Providing insight into what drives current social and political trends

By Sarah Fister Gale

Our cultural and political landscape has changed in recent years, a shift causing many to wonder how this has occurred and what lessons from the past might help us understand the present and future. Qualitative research into social systems by faculty across the Division of the Social Sciences, and the insights and discoveries made by studying individual events in the context of the social and political environment at the time, contribute to our understanding of current events and how they reflect sociological and political patterns from the past.

Politicians and journalists often focus on the quantitative research that emerges from universities. Data that can be easily tallied, including economic trends and poll results, helps people measure the impact of events, assess causal connections and, on the basis of certain assumptions, provide a comforting even if hazardous predictive framework, says Richard Shweder, a cultural anthropologist and the Harold H. Swift Distinguished Service Professor of Human Development in the Department of Comparative Human Development. But qualitative research has a somewhat different aim, as “it explores and deepens our understanding of the meaning and significance of that which gets counted, and ideally tries to do so from both an insider’s and outsider’s point of view while also being cognizant of variations in the local ‘spin’,” Shweder says.

“In the practice of political history, ‘statistical data is a key resource we can draw on in understanding what happened and why – but it is not the only one,” says Joel Isaac, associate professor in the John U. Nef Committee on Social Thought, an interdisciplinary, Ph.D.-granting graduate program in the Division of the Social Sciences. “The role of quantitative research is to understand and interpret social trends,” he says. Though he notes that the act of cataloging social phenomena is in itself a qualitative exercise. “The distinction can easily blur.”

The political and social research being conducted by faculty across the social sciences contributes to our understanding of current events and how they reflect sociological and political patterns from the past. “Because political events are necessarily contingent, it can be helpful to look to our past to understand present politics,” says Ruth Bloch Rubin, assistant professor in the Department of Political. She notes that all archival research has inherent biases based on when it was gathered, who saved it, and what wasn’t saved, so re-examining it from a qualitative perspective offers new frameworks to interpret past events.

Ruth Bloch Rubin: Uncovering back room deals

Bloch Rubin explores tensions in her study of American politics, which she refers to as the “nebulous field between politics and history.” In all of her work, she asks questions that may be familiar to mainstream congressional scholars but cannot be satisfyingly answered using quantitative tools alone. For example, she has recently been exploring how intraparty groups or factions are able to hold substantial power over much larger political groups. She points to the House Freedom Caucus, the right wing conservative collection of House members formed in 2010 to push a hardline conservative agenda during President Barack Obama’s tenure. While its membership is small, it wields considerable influence, which is something existing theories of congressional power are poorly situated to explain, she says.

“Instead of taking an all or nothing approach, this research helps explain when and why individual party leaders will be powerful, and when and where pivotal members will be powerful.” Looking at these scenarios through the lens of power distribution helps her to uncover new insights. “Instead of long and unproductive debates about who has the power, we are able to develop a systemic understanding of how Congress operates and how power is distributed within it.”

Bloch Rubin, who earned her PhD in political science from The University of California, Berkeley in 2014, spends much of her time rethinking existing theories of party power in Congress and highlighting the role of intraparty organizations in shaping both substantive and procedural change. “It is an interesting time for this field of study,” she says. In her first book, Building the Bloc: Intraparty Organization in the U.S. Congress (Cambridge University Press 2017) which won the 2018 Alan Rosenthal Prize, she explores the power distribution among party leaders and members by volumes, tracing the logic, organizational development, and policy consequences of intraparty factions in Congress over the past century though finding the necessary information to shape a narrative can be tricky in these environments. “So many political decisions are made in backrooms and behind closed doors.”

Bloch Rubin’s research has long benefitted from the Presidential Records Act, which requires all presidential records be preserved though the rule doesn’t apply to legislators and Congress and has been challenged by the current U. S. administration. Unfortunately, conventional methods of archival research don’t always deliver meaningful insights into the more secretive environments of backroom dealings, she says. “Congress members can decide what they save and what they change.”

However, she has other reliable ways to get information. In the current political environment she has found that interviews with legislative staffers can be incredibly informative. “They are excited to discuss the political process, and how it works,” she says. “If you can get them alone in a room, they will tell you a lot.”

The culture of hubris among current and past lawmakers has also generated useful data, as many of them feel an obligation to record information “for posterity” even if it exposes shocking realities about their opinions or behavior. For example, she spent many weeks reviewing the papers of Southern senators from the mid-century who were commonly regarded as likable gentlemen. But along with the piles of thank-you notes and shared recipes, she found a box of documents about known lynchings.  “Seeing that kind of material is deeply disturbing,” she says. It forced her to acknowledge how easy it is to become biased about a person’s perceived persona. “As a researcher I have to remember to pull back and be as objective as possible.”

