Television makes us do crazy things…or does it?

During our second lecture in Research Methods, when asked to provide an example of a relational statement, one student offered the following:

Playing violent video games leads to more violent inter-personal behaviour by these game-playing individuals.

That’s a great example, and we used this in class for a discussion of how we could go about testing whether this statement is true. We then surmised that watching violence on television may have similar effects, though watching is more passive than “playing”, so there may not be as great an effect.

If television viewing can cause changes in our behaviour that are not socially productive, can it also lead viewers to change their behaviour in a positive manner? There’s evidence to suggest that this may be true. In a recent study, 

there is evidence to suggest that watching MTV’s 16 and Pregnant show is associated with lower rates of teen pregnancy. What do you think about the research study?

More on Milgram’s Methods of Research

In a previous post, I introduced Stanley Milgram’s experiments on obedience and authority. We watched a short video clip in class and students responded to questions about Milgram’s research methods. Upon realizing that the unwitting test subjects were all males, one student wondered whether that would have biased the results in a particular direction. The students hypothesized that women may have been much less likely to defer to authority and continue to inflict increasing doses of pain on the test-takers. While there are good reasons to believe either that women would be more or less deferential than are men, what I wanted to emphasize is the broader point about evidence and theory as it relates to research method and research ethics.

The 'sophisticated' machinery of the Milgram Obedience Experiment
The ‘sophisticated’ machinery of the Milgram Obedience Experiment

In the video clip, Milgram states candidly that his inspiration for his famous experiments was the Nazi regime’s treatment of Europe’s Jews, both before and during World War II. He wanted to understand (explain) why seemingly decent people in their everyday lives could have committed and/or allowed such atrocities to occur. Are we all capable of being perpetrators of, or passive accomplices to, severe brutality towards our fellow human beings?

Milgram’s answer to this question is obviously “yes!” But Milgram’s methods of research, his way of collecting the evidence to test his hypothesis, was biased in favour of confirming his predetermined position on the matter. His choice of lab participants is but one example. This is not good social science, however. The philosopher of science, Carl Hempel, long ago (1966) laid out the correct approach to  producing good (social) science:

  1. Have a clear model (of the phenomenon under study), or process, that one hypothesizes to be at work.
  2. Test out the deductive implications of that model, looking at particularly the implications that seem to be least plausible,
  3. Test these least plausible implications against empirical reality.

If even these least plausible implications turn out to be confirmed by the model, then you have srong evidence to suggest that you’ve got a good model of the phenomenon/phenomena of interest. As the physicist Richard Feynman (1965) once wrote,

…[through our experiments] we are trying to prove ourselves wrong as quickly as possible, because only in that way can we find progress.

Did the manner in which Milgram set up his experiment give him the best chance to “prove himself wrong as quickly as possible” or did he stack the deck in favour of finding evidence that would confirm his hypothesis?

Research Methods and the Milgram Experiment(s)

I have intentionally titled this post as above because there is the sense (amongst those who are aware of Stanley Milgram’s work) that the “obediance” experiment was just that–a single experiment. However, as Gina Perry at Discover Magazine informs us, Milgram actually performed a series of a couple of dozen experiments, varying the conditions from experiment to experiment. Let’s have a quick look at the specifics of the experiment by watching the video below..

Here are a few questions that we’ll discuss in class today that are prompted by this video:

  1. What practical considerations did Milgram overlook when conducting his research
  2. From what ontological perspective was Milgram working?
  3. What did we learn about obedience from the Milgram experiment?
  4. What political ramifications with regard to war and soldiers come out of Milgram’s experiment?
  5. How do the lessons learned from the Milgram experiment help us to design better research methods?


Proportional Representation versus First-Past-the-Post

As we learned in POLI 1100 today, Canada is one of small number of countries that continues to have a first-past-the-post system for national elections. What this means is that we divide the country up into 308 single-member districts (divided principally on the basis of the “representation by population” principle), from each of which exactly one individual is elected to represent that district in the House of Commons in Ottawa. In our case, a winner only has to have a plurality of the vote in that district to be elected the winner. What this does is it tends to give larger parties overrepresentation in parliament based on their actual electoral strength. It also gives regionally-concentrated parties (like the Bloc Quebecois) overrepresentation in parliament vis-a-vis parties whose electoral support is more diffuse geographically.

