Updating the Outdated: Craig Volden Seeks to Fix Research Model Errors



Research into public policy diffusion has exploded in the last 20 years. Scholars and thinkers have published hundreds of studies tracking the spread of policies from government to government. With countless dollars and thousands of hours invested, could it be that their studies are wrong? That’s what Batten School Professor Craig Volden seeks to find out.

Volden recently was awarded a seed grant provided by the U.Va. College of Arts and Sciences’ Quantitative Collaboration (QC). QC provides a space for professors interested in quantitative social studies to gather and pursue common interests. Its collaborative design allows social scientists from all departments and schools to come together and explore new ideas. Its speaker series draws professors from all over the country and aims to foster critical dialogue in the social science area. The seed grant offers funding for U.Va. faculty from all departments and schools who use quantitative methods to analyze social behavior. With the funding provided and the QC platform, Volden will continue to his project: “Evaluating Event History Analysis Models of Policy Diffusion.”

Event History Analysis (EHA) is a form of analyzing public policy diffusion. It looks at four causes of diffusion: learning, competition, imitation and coercion and how these affect the spread of innovations. While EHA is an improvement on models used in the past, it’s far from perfect. The model is hard to specify precisely and may not be suited for “real-world” situations, perhaps producing misleading results.

Volden, along with his team, Adam Hughes of the U.Va. Politics Department, and Bill Berry from Florida State University, seek to determine which methods correctly characterize the policy making process. They then hope to refine EHA in the pursuit of more accurate results. “As scholars of policy diffusion have begun to delve into the complex questions of how and why policies spread across governments, they have been relying upon statistical methods developed for simpler purposes. This study is designed to assess whether the path forward is clear of entanglements or fraught with danger,” says Volden.

The researchers program computer simulations of policy diffusion to assess the accuracy of EHA. Volden’s simulations rely on diffusion processes that are predetermined and known. The researchers then apply the EHA to these situations, monitoring for false positives and negatives. Through creating simulated governments and examples of public policies, the team can test the model in a controlled, predictable situation. This form of testing allows Volden and his team to determine where and when EHA fails.

If Volden’s hypothesis that EHA is inaccurate in some settings is correct, he will use his research to create more accurate methods and correct previous research that may have errors. These corrections could provide incredible new insights, as well as an improved scholarly approach for future researchers who wish to examine a wide range of topics, from the polarization of the American legislatures to the causes of war.

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Craig Volden

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