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Christopher Bail on Interdisciplinary Collaboration

“My network has expanded dramatically, and I have been able to pursue new avenues of research”

At a moment when issues related to race, religion, and citizenship are sharply dividing Americans, Christopher A. Bail’s research on political polarization and social media feels especially timely.

Bail is the Douglas and Ellen Lowey Associate Professor of Sociology and Public Policy and the director of the Polarization Lab at Duke. The lab brings together scholars from the social sciences, statistics, and computer science to develop new technology to bridge partisan divides.

A key component of the Together Duke academic strategic plan is to provide faculty with new avenues of support for research and to extend collaborative efforts. In April 2018, Bail and five colleagues received a Research Collaboratory grant for the Polarization Lab.

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“My network has expanded dramatically, and I have certainly been able to pursue new avenues of research as a result of the Provost’s [seed funding] initiatives,” he said. “In particular, my collaborations with Sunshine HillygusAlex Volfovsky, and Guillermo Sapiro have influenced my research trajectory considerably.”

Over the past year, Bail received grants from the National Science Foundation and the Russell Sage Foundation related to his work as director of the Polarization Lab. And in December, Bail and his colleagues learned that they will receive a grant from Facebook’s Foundational Research program to help support the lab.

“The Polarization Lab is a one-of-a-kind entity that has not only raised considerable extramural funding and conducted top-notch research, but it has also allowed me to dramatically expand my work toward the broader public,” he reflected. “Twenty-four major media outlets have covered our research thus far, and our article ranks #10 in public interest among all articles published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the same age.”

To expand the lab’s outreach, Bail arranged visits to Facebook and Twitter as well as a number of nonprofit organizations. He and his colleagues have also forged new ties to government. Bail serves on the Advisory Council to the National Science Foundation’s Social Behavioral and Economic Sciences Directorate.

On campus, Bail incorporated the research agenda of the Polarization Lab into numerous lectures in the Data Scraping and Text Analysis course he teaches in Duke’s Master in Interdisciplinary Data Science (MIDS) program. An open-source version of his MIDS class on social media data and text analysis is available. Bail is contemplating creating a course on political polarization and social media for undergraduates. Currently, four undergraduates are participating in Polarization Lab research.

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Bail has taken advantage of other strategic funding opportunities. In 2017, he and several colleagues received an Intellectual Community Planning Grant for their project, Forum for Innovative Collaborations in the Empirical Study of the Social Sciences (FICESS). “The FICESS group is closely tied to my ongoing research helping to build the field of computational social science,” Bail said.

He noted that the FICESS group enriched his approach to hosting the second annual Summer Institute in Computational Social Science (SICSS) at Duke in June 2018. He cofounded this series of free training events, held concurrently at multiple universities, to introduce junior scholars to the field. Bail received related grants from the Sloan Foundation and the Russell Sage Foundation.

“We have open-sourced the entire curriculum for the Summer Institutes in Computational Social Science,” Bail said, “including video of all lectures, code, slides, and teaching materials.” In 2019, SICSS will run in 10 different locations, including Capetown, South Africa and Istanbul, Turkey.

Bail has also been involved in Duke’s Bass Connections program as a team member of SSNAP: Scientific Social Network Analysis Project and a recipient of course development funds for SOCIOL 347: Managing Networks.

See all current initiatives in the Together Duke academic strategic plan, and learn more about these seed funding opportunities:

  • Research Collaboratories (see RFP for projects in Energy and Water Resources; Race, Religion, and Citizenship; and Population Health, due February 15)

Images from top: Courtesy of Christopher Bail; members of the Polarization Lab at Duke (Bail, Alexander Volfovsky, Katherine Heller, Sunshine Hillygus, James Moody, Guillermo Sapiro); Bail at the Summer Institute for Computational Social Science held at Duke in June 2018