Chicago Center on Democracy

Launched in October 2018, the new Chicago Center on Democracy has been created to use the power of academic research and discussion to support democracy worldwide. CCD was established in part as a response to a growing sentiment among academics and the public that democracy in many countries is under threat. From Hungary to Nicaragua to the United States, elected leaders are chipping away at core institutions of the democracies that elected them. The center encourages research on topics related to democracy and shares this academic work with the broader community of citizens, civil society organizations, and policymakers. CCD does this through convenings, publications, and public engagement. Those interested in the work of CCD should visit to learn about upcoming activities.

Her current book project examines the strategies congressional leaders adopt to navigate intraparty conflicts. Part of what she hopes to clarify is that political outcomes, even those in the extremes, are rarely unprecedented, and vital lessons can be learned from decisions made in the past.

She points to events like the reaction to President Donald Trump’s ‘travel ban’ and detaining immigrants at the border. Many people liken it to the Japanese internment during World War II, though she says these events are more reflective of the Jim Crowe Laws. “Japanese internment was based on national identify, whereas Jim Crow was masked in rules about taxes and knowledge of political rules,” she says. “They enabled Southern States to unofficially discriminate against African Americans.” She finds the current political discourse around the economic impact of immigrants stealing jobs and not contributing to the economy to be “disturbingly similar” to that era.  “It confirms the adage that those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.”

Joel Isaac: Lessons learned from political and social trends

Isaac is also interested in studying political and social trends throughout modern history. His primary research area focuses on American and British traditions of social thought, and the theories of knowledge that drove important changes in the human sciences during the twentieth century.

Isaac joined the University of Chicago in 2017, after holding positions at the University of Cambridge and Queen Mary, University of London. Like Bloch Rubin, he sees a vital need for qualitative research in this realm. “A qualitative understanding of human social behavior has an indispensable role in our attempt to understand human action and the social institutions that human beings build,” he says.

Framing political science solely through the lens of quantitative data limits our knowledge, and may ignore the anomalies that shape major political and social events. “Obviously, statistics play an important role in shaping public policy,” he says. But they don’t paint the whole picture. He points to opinion polls, which have been used for decades to predict political outcomes – but failed terribly in the recent elections in the US and the EU. “Brexit and Trump’s election suggest that opinion polls are not as reliable as we may have supposed,” he says.

He notes that in the past few years attempts to make definite pronouncements about what is happening with regard to the rise of populism in many democracies have been “less durable than one would want from a sober scientific perspective.” That is in part due to the fact that data without adequate interpretation doesn’t tell the whole story. “It underscores the point that quantitative and qualitative are inherently bound up with one another.”

In his first book, Working Knowledge: Making the Human Sciences from Parsons to Kuhn (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012), which won the Gladstone Prize from the Royal Historical Society in the United Kingdom, Isaac explores how influential thinkers in the twentieth century's middle decades understood the relations among science, knowledge, and the empirical study of human affairs.

He is currently working on a book project exploring the relations between economics and social thought from the late nineteenth century to the present, which is a story that he felt was missing from his first work. “Economics is viewed by some as a universal model for decision making,” he says. This approach has been used to explain legal and judicial decision-making, and provides a foundation for social theory.

He points to UChicago economist Gary Becker’s argument that the economic notion of human behavior can explain not just the motivating factors behind the exchange of goods and services, but also as a driver of business, political and social trends. “Economics have become a universal model of decision-making in market and non-market contexts,” he says. The major topics addressed by the book include the diffusion of rational choice theory across the human sciences, and the reception of Enlightenment thought about politics and markets.

Richard Shweder: On pluralism in the West

“There is a difference between numbers and narratives,” declares Shweder. He delved into these differences more than two decades ago in Quanta and qualia: What is the "object" of ethnographic method?, a seminal essay in which he argues that the difference lies less in the method, and more in the object-matter (or is it subject-matter?) that gets studied and the questions asked.

Shweder received his Ph.D. in social anthropology from Harvard University in 1972. After spending a year at the University of Nairobi in Kenya, he joined the faculty at UChicago. During his 45 years at the University, he has authored several books and many papers, including Thinking Through Cultures: Expeditions in Cultural Psychology and Why Do Men Barbecue? Recipes for Cultural Psychology (both published by Harvard University Press). He was also the recipient of the American Association for the Advancement of Science Socio-Psychological Prize for his essay “Does the Concept of the Person Vary Cross-Culturally?”

