Research to Solve Real-World Political Problems
Trevor Stearns '22
Political Science and Middle Eastern Studies
Commonwealth Honors College
“Invest in your classes, invest in the material, and you can learn a lot from your professors.”
Trevor Stearns’ [’22] interest in Middle Eastern politics was first sparked when a high school teacher taught him about Palestine.
“I was really drawn to the complexity inherent in studying the Middle East,” says Stearns, who moved around to numerous locations while growing up and currently lives in Escondido, Calif., when he’s not at UMass Amherst.
At UMass, Stearns decided to double major in political science and Middle Eastern studies, taking courses such as U.S. Foreign Policy and The Politics of the End of the World. He was also motivated to conduct research in order to “create something new and work toward solving real-world problems.”
Stearns’ research has been mostly self-guided. “I’ve spent time going over the literature and looking for either gaps in scholarly understanding or recognizing logically reachable conclusions based on presently available information—then putting that information out into the world,” he says. He received assistance and guidance from his professors, who suggested key words and concepts to investigate.
My projects have shown me the difficulty in creating something that is both novel and meaningful to my discipline.
This research has resulted in three scholarly papers. The first article, which was published in Smith College’s undergraduate Middle Eastern Studies journal, Fusayfsa’ (pages 30–34), in spring 2021, focuses on corruption in the Lebanese electricity grid.
“I posit that examining changes to the corrupt electricity system will be analogous to the direction of corruption prevention in Lebanon as a whole,” Stearns says. “This article expands upon previous works explaining the history of Lebanon and the importance of nepotism to modern Lebanon.”
His second article focuses on Wahhabism and the Russian offensive during the Second Chechen War. “I suggest that Chechen fighters use the doctrines of Wahhabi Islam simply when it suits their needs, rather than when it is religiously necessitated. Additionally, I argue that the inefficiency of the tactics used by Russia during the Second Chechen War proves that Russian goals were for the purpose of political posturing, rather than effectiveness.”
This article was accepted for presentation and eventual publication by the Center for Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies at the University of Pittsburgh.
For Stearns’ third project, his honors thesis, he has conducted original comparative research looking into the differences in uses of ad hominem attacks on the social media sites Twitter and Parler. He seeks to define a new way to both measure and understand the civility of online political dialogues by creating a new framework for analyzing their productiveness.
“I call this new framework ‘negotiability.’ It measures how difficult it is to ‘negotiate’ with a comment and tells us how productive a conversation can be based upon how frequent and how extreme ad hominem attacks are,” Stearns explains. This measure of “negotiability” takes into account factors such as the use of complicated language, disagreeable framing, derogatory terms, and even conspiracy theories.
Stearns’ thesis project, his most extensive to date, gave him experience working with a team, particularly within the extended revision process. “It also broadened my focus beyond Middle Eastern politics and polished my critical thinking skills, which will support my success as I pursue a career in research,” he says.
“My projects have shown me the difficulty in creating something that is both novel and meaningful to my discipline,” he adds.
Stearns’ instructor Paul Musgrave, assistant professor of political science, describes Stearns as an “immensely hardworking student who has succeeded as a researcher beyond the already high expectations he laid out for himself.” Stearns’ research shows “that he has not only the drive and discipline to succeed but also the aptitude to master sophisticated methodologies,” Musgrave remarks.
Stearns advises other students to invest in relationships with professors. “Go to office hours. Invest in your classes, invest in the material, and you can learn a lot from your professors,” he says. “Also, if your professors are familiar with you, they’ll be all the more willing to work with you should you need help in research.”
After graduation, Stearns hopes to work as a research assistant in preparation for graduate studies.