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More on networks and donations

- April 5, 2008

“Andrew Gelman responds”:http://www.stat.columbia.edu/~cook/movabletype/archives/2008/04/networks_of_pol.html to my previous post on this topic.

it’s important to separate two aspects of the above research: network analysis as a general statistical/social-science research method as applied to American politics, and the analysis of political contributions in particular. … In social science as a whole, networks have become very trendy–and I pretty much think that’s a good trend. There are some roadblocks in applying these ideas to the study of public opinion and voting, however, since we’re talking about a network of 250 million adults where the average person knows only 750 other Americans. You can get this sort of data from surveys but it’s hard to know what to make of it. Tian Zheng, Tom DiPrete, Julien Teitler, and I have been involved in a research project estimating the segregation of Democrats and Republicans in social networks … the analysis is difficult, just at the technical level of building a statistical model for what we’ve got. It’s no surprise that a lot more work has been done on networks in Congress.

Moving to research on political contribution networks, I wonder if one reason you don’t hear much about it is that this sort of work is politically marginalized, as it’s associated with left-wing critiques of the political system, rather than more traditional representations of American politics as being generally representative of public opinion. … I agree with Henry that political donations would be a natural place for network analysis, since many of the major contributors have clear enough links that sparseness is less of an issue.

Thinking about this a bit more, it seems obvious to me that the difficulties of putting together data on political contributions is not only a problem for political science, but for public accountability more generally. If the FEC data were presented on the Internet in a way that allowed researchers (and non-profits) to easily scrape it and make it usable, this would make it much easier to figure out who is giving what to who.