As we can see from the 2008 federal election results, the Green Party received almost 7% of the total national vote, yet because the vote was dispersed across the whole of the country, did not receive a single mandate in the House of Commons. The Bloc Quebecois, meanwhile, gained 50 seats in parliament with a slightly larger percentage of the vote than the Greens! Why? Because the BQ’s votes were geographically concentrated within a minority of ridings in the province of Quebec.

Turning now to the 2011 federal election, in which Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party won a majority in the House of Commons with 166 seats (and 39.6% of the vote). See the results below.

What if, on the other hand, Canada had a proportional representation system in which each province was its own electoral district and seats for the House of Commons were apportioned on the basis of the relative proportion of votes won by each party in each province? What would the results look like? With the help of my students, we were able to calculate the hypothesized makeup of the House of Commons were Canada to have such an electoral system.

Notice that the total number of MPs for the Conservative Party has dropped considerably such that the party no longer has a majority in the House of Commons. In fact, no single party has a majority! In order to form a relatively stable government, the Conservatives would have to find willing coalition partners. Unfortunately for them, however, other than the BQ, there is no immediately suitable coalition partner, given the respective ideological stances of the parties in parliament. Even with the BQ, the Conservatives could not get a governing majority, coming up 15 seats short. An NDP/Liberal?Green coalition, on the other hand, would work both ideologically and in terms of numbers (166 seats, exactly the same number as the Conservatives have today).

Note also how much a proportional representation system would help the Green Party–from only 1 seat in the House to 11 seats!

Which system would you prefer? Do you think that we should maintain the status quo? Should we change to PR? What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of each?

Ethnic (cultural) diversity and public spending

We talked a little bit in class today about the link between ethnic (cultural) diversity and public spending. The empirical record seems to find that the more ethnic diversity in a polity, the less public spending–health, education, etc.–there is. A recent article in the American Political Science Review (Habyarimana et al. 2007) addresses the theoretical mechanisms that may underlie this empirical association:

A large and growing literature links high levels of ethnic diversity to low levels of public goods provision. Yet although the empirical connection between ethnic heterogeneity and the underprovision of public goods is widely accepted, there is little consensus on the specific mechanisms through which this relationship operates. We identify three families of mechanisms that link diversity to public goods provision—what we term “preferences,” “technology,” and “strategy selection” mechanisms—and run a series of experimental games that permit us to compare the explanatory power of distinct mechanisms within each of these three families. Results from games conducted with a random sample of 300 subjects from a slum neighborhood of Kampala, Uganda, suggest that successful public goods provision in homogenous ethnic communities can be attributed to a strategy selection mechanism: in similar settings, co-ethnics play cooperative equilibria, whereas non-co-ethnics do not. In addition, we find evidence for a technology mechanism: co-ethnics are more closely linked on social networks and thus plausibly better able to support cooperation through the threat of social sanction. We find no evidence for prominent preference mechanisms that emphasize the commonality of tastes within ethnic groups or a greater degree of altruism toward co-ethnics, and only weak evidence for technology mechanisms that focus on the impact of shared ethnicity on the productivity of teams. (my emphasis)

Thus, what the experimenters found was that (at least in their experiment) co-ethnics were more likely to co-operate in a strategic setting than non-co-ethnics. An additional important factor is the ability of the threat of social sanction to be stronger within a homogenous social group, presumably due to more closely linked social networks. (“I’ll tell your mother on you!” as a threat has more of a potential enforcement effect if you think the person making the threat may actually know your mother. And the likelihood of that person knowing your mother increases, other things being equal, if s/he shares the same ethnicity as your mother.

Documentary on Partition of Palestine 1947–With Map

In 1947, the UN General Assembly voted 33-13 (with 10 abstentions and 1 absent) in favour of a resolution (181) that would partition Palestine between Jews and Arabs. Today in IS309 we watched Benny Brunner’s documentary, Al Nakba (“the catastrophe”, in Arabic), which sets out to tell the story of the partition, the ensuing civil war, and the Arab-Israel war of 1948. The documentary was based on the historian Benny Morris’ book, The birth of the Palestinian refugee problem, 1947-49. We discussed (at times heatedly) issues regarding the morality/efficacy of partition as a potential solution to some situations of inter-ethnic conflict. In addition, we read Chaim Kaufmann’s article “When all else fails: Population Transfers and Partitions in the Twentieth Century,” which argues that there are situations where partition is a legitimate policy approach to inter-ethnic violence.

