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McMaster University University Scholar, Dr. Netina Tan

A Conversation with University Scholar, Dr. Netina Tan

Dr. Tan describes her research and plans for the future after being named University Scholar.

Jun 25, 2021


How did it feel when you found out you were named University Scholar?

I didn’t quite believe it when I first heard it via email through a colleague, but I was excited when I received the letter from the Provost’s office. I’m very humbled and grateful to my colleagues who nominated and supported me.

Your research focuses on a variety of political science issues. Is there anything that you’re working on right now?

 As a political comparativist, I am interested in the sources of authoritarian resilience and patterns of political representation for women and ethnic minorities in Asia and around the world. My research interests have led to publications on the varied forms of electoral fraud, and the promises and problems of symbolic representation of women and ethnic minorities in democracies and authoritarian regimes. Some of my forthcoming work on these themes include a SSHRC funded co-edited book on “Electoral Malpractice in Asia: Bending the Rules” and my editing of a special issue of ten articles on “Quotas, Parties and Electoral Design: Ethnic Representation in Diverse Societies” in the journal of Representation.

As digital communications technology becomes more popular, I’ve become more concerned with the opportunities and threats that digitization poses to democratic institutions and processes. This interest has inspired Dr. Tony Porter (Political Science), Dr. Sara Bannerman (Communications Studies and Multimedia) and I to set up a Digital Democracy Research Hub (DDRH) to study issues such as cybersecurity, disinformation, hate speech, and surveillance in the public and private spheres. Aside from organizing interdisciplinary conferences on these themes, Dr. Porter and I have also co-taught graduate seminars on “Digital Threats to Democracy” to help students think and develop timely public policy responses towards global issues such as governance of fake news, foreign interferences, COVID-19 and digital authoritarianism.

As recipients of the 2020 McMaster COVID-19 Research Fund, Drs. Porter, Bannerman and I have hired graduate and undergraduate research assistants to collect cross-country data on the uses and impact of surveillance technology such as contact-tracing apps during Covid-19 in seven countries, including Canada in the last year. Personally, I am interested in how governments use personal data via digital technology and temporarily limit personal freedoms through emergency powers, or restrict civil rights and information in the name of public safety. I am concerned if the pandemic surveillance technology and practices of data sharing without consent/oversight become normalized post-crisis.


What are your plans for the next four years?

IDRC recently awarded me a publications grant to turn the fieldwork findings on attitudes towards gender equality in Myanmar into a book. This will be one of my immediate projects as we need to get the findings out quickly. I’d led an international team of scholars to work with an NGO, Enlightened Myanmar Research Foundation (EMReF) to conduct elite interviews, conduct focus groups and surveys to gather attitudes towards women’s political participation in Myanmar, in another project that was also funded by IDRC, both at the party and local level in the last three years. I hope our book will interest academics and policymakers, as it will incorporate views from international academics and local practitioners, and highlight the less understood ways in which political parties select candidates for elections in Myanmar. Given the recent military coup and intermittent internet access, we will need to collaborate with our Burmese contributors and get our book out as quickly as possible.

My other projects include revising my book project on “Hegemonic Party Resilience” and collecting more data on the varied types and effects of ethnic quotas around the world and co-editing a special issue on “Patterns of Democratic Backsliding in Asia”. This special issue on democratic backsliding will be unique as it will feature an all-female local and international political scientists to compare trends in seven countries in Asia.