“Democracy, Governance, and Identity” Conference Highlights the Value of Field-Based Research
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Why would authoritarian regimes gerrymander? What explains the persistence of national identities despite economic and political incentives to change? Why do some Chinese villages provide safe roads and clean water, when others fail to do so? What is the impact of “colonial legacy”? These were among the questions addressed by the “Democracy, Governance, and Identity” conference held at the International Institute on May 5–6, 2006.
The conference had two primary goals. First, it sought to highlight research grounded in context-sensitive fieldwork that is being done by a cohort of young scholars. Such research pays careful attention to the meaning and comparability of variables and concepts that are often treated simply as instances of broader phenomena and assumed to be comparable. For example, redistricting and local government take on very different meanings in authoritarian and democratic settings, as shown in papers by Edward Malesky and Kimuli Kasara drawing on research in Vietnam and Kenya, respectively.
Rather than relying on existing databases of questionable quality, these scholars painstakingly constructed their own data sets, paying careful attention to the categories and quality of the available data. As Yoi Herrera demonstrated in her paper on reforming Russia’s state statistical agency, even relying on otherwise reliable official government reporting ignores serious issues in the quality of data and the standards of its collection, undermining international comparability. While fieldwork is often demanding, both in time and effort, the payoff is data that are rich in detail, sensitive to the political and economic context, and most importantly, of a readily discernable quality.
Second, participants were asked to question the very categories used in the conference title: Democracy, Governance, and Identity. Rather than focusing on democracy itself, conference participants explored how identity and governance function in both authoritarian and semi-authoritarian regimes. More importantly, they demonstrated how aspects of democratic governance—representation and public goods provision, in particular—can exist in non-democratic settings, but function very differently. Malesky showed how provincial divisions are linked to the changing nature of competition between factions within the communist party of Vietnam. Kasara argued that the ruling party in Kenya used ethnic redistricting and the proliferation of electoral districts to prop up its power. Lily Tsai showed that local identities were paramount in determining the quality and quantity of public goods, such as roads, schools, and clean water, provided at the local level in China.
Similarly, while governance has been examined as simply a set of formal institutions and state actors, conference papers illustrated that informal aspects of rule and authority, such as informal institutions, patronage, and non-state actors, are just as important. The papers also took seriously institutional legacies, such as those of colonial rule examined by Steven Wilkinson.
Finally, identity has too often been reduced to ethnic divisions that challenge existing power structures. In addition to this fundamental cleavage, research by Ellen Lust-Okar and Pauline Jones Luong (on national and transnational Islamists), Vicky Murillo (on market reforms in public utilities in Latin America), Tsai, and Herrera demonstrated the power of religious, regional, local, and even institutional allegiances as powerful sources of loyalties, identities—and policy choices. Drawing on research in Ukraine, Keith Darden argued that nationalism was sustained through a process that began with the introduction of mass literacy in the late 19th and early 20th century and continued with family inculcation of national values. Lucan Way’s paper, addressing identity and autocracy in Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine, further demonstrated that identity is a force for keeping authoritarian regimes in power under some conditions.
All told, while each participant brought diverse area expertise to the table, they shared a passion for using context-sensitive research to advance understanding of critical theoretical issues in comparative politics.
Anna Grzymala-Busse is associate professor of political science at the University of Michigan. During 2006–07, she is interim director of the International Institute’s Center for International and Comparative Studies.
Conference participants included Keith Darden, Yale University; Mary Gallagher, U-M; Yoi Herrera, Harvard University; Kimuli Kasara, Stanford University; Pauline Jones Luong, Brown University; Ellen Lust-Okar, Yale University; Edward Malesky, University of California, San Diego; Robert Mickey, U-M; Maria Victoria Murillo, Columbia University; Lily Tsai, Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Lucan Way, Temple University; and Steven Wilkinson, Duke University. It was sponsored by the U-M International Institute; Center for Afroamerican and African Studies; Latin American and Caribbean Studies Program; and U-M’s National Resource Centers for East Asian Studies, Middle Eastern and North African Studies, Russian and East European Studies, South Asian Studies, and Southeast Asian Studies; with support from U.S. Department of Education Title VI funds.