What They Learned: Ethan Weiss ’21

The sociology major analyzed cooperation across party lines in the House of Representatives using social network analysis.

Ethan Weiss ’21 brought his passion for interdisciplinary work to his thesis. The sociology major with psychology and political science double minors performed a social network analysis, a sociological method, of the United States House of Representatives.

A social network analysis uses information about who interacts with who in a group to draw conclusions about how the group functions.

Weiss looked at the number of times members of the House of Representatives cosponsored a bill introduced by a member of the other party, meaning the number of times each Republican congressperson cosponsored bills introduced by Democrats and vice versa. Then he used this data, taken over the past 11 sessions of Congress (1999-2021), to notice patterns and draw conclusions about how the parties function.

First, he found that the median legislator in the minority party compromises more than the median in the majority party. Second, Republican legislators are much more widely distributed in their approach to cooperation than Democratic legislators, who for the most part remain closer to the party mean–as evidenced by a Republican’s higher standard deviation for the number of bills cosponsored across party lines.

He also found that cooperation across party lines is decreasing over time, in each succeeding session of Congress from 1999 until today, the median legislator sponsors four fewer bills across party lines on average.

“Most meaningfully in my book, I learned how to conduct a research project from beginning to end,” he said. “I learned a lot about ensuring methodological soundness, about the sorts of conclusions that one can draw from limited data, and perhaps most importantly that everything will take longer than expected.”

Weiss recently began work for Teach for America–teaching English in Alexandria, VA. In the future, he hopes to return to academia to continue political sociology research.

How did your thesis advisor help you during your thesis process?
Professor Matt McKeever was my thesis advisor, and he was invaluable in helping me develop the topic and advance my research. He often provided me with the motivational push I needed in order to ensure I met deadlines, reassured me when things weren’t quite going to plan, and was both honest and encouraging with his feedback. I am incredibly grateful to have worked with him; I feel like I learned a lot thanks to his approach to thesis advising.

What are the implications for your thesis research?
The largest implication of my work is probably in its contribution to understanding how the two parties differ in their approach to cooperation. The data I collected could be meaningfully applied to evaluate the strength or weakness of parties in Congress, to characterize differences between the two parties, and to evaluate the level of political distance between the Democratic and Republican parties. This could be valuable to researchers who are trying to understand how exactly polarization is occurring in this country.

“What They Learned” is a blog series exploring the thesis work of recent graduates.