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Professor and team earn grant to analyze democracy

Henry Gens | Tuesday, November 5, 2013

The rapidly-shifting nature of today’s political landscapes and conflicts calls for thorough understanding of democracy.   

This is exactly what political science professor Michael Coppedge and his collaborators are attempting to accomplish with the Varieties of Democracy project.

The team, which has more than 2,000 contributing members around the world, recently received a $5.8 million grant awarded over six years to analyze an unprecedented amount of data related to democracies, Coppedge said. He is one of four principal investigators in charge of steering the large-scale study and covering data from all countries and colonies in the world from the year 2000.

Although previous research in the field revealed reliable general indicators of certain types of democratic systems, Coppedge said these were less useful for answering the more sophisticated questions that needed to be asked.

“Researchers need these indicators because they’re interested in questions about the nature, causes and consequences of democracy,” Coppedge said. “The indicators that we had already really were not up to the task of measuring things in a precise enough, fine-grained enough way to be able to test the ideas that we have. They were just lying far behind the kinds of theories and models that we wanted to test.”

In refining the new indicators, Coppedge said his team moved beyond the traditional American political science view of democracy in the field, which tended to focus on only the basic requirements for such government and left out rich aspects of democracy. Instead, the collaboration is examining indicators across seven broad classes of democracy, ranging from electoral to egalitarian.

“We don’t endorse all of these views, but these are the views that have some currency out there in the world and so we felt that really legitimate indicators of democracy should enable people to measure whatever version of democracy they find meaningful, to give people that ability,” Coppedge said.

This, however, is not the only aspect of the study that is departs from the norm. Coppedge said the level of detail achieved in the surveys amounts to one of the most comprehensive studies undertaken in the field.

“We have a kind of decision tree that starts with more general things in each of these seven different properties of democracy that are broken down into components, and then the components are broken down into sub-components and so on until we get to the point where we have 329 much more specific indicators of democracy,” Coppedge said.

Coppedge said the collaboration’s analysis of this data will take place through three projects: finding coherent aggregations of the data to produce higher-level indicators, examining the causal relationships among different pieces of democracy (“endogenous democratization”) and looking at how factors outside of a democracy influence it (“exogenous democratization”).

“Instead of having one snapshot of a simple aspect of democracy, kind of a grainy snapshot, we’re trying to move to something like a high-definition movie of democracy that’s really comprehensive, and it shows you everything you’d ever want to know about how democratic a country is, in multiple ways, over a long period of time,” Coppedge said.

The collaboration will make the data available to the public as it is processed through its highly-interactive website, v-dem.net with a significant portion to be added by March of next year. Coppedge said he believes that not only scholars, but governments, non-governmental organizations and students will find the site to be a powerfully informative source of knowledge due to the high quality of the survey data coming from native experts in their own countries.

“Our project has this motto, ‘global standards, local knowledge.’ That’s what we’re about,” Coppedge said.

Contact Henry Gens at hgens@nd.edu