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2021-22 Dissertation Fellows Announced

May 27 2021

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IRiSS is pleased to host another full cohort of 12 Dissertation Fellows for the 2021-2022 academic year, representing all 6 departments in the social science cluster at Stanford. In addition to receiving a stipend for 1-2 quarters of the coming academic year, IRiSS Dissertation Fellows have the opportunity to present their work to an interdisciplinary audience of peers, senior scholars, and members of the advisory board.

This award supports research that aligns with and contributes to IRiSS’s core strengths: building interdisciplinary bridges across the social sciences, advancing and creatively applying computational methods, and analyzing large, complex data sets. The incoming group of Dissertation Fellows demonstrates the robust and varied questions that can be answered by skillfully leveraging these different approaches.

The IRiSS Dissertation Fellowship is made possible by a generous gift from IRiSS Advisory Board Member Birong Hu.

Valentin Figueroa, Political Science – The Protestant Road to Bureaucracy

For most of the late medieval period, state administrations in Europe were privatized. Contractors collected taxes and administered justice for private profit. The military revolution (1550-1650) gave rulers incentives to strengthen their grip on the state administration and replace patrimonial officials with professional and centrally appointed bureaucrats. Yet only some states, like England and Prussia, succeeded in transitioning to bureaucracy in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, while others, like France and Castile, were only able to do so after the nineteenth century. What explains this difference? The early rise of bureaucracy was a long-term consequence of the Protestant Reformation. In places where the Reformation succeeded, the confiscation of the Catholic Church's assets (i) allowed rulers to finance wars without the widespread sale of public offices, limiting the growth of the stock of officeholders; and (ii) reduced the number of plum jobs in the clergy, incentivizing educational investments in secular skills. When rulers pursued administrative reforms after the military revolution, those in Protestant polities had two advantages: they faced a smaller set of officeholders who resisted bureaucratization or had to be pensioned off, and had access to a higher supply of human capital that could be recruited into the bureaucracy for a salary. I document the operation of the mechanisms of the theory using centuries of historical microdata from England, Castile, France, and the Holy Roman Empire.


Akshay Jagadeesh, Psychology – The Role of Cognition in Flexible Visual Perception

Human beings are remarkably proficient at recognizing objects. Though this ability may seem trivial, it is surprisingly challenging for state-of-the-art artificial intelligence algorithms to match human behavior. How does the human brain give rise to this uniquely robust, rich, and flexible representation of the visual world? Through my dissertation work, we argue that what differentiates humans' visual perception is not just the ability of the visual system to recognize complex patterns, but particularly the role that cognitive processes such as attention, learning, and working memory play in extracting and transforming sensory representations to achieve behavioral goals. This research program presents a significant opportunity to bidirectionally bridge the fields of computer vision and cognitive neuroscience by employing computational modeling approaches to understand the human brain, while also using insights from cognitive psychology to develop biologically-plausible artificial neural network models of visual perception and behavior.

Haemin Jee, Political Science – Regulation and Control without Rule of Law: Effects of the Social Credit System in China

This dissertation explores the implementation and effects of China's social credit system. While previous commentary on the social credit system has emphasized its potential repressive function, there has been little empirical research to support such generalizations, especially with regard to the implementation efforts made by local government officials tasked with creating the social credit system. This dissertation project will break new ground in the scholarly understanding of the social credit system by building a theory of the social credit system not as a tool of surveillance and draconian social control, but as an institution to contend with weak rule of law. This new theoretical conception of the social credit system is supported by a variety of methods and data, including the collection of new observational data, qualitative work, and original survey research. Using data on local social credit systems, I demonstrate that, contrary to prevailing beliefs, the social credit system is used to enforce existing law, not create new constraints on individual behavior. A second part of my dissertation uses a survey experiment to measure the impact of the social credit system on assessments of government performance, social trust, and rule-following behavior.


