Papers and Manuscripts


Nathan, Noah L. 2023. The Scarce State: Inequality and Political Power in the Hinterland. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge Studies in Comparative Politics. Publisher's Website.

  • States are often minimally present in the rural periphery. Yet a limited presence does not mean a limited impact. Isolated state actions in regions where the state is otherwise scarce can have outsize, long-lasting effects on society. The Scarce State reframes our understanding of the political economy of hinterlands through a multi-method study of Northern Ghana alongside shadow cases from other world regions. Drawing on a historical natural experiment, the book shows how the contemporary economic and political elite emerged in Ghana’s hinterland, linking interventions by an ostensibly weak state to new socio-economic inequality and grassroots efforts to reimagine traditional institutions. The book demonstrates how these state-generated societal changes reshaped access to political power, producing dynastic politics, clientelism, and violence. The Scarce State challenges common claims about state-building and state weakness, provides new evidence on the historical origins of inequality, and reconsiders the mechanisms linking historical institutions to contemporary politics.
  • Media and reviews: Broadstreet Blog, MIT News, New Books Network (podcast), Governance (review), Foreign Affairs (review), Perspectives on Politics (review), Journal of Modern African Studies (review), Review of Development and Change (review)
  • Foreign Affairs Best Books of 2023

Nathan, Noah L. 2019. Electoral Politics and Africa's Urban Transition: Class and Ethnicity in Ghana. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge Studies in Comparative Politics. Publisher's website.

  • Two aspects of contemporary urban life in Africa are often described as sources of political change: the emergence of a large urban middle class and high levels of ethnic diversity and inter-ethnic social contact. Many expected that these factors would help spark a transition away from ethnic competition and clientelism toward more programmatic elections. Focusing on urban Ghana, this book shows that the growing middle class and high levels of ethnic diversity are not having the anticipated political effects. Instead, urban Ghana is stuck in a trap: clientelism and ethnic voting persist in many urban neighborhoods despite changes to the socio-economic characteristics and policy preferences of voters. Through a unique examination of intra-urban variation in patterns of electoral competition, I explain why this trap exists, demonstrate its effects on political behavior, and explore how new democracies like Ghana can move past it.
  • Media and reviews: Foreign Affairs (review), Washington Post's Monkey Cage (blog), Washington Post's Monkey Cage (review), Ufahamu Africa (podcast), Governance (review), African Studies Review (review #1), African Studies Review (review #2)

Published Articles

Nathan, Noah L., 2024, "Do Grids Demobilize? How Street Networks, Social Networks, and Political Networks Intersect," forthcoming, American Journal of Political Science. PDF.

  • Amid rapid urbanization in the developing world, there is growing interest in the effects of urban context on political behavior. An underexplored element of urban context is the built environment itself -- the physical architecture and design of urban space -- which can structure how residents interact both with each other and with the state. Drawing on street network data and an original survey from urban Ghana, I suggest that more gridded, orderly neighborhoods reduce the social interactions residents have with neighbors, lower embeddedness in political problem solving networks, and depress electoral turnout. Rather than making residents more legible to state officials, gridded streets appear to make the local state and political realm less legible to residents by reducing opportunities to forge politically-valuable social ties in a context of informal, clientelist politics. The paper demonstrates that greater focus is needed on built environments to understand the social structures undergirding grassroots urban politics.

Nathan, Noah L. and Melissa Sands, 2023, "Context and Contact: Unifying the Study of Environmental Effects on Politics," Annual Review of Political Science 26(1): 233-252. Publisher's Version.

  • A growing literature explores how local environments, or contexts, affect political behavior, especially by shaping interpersonal contact with social outgroups. While many studies still draw directly on long-standing hypotheses from “contact theory,” this research agenda increasingly focuses on new research questions, beyond the classic social psychology literature, and new empirical cases, including from across the lower- and middle-income world.  We develop a typology of forms of context and contact to aid the aggregation of findings across disparate cases and demonstrate that the mechanisms that may account for the political effects of inter-group context and contact are broader than those typically explored in psychologically-oriented research. We propose future directions for research in this area, including greater focus on the intersection of ethnic and class-based contact, and greater attention to how built or computer-based environments may mediate or mirror the effects of demographic contexts.

Atwell, Paul and Noah L Nathan, 2022, "Channels for Influence or Maps of Behavior? A Field Experiment on Social Networks and Cooperation," American Journal of Political Science 66(3): 696-713. Publisher's Version.