The Political Economy of Revolution–Egypt

In our last session of IS 210 we looked at the topic, political economy. O’Neil defines political economy as “the study of the role of economic processes in shaping society and history.” The recent overthrow of the Mubarak regime in Egypt is a good case study with which to highlight some of the links between political revolution and political economy. Anybody who has taken a political economy course in political science at the graduate level in the last 15 years or so has almost certainly read Stephen Haggard and Robert R. Kaufman’s influential work, The Political Economy of Democratic Transitions. The authors attempt to answer a series of inter-related questions related to the politics/economics nexus as it appeared to them in the early 1990s:

“What role have economic crises played in the near-global wave of political liberalization and democratization? Can new democracies manage the daunting political challenges posed by economic crises and reform efforts? Under what economic and institutional conditions is democracy most likely to be consolidated?”

Haggard and Kaufman ultimately eschew both liberal theories of modernization and (neo)-Marxist theories of dependency and turn to a rational choice framework that focuses on the strategic actions of political elites–especially presidents and military leaders–under conditions of economic and institutional constraint. In addition, the authors make a few key assumptions, one of which I will highlight here: “…the 0pportunities for political elites to mobilize political support or opposition will depend on how economic policy and performance affect the income of different social groups.” (6) The empirical evidence draws from countries such as Uruguay, Brazil, Argentina, Philippines, Peru, and Bolivia. There argument certainly has relevance for the situation in Egypt today and for the potential for the Egyptian polity to make a successful transition toward consolidated democracy.

Jake Caldwell, Director of Policy for Agriculture, Trade, and Energy at American Progress, and coauthor of The Coming Food Crisis, has written recently about the daunting economic challenges facing any new government with respect to food security. In the midst of rapidly increasing global commodity prices–especially foodstuffs–the government must find a way to continue to feed its people, many of whom live on less than $2/day in income. Caldwell writes:

“Egypt has spent $4 billion a year, or 1.8% of GDP, on its bread subsidization program in an attempt to insulate the 40% of Egyptians living on less than $2 a day from inflation. But prices continue to rise…

…Egypt faces daunting challenges as it prepares for broad presidential and parliamentary elections within a year. Ongoing volatility in global food prices will strain resources during this critical transitional period.

As the world’s largest importer of wheat, Egypt is acutely vulnerable to any surge in food prices. Wheat prices have risen 47 percent over the last year and other staples are rapidly approaching dangerously high levels.

Food price inflation and volatility strike hard at the household budgets of average Egyptian families. Many of them spend 40 percent of their monthly income on food. As prices rise, purchasing power is eroded, and the recovery of Egypt’s fragile economy during the transition is slowed.”

How much time will the new Egyptian government have to provide food security for the Egyptian people before the polity’s patience with democracy is compromised? Or is the public yearning for democracy and liberty so strong that economic crisis will have little effect on democratization in Egypt going forward?

Tunisia’s President Steps Down and Flees Country

We’re witnessing the fall of another autocrat, this time in the northern African country of Tunisia. The (as of earlier today) former president, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, has stepped down amidst worsening violence and protests, ending 23 years of autocrat rule. The BBC reports:

Tunisia’s president has stepped down after 23 years in power amid unprecedented protests on the streets of the capital Tunis.

Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi said he would be taking over from President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. A state of emergency has been declared amid protests over corruption, unemployment and rising prices.

BBC sources say Mr Ben Ali has flown to the Mediterranean island of Malta, but this has yet to be confirmed.

Earlier, police fired tear gas as thousands of protesters gathered outside the interior ministry.

Doctors say that 13 people were killed in overnight clashes in Tunis, and there are unconfirmed reports that five people have been killed in protests on Friday outside the capital.

Troops have surrounded the country’s main international airport, Tunis Carthage, and the country’s air space has been closed.

