Doing Pol-Sci at Knology

How can political science promote the public good, and how can Knology contribute to this cause? In the second of a series entitled “Perspectives on Political Science.” Johann Chacko discusses Knology’s application of political science from Joseph de la Torre Dwyer’s work on “just deserts” and financial education to his own work on social movements and the concept of “mass anxieties.”

by Johann Chacko
Aug 31, 2022

In a previous post, I described some of the sources of political science’s asymmetric relationship with other social and behavioral sciences, and how Knology’s commitment to transdisciplinary work creates a space for much more fruitful cross-fertilization. In this post, I dive a little deeper into what Knology has done and plans to do with political science.

The Knology research team’s first political scientist was Joseph de la Torre Dwyer, who remains a Knology Fellow. Joseph has worked on different aspects of the problem of distributive justice for much of his career. These ranged from the challenge of reconciling individual agency with the systemic need to correct for unfairness, to improving our understanding of investment in financial literacy education across the US (a project funded by the National Endowment for Financial Education).

This required a multi-domain approach that engages with philosophy (“what is fair?”), political science (“how do we build a fairer system?”), economics (“how do we incentivize better individual financial decision-making?”), and a fair amount of data science.

My own work comes from a different thematic background–specifically, the relationship between social movements, democratic ideals, and power distributions within political systems. Why are some ideas able to reframe the conversation, seemingly out of all proportion to the numerical size of the movement backing them? What transforms previously uncontroversial issues into deeply polarizing ones? What do we do when public goods (for example, public health or public education) become partisan battlegrounds? These are the questions that my work intends to tackle.

These issues share a common thread that could be described as mass anxieties. We see processes by which specific anxieties regarding, say, vaccine safety, become discursively interwoven with deeper political anxieties about whether ordinary people exercise sufficient power over the political system as a whole. In many cases this is further complicated by anxieties about systemic bias against one’s own social identities, e.g. race, religion or geography. What’s more, it accounts for layered polities. People might, for example, have severe anxieties about the representativeness of their national government, while at the same time having great confidence at the local and state level–or vice-versa.

Mass anxieties, and the emerging study of “political emotions,” are undertheorized and understudied domains that may offer new pathways to assess and untangle persistent knotty problems ranging from climate action to firearm regulation, and from reproductive health to declining trust in public institutions. Can we build scales and indices that allow us to measure the political climate and even the perceived legitimacy of a political system? Can we enable the mobilization of social identities to inspire mass confidence and support consensus building for constructive action? It is this new domain of work that Knology is now seeking to pursue.

Making progress requires us to integrate insights from political science with psychology, sociology, and communications, while using quantitative and qualitative methods to build a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. In other words, a transdisciplinary approach involving disciplines and methodologies that are well represented at Knology.

Photo by Koshu Kunii on Unsplash

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