  • Communities in developing countries often must cooperate to self-provide or co-produce local public goods. Many expect that community social networks facilitate this cooperation, but few studies directly observe real-life networks in these settings. We collect detailed social network data in rural Northern Ghana to explore how social positions and proximity to community leaders predict donations to a local public good. We then implement a field experiment manipulating participants’ opportunity to communicate and apply social pressure before donating. We find clear evidence that locations in community social networks predict cooperative behavior, but no evidence that communication improves coordination or cooperation, in contrast to common theoretical expectations and laboratory findings. Our results show that evolved, real-life social networks serve as a mapping of community members’ already-engrained behaviors, not only as an active technology through which social influence propagates to solve collective action problems.

Brierley, Sarah and Noah L Nathan, 2022, "Motivating the Machine: Which Brokers Do Parties Pay?", Journal of Politics 84(3): 1539-1555. Publisher's Version.

  • Parties rely on brokers to win elections in much of the developing world. How do parties use compensation to motivate these grassroots agents? Parties often decentralize broker payment decisions to local party elites. In addition to helping their party win elections, local elites seek personal career advancement. Because local elites typically rely on brokers’ support to advance, they have an incentive to use payments to strengthen their ties to brokers. Using a multi-wave survey, we track the full range of payments to over 1,000 brokers from Ghana’s ruling party – the party most capable of distributing patronage benefits – across an electoral cycle. We show that the party operates a hybrid payment system missed by previous studies. The party rewards the brokers who deliver the most votes immediately after elections. But long after campaigns, when most payments are made, local party elites prioritize payments to brokers with upward connections to elites.

Ichino, Nahomi and Noah L Nathan. 2022. "Democratizing the Party: The Effects of Primary Election Reforms in Ghana." British Journal of Political Science 52(3): 1168-1185. Publisher's Version.

  • A recent expansion of the primary electorate by one of Ghana’s major parties offers a rare opportunity to assess the effects of franchise extensions in contemporary new democracies. Using an original dataset on candidate entry and nominations, we show that expanding the primary electorate opened paths to office for politicians from social groups that were previously excluded, such as women and ethnic groups outside the party’s core national coalition. We propose that democratizing candidate selection has two consequences in patronage-oriented political systems: vote buying will become a less effective strategy and the electorate will become more diverse. These changes, in turn, affect the types of politicians who seek and win legislative nominations. This suggests that a simple shift to who votes in intra-party primaries can be a key institutional mechanism for improving the descriptive representation of underrepresented groups such as women.

Brierley, Sarah and Noah L Nathan. 2021. "The Connections of Party Brokers: Which Brokers Do Parties Select?" Journal of Politics 83(3): 884-901. Publisher's Version.

  • Seminal models of clientelism assert that parties value brokers for their strong downward ties to voters. Despite its dominance, scholars have not empirically scrutinized key assumptions of this theory due to the challenges of measuring brokers’ network connections. We analyze unique data from three sources – Ghana’s voter register, a handmade catalogue of local elites, and a large-scale survey of aspiring party brokers. We show that the observable implications of the standard model do not hold: brokers know surprisingly few voters, brokers with more downward connections are not the most active or effective, and parties do not select the brokers who know the most voters. Instead, brokers with the most upward connections to local elites appear to be the most valuable to parties. We build inductively from these results to develop an alternative theory of brokers, proposing that many parties value “problem solvers” over “monitors.”

Hicken, Allen and Noah L Nathan. 2020. "Clientelism's Red Herrings: Dead Ends and New Directions in the Study of Non-Programmatic Politics." Annual Review of Political Science 23(1):16.1-16.18. Publisher's Version (open access).

  • Research on clientelism often starts from a shared puzzle: How can clientelism be a viable electoral strategy if voters can renege on their commitments to politicians? The standard solution proposed is that politicians resolve this commitment problem with voters through monitoring and enforcement. But there has been startlingly little evidence of individual-level monitoring and enforcement in the recent literature, and many studies now document the use of clientelism even where politicians are aware that the commitment problem remains completely intractable. When read together, recent studies suggest that the focus on resolving the commitment problem is a red herring. Instead, it is increasingly clear that clientelism does not need to be monitored and that the commitment problem does not bind as politicians choose their electoral appeals. New puzzles, motivated by advances in the recent literature, deserve comparatively more attention in future research.

