Political Science Fieldwork for Undergrads

Students learn that things such as coffee shops, American flags and even Halloween decorations offer insights into voter behavior in a community
students taking notes along road in New Hampshire
Students Benjamin Kaminoff and Laura Sylvers conduct electorate mapping in a residential area of Manchester, New Hampshire, last fall as part of their Mapping Politics class. Photo: Alonso Nichols
February 21, 2017

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The first time Ben Kaminoff, A18, visited Manchester, New Hampshire, was last year when he was canvassing for the student group Tufts Democrats. Later in the fall, before the presidential election, he had a bigger goal: take the pulse of the former mill city for a class in political mapping that introduced students to the rigors and realities of campaign fieldwork.

Kaminoff and two classmates walked through four wards, observing data with nonpartisan eyes. They recorded on cell phones variables like state flags with the “Live Free or Die” motto and “Support Our Troops” signs.  

“There were so many signs indicating support for the military that we suspected there might be some political correlation,” Kaminoff said.  The team would go on to explore that idea by comparing their data in class with 2012 presidential results.

Despite the five-hour stint walking around in a cold rain, he said the fieldwork experience gave him a new appreciation for the power of data and maps to reveal trends and patterns in voter behavior.

“It gave us the ability to reason things for ourselves,” he said. “We were doing the research that Ph.D. students, that professors, do all the time—and we’re undergrads. That’s cool.”

That is just what Natalie Masuoka, associate professor of political science, had hoped to hear when she started designing the Mapping Politics class last year.

“The most important lesson for me to get across was a greater appreciation for the observational dimension of social science,” said Masuoka, a scholar known for her work on the intersection of race and ethnicity with American politics. “I wanted to communicate the importance of looking—that walking around in the world, in and of itself, is important when you’re conducting research.”

Ironically, that involved looking down at a smartphone, though now equipped with a nimble new GPS app, Survey 123, for gathering field data. Every student group tallied data points specific to the presidential campaign, including any candidate signage. But teams could then add their own data points, such as the presence of the American flag, or more subtle social cues, like the presence of Dunkin’ Donuts or Starbucks.

Students marked locations in the app each time they observed data points as they visited communities across greater Boston and in Nashua and Manchester, New Hampshire. That information was then integrated with a geographical information system (GIS), which let students create original maps showing possible correlations with census data, including level of income, education and household size, and results from the 2012 presidential election.

Carolyn Talmadge, E11, a GIS specialist with the Tufts Data Lab who provided technical support and co-taught several classes, noted that it’s not often that undergraduates have the opportunity to do original research. “With a course that has real-time fieldwork built into it, students come away with a much better understanding of the amount of work that goes into making a map,” she said.

Neighborhood Views

Before heading out to the field, each team devoted class time to questions that would shape their research. In addition to variables expected of the whole class (campaign signage and flag displays), they also identified variables such as signage that indicated attitudes toward abortion and gun control. To this they added type of cars and even holiday decorations, which indicate community engagement.  

The team that went to New Hampshire gathered more than 700 data points and created some 40 different maps showing the incidence of variables and how they correlated—or not—with political party affiliation and census data.

Did the ward with the most luxury cars have the highest income per capita? “It did,” Kaminoff said. “It was really cool to see that our variables were really accurate.” And the ward with the most Halloween decorations had the most local candidate signage, confirming the team’s hypothesis that residents with greater investment in community are also more politically engaged.

There were interesting and subtle surprises that also emerged. While census data shows that the density of military veterans throughout Manchester is virtually the same, the team found that the ward with the most pro-veteran signage was also the most Republican and had the most American flags and the most pro-small-government signage. So while veterans might be homogeneously dispersed throughout Manchester, “these residents, for some reason, advocate more in favor of veterans than the rest of Manchester,” Kaminoff said. “It was a very interesting neighborhood.”

That kind of analysis encourages Masuoka to hope that the class will have an enduring impact long after it is over. It will have shown students that they can think spatially about the ordinary world, and question their assumptions as well as discover underlying patterns in human behavior.

“I hope students will be more present in what they’re observing in their everyday lives,” she said. “I hope after taking this class, they realize that the differences that make our communities unique are not invisible to them.”

Laura Ferguson can be reached at laura.ferguson@tufts.edu.

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