Kirill Zhirkov, winner of the Angus Campbell Scholars Fund Research Award and the Garth Taylor Dissertation Fellowship in Public Opinion is looking for answers to timely questions.

by Jaishree Drepaul-Bruder

Kirill Zhirkov believes that among all the vast mysteries in the world humans are the biggest one. “I am among those people for whom knowledge represents possibly the largest motivation in life,” says the 32-year-old Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Political Science at the University of Michigan. “If my research can improve the understanding of how humans behave in politics and why they behave the way they do, even by a tiny bit, I’ll be happy.” The international student (who is pursuing a dual M.A. degree in the Department of Statistics) has had many reasons to be happy recently. And at least two of those reasons are related to help he has received towards his research – last summer Zhirkov won the Angus Campbell Scholars Fund Research Award and this past summer he received the Garth Taylor Dissertation Fellowship in Public Opinion.

Before landing at the University of Michigan (U-M), Zhirkov worked as a junior fellow at the Laboratory of Comparative Social Research in St. Petersburg, Russia. He earned an M.A. in social psychology from Utrecht University in the Netherlands and a B.A. in economics from Russia’s St. Petersburg State University. “The story of how I ended up studying in Michigan spans almost 10 years, three countries, and thousands of kilometers,” he says. “It also features multiple U-M and Institute for Social Research (ISR) professors who helped and inspired me along the way,” he adds. The short version includes a couple of important details: Zhirkov enjoyed a semester as a visiting scholar for the ISR in 2013, returned to Russia afterward and by 2014 he knew that he would be doing his graduate studies at U-M. “I was so impressed with the university. When I was first here in 2013, I could approach almost any faculty member and they would take time to talk to me. Sometimes for as long as 20 minutes,” he says. “I hadn’t experienced that in Russia or the Netherlands. I wasn’t even technically their student, but they were willing to support me.”

Speaking to the more recent support he has received via the two awards, Zhirkov recalls that both times when he was notified that he won, he quickly cycled through the same thought processes. “First I was surprised. I knew these were very competitive awards. Then I got excited as I started thinking about how I could improve my research using the awards’ money,” he says. Essentially, Zhirkov studies how people think about politically relevant categories (such as partisans, welfare recipients and immigrants). He says that these categories tend to be abstract and complicated. “Most people don’t possess a ton of knowledge about them,” he explains. “So, they link these categories to ones that are relatively simple and familiar.” He illustrates what he means with an easy-to-recognize example. “A popular stereotype here in the United States links welfare recipients and African-Americans. I attempt to measure such stereotypes and apply them to study anti-immigration attitudes both in the U.S. and in Europe,” he says.

Zhirkov’s dissertation is about “imagined immigration.” His aim is to develop a generalizable theory of public opinion formation with regard to group-related policies, using immigration as an example. “It is well-known in behavioral political science that people are never perfectly informed about the policies that they have to form opinions about in order to participate most effectively in the democratic process,” he says. Zhirkov’s most important findings so far: people have essential misperceptions about the composition of the immigrant population; misperceptions come from both over-generalization of personal experience and the media; misperceptions are consequential for public opinion about immigration, and attempts to correct misperceptions seem to backfire.

As he pushes forward with his work, Zhirkov doesn’t take for granted for the support he’s received. “I have so much gratitude to the donors for the opportunities they offer to graduate students generally, and especially to international students, like myself, who are often ineligible for many other popular sources of funding,” he says. For Garth Taylor, the retired pollster who created the Garth Taylor Dissertation Fellowship in Public Opinion in 2013, it’s gratifying to assist students like Zhirkov. “My commitment is to the topic of American public opinion research,” he says. “The fact that a non-American is in a position to provide top-quality work does not surprise me, and it pleases me to be able to provide a resource that will make this work possible.”

Zhirkov has started putting the Taylor award money to good use. He happily reports, “I ran the key pilot study for my dissertation that effectively pretested the measurement instrument – just as described in my award application.” The results of the pilot were presented at professional conferences this year both in the United States and Europe. Zhirkov says that he plans to spend the rest of the funds to access diverse samples of respondents, beyond popular convenience samples such as Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. “That would be impossible without the award money,” he confides.