Censorship and Information Control During Information Revolutions

Department of History faculty Ada Palmer and Adrian Johns have co-organized this public dialogue series, bringing together scholars of print revolutions past and present with practitioners working on the frontiers of today’s information revolution. These events are not formal panels with presented papers, but freeform discussions in which experts bounce ideas off each other, discovering rich parallels between our work and sharing them in real time. Taking place from October through November, the eight dialogues will unite historians, editors, novelists, poets, and activists, and are being filmed to share online, so that members of the public can enjoy and continue the discussions.

Much of his current research focuses on the scope and limits of pluralism in Western liberal democracies and the ways in which the moral domain gets characterized in Western developmental psychology. He addresses the question whether it is possible to be a robust cultural pluralist and a dedicated political liberal at the same time.  He notes that in Western psychological research, the definition of the moral domain is often “narrowed to a liberal individualistic view of the world” in which the individual and the pursuit of personal preferences and desires is at the center and cultural traditions are viewed as conventions or even as forms of oppression. 

“Moral concepts such as harm, rights, justice and equality become the definition of the moral domain,” he says. Whereas many societies are more sociocentric, in which one’s position in a collective entity is at the center, and concepts such as duty, hierarchical interdependency and loyalty are deemed very important and have moral force. He refers to these as the “ethics of autonomy” and the “ethics of community.”

His theoretical scheme for understanding the richness of the moral domain is known as “The Big Three of Morality” and includes “the ethics of divinity” in which moral concepts such as purity, pollution, sin, cleanliness, and the relation between the sacred order and the natural order are primary. This trichotomy is featured in his research on the moral foundations of family life in a Hindu temple town of Orissa, India, compared to family life in Hyde Park, Illinois. Subjects in both communities were presented with short stories that in one of those communities or the other or both might be judged to violate moral or social rules. He found that interviewees in Chicago saw a clear distinction between social conventions and morality, whereas in Orissa there was no separation. The social order was the moral order.

“These differences can create conflict when migrants bring distinctive social and moral traditions to Western liberal democracies, even those that in the abstract promote tolerance,” he says. He points to disputes over female circumcision, consensual polygamy and ideas about sex roles, codes of modesty, the best way to raise children and parental authority. Shweder is currently writing about a legal case against an American Muslim female doctor and Shia Muslim mothers of the Dawoodi Bohra faith in Michigan who are being prosecuted in a federal criminal trial because of their adherence to a “long-standing religiously based gender inclusive version of the Jewish Abrahamic circumcision tradition,” he says. He thinks the trial, scheduled for April 29, 2019, has potentially serious implications for American Jews and their practice of male circumcision.  “In Dawoodi Bohra families, and in some other Muslim denominations as well, it is not only boys but also girls who are customarily circumcised, he says.  “Mothers typically control and arrange for the circumcision of their daughters and it appears that the female procedure is less invasive than the male procedure as legally practiced in the United States.” He argues that such disputes raise questions about freedom of religion, equal treatment before the law, and how much space or tolerance there should be for cultural variety in a liberal democracy such as our own.  “These are the types of questions and cultural tensions that interest me.”

It’s also one of the reasons he likes being a part of the UChicago faculty. He appreciates the University’s long standing stance of institutional neutrality, which dates back to the 1967 Kalven Committee Report on the University's Role in Political and Social Action. “If a university takes official positions declaring who is right and wrong, it limits debate,” he says.  “In general the university has abided by the recommendations in the Kalven Committee Report and doesn’t take a public stance on even the most controversial issues, making the university a ‘safe space’ for students and faculty to think freely, question each other’s cherished assumptions and give voice to contentious opinions,” he says. “It is a distinctive element of the University of Chicago culture, one we should be proud of and prepared to defend.”

"Virtue in thinking about the same questions in different ways"

Even in the study of economics, the data are never neutral – nor enough. “Interpretation of data will never go away,” Isaac says. “It underscores the point that qualitative and quantitative data are inherently bound together.”

The culture of qualitative research at the University allows academics like Shweder, Isaac, and Bloch Rubin to expand our understanding of historical data, provide context for what happened, and unearth biases and gaps in previously unquestioned interpretations. “A lot of information is lost in avoiding pluralism in research methods,” Bloch Rubin says. “There is much virtue in thinking about the same questions in different ways.”

Whether it is Shweder’s research into religiously based gender inclusive circumcision, Isaac’s thoughts on how the events leading to World War I underscore the failings of historic data to predict events, or Bloch Rubin’s exploration into the power of small groups in certain political scenarios, the lenses through which they conduct their research provides new perspectives on political and social trends.

And the University of Chicago provides an ideal environment to conduct these projects, Shweder says. “It is a place to be with thoughtful people who are willing to challenge others’ points of view, and to be challenged through intellectual intensity and openness to dispute.”