BFI NewsOct 06, 2015

Extending Formal Theory to Global Politics


The intersection of formal theory—the mathematical modeling of social systems—and politics is not a new one in academia. But, as Scott Ashworth of the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy points out, these two research communities have traditionally met up in the area of American politics, with less focus on the global picture. The American political system is very particular and stable as a democracy, he notes, and the narrow focus of the existing scholarship means that researchers miss a lot.

In 2013, political scientists and economists came together to create a series of conferences to fill that gap: the Formal Theory and Comparative Politics Conference. The first conference, held at the London School of Economics, was organized by Torun Dewan and featured paper presentations on a number of topics from voting behavior to communication across extremist groups. The speakers included Daniel Diermeier, now Dean of Chicago Harris. The second conference was held at Washington University in St. Louis in 2014, organized by John Patty and Maggie Penn.

The series continued at the University of Chicago thanks to the Becker Friedman Institute, which hosted eight research presentations ranging in topic from how seasonality affects armed conflict to the local agency costs of political centralization.The conference series aims to identify areas that could benefit from this intersectional approach of theory and empiricism. The main areas covered in the 2015 conference were

  1. conflict—namely armed clashes involving non-state factions—using concrete data from the military in an area of research that is traditionally abstract;
  2. the politics of nondemocratic states—applying game theory to situations without static, clear sets of governmental rules; and
  3. domestic politics and democratic governance outside of the United States.

Nobel Prize winner Roger Myerson, the Glen E. Lloyd Distinguished Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago, closed out the first day of the conference with a presentation on the moral hazard that can be introduced when local policies are shaped by a centralized bureaucracy. Speaking to a crowded room of colleagues, junior scholars, and graduate and undergraduate students, Myerson described the conclusions of his work, noting that autonomous local governments are the key to success in the efficient allocation of local public investment.

The majority of the speakers featured at the conference were junior scholars from both the formal theory and political science research communities. The morning of the first day of the conference included a presentation by Scott Tyson of the University of Michigan, speaking on non-state groups and the challenges posed to foreign policy makers when dealing with extremist or terrorist groups—a topic especially relevant as the world grapples with the threats posed by groups like the Islamic State (ISIS).

Using a simple model, Tyson showed how sharp ideological differences within a non-state group over allocation of resources can lead to internal division. Intervention as a foreign policy prescription can have mixed results; it can, in fact, unify an otherwise-divided group. Tyson’s model showed that when a politician is perceived as willing to intervene by non-state groups, that politician can easily exploit policies towards that group. For these policy makers, a consistent policy of nonintervention or a consistent policy of intervention at any sign of extremist behavior is more effective at deterring terrorism than attempting to guess the level of extremism and cohesion of a non-state group.

Jenny Guardado of Georgetown University presented her research on the opportunity cost of conflict; during periods of higher returns to traditional labor, such as a harvest, workers reallocate their time from participating in conflict to participating in labor. The innovative aspect of her research was the use of data on seasonal labor shocks, which Guardado argues offer the ideal way to reveal true opportunity costs due to their anticipated yet transitory nature. In fact, comparing patterns in conflict showed that the onset of harvest reduces conflict intensity. This is held true for both labor-intensive attacks—armed conflict, hostage taking, etc.—and asymmetric violence such as suicide attacks. Guardado’s work offered a prime example of the work that can be found at the intersection of empirical and theoretical fields.

When asked about the goals of the conference, Ashworth identified two: the first, of course, to learn about new areas of research and new methodologies while at the conference; the second to form relationships among the next generation of scholars across the fields of formal theory and comparative politics, paving the way for future research collaboration.

The fourth and final conference planned for the series will be at Harvard University in 2016, organized by Ken Shepsle and Horacio Larreguy.


—Amelia Snoblin