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Research recap with Dara Gaines

In this interview, we catch up with 5th year Northwestern political science PhD candidate Dara Gaines on her CSDD-funded project. Gaines discusses her journey to academia as well as exploring the contrast between white and Black rural voters to build her dissertation. This interview has been edited for clarity.

How did you get your start in academia?

Dara Gaines: I was torn between doing a PhD in political science or going to law school at first. My undergraduate advisor, Dr. Pearl Dowe, ultimately inspired me to pursue the PhD. She actually set up a meeting between me and Al over Zoom (which was funny because it was before everything was shut down because of the current pandemic). Anyways, we just talked about what kinds of things he was working on at the time and the different opportunities I would have as a political science PhD student versus a law student. I enjoyed the flexibility that I saw in the PhD programs versus law school, and that enticed me enough to go ahead and pursue it.

Describe your CSDD-funded project.

I don't have a title yet, but the focus of my project is rural African American political behavior and socialization. So, what I'm hoping to do is create a survey that I can use to, firstly, gather data from this population. In the field of political science there's essentially next to no empirical data about rural African Americans. And then secondly, along with the survey, there's going to be an experiment attached that identifies the strength of different frames for rural African Americans. This should address the question, “Are rural African Americans as motivated by their rural status as the literature says that white rural Americans are?”

Up until now, the field has discussed white rural Americans as people who feel like they've been slighted by “urban” people - whatever urban means. They feel like the government doesn't really care about them, their leadership doesn't really care about them, and they have a whole different set of morals - according to them- than the people in “urban” spaces. That's why they vote conservatively or that's why they support people like Donald Trump and other Republican officials who might not have their best interests at heart, but they support them because of these feelings, according to the literature.

Because we know that black rural black people don't vote the same way that white people, my interest is in figuring out why that's the case. If rural white people have the feelings of resentment against the “urban” populations that supposedly results in conservative thought, do black people have those same feelings? And, if they do, why are they not turning out to be Republicans? And, if they don't, what are the feelings that they have about being rural?

Why has this funding been critical to your research?

I'm using the CSDD funding for my survey and survey experiment which is an important part of my project because I'm gathering data that people haven't gathered before, in a way that people haven't gathered it before. There's been a handful of case studies and qualitative-based investigations of rural African Americans.

I'm using the CSDD funding to pay for the actual survey firm to host a survey, but then also to pay people to take the survey. I'm going to do some sort of hybrid study where most of its online, but I'm going to have to go out into the field and get some actual data from rural African Americans. It’s very unlikely that they're in the online databases to take those surveys. So, I'm going to have to go out and physically get them to take it like on an iPad or something, and some CSDD funding will pay for that.


Interview by Erica Canavan