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Q&A with Stanford PhD student and McKinnon Fellowship Recipient, Levi Boxell

During summer 2019, Stanford economics PhD student Levi Boxell traveled to Ghana with support from the King Center.

During summer 2019, Stanford economics PhD student Levi Boxell traveled to Ghana with support from the King Center.

His research on “Politicians, Information, and Gender Discrimination in Ghana,” aims to understand the extent to which politicians have accurate information about the priorities of male and female voters.

Boxell received both the Stanford King Center’s Ronald I. McKinnon Memorial Fellowship and Graduate Student Research Funding. Prior to entering the doctoral program at Stanford, Boxell worked as a research assistant for Stanford economist Matthew Gentzkow and Brown University economist Jesse Shapiro. Together, they co-authored a 2019 working paper, “Cross-country trends in affective polarization.” Boxell’s research on political polarization has been covered by The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Economist.

Can you describe your research interests and current research?

Levi Boxell
Levi Boxell

I'm broadly interested in political economy and development economics. Some of my previous research has examined the role of the internet and social media in driving US political polarization, as well as work on the impact of a social media tax in Uganda on social media use and protest activity. One project I've worked on recently is examining the role of information in local district assemblies in Ghana.

What motivated your research on district assemblies in Ghana?

My general interest in information and politics prompted this research direction. There is a large literature looking at the role of information in politics, but most of it focuses on how voters use information to keep politicians accountable. Less work examines how politicians use information themselves.

I was specifically interested in the extent to which district assembly members in Ghana had accurate information about constituent preferences over various policy areas, such as clean water or road construction. I was also interested in how they gathered this information, whether via town halls or word of mouth, and how they used this information in the political process. I also wanted to know whether there were disparities in information across demographic groups. That is, were politicians better informed about the preferences of men or women?

The goal of the trip this summer was to get a better sense of the context and determine whether there was scope for implementing a research project examining these questions at a larger scale.

How did you hear about the McKinnon Fellowship and how will it advance your research?

I heard about the McKinnon Fellowship from reviewing the King Center’s website along with a recommendation from Stanford economics professor Pascaline Dupas, who has also been advising me on my research.

The McKinnon Fellowship was valuable in allowing me to take an exploratory trip to Ghana this summer to gain a better understanding of how local district assembly members obtain, use, and value information about their constituents. The funding helped me focus on the actual research rather than the financial considerations of the project.

What impact are you hoping your research will have?

The goal of the project was to understand whether the assembly members had accurate information about their constituents and how these representatives used information in the political process. This improved understanding would hopefully shed light on policies that could be used to improve the accuracy of information held by assembly members, and allow the assembly members to make decisions that are more aligned with their constituents’ preferences, thereby improving welfare in their districts.

What are some obstacles you encountered in your research and how did you overcome them?

Understanding the appropriate protocols for contacting these representatives and obtaining information from the district assemblies was one obstacle that I overcame largely by trial-and-error. Assemblies would often prefer different processes for this, but there were some common themes that emerged over time, including having requests made with an official letter rather than only requesting information in person and contacting district leaders prior to engaging in discussions with assembly members. The district assemblies were often concerned about what information was leaving the assemblies and how this information was being used.

Do you have any other advice or recommendations for those conducting fieldwork in West Africa or on a similar topic?

I think a general piece of advice is that working with a local partner, even for exploratory trips, is going to help you get up to speed more quickly and navigate some of the local nuances better. The more pre-trip preparations you do (e.g., organizing meetings, etc.) the better, but you need to be flexible to changing strategies quickly in response to new information you learn on the ground.