The money from the Angus Campbell Scholars Fund Research Award has had an equally beneficial impact on Zhirkov’s research. He shares that it opened up new possibilities for his dissertation in terms of data collection that were almost unthinkable before. With this fund, Zhirkov was able to collect data and spend almost a month as a visiting scholar in GESIS – Leibniz Institute for the Social Sciences. “The institute is a major center of quantitative social sciences and survey research situated in Cologne, Germany,” he says. “Overall, my research benefited enormously during my time there.”

One person who is very satisfied to know all this Carol Welsch, Angus Campbell’s daughter. Her father enjoyed a distinguished career at U-M as a professor of psychology and sociology and held directorships at the university’s Survey Research Center and the ISR. “The Angus Campbell Scholar’s Fund began after the death of my father in 1980. It was my mother’s effort to honor my father with a funded scholarship program in his name,” she explains. “I love that Kirill’s dissertation work in understanding political changes in Europe and the U.S., relates to main areas my father’s work: political behavior, quality of life, and social change.” Welsch was also struck when Zhirkov told her of the importance of the scholarship to his future career. “He mentioned that the affiliation to ISR and the Campbell Scholarship could make a difference, above and beyond the monetary value, to his success, she says. “I hadn’t thought of the scholarship in that way at the outset, and it was a reminder that my father’s legacy is enlivened, and my mother would be pleased.”

The support that Zhirkov has received has indeed made a difference to his life and he hopes that his research will make a difference in the lives of others and society in general.
He strongly believes that immigration represents the focal point in the profound transformations that occurred in politics of developed democracies over the last two decades. He explains that in western Europe, the political landscape was completely reshaped by the rise of the anti-immigrant right parties and the decline of the traditional social democratic left. “In U.S. politics, the most recent manifestation of anti-immigrant attitudes has been the successful presidential campaign of Donald Trump,” he says. “Political science still needs to fully understand the origins of mass policy preferences that underlie these developments, and I hope that my research will provide at least some answers in this regard.”

Hakeem Jefferson is the winner of the 2017 Garth Taylor Dissertation Fellowship in Public Opinion.

Hakeem Jefferson speaking

Hakeem Jefferson at the Other America Conference, January 2018. Photo by Michael McIntyre/ISR

For much of Hakeem Jefferson’s childhood, he lived “right through the yard” from his grandparents in Gable, South Carolina. Reflecting on the numerous conversations he had with his beloved grandfather, the 2017 recipient of the Garth Taylor Dissertation Fellowship in Public Opinion, recognizes that those porch discourses were fundamental to his development, both as a citizen and a scholar. In fact, those chats were a critical springboard for his love of politics. “Though he lacked much of the formal education I’ve obtained, my grandfather was one of my earliest teachers. He recounted tales about being a black man in the South during the period of Jim Crow, and was keenly aware of how race and power shaped outcomes,” Jefferson says. “My grandfather never told me to stay in my place. He invited me into conversations he would have with others from our community – allowing me to become comfortable early on with wrestling with big, important questions.”

More recently, Jefferson, now 29-years-old and a doctoral student in political science at the University of Michigan (U-M), found himself grappling with the focus of his dissertation. “I really struggled with figuring out exactly what my dissertation would look like. I knew I was interested in heterogeneity among black people. I knew I was interested in stigma. I knew I was particularly interested in ways that black folks thought about punishment,” he says. With the help of his primary advisor, Vince Hutchings, professor of political science and research professor in the Center for Political Studies, Jefferson eventually decided to focus on the curiously high levels of African-American support for punitive social policies that negatively affect the life outcomes of in-group members. His project is titled, “Black, but Not Like Me: When Political Solidarity Breaks Down Among Black Americans.” He is proud to point out that his work is one of the first attempts to theorize and empirically test the connection of politics of respectability, where members of marginalized groups police their own members to show their social values as being continuous with mainstream values, to African-American backing for harsh social policies.

