Lehigh University
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Student research on democracy published in top-ranked journal

What started as an undergraduate research project on democracy forged a team of seven Lehigh students into a true “community of scholars” over four years that spanned graduation, first jobs, graduate school, and geographical separation.

The culmination of their focus and dedication came when their research findings were published as the lead article in the Summer 2006 issue of the highly respected academic journal, Studies in Comparative International Development.

The article, titled “Voting Counts: Participation in the Measurement of Democracy,” represents the outcome of the project directed by Bruce Moon , professor of international relations, and conducted by a group of seven 2003 Lehigh graduates: Jennifer Harvey Birdsall, Sylvia Ciesluk, Lauren M. Garlett, Joshua J. Hermias, Elizabeth Mendenhall, Patrick D. Schmid, and Wai Hong Wong.

Their article takes on the empirical literature that uses widely accepted measures of democracy to investigate the causes, consequences and dynamics of democratization, Moon says.

“The students argue that those measures are severely flawed and that the literature that utilizes them risks misunderstanding the most significant causal dynamics surrounding democracy,” he says. “In particular, the older measures emphasize the institutions associated with democracy—such as elections, checks and balances, and civil liberties—but ignore the key role played by near-universal public participation.”

The students were able to demonstrate that this omission of the participation dimension misrepresents the essence of democracy as understood by most theorists, says Moon, who argues that the back story of the project is as interesting as the final observations.

“Giving real research experience to undergraduates in the social sciences and humanities is much more difficult than in fields where apprenticeship through the laboratory is routine,” Moon says. “But this has clearly been the most satisfying experience I’ve had here at Lehigh. These kids have just been a delight to work with—so spirited, energetic, and engaged. And what’s been particularly impressive to me was their willingness to work with each other even after they graduated. That was really extraordinary.”

A community of scholars

The project began with an experimental approach organized by Moon in the fall of 2002 in an effort to offer his honors thesis students a research-grounded project that would acquaint them with research techniques and analysis.

“I thought that we’d look at whether democratization had an effect on gender inequality as a good way to get moving in this direction,” he says. “We did research in preparation for the spring term, and it was a great start. Everyone was very enthusiastic, and we hit the ground running in spring of 2003. We soon realized that before we could focus on the effects of democracy we needed a better measure of it.”

In addition to helping the students master research techniques, Moon says he also observed the students experience “the genuine joy of discovery, which is part of the excitement of the research process.”

“They definitely had those ‘ah-hah’ moments, which is really important for our students,” he says. “It gives them the acknowledgement that they are at work in a real community of scholars.”

The process also allowed Moon to engage them in dialogue about the world’s democracies, challenging their views in what he considered highly spirited discussions.

“They have this conception of democracy that you could term as somewhat idealized,” he says. “Their vision is of a system in which people come together to reason and debate in a civilized manner to solve problems. They were most struck by the lack of democratic participation in countries widely regarded as ideal representations of democracy—countries that were considered perfect democracies before women had a right to vote—or which were regarded as mostly democratic despite obvious flaws, such as South Africa during periods of apartheid.”

Their discoveries led to significant debate as the research progressed through various phases of development and editing. Throughout, Moon says, each of the students contributed a particular strength, such as reviewing the literature, developing the theory, analyzing the data, crafting the narrative, or polishing the prose.

“It was an amazing group of students, each with specialized capabilities, who blended extremely well,” he says. “In the end, the fact that they are already credited with contributing a serious study in a top-ranked research journal is an enormous accomplishment, and a credit to each of them. They should feel justifiably proud.”

Learning how to do research

Even though most of the students moved on to either their first professional jobs or graduate school after graduating from Lehigh, they were resolutely committed to the project and determined to see it through to its conclusion, Moon says.

Mendenhall says she was initially drawn to the project because she felt it provided a unique opportunity for an undergrad: the prospect of doing real research and getting published.

“The way the project developed was in ways very similar to my personal academic interests, such as development and gender equality,” says Mendenhall, currently working toward her master’s degree at the Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs. “But it was also a great way to learn the process of doing research—from narrowing in on a focus to the data analysis to the journal selection process.”

Hermias, now associate director of the Washington, D.C.-based Global Young Leaders Conference, looks back on this experience as one of the most fulfilling of his time at Lehigh.

“One of the most striking things is the team that Professor Moon put together,” he says.
“While all of the authors had a strong interest in international development, each had their own specialty and skill set. You’d think that putting young economists, computer engineers, social scientists, and theorists at the same table would create a conversational impasse.”

To the contrary, Hermias found that each team meeting brought novel debates and dialogue that produced a multi-faceted analysis.

“Each paragraph of the final manuscript is a complex amalgam of each of the authors’ ideas, and even words,” he says. “I think each of us laugh at this project when we remember the frequent and heated arguments that would occur about a single word in any given sentence and that could last for hours. Professor Moon deserves credit for helping steer the ambition of lofty debates towards the concise work needed to produce a single manuscript.”

As of the publication date of the journal, Birdsall was a researcher for a Non-Governmental Organization in Switzerland, Ciesluk was pursuing an M.A. at Tufts University, Garlett was teaching geography at a middle school in Massachusetts, and Wong was a research associate at FactSet Research Systems.

Schmid remained at Lehigh, earning both his B.S. and M.S. in computer science, and is now pursuing a Ph.D. in computer science .

“We remained quite close during all of that time, even though we were separate geographically and going off in all different directions,” Moon says. “At one point, Liz was even serving in the Peace Corps in the Ukraine and communicating through her missives to us.”

The data from the research study is available to scholars throughout the world in the hope that they will use it in place of the previous standard measure. Moon says it has already been accessed by more than a dozen researchers for use in their work and the paper itself has already received a citation from a Norwegian researcher.

“I’m very proud of this accomplishment, and very proud of the students,” he says. “In our department, we have a very close connection between teaching and scholarship. These students were given a very meaningful way to participate in this process, and they certainly rose to the occasion.”

Story by Linda Harbrecht

Posted on Friday, January 05, 2007

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