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Politically committed research

I was talking with Seth about his and my visits to the economics department at George Mason University. One thing that struck me about the people I met there was that their research was strongly aligned with their political convictions (generally pro-market, anti-government).

I discussed some of this here in the context of my lunch conversation with Robin Hanson and others about alternatives to democracy and here in the context of Bryan Caplan’s book on voting, but it comes up in other areas too; for example, Alex Tabarrok edited a book on private prisons. My point here is not to imply that Alex etc. are tailoring their research to their political beliefs but rather that, starting with these strong beliefs about government and the economy, they are drawn to research that either explores the implications or evaluates these beliefs.

Comparable lines of research, from the other direction politically, include the work of my colleagues in the Center for Family Demography and Public Policy on the 7th floor of my building here at Columbia. My impression is that these folks start with a belief in social intervention for the poor and do research in this area, measuring attitudes and outcomes and evaluating interventions. Again, I don’t think they “cheat” in their research–rather, they work on problems that they consider important.

This all reminded me of something Gary King once said about our own research, which is that nobody could ever figure out our own political leanings by reading our papers. I’m not saying this to put ourselves above (or below) the researchers mentioned above–it’s just an interesting distinction to me, of different styles of social science research. I mean, there’s no reason I couldn’t study privatized prisons or social-work interventions (and come to my own conclusion about either), it just hasn’t really happened that way. (I’ve done some work on a couple of moderately politically-charged topics–the death penalty and city policing, but in neither case did I come into the project with strong views–these were just projects that people asked me to help out on.)

There’s no competition here–there’s room for politically committed and more dispassionate research–it’s just interesting here to consider the distinction. (See here for more on the topic.) I think it takes a certain amount of focus and determination to pursue research on the topics that you consider to be the most politically important. I don’t seem to really have this focus and so I end up working more on methodology or on topics that are interesting or seem helpful to somebody even if they aren’t necessarily the world’s most pressing problems.


  1. tom s. says:

    I would think that one of the key questions is whether you are prepared to let the results of your research change your mind. As a regular reader of their weblog coming from the other side of the political fence, I must say I have found Cowen and Tabarrok very open minded in this way. I can't speak to their research, not having read any, but I would expect that to be more rather than less open to being influenced – most of us are more prone to let our politics influence our judgement in a casual environment (weblog) than a formal one (research).

  2. tom s. says:

    Are you saying you don't have strong political views or that they somehow don't overlap with the work you do? And if the former, then what took you into the social sciences?

  3. Kerim Can says:

    It's hard to measure the contribution of research just by looking at its topic. I study international relations (war, peace etc), and we use the implications of asymmetric information which was initially developed for more mundane issues (buying-selling stuff, daily economic exchange), right?
    I think the real value of any research (in social sciences) lies in what it teaches us about human behavior. Once you make such a contribution, other people will apply it to many different areas and benefit the society.
    If you write on world hunger and people do not buy your argument, nobody will care and your research is useless.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Shame on you Andrew for not at least considering reverse causation! :)



  5. Andrew says:


    I have strong political views which seem vaguely connected to my applied work, but not in any clear way. As I noted in the posting, some of the most politically-charged projects on which I've worked are actually areas where I don't have strong views. Maybe I'd like to work in research that would more directly align with my political attitudes, but such projects don't seem to come up. Perhaps it's just easier for me to have the "research" perspective when I can maintain some detachment from the subject matter.

  6. tom s. says:

    Andrew – that makes sense. I can see how the impartiality required of research would be more difficult when dealing with matters you care deeply about. I guess that's why I did chemistry for a long time.

  7. Tyler once cited someone describing wisdom as "strong beliefs, weakly held". I think that's a great attitude to have as a social scientist; you have potentially powerful ideas or opinions that drive you to explore, but you feel little pain at the prospect of being moved off of them (and onto something else) by your research. In other words, let your ideas at a given moment push you, but don't base your permanent identity on them.

  8. Andrew says:


    See discussion here of the A. J. P. Taylor quote ("extreme views weakly held").