Guest speaker Eileen Braman reveals the connections between law, political science, and psychology in annual OHara Lecture

Written by Maia Anderson, CAS communications intern

On April 18, the Department of Political Science hosted its annual Lloyd and Mary O'Hara Lecture in Law and Politics. Entitled "Assessing Government Authority: Constitutional Rules and Political Context," it was given by Eileen Braman, associate professor of political science at Indiana University.

Braman describes her work as "an intersection of law, political science, and psychology." In her research, Braman examines how citizens think about public powers.

"My research looks at how constitutional rules and political factors influence people's judgements about the appropriateness of government action," said Braman. "I'm interested in how people think about the government and what's okay and what's not okay."

Some questions she asks are:

  • When the president enacts policy, how and why do people respond?
  • How important is popular support for a specific measure?
  • What makes people consider congressional rulings legitimate?

Legitimacy is an issue that Braman delved deeply into during her lecture. A major focus of her research has been determining what makes citizens consider some governmental rulings legitimate and others illegitimate.

"People often equate legitimacy with authority," she added.

Braman presented a continuing experiment of hers designed to assist in her research of citizens' reactions to governmental rulings. In the experiment, she gave two groups of people different information on policies regarding gun control and immigration.

For one group, she said over 85% of the population agreed that Congress had the authority to enact a certain policy, and for the other she told subjects that only 15% agreed Congress had the authority. The point of this experiment was to see how public opinion influenced an individual's opinion.

Her findings showed that factors people look for when determining legitimacy are public support and their personal feelings about distribution of power. People who believed Congress did not have the authority to enact a policy tended to disagree with the policy itself.

Braman began this research in March 2015, and she says she is still not finished. So far she has surveyed roughly 1100 people.

She said she hopes that, from her lecture, people learn that a variety of factors influence the way people think about and respond to governmental action.

"I would say the most important takeaway is that rules and politics are both important on how people think on government authority, and the two interact in different and complex ways," she said.

While the current administration under President Trump was discussed briefly during the talk, Braman said she does not believe that the current turbulent political atmosphere makes her research more important than any other administration.

"I think looking at people's reactions to government authority is important in any stage in American politics," she said.

But Max Tash, a sophomore political science major, couldn't help thinking of the current administration and believes the dialogue Braman's research presents is especially important.

"Even though the data was taken in 2015, you still saw throughout the Obama administration this increase in divisiveness in our 2-party system," said Tash. "I think back then it was relevant, but it's even more so today."

During the Q&A portion of her lecture, Tash presented an idea that got Braman's attention.

"Have you thought of considering the social media aspect, such as Trump on Twitter, and where people are getting their news from?" he asked her.

Braman replied that she had not incorporated research on how social media plays a role in shaping personal feelings towards the government, but she will consider it as she continues forward with her research.

Abigail Matthews, assistant professor of political science, organized the O'Hara Lecture for the first time this year. When considering who to bring for the event, she looked for someone who could straddle the legal and political worlds.

"Braman's unique expertise in the fields of political science, law, and psychology made her the ideal candidate," she said. "I think her approach to setting law and politics in courts does a good job at capturing more real-life decision making, and the psychology aspect of that is critical."

Braman's research interests include political decision making, relations between Congress and the courts, and the determinants of public support for government action. Her teaching interests include constitutional law, judicial process, and political psychology. Her research is pertinent to any student interested in the connection between politics and law, especially students interested in attending law school.

The Lloyd and Mary O'Hara Lecture, intended to promote student learning through lecture on law, criminal and constitutional issues, and other legal systems, was established for the Department of Political Science by Miami mergers Lloyd and Mary O'Hara.

For more information on the speaker and her research:

  • Eileen Braman (Department of Political Science, Indiana University)