Public Program: Q&A with Harvard Professors Matthew Blackwell and Maya Sen

Before their talk, "Southern Slavery and Its Political Legacy: How America’s Peculiar Institution Continues to Affect American Politics Today,"on Monday, June 1, Courtney Wong '15 sat down with Matthew Blackwell and Maya Sen for an interview.

In their recently published study,

"The Political Legacy of American Slavery (PDF)"

Matthew Blackwell and Maya Sen believe that contemporary differences in political attitudes across counties in the American South can be traced to historical perspectives during the Civil War era. In addition to teaching at Harvard University, Matthew Blackwell is also an affiliate of the Institute for Quantitative Social Science, where he studies political methodology with a focus on dynamic causal inference, missing data, panel data, and social network analysis. Maya Sen also teaches at Harvard and writes on issues involving the political economy of US race relations, law and politics, and statistical methods. Both are currently working on a book-length project, co-authored with Avidit Acharya of Stanford University, that explores the lasting impact of US slavery on contemporary politics.



Harvard Professors Matthew Blackwell and Maya Sen discuss how slavery affects contemporary American politics.

Courtney Wong (CW): What is some of the feedback that you received after publishing this study on the lasting impact of slavery on contemporary politics?

Maya Sen (MS): It turned out that the study elicited a lot of strong reactions, and we received two kinds of feedback. Some people said that the findings of the study were very obvious. Another group of people said that the findings were very obviously wrong. A lot of people thought that what we were uncovering was something people already knew, while the other camp thought that what we had uncovered wasn’t really a true pattern.

CW: What were some of the obstacles that you faced in conducting this study?

Matthew Blackwell (MB): It wasn’t really necessarily an obstacle per se, but finding the data itself was sometimes difficult. This project relies on a lot of historical data, current data, and tons of data in between, so it was a challenge to sift through 200 years of data in order to make certain points or to highlight certain aspects of the study.

MS: Another thing I noticed during our efforts is that the way we approached this study as political scientists is very different from the way historians would. Matthew and I are both trained in original data analysis and do quantitative work with statistics. We are not trained historians and I will readily admit that. We worked with a lot of historical, quantitative data to make an argument about politics today, which is very different from what historians would do. Historians make patterns from archival research and craft a very careful argument from primary sources. We followed a different tact on what historians have looked at, and so we’ve gotten some intellectual pushback from historians who have taken a very different approach to these questions. We’ve done a lot of learning on our parts because we’ve had to learn a ton of history, but we also bring to the table a strong, quantitative, data-driven perspective. It’s been very interesting for us to see how historians do things and hopefully they also find our perspective interesting as well.

CW: Is this your first time pursuing a historical study?

MS: It is for me.

MB: Yes, I would say so.

MS: In this paper, we’re talking about things that happened at least 150 years ago. Most policy experts tend to look at contemporary factors, such as current income, education, segregation, wealth, and things like that, but sometimes overlook the historical forces that brought these things into play. It’s the first time for me working with historical data, but it’s also relatively new for political scientists in general to work with historical data as well. It turns out that history really informs these patterns though.

CW: In addition to slavery, what are some other institutions that you think would influence contemporary political attitudes?

MB: Outside the South, labor unions are in general the kind of institutions surrounding cities in the North. The labor disputes that came up because of them could have had a long-term impact on the way that politics developed in cities as well as the political economy of cities in the 20th century. In addition, labor has had a different effect in the West. Since we know that railroad companies would bring in laborers of different races and ethnicities, this kind of labor might have had lasting impacts as well. Slavery is the biggest example of an institution affecting contemporary politics, but in general labor has also been a huge problem throughout American history, and the way it has interacted with race and politics has probably influenced a lot.

CW: We had the editor of The Upshot, David Leonhardt, here at the Rockefeller Center last week. What are your thoughts on the trend towards data visualization and more statistical analysis in the popular press?

MS: I actually think it’s a good thing. A lot of what we do has policy relevance and is interesting to general public. Once you can translate what we do for a public audience, people are very fast to understand what we do. With that said, it sometimes pushes people towards fast and flashy results, and academia really shouldn’t be that way. The push towards making things very flashy sometimes overlooks substance or potential problems.

MB: I would agree that this kind of push towards increased statistical analysis and data literacy as a common way for the media to present any topic is good for academia, because it means that more people can translate what’s going on in academia to the general public. I also think it’s good for those consuming media because you get a richer set of trends to talk about. People can get a greater sense of some issue or fact much quicker when they look at a picture rather than having to piece anecdotal stories together.