Cinoo Lee, Psychology – Racial Bias Transmission

There is a significant body of social science research documenting racial bias in different settings ranging from education to hiring. There has been less work, however, in examining everyday racial bias on online community platforms, despite the potential for harm. Though there are plenty of anecdotes and news reports about harmful racially biased posts existing in these platforms, there has not been a systemic way to document them, measure their impact, and intervene. My research will pursue this work through by documenting existing racial bias, measuring the propagation of bias in an experimental setting, and taking counter action in collaboration with an online platform company.


Julia Melin, Sociology – Reducing Racialized Gender Disparities through the Online Career Training Process: Testing a Group-Based Intervention

Low-income and minority workers are increasingly using online learning platforms to re-enter paid work or transition into well-paying careers. Yet, major disparities still exist between online learners from different demographic backgrounds, as they do in brick-and-mortar classrooms. Can exposure to a virtual peer group intervention enhance the performance, persistence, and career placement outcomes of online trainees —the majority of whom in this study are women of color and low-income? Does peer group composition (based on gender and employment status) also matter for improving these outcomes? In partnership with a leading online career training platform, this dissertation uses a mixed-method, online randomized controlled trial (RCT) design to test these ideas. Ultimately, this project aims to demonstrate the positive effects that peer groups can have on individual-level successes, as well as determine how group similarity versus group diversity further impact individual academic and career-related outcomes in the online career training process.


Hannah Mieczkowski, Communication – Social Cognition and Language Change in AI-Mediated Communication

Technologies are no longer just passive mediators of interpersonal communication; artificial intelligence systems can now provide suggested text responses for our messages, make calls on our behalf, and create believable fake videos. My dissertation project examines how messages modified or generated by AI —or AI-Mediated Communication (AI-MC)— can influence aspects of social cognition, such as impression formation about the self and others, as well as language change in the form of linguistic alignment. I will conduct dyadic online experiments with analytic techniques based in survey methodology and the computational social sciences, building off my past work in the area of AI-MC.


Sebastián Otero, Economics – Affirmative Action in Centralized College Admission Systems

This paper studies the distributional consequences of affirmative action in selective colleges in the context of a centralized admission system. We examine the effects of a law implemented in Brazil in 2013, mandating all federal public universities to increase the number of seats reserved for public high-school students to half of the total. We find that after the policy was put in place, the student body composition of public institutions became more similar to that of the applicant pool. We show that the proportion of admits to public institutions from private high schools dropped from 55% in 2011 to 35% in 2016. This is closer to the 20% share of overall high-school graduates that private school graduates represent. To study the overall distributional consequences of the policy, we leverage the rules from the centralized admission system and simulate a counterfactual allocation of spots in a regime without affirmative action. Our research design exploits admission cutoffs for heavily over-subscribed degrees to estimate the policy effects on the marginally benefited and marginally displaced student. We leverage random variation in university entrance exam scores to evaluate the implications for individuals away from the discontinuities. We find that the policy creates large income benefits for targeted students while imposing a small cost on non-targeted individuals.


Tamkinat Rauf, Sociology – The Inequalities of Happiness and Income

Two of the most significant societal developments over the past half century are the dramatic rise in economic inequality accompanied by a cultural movement towards greater consideration of indicators of subjective well-being in everyday discourse, policymaking, politics, and organizations. Will our societal investment in reducing the inequalities of subjective well-being also ameliorate unequal material conditions of living? My dissertation examines the causal relationship between income and happiness —one of the most intractable inquiries in social science— using innovative empirical methods and large datasets. The first study exploits the randomization inherent in the human genome for causal identification, combining estimates of heritability from genome-wide association studies with classical causal inference and psychometric methods, to estimate rigorous models that address several sources of bias and confounding. This research uses data from the Health and Retirement Study and the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health, two of the largest longitudinal surveys in the US that have collected genetic data from participants. The other studies in my dissertation use causal inference and experimental approaches to examine how income shapes subjective responsiveness to life events and investigate the broader political implications of well-being research.

