Experiments on politicians: South Africa edition

1294 South African local politicians were each contacted by a fictitious constituent, whose name signaled either co-ethnicity with the politician or out-group membership. The constituent raised a concern either about a public goods issue that is prioritized equally across South African ethnic groups or about one that is more ethnically divisive.

I found that politicians of all ethnic groups were more likely to respond to co-ethnic constituents than to non-ethnic constituents (even when the non-ethnic constituents were co-partisans) and were much more likely to respond to a unifying issue than to a divisive issue. The paper concludes by discussing whether the findings provide an argument for descriptive representation.

A new paper by Gwyneth McClendon, a PhD candidate at Princeton. Super interesting.

Conversations with a colleague, who has been thinking much on this issue, have gotten me thinking: targeting politicians experimentally is getting increasingly common, and there are clearly important things to learn, but what’s the basis for human subjects approval (and ethical research) in these kinds of experiments? There can’t be consent or it would negate the experiment. These are public figures, so do we get to forego consent?

Maybe people aren’t worried about the ethical treatment of politicians, but the same question applies to experiments with information to voters, or public messaging. My gut tells me that most are okay, but gut feelings are not a very sophisticated basis for the ethical conduct of a profession. Researchers do bad things all the time, and not only is it bad for subjects, but it’s bad for other researchers who might suffer from any spillover of mistrust.

I don’t see much issue with this specific paper, but still, my gut tingles a bit with fictitious constituents. Reader comments?