Hakeem Jefferson continues to pursue questions he first asked at ISR

September 28, 2022

Contact: Jon Meerdink (meerdink@umich.edu)

ANN ARBOR — Hakeem Jefferson’s academic career has been centered around two constants: a deep interest in politics, and the Institute for Social Research (ISR).

Now an assistant professor at Stanford, Jefferson started his academic journey as a graduate student in ISR’s Center for Political Studies (CPS). Working under academic advisors Vince Hutchings and Ted Brader, Jefferson assisted with ongoing research at CPS while pursuing an independent project he hoped would serve as the foundation for his dissertation. Along the way, he collaborated with other graduate students and faculty members, some in different disciplines, an approach that bolstered his own research project. 

“One of the best parts of ISR is just the ability to talk with any number of people about any number of ideas all the time,” Jefferson said. “I took great advantage of that during my time there working on my own research.”

In 2014, that led to a timely collaboration. Jefferson had previously interacted with Josh Pasek, an associate professor of communication and media and researcher at ISR, which resulted in the opportunity to include a few questions on a survey that happened to be active shortly after the shooting of Michael Brown and subsequent protests in Ferguson, Missouri. 

“That would lead to our first paper together out of that work,” he said. “In that paper we think about the racial divide and white and Black Americans’ attitudes and reactions to police shootings of black Americans and the social and psychological mechanisms that underpin that divide.”

In other research, Jefferson considered the nature of Black Americans’ attitudes toward punitive social policies that targeted group members. In 2017, that research took a significant step forward when Jefferson received the donor-funded Garth Taylor Dissertation Fellowship in Public Opinion, a $10,000 grant that allowed Jefferson to collect unique data to support his dissertation research

“The award changed the trajectory of my research life. That’s not exaggerating at all,” Jefferson said. “With that award, I was able to both pilot test this new survey instrument that I was working on as part of my dissertation project and then end up getting an online survey of a large number of African American respondents to run a nationally representative survey of Black Americans for my dissertation work.”

The funding allowed Jefferson to get representative data from 500 respondents via the YouGov polling firm, which normally would have been, at best, very difficult to acquire.

“The data is just really hard and expensive to get. It’s gotten better with a number of advances, even since I’ve left grad school, but it’s still quite an uphill battle.”

But with the data in hand, Jefferson completed his dissertation — and was able to enter the job market on schedule with the best data available. The first academic article based on his dissertation is now forthcoming at the American Political Science Review, the discipline’s top academic journal. He credits CPS and ISR for giving him the tools to do the research required for this work and the means by which to acquire the grant that made it possible.

“All of my research today and the way I think about doing scholarship reflects the way that folks at CPS and at ISR thought about these questions.”

His faculty advisor, Vince Hutchings, says Jefferson’s approach made him an attractive candidate for the award.

“His dissertation idea — focusing on Black respectability politics, or the questionable belief that Blacks can achieve racial equality if they can only convince Whites that they are deserving of it — was provocative and potentially groundbreaking,” he said. “Hakeem was a great fit for the ISR award because of his theoretically innovative dissertation project. It was clear that he had a promising career ahead of him.”

Jefferson is still writing the next chapter of his career, but he’s quick to point out where the story started. It was a grant and a framework at ISR that helped him get to where he is today, and he still turns to his ISR roots for a reminder of what social science can be.

“The approach that folks at ISR take is, by nature, an interdisciplinary enterprise to answer the really hard and complicated questions we’re all trying to wrestle with as social scientists. And that just requires a willingness to go where the insights are.”