Dr. Carol Mershon, Political Scientist

Carol Mershon

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Professor, Political Science
College & Graduate School of Arts & Sciences
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Throughout my career, I have been trying to answer three main questions: How do political institutions structure the behavior of individual and collective actors, under what conditions do institutions and actors in tandem generate beneficial outcomes for society, and under what conditions do actors reform institutions?

The institutions, actors, and sites I have studied have changed over time. In my dissertation and related research, I looked at trade union institutions and unionists, drew on field work conducted in Italy, and explained surprising outcomes in public policy. In my second book and related articles, I focused on the rules that structure competition among political parties for control of the executive in order to explain: who governs and for how long? Although I compared ten parliamentary democracies and over 700 parties, the in-depth country case was Italy. In my third book and associated articles, I explained why individual legislators switch party affiliation, and why stark contrasts appear in switching rates. Why in some places and times (US Congress, typically) do very few legislators change party, whereas in other instances (Brazil, most legislative terms since the late 1980s) roughly one-third of legislators abandon their original party and adopt a new party label while serving in office?

In my fourth book,Party System Change in Legislatures Worldwide: Moving Outside the Electoral Arena, and related articles, I showed that individual legislators, especially those elected under particular rules, can and do change entire legislative party systems through their choices on party affiliation. This work combined deductive mathematical modeling along with statistical estimations on an original dataset covering four continents, nine countries, 110 legislative terms, and over 4,000 months of legislator behavior.

In one of my current research projects, I extend my longstanding interest in individual representatives and parties as collectivities to explain the (literally) vital outcome of infant and child survival. What are the political determinants of variation in key health outcomes? I have chosen South Africa for in-depth focus, given its stark internal inequalities.

In another current project, the “site” I study is academe and in particular the political science profession. I seek to understand how the reform of rules and practices, carried out by women and faculty of color, can enhance the status of underrepresented groups and all faculty and graduate students in political science departments and across a university. This project, though separate from my involvement with UVA CHARGE, is obviously linked to it.

I have a book project under contract with a university press on using formal (mathematical) models for substantive social research. My co-author and I develop new themes about how formal models benefit the analyst, and we illustrate the use of formal models in a range of substantive areas, including the study of environmental politics.

My current research builds on my prior work at the same time that it brings me into new areas. Over the years, the achievements of one project have pointed directly or indirectly to the questions to be addressed in the next. This joy of continuous learning is what keeps me going in research and also teaching. If I can transmit this sort of commitment and energy to undergraduates and graduate students, then I can be satisfied indeed.


Dr. Mershon and Dr. Denise Walsh have co-edited “Advocating for Change in the Discipline,” a multi-article Critical Perspectives symposium in Politics & Gender (September 2014). The papers in this volume explore what the marginalization of women in political science says about the discipline; how can women’s experiences and current research on political organizing provide us with strategies to address the marginalization, and how can we diversify the discipline.

Mershon and Walsh also partnered to co-edit the symposium on “How Political Science Can Become More Diverse” in PS: Political Science & Politics (July 2015). In her NSF-funded project with Dr. Denise Walsh, entitled “Building Collaboration across Diverse Groups to Improve Scholarship,” Dr. Mershon is developing strategies for diversifying leadership and addressing bias in political science and academe more broadly.


This joy of continuous learning is what keeps me going in research and also teaching.  Learn more about Dr. Mershon’s research and teaching. http://politics.virginia.edu/carolmershon/

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