In the United States, social institutions from church organizations to sports leagues occupy key roles in shaping political life, with unions perhaps the most familiar player, affecting change in realms from protest movements to elections.
But while these civil society institutions draw little notice in a democracy, they turn heads in settings where political life is more constrained.
Elizabeth “Biff” Parker-Magyar, a sixth-year doctoral student in political science at MIT, is investigating this phenomenon.
“It’s quite puzzling when some organizations manage to form and exert influence in a setting where civil society movements face high barriers to independence,” she says.
Her dissertation is focused on the small Middle Eastern nation of Jordan. She locates civil society there in an unexpected setting: public-sector work spaces. “Teachers there are highly impactful not only in shaping the contours of education, but in national politics generally, and we don’t really have good explanations for why,” she says.
Parker-Magyar has immersed herself in the dynamics of Jordanian public-sector workplaces, focusing on the contrasting cases of visibly influential teachers and more isolated public health-care employees. Her research, which paints a fine-grained picture of employee interactions and how these interactions affect political behavior, points to the centrality of social networks within the workplace.
“I believe my data will help answer some really big questions about both political economy and contentious politics,” she says. “I also hope it will answer some related questions around the impact of political reforms — like how state workers are hired and whether they find their work satisfying — and how decentralization matters for how public sector workers do their jobs.”
Teachers as activists
Political science research does not often take up the topics of teachers’ political behavior and the role of state workers in social movements — especially movements that emerge outside of democracies, according to Parker-Magyar. Through detailed field work in Jordan and elsewhere, she hopes to fill that lacuna in the literature. Her research and analysis to date have already borne fruit.
“We often think of public employees as extremely close to the party in power, because they’re perceived to get their jobs as some sort of quid pro quo” she says. “But we need to distinguish among employees — especially those in the military, for instance — and those who work in more public-facing jobs, like public school teachers and public-sector doctors.” Once employed, these workers occupy influential positions in society, with considerable agency.
“By creating a social movement, teachers in Jordan have, to a certain extent, been granted a seat at the table,” she says, in ways that shape government policies and actions, if not necessarily electoral politics.
Before starting her PhD, Parker-Magyar had already spent considerable time in Jordan. She traveled there to study Arabic while at Hamilton College in spring 2011. She pursued a Fulbright in the country right after graduation, serving as a teacher during a momentous time when teachers called a national strike.
“I had become hyperaware of the social dynamics in the teachers’ lounge, and very engaged with issues in education” she says. The striking teachers wanted some changes in the curriculum and the school calendar. “They also were laying claim to a certain level freedom of association, a right to be represented as a group,” says Parker-Magyar. This was a level of organizing that bore all the attributes of political mobilization.
Mapping workplace networks
Parker-Magyar’s dissertation has brought her back to the teachers’ lounges, to test out her idea that social networks in schools, resulting from close ties among colleagues, are a foundational form of political engagement.
A graduate research fellow with the MIT Governance Lab (GOV/LAB) and MIT Global Diversity Lab, Parker-Magyar deployed such cutting-edge methodologies as a networks elicitation survey to map and measure workplace social networks. She interviewed and surveyed hundreds of teachers and health care employees, in workplace after workplace. She also digitized elections data in Jordan down to the level of local polling places — a real challenge in a setting where data are scarce — to make possible fine-grained analysis of the voting characteristics of communities where public-sector employees have influence.
Parker-Magyar’s analysis supports her hypothesis that collegial ties help drive teachers’ influence. Teachers who form strong day-to-day bonds also benefit from those bonds when they decide to lobby — sometimes on key issues like curricular reform or wages. Significantly, these connections develop across religious and identity lines. “Having really strong social networks at work and these close relationships with your colleagues can help propel a movement forward, even in really challenging conditions,” she says.
The same organization is more challenging for doctors and hospital workers. “It is very difficult for health care workers to organize, in part because they are so non-homogeneous and hierarchical,” she says. “Doctors have a harder time coordinating with one another, let alone nurses and X-ray technicians, because their social networks are more fragmented.” While the architecture of these two public sector institutions may look the same, “teachers have major advantages in terms of their relationships with each other that allow them to sustain a social movement.”
Parker-Magyar believes that autonomous movements that spring up among labor groups must be taken more seriously. She points out that the United States provides enormous amounts of aid to nations like Jordan: “Given the U.S. investment in education and health care practices in Jordan and around the world, we should take seriously the representation of front-line teachers, doctors, and nurses.”
Public sector employees as political actors
A New Jersey native, Parker-Magyar grew up in a household steeped in labor politics: Her grandfather was a steelworker and her dad helped develop a history museum related to the state’s labor movement. “I knew I was going to study politics and government from a really young age,” she says, “though the fact that my experiences in the Middle East led me to focus on labor movements has been a bit of a surprise.”
Parker-Magyar first studied in Jordan in spring 2011, when protest movements across the Arabic-speaking world heralded a period of political change. By the time she had returned to the country for her Fulbright fellowship in 2012, the protest movement in neighboring Syria had developed into a violent civil war, sending hundreds of thousands to Jordan; nearly overnight, one in 10 people in Jordan was a refugee fleeing Syria’s conflict.
“There was this huge humanitarian need, and I ended up staying an additional year after my Fulbright, working as a journalist in a small newsroom alongside Syrians covering what was happening in their country,” she says. “I gained a deep understanding of the costs of conflict, and it made me very passionate about having a career that attempts to communicate the realities of politics in the region to a broader audience.”
After several years working on Syria, Parker-Magyar returned to those initial impressions from her days teaching soon after beginning her doctoral work. “I hope my work shows how seriously we should be taking teachers and public-sector workers as political actors,” she says. “These individuals provide important services, and their collective politics also shapes how those services are provided and the broader landscapes of civil society.”