The Value of Observation

I have returned to Washington D.C. for the summer to continue my research on constituent communication technology in Congress. Since I’ve returned to listen to the stories of interns, LAs, Members, and other previous staffers, I’ve begun to value more qualitative methods in my research.

During my comprehensive exam, I read numerous papers describing quantitative studies that try to track who, what, where, when, why and how representatives value constituent input into the policymaking process. What has been bugging me lately is the rhetoric around choice within this system. All too often I see too many assumptions about Representatives having a choice in how to vote, how to communicate with constituents, how to organize their office, and how to include citizens in the policymaking process. And often these constraints are based on quantitative methods and understandings of how Congress works.

But these ‘choices’ are constrained by the organization, the culture, and the technology of Congress (see Jane Fountain’s work).¬†The quantitative research I have seen uses rhetoric that positions Members as in control of what they and their office do, but this is incorrect.

And ethnographic work is necessary to identify the contextual nuances of every office, every staffer, and every Member to understand how their practices are influenced by others in the institution (see arguments by Weeden, 2010).

I am not claiming that Members have no control over how they perform constituent communication. But I am saying that there are so many influences from Congress that limit those choices. And understanding those limitations are critical if we really want to understand why certain processes and decisions are made to manage constituent communication.