conversation. It's clear that one can't understand contemporary politics without understanding contemporary business structures and financial flows. One needs both institutional regimes and attention to the possibilities of protest and disruption. The moment demands much more interaction.

Dialog: How does the current political landscape affect the direction of your work?

Clemens: For better or worse, it is a tax on scholarship. Every day I feel the need to engage the news very seriously, because it's all so frighteningly relevant. I also read more widely, both in the news and in the research literature.  At this point in time, we are moving toward U.S. politics being increasingly comparable with the rest of the world. Thinking about recent decades, I find myself becoming much more of a comparativist.

One of the important things to convey, particularly to students, is that although we need to think about the specifics of each national case, these are cross-national developments. The patterns of strain and contention in the U.S., in Latin America, in Western and Eastern Europe, and in East Asia signal  a moment where the system might recompose in more or less the same form -- or it might be transformed into something quite different. Without thinking comparatively, we miss something really important about this moment.

Stokes: The one silver lining is that it is so easy to teach Latin American politics to undergraduates now because we deal with concepts like populism, executive self-aggrandizement of presidents and prime ministers, attacks on political institutions, and the fragility of democratic institutions vis-a-vis certain kinds of leaders. I lecture on these things now, and the students say ‘yeah, that sounds familiar.’

The Chicago Center on Democracy is centrally involved in these issues. It is also the administrative home of Bright Line Watch, a group of political scientists who are trying to take the knowledge generated by our scholarship and use it to help understand what's happening in the United States right now. Bright Line Watch has conducted several waves of surveys of political scientists and of the general public, probing what they think the most important principles of democracy are, and how well the U.S. performing on these principles.  We ask people to evaluate each of a long list of principles, everything from ‘elections should be free and fair’ and ‘money shouldn't influence politics,’ to ‘the judiciary should be independent of the executive’ and so forth.

We’ve seen some good news, such as the correlation between how important our experts think certain principles of democracy are and how well they think the U.S. is performing. For example, ‘free and fair elections’ are considered very important and people in our surveys still think we are performing pretty well on that score; and ‘not accusing your opponent of being unpatriotic’ is not as important and we're performing really badly on it.  

Our public surveys have also found some surprising correlations. For example, people who like Donald Trump and people who don't have similar ideals regarding what the important principles of democracy are, however their factual basis for assessing that performance is miles apart. On issues of corruption, for example, one group may say we're performing badly because Hillary Clinton was stealing money, whereas another group will point to financial issues related to the Trump hotel in Washington, D.C. So they come to the same conclusions but their factual reasons are totally different.

Dialogo: How are today’s politics impacting the way you engage with students and the courses you teach?

Stokes: There is a tremendous amount of anxiety about where the country and the world are going, but hopefully it's an anxiety that is mobilizing. I had many graduate students in November 2016 who had to be talked into staying in an academic career because they were so distraught. They thought that they needed to get out there and do something, which was a great sentiment, but I told many of them that their talents were going to make the biggest difference if they stuck with it.

Clemens: During election week, I was teaching Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France in the social sciences core.  This turned out to be a wonderful teaching text for that moment because Burke was trying to makesense of political change when the outcome of disruption was not yet known.  The text also allowed students with a range of political opinions to engage in a conversation about contemporary events without assuming that everyone was having the same reaction to those events.

Dialogo: How do you view the impact of elections and protests in driving social change?

Clemens: One of the constant self-criticisms in the social movement literature is that the protests themselves become the outcome of interest -- not what caused them, or the impact they had. That second point is particularly important if we want to understand social change. To think about what  protests make happen, we should pay attention to   media and cognitive effects because the events covered by the news change people's thresholds of activation. Citizens  see people in the streets and think "I wouldn't go out on the corner just on my own, but if there are 20 people out there, I could go too."  But these threshold effects depend on protests being visible to others and being linked to a theory of change.  One of the most important questions now, both in the U.S. and globally, is how these very large protests articulate with party politics and institutional processes.

Stokes: People’s voting choices tend to reflect recent trends, like how the economy has performed in the last six months before an election, which gives politicians incentives to take unpopular measures early in their terms, knowing that they won't be held to account. This voter “myopia” is seen as reducing the accountability of elected governments. Whereas protests tend to happen in real time. A government takes an action that makes some group of citizens angry, and people are in the streets the next day or the next week. The scarce resource that protests draw on are people’s time, whereas elections tend also to draw on the scarce resource of money, so in this sense protests are a bit more egalitarian.

Dialogo: The theme of this issue is ‘qualitative research’ through the lens of understanding  social and political trends. What do you see as the benefits of conducting qualitative versus quantitative research?

Stokes: My whole career I have been a great believer in both of them. You won’t know the right question to ask unless you are either using historical data or interviews, which are qualitative in nature. For example, the book I’ve just completed tries to understand why people take part in collective actions. It can be costly to participate, and they know that their own individual participation is unlikely to make a difference to the outcome.  And they will reap the benefits or suffer the consequences whether they take part or not.

There is also a question about the balance between cost and benefits. Sometimes when the cost of participation go up, the participation goes up. For example when a small group of early movers take part in a small protest and get beaten by the cops, not infrequently that becomes a mass uprising, like the Gezi Park protests in Istanbul, or the Brazilian anti-bus fare increase protests in 2013. It shows the cost of abstention, which may be social and psychological but is very real. Whether they feel ashamed because they should be taking part, or pissed-off seeing cops hitting these young people, it drives them to want to do something without thinking very hard about the consequences. The risk recedes into the background.

Clemens: The thing about quantitative work is that you have to know what to count and you have to have some theory about why the things you count are comparable.  I'm always delighted in the archives when I find a list or something to count. But if you're interested in moments of transformation, or when political regimes are at risk,  you need a strategy that uncovers the emergence and consolidation of new frameworks for politics, the rules and habits that produce reliably countable behavior.

Dialogo: What are you working on next?

Stokes: My new big research project is on referendums, and that interest is driven by real-world politics. The Brexit surprise followed by the surprise defeat of a referendum in Colombia made me wonder why governments choose to hold referendums which they subsequently lose. But this topic gets into all kinds of interesting and tricky normative questions: when should we suspend representative institutions and give the people a direct say?

Clemens: I'm celebrating this week because I just received the final reviews on a long in-progress book manuscript,  Civic Gifts: Voluntarism and the Making of the American Nation State. Voluntarism helps us to understand how a powerful state emerged out of an anti-statist political culture.  Although civic projects and philanthropy   are often treated as nonpartisan, and even apolitical, we increasingly recognize the power of private action and private fortunes to shape the provision of public goods.

Dialogo: Many faculty talk about the cross-department collaborative nature of the UChicago research community. Has that been your experience?

Stokes: it's definitely part of the DNA of this place. I remember somebody saying about University of Chicago that the great thing about the faculty is so many of us are really good in our discipline but quirky at the same time, and I think that lends itself to talking to people outside of their department. I think the biggest barrier is that we're damn busy. I barely have time to talk to my children let alone get together with my favorite social psychologist. But that is a challenge you’ve got to overcome.

Clemens: I'm a believer in having a discipline  as a pre-condition for being multidisciplinary. You need to have a set of core commitments, but not be limited by them, so that you can bring something distinctive to the communal table.  The joy of this place is that Chicago encourages adventurous tastes and the creative recombination of disciplinary strengths.