August 16, 2011
Research, Teaching, Service Inform Political Scientist’s Work
“I have thrived since joining the political science department in 2008,” says Frederic Schaffer, interim chair, and until recently graduate program director and chair of the graduate studies committee. Coming to UMass from MIT via Harvard, he was hired as part of a departmental initiative that sought scholars who span or step outside of the traditional subfields of political science. Trained as a political theorist, Schaffer now works primarily in comparative politics but also on American politics. Intellectually, he draws much from linguistic philosophy and cultural anthropology, but his scholarship and teaching are situated at the intersection of several subfields and disciplines.
“I really value the emerging cross-field and interdisciplinary orientation of our department,” Schaffer says. “It provides an uncommonly supportive and intellectually stimulating environment. The opportunities available to me here simply do not exist at most other institutions.”
Schaffer is committed to being a productive and innovative scholar, an engaged and thoughtful teacher, and an active and responsible citizen of the department and beyond. “These roles are very much intertwined,” he says. “My research on language, democracy, and elections informs my teaching and gives direction to my service. My teaching on language and democracy raises new questions for me to research. My service—especially elections-related work—stimulates my research and enriches my teaching.”
What sets much of Schaffer’s work apart from other empirical research on democracy is his methodological focus on language. “By investigating carefully differing ways in which ordinary people around the world use terms such as ‘democracy,’ ‘politics,’ or ‘vote buying’—or their rough equivalents in other languages—I aim to arrive at a richer appreciation of how they understand and make use of electoral institutions,” says Schaffer. “Besides being intrinsically interesting, it is crucial to tackling real-world political problems.”
Schaffer’s strong interest in democracy grew from a personal commitment to participatory decision-making. “I had a deep awareness of societal diversity, having spent much of my young adulthood in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East,” Schaffer explains. “In graduate school at Berkeley I found myself dissatisfied with the culture-blind way many political scientists studied democracy and elections abroad. If we are to grasp how electoral institutions really operate, then it would be necessary, I thought, to take into account more fully how people in different locales understand and use those institutions.”
Schaffer’s concern has great practical relevance. “The World Bank and the U.S. routinely implement costly programs to promote competitive elections in developing countries, with hopes of improving accountability,” he says. “Without examining how people actually understand and use electoral institutions, nobody can easily foresee the consequences of such democracy-promoting programs.”
Working on his dissertation and inspired by ordinary language philosophy, Schaffer developed a tool to uncover the meaning of words—and the intentions they reflect—in everyday talk. “It borrows two basic insights from John Austin and Ludwig Wittgenstein,” Schaffer explains. “First, everyday words reflect the accumulated wisdom or shared culture of a community; and second, the meaning of a word consists in how the word is used. The point is that local understandings matter. Most social science research is not, however, equipped methodologically to access them, but my ordinary language work is well suited to the task.”
Schaffer’s next project drew out the concrete policy implications of his findings by examining why efforts to clean up elections sometimes go bad and by devising practical steps stakeholders might take to avoid hidden traps of reform. This endeavor led Schaffer to investigate the nature, causes, and consequences of vote buying. His current work builds on all of this to pose more elemental methodological questions about the concepts we use to study social phenomena and more wide-ranging substantive questions about how voter intentions vary around the world and why this matters.
To date Schaffer has published two books, one edited volume, five articles in refereed journals, eight book chapters, one article in a non-refereed journal, and four working papers. Another book is under contract, two articles are under review, and he is developing another book plus a companion edited book. Schaffer has taught and been a facilitator at several workshops, including the annual summer Institute for Qualitative and Multi-Method Research, the premier political science qualitative methods training institute in the world. He is chair of the International Political Science Association’s Concepts and Methods research committee.
In the classroom, Schaffer tries to make learning as active as possible, turning students from spectators into participants. “To me, the primary purpose of education is to expose and unsettle our taken-for-granted views of the world. I want students to cultivate a capacity to think critically. I want them to examine ideas from multiple perspectives and to reflect on assumptions that underlie their own convictions.”
Schaffer builds his courses around foundational questions that require students to take stock of their assumptions and grapple with competing accounts of how the world works. “I see myself as a facilitator,” Schaffer says. “I present alternative viewpoints, provide analytic tools for assessing them, and give opportunities to evaluate and weigh arguments, synthesize knowledge, and reach carefully reasoned conclusions. I set high standards for logic, clarity and thoughtfulness, and provide as much support as I can.”
The payoff, Schaffer says, has been huge. “I have watched tentative students blossom into self-confident, reflective, and capable thinkers. For a teacher, I can think of no better reward.”