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Studying grievances with information science to understand contentious actions

START Researcher Erin McGrath reflects on her path to START

When most people hear terms like “software engineering,” “computational methods” and “big data,” they think programming, algorithms, and computer labs. But for START Researcher Dr. Erin McGrath, those words are vehicles that allow a deeper understanding of the world around us, and a way to understand why people fight.

A researcher on the START’s Computational Modeling of Grievances and Political Instability through Global Media project, McGrath and her team are hoping to make substantive and methodological advances on the study of grievances – inequalities or disadvantages that have meanings constructed around them – and how they manifest into collective action or mobilization.

Her current research interests may seem a far-cry from her educational roots as an undergraduate business student, but her drive for understanding inequalities and affecting change has remained constant.


How did your start in business school lead you to your current field of study?


I went to business school with the intention of gaining skills to make nonprofit organizations more efficient. During my studies at University of Wisconsin-Madison, I worked at several non-profits, and the labor rights organization I was involved with promptly needed to establish a headquarters in Washington, D.C. Once I finished my degree, I relocated to D.C. and began serving as the Business Manager for the Worker Rights Consortium.

It was a great learning experience, building an NGO from the ground up. I was fascinated with global, systemic interrelationships that create phenomena like the “race to the bottom.” Once we got the organization up and running, I completed a course at Cornell on strategic organizational research, and was hooked.

But it was a world event that pushed me to go further. Like most offices in D.C., our WRC office was evacuated on September 11, 2001. Before I joined the exodus of everyone walking home that day, I walked into my boss’ office, in tears, dumbfounded, completely in shock. He didn’t know what to say either, but encouraged me to read about U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, and he recommended a few authors. And thus my foray into international affairs began.


What steps did you take to further your studies?


I completed my master’s in International Public Policy in Budapest at Central European University (CEU), where I arguably learned more about international affairs from the students than I did from the curriculum itself. The curriculum was great, but we had the Cold War and its end, international development, humanitarian disasters, and some aggrieved parties of U.S.-led regime change sitting around the classroom table. My classmates hailed from post-Soviet and Eastern European countries (Ukraine, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, Romania, Hungary), Ethiopia and Iraq.

I had just decided I also wanted to earn my doctorate at CEU and teach, when my uncle, a Night Stalker pilot, volunteered for a dangerous mission in Afghanistan. His helicopter was shot down by the Taliban on a rescue mission to recover Navy Seals lost on their mission in Afghanistan, but it took weeks from initially finding out that something happened, to confirmation he had died, to his funeral at Arlington National Cemetery.

He was only 14 years older than I was and he was just about to adopt an infant daughter from China.

I could rationalize it. But it changed me, and my family. I decided to return to the States for my family, and pursue a doctoral degree in security and foreign policy.

With a proposal to study the Kurds’ self-governance in Turkey and Iraq, I received a State Department fellowship to learn Turkish in Ankara, Turkey, where I met my husband, in 2009. Life interceded, and in 2011, I found myself in Ankara, Turkey, as a new mom trying to write a dissertation on semi-authoritarianism in Turkish politics.


Did becoming a mother – in a foreign country no less -- change your research interests in any ways?


Being a mother completely changed the way I approached research – and definitely how I view some problems. There’s no way I would go to do field research in southeastern Turkey or Syria right now, even though I want to. But more powerful is the change in how I see people as parents and as children. For example, the pictures of Aylan Kurdi, whose body washed up on a beach near where my son first played in the sand and dipped his toes in the Aegean Sea, really affected me.

There were millions of Syrian refugees formally and informally in Turkey since 2012. They were everywhere, even if I didn’t visit the nearly 2 million that are in refugee camps near the border with Syria. Children would knock on my car window every time I stopped at a busy intersection, with signs written in Turkish asking for money. Mothers would beg for their hungry babies on the sidewalks in Ankara, while I shopped for onesies. It was, and is still, heartbreaking. I think how communities around the world respond to the crisis may be a defining moment of this century.

On the other hand, whenever going to the kirtasiye, the copy store for official purposes in Turkey, or to agencies to do expatriate paperwork or to apply for Turkish citizenship, I would also run into fellows who were clearly transiting to Syria for one purpose or another – they had Syrian passports. The Turkish government has a pretty hands-off approach to the fighters transiting through the country to Syria. I knew it was time to come back to America – my son and I have dual citizenship – when speaking out against the government felt more dangerous and newsworthy than fighting for Daesh in the Turkish press.


What drew you to want to incorporate the study of social media into your research?


I’ve been fascinated by computers and information technology since  seeing a picture of a rotary phone hooked up to an old-school modem and reading that people could exchange the information they had on their computers that way. I remember the loud string of noises that meant your computer was getting on the Internet, and when my friend put up the first personal website in the state of Wisconsin.

But I didn’t decide to study social media until it became an issue for the research I was doing. The Turkish people take to Twitter when they want to say something they couldn’t in the media, or at least they used to – now the government has a pretty firm grip on prosecution. My dissertation chapter on debate over the constitution in Turkey, and how it was controlled, dealt with unstructured text in Turkish and used subnational levels of citizen conflict over issue areas to understand how citizens debated the issue and how that varied from the regime’s position on the issue in both what they said about it (sure, we like freedom of the press!) and what they did about it (criticize us and we’ll put you in jail!).

I showed that depending on the risk of collective action for an issue, the regime would let citizens debate about the issue publicly to “blow off some steam” but curtail it if it was likely to generate mobilization.

In Turkey, I was living in a society where I couldn’t use social media freely. My Turkish citizenship was pending. People get arrested in Turkey for liking insults against the President. Of course, I continued to speak freely anyway, but I had a growing sense of insecurity because of that, not only for myself, but also for my family.  


Is social media a space where any and all can act and interact across countries?


I do not think that social media is a level-playing field, or a great equalizer. Our interactions take place within existing structures of power, but social media has given us a new kind of agency. The kind of interactions we have, and the people we have them with, on social media, were never before possible. They are unique and of a volume never before recorded. So, social media data are creating opportunities for understanding human behavior (we think) not before possible and also potential ways to influence human behavior (we think) not before possible. It’s kind of a double-edged sword and impossible, really, to tell which direction it will go in. What’s guaranteed though, is that it will be powerful, but we don’t know in what ways yet.   

As we dive further into this NSF-funded project at START, I find myself even more engaged in social media. I’m also taking the time to revamp my skills in information science and programming. This project is fascinating and the people working on it are creative, and very interdisciplinary. We have a former physicist turned computational social scientist, computer scientists, geographic information scientists, a mathematician, criminologists, risk communication scholars, political scientists, and software engineers.

It’s the kind of team that I’ve worked with before in disaster management, but now the topic is one that I want to study even more. It also offers the opportunity to hone my skills in analyzing unstructured texts and to use those in application to social media data, in particular. I’m incredibly grateful to START for bringing me on to the team. I’ve worked at quite a few places in quite a few cultures; somehow START has managed to bring the best parts of those together. Now we just need to tweet about it – or do we? Stayed tuned to the NSF project to find out.