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Methodology and Responsibility in the Study of Authoritarianism

Fri, September 1, 8:00 to 9:30am, Hilton Union Square, Golden Gate 4

Session Submission Type: Full Submitted Panel

Session Description

The 2010s is becoming the age of authoritarianism. Yet political science remains normatively and methodologically anchored to democracy. Researchers on authoritarianism have long noted how regime characteristics precluded standard modes of inquiry and data collection. Authoritarian regimes are by definition opaque and agnogenic, seeking to propagate ignorance and misinformation. They use intimidation to induced preference falsification among their citizens, effectively silence potential respondents. Researchers themselves self-censors in order to avoid putting themselves or their interlocutors in danger. Studies of authoritarian regimes, therefore, have utilized qualitative methods that were generally considered inferior, such as snowball sampling, ethnography, and elite interviews. Consequently, studies of authoritarianism were out of step with the nomothetic tendencies in political science and marginal to the discipline’s mainstream. There are new efforts to apply methodologies originally designed for the study of democracies, such as cross-national analysis, public opinion surveys, and experiments to authoritarian setting. This panel examines how different methodologies approach the unique challenges of researching authoritarian politics, particularly three distinct but tightly coupled dilemmas: 1) gaining access to data, 2) assuring the validity of those data, and 3) upholding ethical standards for responsible and safe treatment of research subjects (and investigators). It further asks panelists to consider possibilities of consilience or complementarity between different methodologies and epistemologies and whether the techniques used in the study of authoritarianism might inform the study of ‘sensitive topics’ in democratic settings.

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