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Devin Caughey: Straddling the divide between qualitative and quantitative eras of political science

Department of Political Science Instructor Devin Caughey
Department of Political Science Instructor Devin Caughey
Photo: Stuart Darsch

Devin Caughey, newly appointed political science instructor at MIT, has spent much of the last few years working with vintage polling data — information gathered in the 1930s and early 1940s, before pollsters learned to implement rigorous sampling techniques.

After parsing out the long-lost meaning of the various data fields, Caughey and his colleagues (including Professors Adam Berinsky of MIT and Eric Schickler of the University of California at Berkeley) have applied modern statistical analysis to extract new insights, including a groundbreaking assessment of how the influential Southern congressional representatives of the time reflected and reacted to the evolving feelings of their constituents.

This ability to see and interpret formative political events through a previously unavailable lens represents a fusion of methodologies that goes to the heart of Caughey’s work.

“There’s a divide that I try to straddle,” Caughey explains. “The quantitative era began about 1952, when rigorous public opinion polls began to be conducted. For the time prior to that, because we don’t have the data, people work with very different methodologies. But it’s not like the politics of the U.S. radically changed at that point — just our methods of analysis.”

The goal (which reflects the Department of Political Science's emphasis on innovative analytical techniques) is to bring contemporary quantitative tools to bear on eras that are traditionally considered qualitatively, without losing the value of qualitative analysis. “The discipline as a whole has grappled with this for a generation. ... If we can, as a department, learn to respect both approaches and bring them together, that’s great. And as individuals it’s even better,” he says.

A good example is a 2011 paper co-written with Schickler, “Public Opinion, Organized Labor, and the Limits of New Deal Liberalism, 1936–1945.” It documents a broad national opinion shift against organized labor, and contrasts support for specific New Deal programs with a lack of enthusiasm for major expansion of the federal government’s role. The findings “illuminate the role played by the South in constraining New Deal liberalism while also highlighting the tenuousness of the liberal majority in the North.”

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