Introducing the Prosecution Project 2017-2020: Its aims and means

This post begins our series sharing pre-publication versions of chapter introductions in our upcoming book titled “Prosecuting Political Violence: Collaborative Research and Method”

Chapter 1

Introducing the Prosecution Project 2017-2020: Its aims and means
by Michael Loadenthal

What is tPP and what is in this book?

The Prosecution Project (tPP) is a long-term research platform tracking and analyzing how the United States prosecutes political violence. tPP utilizes an Open-Source Intelligence (OSINT) approach, and since its origin in Spring 2017 has sought to identify and catalog every incident where an individual was charged with a felony, motivated by a socio-political agenda (i.e., terrorism, extremism, hate/bias- motivated crime), since 1990.

The volume you are presently holding represents a few of the many possibilities for how to utilize tPP as a research platform, not simply a dataset. This project aims not only to help study political violence and the US legal system by providing a data resource, but to develop, advance, and experiment with new methods of decentralized research, horizontal team management, and data analysis. The chapters that follow exhibit efforts by undergraduate students working with tPP to make sense of crime data—to apply a variety of quantitative and qualitative means to a shared data source. Following the Preface and Acknowledgments, this book begins here, with the Introduction, to help answer key questions about the project’s aims, approaches, and methods. The chapters that follow (Chapters 2–8) are authored entirely by undergraduate students (some of whom have since become graduates) and represent the types of data-driven analysis that tPP can help produce. Each chapter was written as part of a tPP-themed university course I taught, and revised later by the author of this book.

The students were encouraged to experiment with research methodologies they were unfamiliar with, and the studies contained in this collection utilize a variety of qualitative and quantitative approaches, all examining the same dataset. Included within this book are studies utilizing qualitative comparative analysis, grounded theory, discourse and textual analysis, comparative case study, typology analyses, statistical hypotheses testing, frequency analysis, cross-tabulations, and other multivariate statistical measures and various formulations of correlation and regression analyses. While there is a seemingly natural inclination to analyze quantitative data of this nature through purely statistical measures, these studies and their designs exhibit a number of approaches for how a dataset can be used qualitatively, and through cleverly mixed methodological combinations. These seven studies contained in this book showcase a broad approach to the data, and future approaches are nearly innumerable.

Not only do the chapters exhibit the results of our data gathering, but also the researchers’ methodological insights, and the possibilities these present for future hypothesis testing and replication. Student authors were asked to help provide instruction to future researchers so that they can learn from the novel designs and implementations of classic research methods adapted for tPP. We wrote this book to inspire others to continue working with this data and to see what it can unlock through the use of other tools, from content analysis to text mining, and from social network analysis to what is possible through machine learning, neural networks, and other forms of artificial intelligence. How can a dataset’s coding values be used to generate carefully curated, stratified samples to be studied qualitatively, through analyses of discourse, media framing, defendant psychology, or a variety of sociological and demographic characteristics; from prior criminal activity, to age, ethnicity, religion, or nationality? This volume is meant to open some of these methodological doors and to facilitate future work toward research designs which are inventive, daring, and highly rigorous.

Following the seven analytical chapters is the book’s conclusion (Chapter 9), co-authored by nine students, which reflects on the project, its challenges and achievements, and the struggles for young and emerging scholarly voices. This chapter was the result of a series of conversations held over video chat during the COVID-19 shelter-in-place, and the closure of the university as a meeting site. The purpose of this chapter is to further offer the book as a resource to those considering, design- ing, and actively managing undergraduate-led research projects. This unique discussion allows those of us typically on the outside—professors and other academic laborers—to “listen in” on how students experience the craft of research, as well as their experiences navigating ownership, control, and empowerment when dealing with faculty. The students also adeptly discuss the role mental health and trauma plays in investigating political violence; a conversation only recently mainstreamed in the field. Finally, the last chapter (Chapter 10) is a brief afterword reflecting on the political basis for developing tPP and the need for empirically driven projects to inform policy and transform conflict.

The present chapter will serve to orient the reader to tPP and to provide the detailed background necessary for understanding the student-authored studies. The chapter begins by outlining the project’s goals, before clarifying its conceptual frames, scope, and methods.

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