Meet a Social Scientist: Dr. William Berry from the Department of Political Science

What is your name?

Dr. William Berry.

What kind of work do you do in the college?

I am a Professor in the Department of Political Science at Florida State University.  I teach, do research and engage in service in the department, profession and community.

Why did you decide to become an academic?

I was following in the footsteps of my brother, who was five years older and had accepted a position as a an assistant professor before I started college.  (Scientific point: I don’t have a large enough sample size or sufficient experimental control to know whether the correlation between my our career choices is spurious, or my brother’s choice influenced mine.  But since I like to think that I make my own choices, I prefer to believe the correlation is spurious!)  As such, I began undergraduate school with a clear plan to go on for a Ph.D. and have an academic career.  For me, the difficult choice proved to be what discipline to study.  I initially expected to be a pure mathematician.  Ironically, it was my early success in math that led to a situation in which I realized that I didn’t want to be a mathematician.  I took enough undergraduate math courses as a freshman and a sophomore, and did well enough in them, to get permission to take graduate courses in my junior year.  In these courses, I did nothing but work on mathematical proofs, and it became clear to me that to be able to do work that I would find rewarding, I would need study human behavior.  So I spent my senior year sampling courses across the social sciences, and eventually settled on political science—partly because going back to early teenage years, I had always paid a lot of attention to electoral politics. 

What do you find most fulfilling about your job?

Of the varied aspects of my job, my greatest excitement comes from doing research and having a “breakthrough moment” in which I have an insight that fundamentally reshapes my thinking about the topic.  But I think the most fulfilling part of my job is regular, ongoing work with students.  It’s especially satisfying to see a student who struggles with a course, but works very hard work to overcome the obstacles, be successful.  And I’ve learned in the last year just how important being in a physical classroom is to achieving that fulfillment.  So I’m really looking forward to breaking free from pandemic restrictions and interacting face-to-face with students in the fall!

What are you working on or teaching right now that has you excited professionally?

The research project I’m most excited about involves studying how effective a methodology that has been used by many political scientists is at learning the truth.   A topic I’ve studied regularly for the last three decades is the diffusion of policies across the American states.  Fran Berry (in the College’s Askew School of Public Administration and Policy) and I developed a methodology for studying policy diffusion in 1990.  Over the last 30 years, this technique has been gradually refined and improved by other scholars, and has been used in hundreds of studies.  Over the period, the questions researchers have tried to answer using the methodology have become more interesting and complex.  Early on, the technique was used primarily to determine whether a policy diffuses across states or not.   Now, researchers frequently employ it to study the mechanism through which diffusion occurs: Do states learn from the experiences of previously adopting states and copy successful policies?  Do states compete – copying policies other states have adopted to prevent those states from gaining some sort of economic advantage?  I have come to worry that the technique Fran and I developed may not be up to the task of answering the new, more interesting, questions.  To find out, I’m working with a former student and several other colleagues.  Our approach is to apply the methodology to tens of thousands of simulated data sets, each of which has been generated by a computer-simulated diffusion process with a known mechanism (e.g., learning or competition).  This way we can find out how often the methodology is able to detect the known true mechanism for diffusion, and how often the technique falsely detects a mechanism that’s different from the true one.  I’m very anxious to find out, and if the methodology does not work well, eager to help develop alternative research strategies.

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