The bulk of Jefferson’s study was conducted using a sample of 500 African-American respondents from YouGov, an online polling firm. He asked respondents various questions regarding their racial group identity. For example: How important is being black to your racial identity? And, how linked do you think your fate is with that of other Blacks? He inquired about the frequency with which they felt an array of emotions when they thought about their racial group. Did they feel shame? Embarrassment? Anger? Respondents also had to answer several policy questions, such as their support for bans on sagging pants, work requirements for welfare recipients, beliefs about the causes of gangs in American cities, and support for the death penalty. “I found that measures of group-based shame correspond with higher scores on the respectability politics measure and that my measure of respectability uniquely predicts black approval for a range of punitive social policies,” he says. He adds, “I had them answer a battery of questions that serve as my respectability politics scale. It’s one of the chief innovations of my work.” Beyond its contribution to the study of African-American politics, Jefferson is confident that his measure and theoretical framework will assist other scholars looking to understand heterogeneity within other marginalized groups – particularly as it pertains to group members’ treatment of the most stigmatized among them.

Garth Taylor

Garth Taylor, photo by Eva Menezes/ISR

Jefferson is also self-assured that he will be able to get at least a couple of papers out of his data and the information will additionally be explored further in a book project. This summer, he’s thrilled to be relocating to Palo Alto, Calif., where he will join the faculty as an assistant professor of political science at Stanford University. Before he moves he’ll have the opportunity to meet retired pollster Garth Taylor, who established the Award in 2013. Taylor, who prefers meeting the recipients when they are near the end of the project, is enthusiastic with Jefferson’s work thus far. “I haven’t had a chance to meet Hakeem yet, though we have had some mail and email exchanges. The plan is for us to meet at one of his public presentations or his dissertation defense,” he says. “What Hakeem has done so far is impressive. He is studying a rare and hard-to-reach population that is expensive to contact. He needed the money to execute a sample that would be carefully selected and large enough to pass the standards for publication in a refereed journal. This is a great use of the fellowship funds – and one I had not imagined at the beginning.”

Jefferson says he has no idea what he would have done had he not won the fellowship, and it has made his life so much easier. “The award is $10,000 and I spent $8,000 on a representative sample of Black Americans from YouGov. I got a lot of great data that formed the basis of my job market paper and is central to the work of my dissertation thanks to Garth Taylor,” he says. And Taylor can certainly appreciate where Jefferson is coming from. He asserts, “I got the idea of the fellowship because I could have really used something like this. It would have been a real asset at a critical time at the beginning of my career. Hakeem now has a good launching pad for his career and a future book.”

In addition to his prospective book project, Jefferson is working on two papers. Also, with his colleague, Steven Moore, he recently organized a conference called, The Other America: Still Separate. Still Unequal. Jefferson says it was designed to give voice to African Americans in the United States who bear the costs of unequal systems across various domains of American life. “We were intentional in bringing together an interdisciplinary group of individuals to talk about issues related to the criminal justice system, economic inequality, education inequity, and environmental justice,” he says. The event was very well-attended and was beyond anything he had imagined.

Darrick, Hamilton, Luke, Shaefer. The Other America Conference

Hakeem, right, speaking with panelists Darrick Hamilton, left, and Luke Shaefer at the Other America Conference in January 2018. Photo by Michael McIntyre/ISR.

Jefferson is hopeful that his work will “help people understand the multi-faceted and complex nature of inequality and the ways that all of us – sometimes for different and somewhat complicated psychological reasons – contribute to its persistence.” He is still getting messages from people who attended and were moved by the conference. With one African American undergraduate student telling Jefferson that the conference provided additional inspiration to dedicate his career to fighting injustice, and others going out of their way to tell him about the impact it has had on their thinking, it would appear that Jefferson’s hopes are already coming true.

For more information about the research awards offered by the Institute for Social Research, please check out the Awards and Fellowships Page.

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