Walter Dean Burnham Dissertation Award Announced

The Politics and History Section of the American Political Science Association is pleased to announce the 2012 Walter Dean Burnham Dissertation Award.

Committee: Catherine Boone, Chair , University of Texas at Austin; Beth Rosenson, University of Florida at Gainesville;  James Shoch, California State University at Sacramento

Recipient:  Gwendoline Alphonso, Fairfield University
Gwendoline M. Alphonso’s dissertation,  “Hearth and Soul: Political Parties, Family Ideologies, and the Development of Social Policy in the 20th Century” (Department of Government, Cornell, 2011) examines the changes and continuities in ideational visions of the family, as reflected in American social policy making from the Progressive Era (1900) to 2005. Using a wealth of data — from party platforms to Congressional committee hearings to Congressional debates to bill sponsorships — she shows how the current valorization of the “traditional family” is not a new development but rather part of an enduring pattern in which two sets of family ideals have competed for prominence and found their respective homes primarily in one party or another during the last century of American history.

Alphonso demonstrates the evolving connection between two main ideals (The Soul ideal, emphasizing a family’s character, morality and spirituality, and the more ‘materialist’ Hearth ideal focusing on families’ economic conditions) and the political parties, arguing that the shifting allegiance of the parties to these ideals reflects changes in their constituent bases, as they both court and respond to their core supporters. Her innovative use of committee hearing data in particular allows her to draw a strong link between each party’s family ideology and social agenda on the one hand, and the concrete experiences and demographics of the dominant factions among their constituents on the other. Shifts in party ideologies occurred in conjunction with shifts in the characteristics of their constituents, for example with regard to region, income, and marital status. The dissertation also provides a nuanced understanding of both the commonalities and differences between the two parties–and the factions within each party–with regard to the family ideals in the three eras she studies. The dissertation makes clear that the two major parties have borrowed from and absorbed each other’s family ideals and also adapted them to fit into their pre-existing broader ideological frameworks.

In all, her analysis of the ebb and flow of the Hearth and Soul conceptions of family suggests a complex and layered picture of the relationship of the parties to social policy, in which changing regional demographics and electoral factors play an important role in explaining the parties’ shifting commitments to one or another family vision and associated social policy. The dissertation shows how this dynamic plays out with regard to a wide range of social policies including health care, intermarriage, juvenile delinquency, education, and welfare.

The originality of her argument and the creative and meticulous nature of her research make Gwen Alphonso a most deserving winner of the Walter Dean Burnham dissertation award.

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