Political Scientist, ISSR Scholar Bruce Desmarais Focuses on Computational Social Science

Bruce Desmarais
Thursday, February 28, 2013

By Jackie Hennessy '13

“If you had asked me when I graduated from high school what I would be doing a decade later, I never would have said ‘college professor,’” says Asst. Prof. Bruce Desmarais (political science). But as his college career at Eastern Connecticut State University (ECSU) developed, Desmarais became captivated with the social sciences and teaching. Today his research focuses on political methodology, American politics, and an emerging cross-disciplinary field, Computational Social Science. And as an inaugural Research Scholar with the Institute for Social Science Research (ISSR), he is learning the ins and outs of applying for major grants that will help him raise that research to the next level.

At ECSU Desmarais started off as a physical education major and had little sense of what he wanted to do with himself. Soon, however, his gen-eds in political science, economics and sociology captured his attention. “Being able to systematically deconstruct and analyze human affairs fascinated me,” he says. It didn’t take long for Desmarais to become a double major in economics and political science. By then he was totally convinced that social science research should represent a substantial proportion of the daily activities related to whatever career he chose.

Then, doing some community service with Literacy Volunteers of America (LVA) Desmarais tutored inmates at the Brooklyn (CT) Correctional Institution. “I fostered a passion for instruction and a joy in aiding others in the discovery process. These two developments, my interests in social science research and teaching, led me to graduate school.” At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Desmarais earned his doctorate in political science.

Graduating in 2010, Desmarais began teaching at UMass that fall. “I was drawn to UMass Amherst by the advertisement for a cluster hire in Computational Social Science that included a position in the political science department,” he says. “I could not have written a more perfect job description for myself!”

Desmarais joined UMass as one of the core faculty members of the Computational Social Science Initiative, a cross-disciplinary, collaborative group designed to address the challenges and opportunities presented by collecting, storing, and analyzing large scale data related to the social world. With faculty coming from computer science, political science, sociology, and statistics, the group brings together the expertise necessary to create practical solutions to modern problems in quantitative social science.

Desmarais teaches political science courses that focus on the U.S. government and research methods. In addition, he co-organizes a seminar in computational social science that features speakers from around the world and mentors graduate students using their research skills in computational social science.

One of Desmarais’ major contributions to the field of political science is the advancement of theoretical perspectives and research methods that focus on ways in which political actors depend upon each other. “Social and political systems are complex and the behavior of one person, agency or country depends upon the behavior of countless others,” according to Desmarais. “I have advanced and applied network analytic methods to directly illuminate these interdependencies.”

Desmarais’ project with ISSR in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences seeks to understand the dynamics underlying the development and evolution of government communication network structure, and the micro- and macro-level consequences of government communication network structure.

“I propose to gather several categories of intra-governmental communication records, including emails, meeting minutes and ordinances implemented from city and county governments across the US, to understand how topics under consideration in different domains of the governance process relate to each other,” Desmarais says. “This will help us to understand and improve ways in which governments and other organizations respond to the growth and emergence of salient policy issues.”

Desmarais praises his past and present mentors and their guidance throughout his academic career and acknowledges “the University, the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, and the Department of Political Science [which have] invested in me and are guiding me through the process of securing external support for my research.” Desmarais also compliments his UMass students for their curiosity, creativity, responsibility and performance in the classroom. “Their constant curiosity makes the classroom a lively environment, keeps the teacher learning, and will always surprise the instructor with a fresh perspective on social problems.”

Desmarais cherishes the interdisciplinary perspective that runs through UMass on all levels and is embodied in the mission of ISSR. “The big contemporary social problems facing the world require the focus of several academic disciplines, and universities like UMass, which encourage cross-disciplinary efforts, are critical to the ability of researchers to inform solutions to the most important governmental, economic, and social challenges.”

Jackie Hennessy '13, who is majoring in communication, is an intern in the SBS Dean's Office and a Communication Peer Advisor.