Jasmine Reid, Anthropology – In the Wake: Heritage Activism and Land Rights in Post-Apartheid Johannesburg

Whom does the nation belong to, and who gets to decide? My dissertation explores this question in post-apartheid South Africa, a nation actively renegotiating the social relations among its residents. In 2018, the government approved a plan to expropriate white-owned land in order to correct apartheid-era forced removals that displaced millions of non-white people. In the wake of this landmark decision, heritage museums founded to tell the story of these displacements have become moral sites, testifying against these past inequalities and advocating for future spatial justice. Using ethnographic and archaeological methods, my project explores the implications of postcolonial land rights by studying two of these heritage sites in Johannesburg: the Sophiatown Museum and the Fietas Museum. My work finds that these museums become spaces for politicians, heritage workers, citizens, and foreign nationals to negotiate whose relation to the land is most worthy of honoring in the present, and who belongs in the post-colonial nation as a result‚ with these fractions often occurring along racialized lines.


Kiara Sanchez, Psychology – A Threatening Opportunity: Friends Talking about Race

Psychological literature on intergroup contact asserts that interpersonal similarities are critical in forming and maintaining cross-race friendships, yet little work to date has examined how cross-race friends contend with inevitable race-based differences in experience. This work examines real-time conversations about race and intervenes to help equip cross-race friends to share and discuss race-based experiences. We test a reframing strategy that gives friends a new way to understand these conversations, rooted in their mutual care and commitment to each other. Findings from this research will reveal how people from different racial backgrounds can connect in ways that promote more authentic and anti-racist relationships.


Catherine Sirois, Sociology – Between Dependent and Delinquent in the Eyes of the State: Children at the Intersection of the Child Welfare and Juvenile Justice Systems

Crossover youth represent a unique population of children involved in both the child welfare and the juvenile justice systems. The primary objective of this project is to advance understanding of how state institutions construct and manage the ambiguous status of crossover youth as both "dependent" and "delinquent" and how state actors' understanding and treatment of crossover youth shapes youths' self-perception, well-being, and social integration as they proceed through adolescence and transition into adulthood. By integrating observation and interviews with both crossover youth and state actors, the project advances existing research that primarily relies on administrative data to test associations between court involvement and youth outcomes or prior ethnographic studies that focus on either one set of actors or a single state institution. Because crossover youth are perceived as needing both protection and discipline, they illuminate fundamental tensions in how the state operates, particularly in its regulation of marginalized populations. In this way, the project will speak to how the state distinguishes between victims and offenders when harm is pervasive, simultaneously supports and punishes poor families, and affirms or contests the privileged status of childhood.


Melanie Wallskog, Economics – Entrepreneurial Spillovers

What prompts a person to start a new firm? In this project, I explore one potential reason: she has been inspired or taught by someone with entrepreneurial experience: i.e. entrepreneurship is a "learned'' behavior "taught'' by entrepreneurs, such that there may be substantial spillovers from each instance of entrepreneurship. Using large-scale administrative data, I track the employment and entrepreneurship of over forty million Americans and investigate entrepreneurial spillovers across coworkers. I find that an individual whose current coworkers have more prior entrepreneurship experience is more likely to become an entrepreneur herself within the next five years; these spillovers are concentrated among workers in the same establishment in a firm in the same year and, in some cases, are strongest across workers with similar demographics. Furthermore, she is more likely to become a successful entrepreneur if those coworkers were themselves successful entrepreneurs. Collectively, these results suggest that former entrepreneurs may pass on both institutional knowledge needed to start a business and entrepreneurial skills that increase a firm's productivity. To quantify the role of learning entrepreneurship in determining aggregate patterns, I build a structural model; when estimated, this model allows me both to measure how learning contributes to the overall level of entrepreneurship and to trace out the effects of policies that promote entrepreneurship.