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?