My research agenda focuses on two main areas: (1) what happens when groups expand faster than they can socialize and (2) how computational and analytical tools can help researchers to study these processes in difficult-to-observe settings.
These questions are central to contemporary political and security dynamics. Understanding how the human and organizational environment shapes and constrains non-state actors is crucial to anticipating their trajectories and potential impact.
Substantively, I focus on the causes and consequences of apparent pathologies that arise among organizations facing survival threats and resource scarcity. In these contexts, organizations often exchange long-term best practices for short-term survival, creating organization-level resource curses and resource traps.
Methodologically, I explore creative ways to apply the toolkit of data science to important substantive political science questions. Insight into the inner workings of non-state actors is often difficult or impossible to access at scale. However, the computational and information revolution has created opportunities to assemble insights from operational and procedural traces that have historically been difficult to work with systematically.
Subject to Change: Quantifying Transformation in Armed Conflict Actors. Research Note. [August 2022 Working Paper Available Here] Despite the growing availability of micro-level data and the increasing sophistication of methodological and computational tools, scholars of conflict have several pervasive measurement dilemmas. One of these problems is how to conceptualize and capture dynamism and evolution in armed conflict actors. I introduce a measurement strategy, evaluate the face validity, and demonstrate scalability to a corpus of 258 militant groups with more than ten violent events from 1989-2020. The study concludes by extending a recent analysis of the impacts of uncertainty on conflict termination.
Growth Trap: Grassroots-Driven Transformation of Militant Organizations Working Paper. [February 2023 Working Paper Available Here]
When and how do recruitment windfalls strengthen militant organizations while redirecting their strategy and tactics? Drawing on the literature on militant socialization and management, I propose a mechanism of grassroots-driven organizational change that is broadly applicable when leaders balance short-term survival with long-term mission focus. I argue that a growth trap dynamic occurs when upward-driving internal pressures caused by incomplete socialization become codified into group operation through delegation and decentralization. In combination, these can transform the revealed strategic priorities and operational focus of militant organizations. Using qualitative documents, event data, and computational methods, I illustrate the insight via a case study of the evolution of al-Qaeda in Yemen from 2009 through 2016. I outline how recruitment shocks and a changing social context can change the self-presentation of even a group with a significant investment in an ideological identity.
Measurement that Matches Theory: Theory-Driven Identification in IRT Models. With Marco Morruci, Kaitlyn Webster, So Jin Lee, David A. Siegel. Revise and Resubmit at American Political Science Review. [Arxiv Link] We propose, detail, and validate a semi-supervised approach employing Bayesian Item Response Theory on multiple latent dimensions and binary data. Our approach, which we validate on simulated and real data, yields conceptually meaningful latent dimensions that are reliable across different data sources without additional exogenous assumptions.
Developing Gridlock: Frames of Contestation at the World Trade Organization. With Tana Johnson and Maurits van der Veen. Working Paper.[July 2022 Working Paper Available Here] Although international inter-governmental organizations (IGOs) are frequently characterized as "gridlocked," the meaning, variation, and drivers of gridlock remain under-theorized. Building on the concept of rhetorical contestation and the impact of exogenous shocks, we offer a new theoretical framework to define and explain gridlock in the World Trade Organization. In developing the theoretical expectation that "gridlock" emerges from competing ways to rhetorically frame the WTO's purpose. We test our predictions via network and computational text analyses on an original dataset of transcripts from Committee on Trade and Development (CTD) meetings from 1995-2020.
Selected Projects in Development
Domino Effect: When Do Recruit Social Networks Exacerbate Fragmentation? In Progress. Previous research presentations accessible here. Phase One: Is it more difficult for militant groups to socialize recruits that have preexisting social connections? However, the empirical and theoretical literature suggests divergent possible downstream consequences of this recruitment style. To adjudicate between the countervailing expectations, I develop an original computational simulation of network-based individual affiliation, socialization, and exit from an issue-motivated organization. I use this simulation to identify when organizations are most and least susceptible to fragmentation and cohesion along network ties. [Completed.] Phase Two: I evaluate the implications of the simulation for group fragmentation and cohesion. [In progress, 2022.]
Voices of the Weak: Rhetorical Framing as a Strategy in International Organizations With Tana Johnson, contact for working paper. We examine the strategy of rhetorical framing: the use of particular words or terms to characterize an issue and imply appropriate policy actions in line with that characterization. We expect rhetorical framing to be particularly important for “the weak” because it can be wielded defensively, is accessible even by very weak states, and is compatible with other strategies. To probe these expectations, we analyze negotiation transcripts from the World Trade Organization (WTO). Based on over 5,000 observations between 1995 and 2020, we confirm that rhetorical framing is 1) used to counter the strong, 2) used even by very weak states, and 3) used in conjunction with other strategies.