A Conversation with Amy Lerman

Amy Lerman
May 10, 2016

Amy Lerman is Associate Professor of Public Policy and Political Science at UC Berkeley.  She writes widely on issues related to political participation, public opinion, and public policy.  Lerman is a member of the IGS Faculty Advisory Committee and for the past two years has hosted the Race, Ethnicity and Immigration Seminar at IGS.  Here, she discusses her research and forthcoming work. 

What are some of the larger themes and questions that inform your work?

Broadly speaking, I am interested in how citizens understand government.  We spend a lot of time in Political Science thinking about how people learn about politics through elite messaging, through reading the newspaper, and through other forms of politically-mediated learning. But I’m also interested in how citizens learn in their everyday life, through direct contact with government. In particular, I am interested in what happens once public policies roll out: do citizens update how they understand those policies? And not just those policies, but also the state, government officials, and participatory democracy more generally?

I’ve done most of my work on this as it relates to criminal justice.  My first book (The Modern Prison Paradox: Politics, Punishment and American Community) focused on how citizens learn about community and civic obligations – and how their fundamental ideas about what it means to be part of a community change – as a result of incarceration.

My second book (Arresting Citizenship: The Democratic Consequences of American Crime Control) extended these themes to think about citizens’ contact with criminal justice more broadly: from police stops, to days in court, to time spent in jails and prisons.  What do citizens learn about how government works, what government expects of them, and the nature of democratic citizenship?  What are the implications of that experience for participation generally, and also for participation specifically among low-income and minority citizens, and among young people, who are most likely to have this type of contact with the state?

My new work thinks about these same themes in the context of health and health insurance, the ACA and Medicare.

Can you speak a little more about your current work?

My big project right now is about healthcare: thinking about the political consequences of the ACA in terms of the healthcare exchanges, the extension of Medicaid, and changes to Medicare.  I’m thinking about all the ways the ACA – once implemented – will change citizens’ political perceptions. I’m interested not only in what people know about these policies, but also how they experience them. 

In addition, I have another big project, which is a book I am finishing up that’s about public attitudes towards privatization: how citizens come to decide that some things are best provided by government and other things should be left to the private market. How do citizens learn about government efficiency or inefficiency? When and how do they update their preferences towards what should be privatized? I’m looking at changes in public opinion about privatization over time and how preferences vary across different policy domains.

What are some of the challenges you face and how does that shape your work?

I guess the biggest challenge I face is that I am constantly trying to do too much. Part of the problem is that I find everything so interesting! I think people are fascinating, and I’m particularly interested in how normal, everyday people think about things.  I think if we have any hope of really understanding what people know, what they are seeing, we have to constantly try and engage with people around the country about what they are actually experiencing. Because on campus we don’t really live in the “real world” most of the time.  But doing that requires time and travel.  So I feel like I’m constantly torn between wanting to be here and write, and knowing that my work also benefits so much from when I am out in the communities and in the environments I am studying. 

Is most of your research conducted through interviews and in person?

I’m a really big fan of mixed methods.  I do a lot of large field experiments, survey experiments, and survey analysis. I have a project that looks at 280 million Americans, tracking voter turnout over time and how that changes as the ACA rolls out. I also have a “big data” and computation piece.  But yes, I do a lot of interviewing and a lot of ethnographic and historical work. I feel like I can’t really understand the data unless I know where it comes from.

Who have been some of your intellectual influences and how have you developed your own methodology? 

There’s a fantastic group of people who started doing work around what’s called policy feedback.  It’s the idea that public opinion doesn’t just influence policy; once policies start to be adopted and implemented they can change public opinion, create constituencies, and increase or decrease participation in ways that then feed back into the political system.  So, my work builds on a great group of scholars who were doing this before I was—people like Joe Soss, Andrea Campbell, Suzanne Mettler, and others whose work both empirically or theoretically continues to inform the kind of work I do.

What do you enjoy the most about your work?

I love talking to people!  Doing research provides a ready excuse to call people on the phone out of the blue and say “I’m writing a book – will you talk to me?” and they almost always will.  I am sort of a secret anthropologist.  I’ve had the opportunity to meet so many interesting people and get a sense of what they are seeing, how they live. And then collect data and write about it all. I feel so lucky to have that doorway into other people’s lives. 

Do you have any other forthcoming work that you want to mention?

I am working on an evaluation of the college program at San Quentin State Prison.  I’ve been involved with the college program since 2004. San Quentin has – for a very long time – had the only on-site, degree granting prison higher education program in the state.  I started teaching there when I was in grad school and then started talking to the Executive Director about data collection and evaluation. I’ve been working with them for many years now, helping build out an evaluation program.

Related to that, I’ve been teaching a course this semester that involves 17 phenomenal undergraduates, mostly juniors and seniors. As part of the course, they’ve been conducting interviews with people who’ve been released from San Quentin. They ask about their experiences with re-entry, how being college students while incarcerated changed their prison experience and how it changed their experience with re-entry. 

Can you speak about your role at IGS and how you are part of that community? 

IGS has been an incredible source of intellectual community for me for a very long time.  The American Politics Workshop is a really critical place where people in Political Science and from around campus come together – both grad students and faculty – to have meaningful conversations about ongoing work and to listen to people discuss their projects.

I have also, over the last two years, been hosting the Race, Ethnicity and Immigration Seminar, which similarly is a diverse group of people from around campus, from various disciplines, who get together once a month to talk about somebody’s work and think about issues related to race and ethnicity.  IGS has been a wonderful host for that program. 

Even more than that, I think IGS feels like a place on campus where people have a home, and they identify with it because, more than a lot of research centers, it has a real sense of community. It’s a place where people don’t only engage with the work, they engage with each other.