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Interview with Deborah Schildkraut

Featured Study: 21st Century Americanism


Deborah Schildkraut

Deborah Schildkraut
American Politics,
Political Psychology
Associate Professor

Tufts University

ICPSR Study 27601

We definitely appreciate your willingness to talk to us about your latest study deposited with RCMD, ICPSR. So let's begin by finding out how you got involved in this study.

Well when I was working on my dissertation I found myself very frustrated with the survey questions on the things I was interested in. Namely how people define what they think being American means and try to find relationships between how they define being American and other policy related issues that deal with ethnicity and immigration in the United States. When I was done with graduate school one of my first projects was to apply for a grant so that I could do what I could really call my dream survey. For the longest time I wanted to design survey questions and ask them to a national audience. I was able to get funding from the Russell Sage foundation so that I could do this survey.

What were the central objectives?

The central objectives were to have a nationally representative sample plus oversamples of non-whites to be able to gauge how they define being American, how they felt about being American, and to see what, if any political consequences there are in terms of whether people think of themselves primarily as American or as a member of some other ethnic or racial group.

What were your major findings?

I have what I consider to be two sets of major findings. One is that in terms of what they define being American means there is very little in the way of racial and ethnic differences in the United States at least according to the measures I posed to them. And I think that I posed a wide ranging set of measures. So a lot of debates we hear about immigrants and non-whites in the U.S. having a different idea about what being American means there's just not a lot of validity to those concerns. The main things that divide how people define being American are more along the lines of the typical division in the US. Things like ideology and political identification. And even there the differences aren't huge on most items. On things like the importance of respecting American institutions and laws or the how important it is to be an active participant in politics. That's one set of major findings. The other major set of findings is also kind of a non-finding. Is that if people identify primarily as Latino or Mexican instead of American. I found little in the way of political consequences when thinking of oneself in that way. It didn't really affect how one felt about government, or whether they trusted law enforcement, or whether they felt they had certain obligations to the national community. What mattered a lot more was whether they felt discriminated against or not. And if they felt discriminated in conjunction with thinking of themselves as American or not mattered a lot more than simply whether a person thinks of themselves as primarily American or not. What I say is what we should really be concerned with is not so much how people identify but how they feel they are treated.

Now that this data is available to other researches what advice would you give for those trying to analyze the contents

Is to really think about unanswered questions that I didn't ask that I would love to look at involve different permutations. I asked people do you think of yourself... whether they prioritize themselves as American. I didn't look at the different permutations of people who think of themselves as American and something else versus those who think of themselves as just American. There are lots of different ways you can slice these data. When I looked at perceptions of treatment I asked if people felt they were discriminated against in the workplace, in schools. Whether they have been treated poorly at restaurants and stores because they were a different race or ethnicity. I combined all those measures into one scale. I think it would be really interesting to look at things like does one type of discrimination matter more than another or does the effect diminish as you pile on. How many perceived injustices does one need to feel before the effects kick in. really looking at the data in those finely tuned ways I think would be really interesting.

When you were an undergraduate is this the career you thought you would have?

Not initially, by my senior year it was. Initially I envisioned more of going into being more involved in politics and being more involved in interest group activities on issues that I cared about rather than researching those issues. I expected myself to be more an activist. It was around my junior or senior year where first of all the idea of graduating was something that made me sad. In part not because, you know, some students are nervous to graduate because they don't know what they want to do next and it's kind of intimidating but for me partly is that I loved that I really loved school. The thought of not being a student anymore was sad. So when latching onto the idea of being a student more and continuing to learn and pursuing the depths of things I found interesting became really appealing to me. I also had a professor I worked for as a research assistant and he planted the seed and the idea of me continuing my education in political science.

What excites you about being a researcher now?

Well first of all for better or worst the things I study are in the headlines right now. So that's kind of exciting. It makes me sad what people say about immigrants in the US right now. It makes me realize that the things I've been working on for the past 15 years is timely and that I'm tapping into something that matters to a lot of people.

What are some challenges of the research process?

To find funding to do what you want to do is always really hard. When you are dealing with diverse groups of people who speak different languages there are always a lot of hurdles in trying to make sure that you are getting good, generalizable, accurate data.

What are your future research plans?

Right now I'm thinking of doing more qualitative work. One project that I'm starting to think about is doing some focus groups among the Boston area where I live. And to explore their opinions about political representation. So connecting more rather than just looking at ideas of people's own identity and their own policy views but thinking about their relationship to political institutions and how they feel about elected representatives. What kind(s) of qualities do they look for in representatives. For example How much should they care whether people who represent them are themselves immigrants or can speak another language or are those types of characteristics not as important to them.

Just a few more questions this time on data sharing. What were your views of data sharing with other members of the community.

Well its important, you spend so much time putting this data together. First of all its gratifying to know that other people think you did a good job and want to see what the data show. Also there are just so many endless questions to pursue with the data. I think it will be exciting to see what other people investigate and find interesting things to say with the data I accumulated. There is also the standard practice of science where it is important for people replicate and validate what I've done. That's more the standard thing that is generally important as I'm not as interested in that as much as I am in seeing what other exciting and innovative things people are able to do.

Was this your first experience depositing with ICPSR, RCMD?

Yes it was.

How did you find the demands of your time were with this?

Oh it was really quite very easy. Basically you guys(ICPSR) did all the work and I just had to answer a question or two occasionally.

How have you applied this research experience in the classroom?

Well I teach a research methods course so I spend a lot of time talking about measurements so how do we know if we are designing a research question well. I also use my findings in a class that I teach on American identity. SO I use the substantive findings and the challenges of measuring what you want to measure.

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