My research applies a variety of methods to advance our understanding of cultural systems. My work substantively focuses on political opinion in the United States and the question of how American cultural differences map onto current political divides.
Crafting Methods for Cultural Analysis
In recent collaborative work, I use word embeddings — vector space models of semantic relations between words — to extract dimensions of cultural meaning from texts. After showing that word embedding models can faithfully capture cultural associations along many dimensions of meaning, I apply this method to texts published over the span of the 20th century to discover how American understandings of social class persisted or evolved during an era of economic transformation. In 2021, the paper was awarded the Outstanding Article Publication Award by the American Sociological Association’s Mathematical Sociology Section.
Belief Systems and Polarization in the American Public
Partisan Alignment and the Emergence of Ideology
Since the 1960s, scholars of public opinion have maintained that the American electorate is “innocent of ideology,” and that the liberal/conservative spectrum is a poor model for how most Americans think through politics. In work recently published in Social Science Research, I examine patterns of ideological alignment in nationally-representative data and identify a recent, powerful shift in American public opinion. For the first time since at least the 1940s, Americans political attitudes are beginning to organize along a few distinct axes of ideological opposition. Preprint available on SocArXiv here!
How Conservatives Lost Confidence in the Scientific Community
As early as the 1980s, there was little difference between liberals’ and conservatives’ attitudes towards the scientific community. However, over the past several decades conservatives’ trust in scientists has undergone steady decline. In an article forthcoming in Social Forces, I argue that this growing polarization does not represent disenchantment in science, but a compositional change in who self-identifies as politically conservative. I find that morally conservative whites have long expressed skepticism towards the scientific community, but over the past four decades this group has overwhelmingly taken on the label of political conservatism. These findings suggest that our country has always been divided over science, but this division has become newly salient after becoming aligned with political ideology.
Ideology and Certainty among Economists
The clear communication of uncertainty is essential for the advance of science, yet many critics identify a tendency among social scientists to overstate the certainty of their claims. While some of the motivations to overstate confidence derive from institutions such as peer review, I argue that socio-cognitive factors also contribute to exaggerated certainty. In current work with Dr. Tod Van Gunten at the University of Edinburgh, I investigate the relationship between ideology and certainty in the professional opinions of elite economists. Using the IGM survey of economists, we use responses across a wide array of issues to construct a measure of latent ideological disposition that corresponds closely to “interventionist” versus “free market” leanings. We find that strongly ideological economists on both ends of the spectrum express boosted confidence when speaking on issues salient to the question of market intervention. We also find encouraging evidence that the majority of economists in our data are not strongly ideological and report even-handed opinions on divisive issues. Yet these impartial economists are likely to be drowned out in public discourse by the highly confident and conflicting voices from of the ideological poles.