The Politics and History Section of the American Political Science Association is pleased to announce the 2012 Mary Parker Follett Award.
Alan M. Jacobs (Chair), University of British Columbia; Devin Caughey, Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Daniel Galvin, Northwestern University; Catherine Paden, Simmons College
Dumitru, Diana, and Carter Johnson. 2011. “Constructing Interethnic Conflict and Cooperation: Why Some People Harmed Jews and Others Helped Them during the Holocaust in Romania.” World Politics 63(1): 1-42.
The Follett Award Committee gave intensive consideration to a pool of 40 journal articles and book chapters in the field of politics and history published in 2010 or 2011. These articles ran the subfield gamut from American political development to comparative-historical analysis to the historical study of international relations to methodology.
Among this pool of nominees, the committee found a standout winner: Diana Dumitru and Carter Johnson’s World Politics article: “Constructing Interethnic Conflict and Cooperation: Why Some People Harmed Jews and Others Helped Them during the Holocaust in Romania.”
When we say that this piece was a standout, we mean it. At one point in the process, we whittled down our pool to a dozen strong contenders. Then each of us separately picked and ranked our top three articles. Our plan was then to compare and argue over our assorted Top 3’s and, somehow, forge a consensus on a winner.
But there was, in the end, no debate to be had. Independently, all four committee members – an intellectually diverse group – had ranked Dumitru and Johnson’s article first. All there was to discuss was what made this paper so impressive.
In their article, Dumitru and Johnson seek to understand the radically varying responses of non-Jews in Eastern Europe to the Holocaust. Why, they ask, did some non-Jews join in the mass violence against their Jewish neighbors, while others risked life and limb to protect Jews from persecution and death? It is a question that strikes at the fundamental sources of interethnic conflict and cooperation.
The authors’ innovative strategy for answering this question is to exploit a natural experiment that unfolded in the region of present-day Romania. Two neighboring territories in this region – Bessarabia and Transnistria – had Jewish populations of similar size. Both were part of the Russian Empire until 1918, and both were subjected to the same state policies of extreme anti-Semitism under the tsars. Both saw waves of ruthless pogroms by deeply anti-Semitic gentile populations.
But after the establishment of the Soviet Union, their political paths parted: Bessarabia became part of Romania, and Transnistria joined the Soviet state. And it is at this point that the two regions experienced two very different policy “treatments.” As part of Romania, Bessarabia continued to experience extreme state-sponsored anti-Semitism. Transnistria’s citizens, in contrast, lived under early Soviet policies that were radically inclusive. These Soviet policies sought to systematically destroy negative stereotypes of the Jews, to foster positive images of Jews, and to integrate the Jewish population into mainstream Soviet society.
After 23 years apart, Bessarabia and Transnistria were then reunited under Romanian rule in 1941 – as the Nazi program of genocide reached Romania.
Dumitru and Johnson sought to discover whether those 23 years apart – under very different policy regimes – made any difference to how populations in the two regions responded to the Holocaust. Could a mere two decades of inclusive, anti-discriminatory state policies fundamentally change interethnic relations? Some prominent theories of ethnic politics would have answered these questions with a clear “no”: a short spell of favorable policy surely could not undo ethnic hatreds cemented by a long history of institutionalized racism and conflict. Meanwhile, constructivist understandings see ethnic hatreds as malleable but do not offer clear predictions about what it takes to reshape ethnic relations. Is 20 years of inclusive policy enough?
To find out, Dumitru and Johnson had to reconstruct the behavior of ordinary Romanians 70 years ago, embarking on a remarkably ambitious and enterprising program of data collection. First, they drew on Holocaust archives in Israel and the U.S. to qualitatively compare the testimonies of over 300 Jewish survivors and gentiles who lived in the two regions. Second, they took a random sample of the Jewish testimonies and analyzed them in a fascinating way: they looked for descriptions in these testimonies of specific interactions between gentiles and Jews. They then coded each individual interaction for its degree of negativity or positivity, and statistically compared the distributions of negative and positive interactions in the two regions. Third, they mailed a survey to Jewish survivors who had been in either Bessarabia or Transnistria during the Holocaust, asking them about the attitudes of the local gentile populations. Amazingly, they received 60 responses – including from 18 people who had experience in both regions and could compare patterns of behavior between them.
These diverse streams of evidence converge on a clear finding: state policy mattered, and the effects are massive. Non-Jews in Transnistria – which had experienced two decades of inclusive policy – were not just far less likely to join in Nazi persecution. They were also far more likely to try to protect Jews than were their counterparts in Bessarabia. Moreover, the evidence here points to the enduring effect of state action: Transnistrian gentiles were much more willing to risk their lives to help Jews even after the Soviet state had left the scene. The authors go on to carefully consider a range of potential confounds and rule them out with strong reasoning and compelling evidence.
One of the most satisfying things about this paper is that it showcases the unity of inference underlying qualitative and quantitative social science, using each method to complement the other. Dumitru and Johnson leverage detailed historical knowledge to identify two highly similar cases that were differentially impacted by an exogenous shock of major theoretical interest, generating a nearly experimental manipulation of their causal variable. Informed by intensive case analyses, this powerful design enables the authors convincingly to identify causal relationships without relying on a complex statistical model – exemplifying the “design-based” approach to inference now commonly employed by quantitative social scientists.
While shedding light on a transformative event in modern world history, the article’s findings also have much broader implications. The study advances our understanding of interethnic relations and the sources of ethnic conflict, and suggests lessons for present-day policy debates over multiculturalism and affirmative action. Yet the article also speaks to canonical questions in the discipline: about the interaction between institutions and culture; about the development of political culture over time; about the importance of the state and its policies relative to the character of civil society; and about the sources of social cooperation.
The committee went looking for an article that examined a substantively important political phenomenon; that made a major theoretical contribution to the discipline; that displayed empirical rigor and ingenuity; and that threw into sharp relief the distinctive contributions that historical analysis can make to the study of politics. In Dumitru and Johnson’s article, we found it: a model of historically informed, theoretically grounded social science.