Nathan, Noah L. 2019. "Electoral Consequences of Colonial Invention: Brokers, Chiefs, and Distribution in Northern Ghana." World Politics 71(3): 417-456. Publisher's Version.

  • I study the effects of traditional chiefs – a common type of broker – on voters’ ability to extract state resources from politicians. Using original data from Northern Ghana, I show that chieftaincy positions invented by colonial authorities are especially prone to capture, leaving voters worse off compared both to more accountable chiefs whose authority dates to the pre-colonial period and to voters who lack formal chiefs who can serve as brokers. The latter comparison exploits exogenous assignment of ethnic groups to the colonial invention of chieftaincy in the late-19th century. The findings suggest that whether voters benefit from brokers amidst clientelistic electoral competition depends on the accountability relationship between brokers and their clients.

Nathan, Noah L. 2019. “Does Participation Reinforce Patronage? Policy Preferences, Turnout, and Class in Urban Ghana.” British Journal of Political Science 49(1): 229-255. (Online FirstView: October 2016). Publisher's Version

  • Political competition is expected to become less particularistic as prosperity rises and a middle class emerges. But particularistic linkages persist despite rising wealth in urban Ghana. Politicians are unable to commit to campaign promises with voters who want large-scale public policies, many of whom are in the middle class. This creates incentives to avoid mobilizing many of these voters and to ignore their preferences. As a result, voters who want major public policies rather than patronage differentially refrain from participation, allowing the electorate and party organizations to be dominated by poorer voters. But this may only reinforce politicians' incentives against making policy appeals, stalling emergence of more policy-based electoral competition even as the middle class grows.

Nathan, Noah L. 2016. “Local Ethnic Geography, Expectations of Favoritism, and Voting in Urban Ghana.” Comparative Political Studies 49 (14): 1896-1929. Publisher's Version.

  • African democracies are increasingly urban. While ethnicity is generally correlated with vote choice, recent research suggests there may be less ethnic voting in cities. But I show that voting for ethnically-affiliated parties is as common in some neighborhoods in urban Ghana as in rural areas, while virtually non-existent in other neighborhoods elsewhere within the same city. This intra-urban variation is not explained by differences in the salience of ethnic identities or other individual-level characteristics of voters themselves. Instead, it is influenced by the diversity and wealth of the local neighborhoods in which parties and voters interact. These neighborhood characteristics change otherwise similar voters' expectations of the benefits they will receive from an ethnically-affiliated party when living in different places, producing intra-urban differences in the importance of ethnicity for vote choice.

White, Ariel, Noah L Nathan, and Julie Faller. 2015. “What Do I Need to Vote? Bureaucratic Discretion and Discrimination by Local Election Officials.” American Political Science Review 109 (1): 129-142. Publisher's Version

  • Do street-level bureaucrats discriminate in the services they provide to constituents? We use a field experiment to measure differential information provision about voting by local election administrators in the United States. We contact over 7,000 election officials in 48 states who are responsible for providing information to voters and implementing voter ID laws. We find that officials provide different information to potential voters of different putative ethnicities. Emails sent from Latino aliases are significantly less likely to receive any response from local election officials than non-Latino white aliases and receive responses of lower quality. This raises concerns about the effect of voter ID laws on access to the franchise and about bias in the provision of services by local bureaucrats more generally.
  • Media: Washington Post's Monkey CageNPR's The Takeaway, and The Atlantic's CityLab; also, cited in expert testimony
  • Winner of APSA's 2016 Heinz I. Eulau Award for best paper published in the APSR in 2015. 

Ichino, Nahomi, and Noah L Nathan. 2013. “Crossing the Line: Local Ethnic Geography and Voting in Ghana.” American Political Science Review 107 (2): 344-361. Publisher's Version.

  • Theories of instrumental ethnic voting in new democracies propose that voters support co-ethnic politicians because they expect politicians to favor their co-ethnics once in office. But many goods that politicians deliver to voters are locally non-excludable in rural areas, so the local presence of an ethnic group associated with a politician should affect a rural voter's assessment of how likely she is to benefit from that politician's election. Using geocoded polling station-level election results alongside survey data from Ghana, we show that otherwise similar voters are less likely to vote for the party of their own ethnic group, and more likely to support a party associated with another group, when the local ethnic geography favors the other group. This result helps account for the imperfect correlation between ethnicity and vote choice in African democracies. More generally, this demonstrates how local community and geographic contexts can modify the information conveyed by ethnicity and influence voter behavior.