In an address on state television, Mr Ghannouchi said: “Since the president is temporarily unable to exercise his duties, it has been decided that the prime minister will exercise temporarily the duties.”
Tunisia’s President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali addresses the nation in this still image taken from video, January 13, 2011. Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali was only Tunisia’s second president since independence from France in 1956

Mr Ghannouchi, 69, a former finance minister who has been prime minister since 1999, will serve as interim president. Earlier, the president – who had said in a TV address on Thursday night that he would relinquish power in 2014 – said he was dismissing the government and dissolving parliament, and that new elections would be held within six months.

The state of emergency decree bans more than three people from gathering together in the open, and imposes a night-time curfew. Security forces have been authorised to open fire on people not obeying their orders. Human rights groups say dozens of people have died in recent weeks as unrest has swept the country and security forces have cracked down on the protests.

The protests started after an unemployed graduate set himself on fire when police tried to prevent him from selling vegetables without a permit. He died a few weeks later.

If Tunisia manages to use this moment as the springboard towards democratisation, it would be only the second true democracy in the Middle East/North Africa. According to the Freedom House organisation, that region of the world is the least democratic, as the map below demonstrates

Freedom in the World 2010

ICG Report–Diamonds and the Central African Republic (CAR)

The International Crisis Group (ICG) has just released a new report on the influence of diamonds on the political situation in the Central African Republic (CAR). We’ve read various papers on the link between resource wealth (“lootable resources”) and political outcomes, such as regime type and economic outcomes. This report analyses the link between the presence of large stores of diamond wealth in CAR, the level of political instability (it’s essentially a failing state) and the existence of endemic conflict.  From the executive summary of the report:

In the diamond mines of the Central African Republic (CAR), extreme poverty and armed conflict put thousands of lives in danger. President François Bozizé keeps tight control of the diamond sector to enrich and empower his own ethnic group but does little to alleviate the poverty that drives informal miners to dig in perilous conditions. Stringent export taxes incentivise smuggling that the mining authorities are too few and too corrupt to stop. These factors combined – a parasitic state, poverty and largely unchecked crime – move jealous factions to launch rebellions and enable armed groups to collect new recruits and profit from mining and selling diamonds illegally. To ensure diamonds fuel development not bloodshed, root and branch reform of the sector must become a core priority of the country’s peacebuilding strategy.

Nature scattered diamonds liberally over the CAR, but since colonial times foreign entrepreneurs and grasping regimes have benefited from the precious stones more than the Central African people. Mining companies have repeatedly tried to extract diamonds on an industrial scale and largely failed because the deposits are alluvial, spread thinly across two large river systems. Instead, an estimated 80,000-100,000 mostly unlicensed miners dig with picks and shovels for daily rations and the chance of striking it lucky. Middlemen, mostly West Africans, buy at meagre prices and sell at a profit to exporting companies. The government lacks both the institutional capacity to govern this dispersed, transient production chain and the will to invest diamond revenues in the long-term growth of mining communities.

Chronic state fragility has ingrained in the political elite a winner-takes-all political culture and a preference for short-term gain. The French ransacked their colony of its natural resources, and successive rulers have treated power as licence to loot. Jean-Bédel Bokassa, the CAR’s one-time “emperor”, created a monopoly on diamond exports, and his personal gifts to French President Giscard d’Estaing, intended to seal their friendship, became symbols of imperial excess. Ange-Félix Patassé saw nothing wrong in using his presidency to pursue business interests and openly ran his own diamond mining company. Bozizé is more circumspect. His regime maintains tight control of mining revenues by means of a strict legal and fiscal framework and centralised, opaque management.

The full report can be accessed here. Here is a Al-Jazeera English news report on the situation in CAR.

“Ghosts of Rwanda” Documentary

As a video supplement to the Rwanda chapter from Samantha Power’s book on genocide, and the Gourevitch book, we viewed the first part of the PBS Frontline documentary “Ghosts of Rwanda” in class today. Please view the remaining hour or so sometime before next Friday’s class as we will use the first portion of that session to continue our discussion on the international community’s failure to halt the slaughter of more than 800,000 Tutsis by the Hutu-led Rwandan government.Here’s the first part of the documentary. Click on the video to take yourself to Youtube, where you will easily find the remaining parts.