Carnegie Mellon University

Madison Schramm wins award for dissertation

September 04, 2020

IPS Postdoctoral Fellow Madison Schramm wins an award for her dissertation

By Bill Brink

During Madison Schramm’s first semester of her PhD program at Georgetown University, as she laid the groundwork for what would become her dissertation, she found herself fascinated with Iran. Why, in a country whose supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, pulls the levers of government, was so much angst and distrust aimed at president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad? 

“There seemed to be this disjuncture between how we conceptualized the state and who the threat was, and actually who was making the decisions,” said Schramm, a Postdoctoral Fellow in Carnegie Mellon University’s Institute for Politics and Strategy. “I doubled down on project in 2013, when Ahmadinejad left office and [Hassan] Rouhani came to power and you saw this perceptual shift in the US and elsewhere.” 

That disjuncture became the subject of her dissertation, which Schramm successfully defended in August to receive her PhD. The dissertation, titled “Making Meaning and Making Monsters: Democracies, Personalist Regimes, and International Conflict,” won the American Political Science Association’s Kenneth N. Waltz Dissertation Award, granted to the best doctoral dissertation in the field of security studies. 

“This is really great validation of the work itself, but it’s also, I think, a reflection of the type of community I was brought up in in grad school,” she said. “My ability to do this type of work was really a byproduct of having thoughtful colleagues, really incredible mentors and a dissertation committee who really pushed me on different aspects of the project.” 

Schramm started with a gap in the literature. Plenty of research showed that democracies rarely went to war with each other, but less work had been done to determine what types of regimes democracies do engage militarily. Using a combination of archival research, statistical analysis, and surveys, Schramm concluded that democracies are more likely to engage personalist regimes, regimes that have unconstrained power at the top.

This results not from the type of regime itself, but from the way democratic leaders perceive them. In particular, Schramm focused on how the interaction of democratic leaders’ psychology and social identity produces particular emotional responses, predisposing those leaders to support coercive action against personalist regimes.  

“This idea that they [personalist leaders] are too big for their britches,” Schramm said. “How dare they? So in addition to being this kind of figure, it was this anger. Democratic leaders felt like they were out of line. They stepped over bounds.” 

Schramm conducted research at the National Archives; the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library in Abilene, Kansas; the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library in College Station, Texas; the United Kingdom National Archives; and the University of Birmingham, where she had access to Prime Minister Anthony Eden’s personal files.

She also proctored surveys designed to reveal which factors caused people to blame regimes rather than people and vice versa. 

The surveys described hypothetical conflicts between countries using different language, some describing actions taken by the state and some describing actions taken by the individual in power. 

“What I found in the US and the UK was that the attentive public’s threat perception– a proxy for foreign policy elites – wasn’t affected independently by institutions,” Schramm said. “So if I describe a personalist regime just institutionally, that doesn’t increase threat. And if I just make the adversary vivid, that doesn’t independently increase threat. But together, they substantially increase threat from the baseline.”

The project revealed several offshoots that require further investigation, and Schramm plans to turn the dissertation into a book. She also just began her first semester teaching Theories of International Relations at Carnegie Mellon, and her dissertation research could prove instructive there as well.

“There is much to interrogate in the discipline along these different lines, but to really learn how to think about theories themselves and how to think about them holistically, and not just as sound bites, which is really easy to do,” she said. “But to really struggle with the contradictions.”