How Social Structures Influence Voters

Laura B. Stephenson, PhD

Landing back at Western in 2003 was like coming home for Laura Stephenson. It was at Western where she had first been introduced to the concept of political behaviour while studying for her undergraduate Honors degree in Political Science and Economics. From Western, she had travelled to pursue graduate education in Political Science at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.

“I spent five years at Duke and it was there that the light really went on for me, that I would enjoy this career path in academia. It was a very collegial department, and many of the grad students I met during my five years at Duke are still co-authors of mine today,” says Stephenson with a smile.

Now settled in London, Ontario for 10 years, she knows with certainty she made the right choice. “The Department of Political Science at Western has been very warm and welcoming, with a nice mix of familiar faces and a constant flow of new ideas, things to explore, new students and close professional colleagues,” says Stephenson, who enjoys her role as an Associate Professor with teaching responsibilities in the areas of methodology, elections and voting, political behaviour, and Canadian politics.

Her own well-developed expertise in research design and research methods makes her a passionate professor. Real-life examples help students understand what can sometimes be rather complex to comprehend. “Basically, I show students how to set out a roadmap or a plan for their work. Research design is a creative process and as a teacher, it is my job to help open their eyes to the many different ways to gather pieces of evidence for their research,” she says. “Students are energized when they see how things fit together, and once they figure out what to ask and where to look, the most appropriate research methods often fall into place.”

Stephenson’s current research is situated in the fascinating realm of comparative political behaviour. She is currently involved in two major research projects, the first as principal investigator (PI), along with fellow Western researcher Cameron Anderson as co-investigator. The SSHRC Standard Research Grant explores “Partisan Ties in a Social Environment”.

“What we’re really looking at is political engagement within discussion networks, exploring things like how one’s personality can act as a filter for information and disagreement and how that, in turn, affects participating and identifying with a political party,” explains Stephenson. “This is a new research area in the Canadian context and the national survey we developed will help us better understand the dynamics.”

Stephenson and Anderson intend to publish their findings, which would follow up on the successful book they co-edited, Voter Behaviour in Canada (University of British Columbia Press, 2010).

“The book came out of a great workshop conference that we received funding for and hosted at Western. It brought together contributors who were starting out in their careers, just like us, and we drew from material that had emerged from our various dissertations and fields of interest,” explains Stephenson.

I love this research field because political behaviour itself has no boundaries; it is universal in all democracies.” 

The second major project that she is currently involved with is funded by the SSHRC Major Collaborative Research Initiatives Program for $2.5 million.  Stephenson is a co-investigator on the project which, under the direction of PI André Blais (Université de Montréal), explores the topic: “Making Electoral Democracy Work: Voters, Parties, and the Rules of the Game.” The project began in 2009 and will run until 2016.

“This project is international in scope and I’m involved in creating, administering and analyzing Internet-based surveys that will reach voters in five different countries,” explains Stephenson. “I love this research field because political behaviour itself has no boundaries; it is universal in all democracies, but the systems of government and party structures play critical roles in creating fascinating variation. We are discovering new connections between voters, parties and electoral systems. I look forward to finding out where the research will take us.”