Story written by Leda Zimmerman for MIT Political Science.
Since starting her doctoral studies, Nina McMurry has logged more than two years of field work in the Philippines. It has sometimes been a slog—literally.
“Some of the places we need to travel for data collection are pretty remote,” she says. “This past summer, it was a particularly bad rainy season, and even when the boats were running from the mainland to our destination, it could take two or more hours for our survey teams to climb into the mountains, where roads were entirely flooded out.”
McMurry is examining political interactions between indigenous Filipino communities and institutions of the established, “modern” state. The Philippines has in recent times recognized the rights of indigenous people to collective self-determination within their ancestral lands.
“Democratic institutions focus on individual rights, and the recognition of indigenous communities is based on collective rights,” says McMurry. “What does it mean to have two overlapping governing systems in a single locale, and in particular, two systems with contradictory features?”
McMurry is one of the first political scientists to explore this question in the Philippines. Her research takes her to several far-flung provinces with indigenous minority communities, of which some have received official recognition in the form of land titles, and some have not.
“I’d like to measure the influence of traditional authority on individual decision making and local collective action, and compare that in communities with and without land titles,” she says.
McMurry’s hypothesis is that state recognition in the form of communal land titles and self-governance increases the influence of community leaders, which can in turn affect the behavior of community members and how they interact with the state. “There is evidence that devolving power from the state to these indigenous communities makes the communities vote more cohesively,” she says. “They believe that if they vote together, they will have more power.”
To test her hypothesis, McMurry is collecting data from national administrative sources and surveying citizens in indigenous communities. Part of the survey also looks at whether separate indigenous polling places encourage higher turnout and give communities greater leverage with candidates.
Indigenous communities that perceive voting as a form of collective representation might gain greater bargaining power and wield more clout with political candidates. But there’s also the possibility, notes McMurry, that by voting together as a bloc, “indigenous communities might end up more susceptible to political influence.”
Stakes are high in Philippine elections. Voting can mean the difference between opening and closing the spigot to essential government services such as road and sewer buildings, clean water, and health clinics. And while the idea of representative democracy is not new to the country, problems of transparency, accountability and corruption by elected officials are ever present, posing a challenge to indigenous communities newly engaging with the state.
From moral cause to research mission
McMurry’s dedication to understanding the mechanics of well-functioning states began when she was in college a decade ago, during the conflict in Darfur, Sudan.
“I was shocked that there could be mass atrocities happening in our times, and I was consumed by advocacy work to end the genocide,” she says.
McMurry grew so dedicated to this cause that she interrupted her undergraduate studies at Wellesley College to serve for a year with the Genocide Intervention Network in Washington, D.C.
“It was not an easy decision, but I was spending most of my hours working on the issue, and it made sense to put college on hold and focus all of my attention on Sudan,” she says.
The time away from school sharpened her academic focus: “I realized I needed to understand the roots of the conflict and shift my focus to the internal politics of the country,” she says.
McMurry pursued these questions at Stanford University, where she completed her degree in political science, focusing on international relations and comparative politics. Hoping to apply her scholarship on the ground, she headed back to Africa, first studying Arabic in Morocco through a State Department scholarship, and later through work with NGOs in Sudan, and then South Sudan, after that nation’s independence.
Witnessing the process of nation-building, McMurry could see in real time the difficulties facing a country transitioning from fifty years of civil war to a democracy.
“We overestimated the commitment of elites to transparent governance, and underestimated the extent to which armed networks would jockey for power,” she says. “Watching this process, I wanted a rigorous understanding of how accountable democracies are built.”
McMurry found the perfect base for in-depth studies of this problem at MIT—and specifically at MIT GOV/LAB, a research offshoot of the Department of Political Science committed to investigating and advancing new forms of citizen engagement and political accountability. Under the direction of Lily Tsai, associate professor of political science, says McMurry, “GOV/LAB was perfect for me, because it promotes rigorous and cutting-edge research collaborations between academics and practitioners, while having a foot in the policy world.”
When not on research treks, McMurry shoulders teaching duties, including for graduate-level courses on quantitative research methods and, this fall, the program’s five day “math camp” for incoming PhD students. “I remember being in shock at the start of grad school, not realizing the extent of the quantitative analysis, statistics, and programming involved,” she says. “But now it’s very satisfying to help shepherd students through the initial transition and watch them excel at these things.”
With another year to go of data analysis and dissertation writing, McMurry hopes her research results will prove useful to policy makers. There is a push for indigenous rights around the globe, and frequent pushback from state and non-state actors, especially when land use is involved. In addition to her work on the impact of recognizing indigenous communities on voting behavior and public goods, McMurry would like to learn whether this recognition may also increase environmental protection and stem deforestation.
Wherever she lands after completing her degree, McMurry says, “I’d like to be engaged in work where my research has an impact on good governance, accountability, and transparency somewhere in the world.”
(Photo by Nina McMurry).