Benjamin Rohr

Benjamin Rohr

PhD Candidate

Department of Sociology, University of Chicago

Hello! I am a political and historical sociologist who uses quantitative and computational methods to study elite political action.

My dissertation examines the relationship between state formation and the emergence of the first political parties in New York State between 1777 and 1820. I am particularly interested in the processes that tied political elites into the emerging party system, focusing on the role of social networks and political careers. This research is supported by an NSF Doctoral Dissertation Research Improvement Grant. Other work analyzes the career paths that led into elite administrative positions in the American state between 1850 and 2000, the structure of political careers in China from 1978 to 2012, and the structure of political discourse in Renaissance Florence. You can read more about my work here.

Research

Dissertation: “Portraits of a Political World: The Structure of the First Party System in New York, 1777-1822”

Drawing on several novel datasets, my dissertation examines the emergence and structure of the first party system in the state of New York.

Abstract

We tend to take for granted the existence and operation of electoral parties in modern democracies. But where did they come from? This dissertation is a study of party formation in the theoretically important case of the United States where parties emerged pretty much from scratch. Drawing on several novel datasets, I examine the emergence and structure of the first party system in the pivotal state of New York, focusing on the crucial years between the ratification of the U.S. constitution in 1788 and the election of 1800. I first show that the Federalists and Republicans in New York cannot be understood as the politicization of pre-existing social master categories like class or region. The product of divisions within the political elite, both parties looked very much alike in terms of the sociodemographic characteristics of their members. This opened up opportunities for skilled political elites to form new and complex webs of alliances. To understand these alliances, I turn to the social networks political elites were embedded in. Existing social ties pulled and pushed elites to one side or the other. But as social “bricoleurs,” they also actively used them to form new networks of political support. Even though the structure of elite social networks goes a long way towards explaining the structure of the emerging party system, these networks do not fully explain it. Very early on, the political field in New York was so well-developed that it produced sophisticated political actors who were not tied down by their positions in social space. Their actions were underdetermined by the social, and there was room for an endogenous political process irreducible to pre-existing social structures. I first examine this process through an analysis of roll call voting in the state assembly. I demonstrate that parties in the sense of voting blocs formed at three moments in time and appeared most clearly around procedural issues that had to do with access to public office. I then provide a systematic analysis of office-holding to show that competition for control of the state, and the alliances it produced, was at the core of party formation. As political actors tried to build their careers in a rapidly changing institutional structure, they increasingly sorted themselves into two opposing camps that both contemporaries and historical social scientists have come to understand as the first political parties in American history. I end with a look at those who switched parties during their careers. The analysis of party switching highlights that ambitious political actors were able and willing to cut existing social relationships when this was required to advance politically.


Political Careers in the U.S.

In a collaborative project with William McAllister (Columbia University), I study the career paths that led into elite administrative positions in the American state between 1850 and 2000.

Abstract

Despite the importance of the state for political sociology, little attention has recently been paid to its boundaries. At its core, this issue has to do with identifying where and how state and society meet to produce distinctions between them. States deeply and regularly interpenetrate their societies, making important our understanding of where and how boundaries between the two happen. This study looks at boundary-making in the state’s practice of selecting people into elite governing positions, i.e., an administrative and symbolic process that has the potential to be enmeshed with society and is (re-)arranged to demarcate or change state/society boundaries. We focus on two issues central to the study of such recruitment: its relative “openness” to society and the nature of the relationship among state and societal organizations that construct recruitment. We distinguish three recruitment sites where boundary formation occurs: its organizational, spatial, and temporal quality. We draw on a novel dataset that spans 150 years and contains the entire career histories of 2,400 individuals who end up in elite administrative positions in the American state, thereby capturing both historical and biographical temporality. Our findings show that while the state/society boundary remains highly permeable during most of the time period, elite recruitment becomes increasingly centralized in the formal organizations of the federal government as well as in organizations located in D.C. whose work is closely tied to that of the federal government. Organizationally, we find distinct historical periods reflecting boundary contests over center/periphery authority and private economy/government experience. Spatially, the state/society boundary becomes less fluid over time and increasingly defines the state as distinct from society. Temporally, the findings suggest early career boundary fluidity but little fluidity at a latter springboard stage which is defined by state organizations. We discuss the implications of those findings for the state building and elite recruitment literature.


Political Careers in China

In a collaborative project with Shilin Jia (University of Chicago), I study the structure of political careers in China from 1977 to 2012.

Abstract

Questions of career advancement and success have long occupied scholars of the Chinese state. Most work on political mobility in China views mobility from the perspective of the individual. It imagines a pool of officials who are at risk of moving up a status hierarchy of positions and the goal is to explain why some succeed and others fail. We develop a complementary account that views mobility not from the perspective of the individual, but from the perspective of the organization trying to fill positions. Such a perspective does more justice to the bureaucratic nature of the Chinese party-state in which hiring is centrally coordinated by high-level elites in the CCP. Focusing on the organization directs our attention to the strategies behind personnel management. We argue that those strategies can be studied through an analysis of vacancy chains. Drawing on a novel dataset of more than 2,500 inter-organizational transfers derived from the CVs of more than 4,000 political elites included in the Chinese Political Elite Database, we show that between 1977 and 2012 elites whose transfers are embedded in long vacancy chains are more successful than those whose transfers occur in isolation. In addition, we demonstrate that this career boost occurs after their involvement in vacancy chains and that it is stronger for younger elites than for older ones. We contend that these findings are the result of a strategy of organizational sponsorship pursued by the CCP that results from efforts to integrate the increasingly decentralized Chinese state.


Political Discourse in Renaissance Florence

Padgett, John F., Katalin Prajda, Benjamin Rohr, and Jonathan Schoots. 2020. “Political Discussion and Debate in Narrative Time: The Florentine Consulte e Pratiche, 1376-1378.” Poetics 78. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.poetic.2019.101377.

Schoots, Jonathan, Benjamin Rohr, Katalin Prajda, and John F. Padgett. 2020. “Political Conflict and Revolt in Generational Time: The Florentine Consulte e Pratiche and Ciompi Revolt, 1376-1378.” Poetics 78. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.poetic.2019.101386.


Methods for Ecological Analyses

Rohr, Benjamin and John Levi Martin. 2021. “How (Not) to Control for Population Size in Ecological Analyses.” Sociological Methods and Research. Online First: https://doi.org/10.1177/0049124120986188.

Abstract

It is common for social scientists to use formal quantitative methods to compare ecological units such as towns, schools, or nations. In many cases, the size of these units in terms of the number of individuals subsumed in each differs substantially. When the variables in question are counts, there is generally some attempt to neutralize differences in size by turning variables into ratios or by controlling for size. But methods that are appropriate in many demographic and epidemiological contexts have been used in settings where they may not be justified and may well introduce spurious relations between variables. We suggest local regressions as a simple diagnostic and generalized additive models as a superior modeling strategy, with double-residualized regressions as a backup for certain cases.

Teaching

Practicum in Historical Sociology. Syllabus, Poster.

Political Sociology

Applications of Hierarchical Models in Longitudinal and Multilevel Research

B.A. Thesis Seminar

Contact

You can contact me at brohr@uchicago.edu.