How big questions about political research drew Ph.D. candidate Joshua Thorp to ISR

March 18, 2024

Contact: Jon Meerdink ([email protected])

ANN ARBOR — Understanding why people do what they do politically is the core goal of the Institute for Social Research’s Center for Political Studies. The effort to analyze and describe voting motivations and political behavior at every portion of the spectrum has been a defining part of the Center’s existence for every moment of its 75-year history, and the continued evolution of politics in America and around the world has opened new opportunities for research nearly everywhere.

The big questions about politics and political behavior weren’t what initially drew Ph.D. candidate Joshua Thorp to CPS, but they soon drew his attention.

“When I started my program, I was really interested in historically focused research. I was interested in studying the development of American governing institutions from a historical perspective,” he said. “But I quickly became really interested in political psychology and political behavior, and I realized ISR was the home of political research not just in Michigan, but in the United States.”

Thorp started his doctoral program at the University of Michigan in 2017, majoring in American politics with a minor in comparative politics, and, after a return home due to the COVID-19 pandemic, began working at CPS in 2021, where he still works today as a research assistant for professor Donald Kinder. 

At CPS, Thorp explored different aspects of American political behavior before landing on an under-explored aspect of the field.

“My dissertation research examines how people with disabilities engage in politics and, in particular, how disability shapes their political identities.”

Using funds from the Miller-Converse Fellowship in American Political Behavior, a part of the Next Generation Initiative at ISR, Thorp was able to fund two surveys of Americans with disabilities in an attempt to understand how their disabilities shape their policy interests. 

He found that a significant number of people with disability say their disability is at least moderately important in how they shape their social identity, which in turn shapes their political identities. In addition, he found that people who strongly associate their disability with their social and political identities tend to be more ideologically liberal and more in favor of redistribution.

“People with a strong disability identity are much more supportive of redistribution. So they’re much more in favor of policies that redistribute income from the rich to the poor. They’re in favor of things like increasing food stamps. They’re in favor of things like universal basic income and single payer healthcare. These kinds of attitudes are held by both Republicans and Democrats with a strong disability identity.”

He published these and other findings through the Center for Political Studies and hopes to use his work at ISR as a springboard into similar work in the future. 

“Ideally, I would love to continue doing this research,” he said. “I would love to keep working on disability and political behavior and political psychology in an academic context. I’m in the process of applying for those kinds of jobs and I’m hoping that I can continue this research elsewhere.”

Where that will be remains a mystery, but the journey began with questions CPS and ISR have been trying to answer for a long time — the very ones that drew Thorp’s attention in the first place.

“ISR was just a place where that kind of research started and where a lot of exciting, cutting edge research  is still happening today. It is a real treat to be here and be able to come and work with these people.”

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