Faculty Profile: Martin Johnson

Martin Johnson

Martin Johnson

Associate Professor
Department of Political Science

College of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences

Tel: (951) 827-4612
Fax: (951) 827-3933

E-mail: martin.johnson@ucr.edu

The average person probably thinks about politics in a “big picture,” — annual elections, partisan votes in the U.S. Congress, the things that make for big headlines on newspapers or give television personalities fodder for discussion.

But in reality, politics and the study of political science are much more than that. Just ask UCR Associate Professor of Political Science Martin Johnson. He’ll show you. Politics are everywhere.

“I have a very broad view of what political science is,” he said. “I think anything involving authoritative decision making, the exercise of power, and how social systems are governed could be interesting political science questions.”

“There is a great introductory textbook to political science called ‘Power and Choice,’ and that is how I view political science’s domain. We are interested in the study of the exercise of power as well as choice and decision making — how people individually make decisions and how collectives make authoritative decisions about how we are going to govern,” he added.

It seems that human life and politics are intertwined, whether it is at the highest levels of government, the management of an agricultural common, or in the administration of a local church. Any group of people gathering together will result in some aspect of political theory. But how do you test your theories? The same way any other scientist might: the scientific method.

“There is a great commonality between what the scientific method is and how it is applied to social situations and the natural sciences,” Johnson said.  “When I talk about my research with people from other departments or disciplines, they are sometimes surprised to learn we use statistical methods. There is a common toolbox that we can employ that is used in disciplines across the campus.”

Johnson said that the nature of political science can lead to some “messy data,” but that isn’t a factor unique to the social sciences. “There are all kinds of variables that come into this research. So I don’t agree that everything is precise and exact in the natural sciences and everything is sloppy and chaotic in the social sciences.”

As with the natural sciences, discoveries or insights that might have seemed insignificant at one time can sometimes be the core of future innovation and discovery. “I think it is important that people in political science do the work that is theoretical, abstract and doesn’t quite have the utilitarian orientation,” he said. “But the onus is on us to be able to relate to the public and be able to explain our work in a way that people understand. Finding that proper blend is important.”

An aid in Johnson’s work is the Survey Research Center, of which he is co-director. Established in 2006, the multi-disciplinary, computer-assisted telephone interviewing call center permits cutting-edge survey research. The center draws its interviewers from UCR’s diverse student body, giving them the ability to conduct interviews in a variety of languages.

“We’d like to look back in five years and say this was a story of all of us working together and doing something really good for the campus community and the broader community, and doing a lot of good research,” he said.

Johnson said that the campus’ diverse student population and the college faculty’s friendly, engaged and interdisciplinary nature have provided him a great experience.

“I like our students. They certainly have informed me and I have had the opportunity to work with great grad students,” he said. “When I arrived here, I expected to make friends and colleagues in my department. But I found very quickly that I made a lot of exciting friendships and collegial relationships with people in other departments — psychology, media and cultural studies, sociology, economics, women’s studies, religious studies, to name a few. There are just a lot of great folks around and there is a lot of social interaction among them, as well as professional discussion, idea sharing and collaboration.”

Johnson, an avowed “political junkie” who calls himself a “blue-collar social scientist,” is simple and straightforward in describing his hopes for the future.

“I want to be able to say that I did interesting research, produced good graduate students, taught undergraduates and learned from them. I like what I do and want to be doing that in 10, 20, 30 years,” he said.

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