Research

Dissertation: The Politics of Place: How Southern Identity Shapes Americans' Racial Attitudes and Policy Preferences

My current research reveals the importance of sub-national identities – i.e., psychological identification with U.S regions – as an omitted factor shaping political attitudes, preferences, and behavior. My dissertation committee includes Vincent Hutchings and Nicholas Valentino (co-chairs), Nancy Burns, Robert Mickey, and Matthew Lassiter (History). I will defend my dissertation, The Politics of Place: How Southern Identity Shapes Americans’ Political Attitudes & Policy Preferences, in early 2021.

In particular, my research demonstrates that the common practice of including a dummy variable for respondents living in the South is insufficient to account for the impact of regional identities on American public opinion formation. Sociology, history, and psychology researchers show that the American South’s unique political and cultural experience leads many within and outside of the to develop quasi-ethnic identities and distinct political behaviors. My dissertation argues regional differences in socialization lead to distinct and politically meaningful sub-national identities. Given its broad importance for understanding American behavior, my work proposes and validates a novel multi-dimensional survey measure of Southern sub-national identity that can be adapted to other sub-national identities in the U.S. and abroad. I use this new measure to explore the impact of differences in regional socialization on racial attitudes and policy preferences, and electoral politics. I have been fortunate to find a great deal of financial support for my work so far. My dissertation research has received support from the National Science Foundation Dissertation Research Improvement Grant, the University of Michigan’ Ford Dissertation Fellowship, the University of Michigan’s Center of Political Studies Hanes Walton Jr. Race & Ethnic Politics Grant & Garth Taylor Public Opinion Dissertation Fellowship, among others.

Given the South’s historical uniqueness as well as its perceived contemporary distinctiveness, I argue that identification with the region might be especially meaningful concerning politics in three primary ways. First, Southern identity is distinct from other important social identities, such as American identity and racial identity. Moreover, Southern identity can be activated in the political realm when voters receive cues about a candidate’s residential information and sub-national affiliations. Second, the political attitudes and preferences of Black Americans also vary in some domains based on levels of Southern identity, which is understudied to date. Third, dating back to the Civil War era, White Americans residing in the South have held strong psychological attachments to the region. Today, previous work using proxy measurements of Southern attachment suggests that Whites in the region are politically distinct from non-southern Whites such that there is high homogeneity in their political preferences and party identification, and levels of racial animus. However, my scale complicates previous findings relating to regional differences in Whites’ racial attitudes. Lastly, my Southern identity scale is a reliable and valid measure that can be used across racial groups and can be adapted to study sub-national identities associated with other U.S regions and countries.

This work offers novel and nuanced theoretical and empirical contributions concerning race and ethnic politics, public opinion, geography, and survey measurements. Using a mixed-methods approach—including four original surveys, analysis of newspaper, magazine, and Twitter data, and original, in-depth interviews—I demonstrate that Southern identity has distinct and important effects on political preferences. For instance, I find that Southern identity influences Black and Whites to adopt racial predispositions and racial policy preferences that benefit their racial group. Contrarily, when one’s racial group is not at the forefront of the discussion, Southern identifiers share similar racial predispositions and policy preferences as their non-identifying counterparts. Studying Southern identity helps us more fully understand the contours of the American racial landscape, with implications for understanding electoral politics, political behavior, identity, and help inform our understanding of racial issues and policies.

Chapter Outline

To investigate my expectations, I employ a full mixed methods approach. My dissertation includes four empirical chapters, one theoretical chapter, along with an introduction and conclusion. The theory chapter consists of a variety of qualitative data to document the historical development of Southern identity. The empirical chapters will illustrate the relationship between Southern identity and various public opinion outcomes using both observational and experimental survey data.

In chapters 2 , I motivate my theory of Southern identity by employing a mixed-methods approach -- consisting of a variety of original qualitative data and survey data. The qualitative efforts include content analyses of Black and Southern-based newspapers and magazines, in-depth interviews, textual analysis of Twitter data, as well as thematic analyses of open-ended survey questions. The survey data consists of three original surveys to create a valid and reliable measurement of Southern identity and a national survey to replicate findings using a quasi-representative sample of Black and White Americans.

In chapter 3, I construct a multi-dimensional dynamic scale of Southern identity – which was motivated by themes observed throughout the qualitative exploration.

In chapter 4-5, using a national survey, I explore the relationship between Southern identity and Americans attitudes concerning racial, economic, and social issues.

In chapter 6, I experimentally explore the causal implications of priming Southern identity. The goal of the survey experiment is to determine whether Southern identity influences Blacks and Whites to support hypothetical candidates who convey strong ties with the South.

Research Agenda

My research agenda seeks to contribute to our understanding of American politics in several important ways. First, it reveals a widely overlooked component in American life that carries many political implications. Indeed, my work highlights the importance of considering place consciousness and place-based identities for White and Black Americans when investigating American political behavior. Second, another challenge for studying Southern identity has been measurement and its limited focus on White Americans—specifically, the use of inconsistent measures designed for White Southerners and lack of measurement validity. My work demonstrates that Southern distinctiveness is not just about southern residence and socialization, but also about place-based identification. That is, the use of a South dummy variable obscures the reality that there is variation within the South on levels of identification with the region, and there are meaningful levels of identification outside the region. Moreover, my work demonstrates that Southern identifiers across race are more likely to adopt racial attitudes and predispositions that align with the communalistic element of Southern culture. From a methodological perspective, my work provides the first validated measure of Southern identity. This advance in measurement opens doors for an enriched understanding of how sub-national and place-based identities matter for public opinion, behavior, representation, and policy outcomes. Furthermore, the framework for this project can be extended cross-nationally to better understand sub-national identities as a global phenomenon with national political implications.


Southern Identity Scale

Data Source: Williams YouGov 2020

Data Source: Williams YouGov 2020

I am currently on the academic job market for 2020-2021 for positions beginning in the Summer or Fall 2021! Read more about my dissertation below!

PHWilliams _ APSA 2020 Paper.pdf