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March 22, 2006

Institute to study social issues related to governance and poverty

By Lisa Trei

New programs focusing on problems of governance and poverty at the Institute for Research in the Social Sciences (IRiSS) aim to position Stanford as a leader of cutting-edge multidisciplinary research in a range of thorny issues facing society.

Under the traditional departmental system, academics face obstacles tackling common problems from different disciplinary angles, said IRiSS Director Karen S. Cook, chair of the Sociology Department. "We are stove-piped," she said. "What IRiSS aims to do is bring together leading social scientists with similar interests and take their expertise to the next level."

With the university's strong cohort of political scientists, Cook said it was natural for IRiSS to support the establishment of a program on governance and institutions and, within that, a center that will study American political institutions. In addition, IRiSS has launched a center for the study of poverty and inequality under the leadership of sociology Professor David Grusky.

Program on Governance and Institutions

In recent years, social science has undergone a revolution based on the study of institutions, explained political science Professor Stephen Haber, who holds the A. A. and Jeanne Welch Milligan Professorship and the Hoover Institution's Peter and Helen Bing Senior Fellowship. He also is director of Stanford's Social Science History Institute, which will become part of the new IRiSS program next year. According to a white paper describing the program, it is popularly accepted that all markets—economic, political and social—are bounded by institutions that determine their efficiency and limit the range of outcomes they can produce. "That is, individuals are not free to choose any outcome that they want," the paper says. "Instead, they must choose from an organized set … of choices that are determined, in large part, by the rules governing the way that a particular market works."

Haber said he is interested in the degree to which institutions can be transplanted successfully from one society to another. "This relates to Iraq," he said, and attempts to transform an authoritarian system into a democratic one. In planning for the U.S. invasion in 2003, Haber said, strategists made a series of decisions informed by a certain understanding of institutions—that if Saddam Hussein was toppled, democratic institutions would be able to develop. "But how easy is it to create democratic institutions in a society with no political [infrastructure]?" Haber said. "Everybody talks about institutions and how important they are, but no one really knows how to change them."

The program aims to provide basic research that will assist policymakers making hard, consequential decisions, Haber said. "We're not in the business of finding silver bullets, and we're not in the business of giving advice," he said. "We're in the business of providing research that allows people to make intelligent, informed decisions. For example, if you understand better how authoritarian systems work, it will make a difference in how much you try to change things."

Center for the Study of American Political Institutions

As part of the program on governance, the Center for the Study of American Political Institutions plans to revamp the study of American institutions. Haber and political science Associate Professor Simon Jackman and Paul Sniderman, the Fairleigh S. Dickinson, Jr., Professor in Public Policy, head this effort. As the center's proposal states: "Everywhere, including at Stanford, the principle has been the same—research based on a division of labor. Economists study economic institutions, political scientists study political institutions, and lawyers and colleagues at the business school study legal and commercial institutions. But American economic institutions are tied to their legal counterparts, legal institutions are tied to political ones and so on. It is impossible to understand how the system works as a whole without understanding how its parts work together."

Data laboratory

The center plans to establish a laboratory that will collect quantitative data on elections, policy initiatives and policy outcomes starting from the present day and working backward. "We want to make Stanford a national center" for this kind of research, Sniderman said. "We also want to create a survey research lab."

According to Jackman, who is spearheading the lab project, researchers can use the U.S. Census to obtain district demographics and contact the Federal Election Commission for information about political campaign contributions. But there is no single place where, for example, researchers can obtain the political, social and economic characteristics of a district, track how these have changed over time, and link these developments to how effectively elected officials represent the interests of their constituents or to what degree campaign contributions may influence the officials' voting behavior. "There are data sources for some of this, but it's surprisingly scattered given the importance of the questions involved," Jackman said. As a result, every time a research project is launched, scholars must "reinvent the wheel," he said. "There's a massive amount of stitching together involved."

Stanford has the experience and information technology tools in data collection, synthesis and analysis to take on such a massive project, Jackman said. In 1999, Stanford University Libraries signed a contract with the World Trade Organization in Switzerland to record and digitize millions of paper documents in the archives of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, the organization's predecessor. Today, much of the data is available online in a searchable format at "What Stanford brings to bear is an ability to collect data and make sure it's not lost," Jackman said. "Stanford has the resources to create a tremendously valuable database." Such a project will bring different data sources together in a searchable format for the first time, Jackman said, and make it easier for scholars to analyze the conduct of American politics.

Center for the Study of Poverty and Inequality

This effort aims to establish a research and training center focused on the sources, consequences and policy responses to increasing poverty and inequality. In recent decades, these issues have become an unprecedented threat to the world community, center Director Grusky said. "The symptoms and consequences of massive inequality range from growing terrorism throughout the world to ethnic unrest in France, burgeoning HIV-positive populations in Africa and Asia, and starvation, disease and disaffection even in the richest of countries, such as the United States," the center's white paper states. "If poverty and inequality were treated in the past as mere moral problems, now they are appreciated as problems with more profound consequences and threats for the world community than those of simple moral discomfit."

The new program plans to support research; train a new generation of scholars, politicians and leaders; and help disseminate findings that can influence and shape relevant policy. According to Grusky, the center plans to launch a new book series titled Controversies in Inequality, publish a magazine aimed at policymakers and public intellectuals and develop a website. As part of its public outreach, on April 7 the center will jointly sponsor a lecture by Nobel laureate Amartya Sen titled "What Do We Want from a Theory of Justice?" The lecture, which is free and open to the public, is scheduled from 1 to 2:30 p.m. in Building 200, Room 2. During Spring Quarter, the center also will co-sponsor a discussion series titled "Controversies About Inequality."



Lisa Trei, News Service: (650) 725-0224,


Karen S. Cook, Institute for Research in the Social Sciences: (650) 723-1194,

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