Ichino, Nahomi, and Noah L Nathan. 2013. “Do Primaries Improve Electoral Performance? Clientelism and Intra-Party Conflict in Ghana.” American Journal of Political Science 57 (3): 428-441. Publisher's Version.

  • We consider the effect of legislative primaries on the electoral performance of political parties in a new democracy. While existing literature suggests that primaries may either hurt a party by selecting extremist candidates or improve performance by selecting high valence candidates or improving a party's image, these mechanisms may not apply where clientelism is prevalent. A theory of primaries built on a logic of clientelism with intra-party conflict instead suggests different effects of legislative primaries for ruling and opposition parties, as well as spillover effects for presidential elections. Using matching with an original dataset on Ghana, we find evidence of a primary bonus for the opposition party and a primary penalty for the ruling party in the legislative election, while legislative primaries improve performance in the presidential election in some constituencies for both parties.

Ichino, Nahomi, and Noah L Nathan. 2012. “Primaries on Demand? Intra-Party Politics and Nominations in Ghana.” British Journal of Political Science 42 (2): 769-791. Publisher's Version.

  • In new democracies, why do political party leaders relinquish power over nominations and allow legislative candidates to be selected by primary elections? Where the legislature is weak and politics is clientelistic, democratization of candidate selection is driven by local party members seeking benefits from primary contestants. Analysis of an original dataset on legislative nominations and political interference by party leaders for the 2004 and 2008 elections in Ghana shows that primaries are more common where nominations attract more aspirants and where the party is more likely to win, counter to predictions in existing literature. Moreover, the analysis shows that party leaders interfere in primaries in a pattern consistent with anticipation of party members' reactions.

Chapters in Edited Volumes

Nathan, Noah L and Ariel White. 2021. "Experiments on and with Street-Level Bureaucrats," in Advances in Experimental Political Science, ed. James Druckman and Donald Green (Cambridge University Press). Publisher's Version

  • We review recent experimental research on the behavior of street-level bureaucrats. These front-line government workers are tasked with implementing most government policy in both advanced democracies and developing countries, but their behavior is often difficult to observe. We highlight how field experimental approaches have helped to address classic questions about street-level bureaucratic behavior, and then consider design challenges that arise in running experiments in this context. Finally, we raise several ethical concerns about experimentation on street-level bureaucrats, and propose strategies to minimize the social costs, and maximize the social benefits, of such research.

Ichino, Nahomi, and Noah L Nathan. 2018. "Primary Elections in New Democracies" in the Routledge Handbook of Primary Elections, ed. Robert G. Boatright (Routledge Press). PDF (submitted version)

  • Primary elections in advanced democracies are usually conceptualized as institutions that generate nominees that have higher valence – better campaigning skills and popularity within the party – at the potential cost of being more ideologically extreme. But spatial models of primary elections are inappropriate for new democracies, where there is often little ideological competition in elections. We identify key imperatives that shape the decisions of party leaders in new democracies when choosing among different candidate selection mechanisms: the need to prevent elite defections and to motivate grassroots activists. We explore this argument in Ghana, a new democracy in which both major parties have gradually adopted and adapted primaries to select legislative candidates. Ghana’s experience with primaries highlights the central role that candidate selection institutions play in the development of political parties in new democracies.

Work in Progress

"Explaining Urban Order: The Autocratic Origins of Africa’s City Street Networks." PDF. Revise and resubmit, World Politics.

  • I connect the political incentives of state leaders to the physical geometry of urban built environments. Drawing on a novel combination of street network data, archival maps, and satellite imagery, I test and refine classic claims that autocratic regimes seek to order urban space, rendering society more legible through the production of gridded streets. Backdating the construction of 1.5 million streets across a random sample of African cities, I show that more ordered, gridded urban neighborhoods emerge under more autocratic post-colonial regimes. But rather than a conscious effort to increase society's legibility through design, evidence on mechanisms is more consistent with urban order emerging as a side-effect of the more general patronage strategies autocrats often use to placate critical subsets of the urban population. The paper demonstrates that efforts to intervene on the built environment represent an underexplored element of both autocratic and urban politics in the developing world.

"Architecture, Networks, and Collective Action in Urban Ghana's Compound Houses," with Paige Bollen.

"The Footprints of Urban Inequality in Africa: Using the Built Environment to Measure Wealth," with Shuning Ge.