Ekaterina Zhuravskaya was in high school when she began trying to find a field where she could combine her love of math and history, two seemingly unrelated fields. She found that economics would allow her to do to both, while also drawing new conclusions. But around that same time, Zhuravskaya, who was born and raised in the Soviet Union, was watching everything collapse around her. It became clear to her that political institutions were at the core of the economic failure of the country, or as she calls it “economically devastating, completely man-made disasters.” “It vividly illustrated that political institutions are a crucial determinant of the economic performance and development,” she says.
At a glance
Title: Professor of Economics at the Paris School of Economics and EHESS
Nationality: French and Russian
Field: Political economics
Mountains or beach: Mountains
There’s no place like home: She has lived in multiple countries, but it is France where she feels at home
Stay tuned: Her latest paper will focus on the link between the expansion of 3G internet and trust in governments
The costs of ethnic violence
The fall of the iron curtain allowed Zhuravskaya to pursue studies abroad getting her masters at the London School of Economics and then her PhD at Harvard before returning to Russia and ultimately moving to Paris. Fast forward nearly 30 years later, today she has one of the most varied lists of research topics one could think of for an economist.
“Our research shows the interrelationship between political and economic factors,” she says. “The tensions between ethnic groups do become more severe in times of political uncertainty and that could have long term consequences for development. We show that this culture persisted to this day.”
She focuses on economic, political and social determinants of attitudes and beliefs. She also looks at how and why these subsequently lead to ethnic conflicts or wars. Much of her work studies factors that make ethnic diversity important for economic development. Understanding ethnic division and its policy implications is also a key piece of her work. In one such paper, she explores anti-Jewish violence after economic shocks and the relationship between the two in the Russian Empire in the 19th and 20th centuries. During this time, Jews occupied what political scientists describe as “middlemen minorities.” The middlemen minorities in this case were predominately in financing and providing credit to the majority.
“Political scientists tell us that many of these minorities are subject to persecution because they're middlemen minorities, because they specialize in particular occupations,” says Zhuravskaya. “At the same time, economists have been pointing out that economic competition often leads to conflict. That creates a puzzle.”
Zhuravskaya and her co-authors wrote a paper to reconcile these two literatures and found that economic shocks, only when combined with political turmoil, led to the anti-Jewish pogroms. They worked alongside historians to investigate the mechanisms of this violence and found a direct link to providing insurance to the larger majority.
The tensions between ethnic groups become more severe in times of political uncertainty and that could have long term consequences for development.
When emotions conquer facts
Another area that Zhuravskaya has extensive research on is the economics of media. In fact, she has taken on one of the most complex and politically charged topics of the day: fake news, which she likens to modern-day propaganda. In an ongoing project, she and her co-authors are analyzing both how voters react to falsehoods and whether this shifts their views, and also why politicians aren’t seemingly deterred by fact checking efforts.
“Political economics has never been more timely than now,” she says. “The political landscape in many democracies is changing very quickly and we need to understand why.”
It was an observation that politicians did not stop spreading “alternative facts” even once they had been fact checked that was the motivation behind this project. Zhuravskaya examined the impacts of an alternative fact versus its fact checked counterpart. The use of alt facts is often associated with populist politicians, but liberal and pro-establishment politicians also use inaccurate statements to further their political agendas.
“We find first that, unfortunately, alternative facts in political communication is highly persuasive,” she says. “Fact checking actually raises salience of a very sensitive issue in the minds of voters. Any type of communication which relates to a very sensitive political subject may turn people to vote for more extreme candidates. When people are scared, when they are uncomfortable, they tend to reject something new, tend to try to build walls rather than bridges.”
This research project is important according to Zhuravskaya because it provides insights and lessons into how to better deal with the dissemination of these falsehoods and how to present facts from official sources to the public in a way that will resonate with them. Understanding the drivers of manipulation, including of political beliefs, is a necessary step in resisting political manipulation and ultimately avoiding conflicts.
Timing is everything
Another branch of the economics of the media that Zhuravskaya has tackled is the media’s role in times of conflict specifically. In a study that examined the Israeli-Palestine conflict, she set out to assess the impact that international media has on military operation. The paper found the Israeli Defense Forces time their attacks strategically based on the U.S. media cycle. In other words, when the U.S. is preoccupied with other events, be it political or even sports related, they use this opportunity to minimize coverage and keep public perception positive.
While the motives behind this strategy could be easily linked to nothing more than managing bad PR, Zhuravskaya sees the results as something much bigger and much more important.
“The first order effect is that they care, which means that they may not engage in some of the operations which otherwise they would have,” she says. “The results of our study actually strongly suggest that the presence of media in ongoing conflicts helps avoid at least unnecessary human suffering.”
The presence of media in ongoing conflicts helps avoid unnecessary human suffering.
An important part of Zhuravskaya’s work as a political economist is to try to understand how and why governments fail to serve their people, how autocrats keep power, and why voters get persuaded by lies. “I hope that one day the results of my research will be useful in defending democracies from manipulation,” she says.
Leading the path to a better way
When asked about what inspires her as an economist, Zhuravskaya has a few different answers. First, it’s purely academic, she’s trying to solve some of the puzzles that she sees within the political economy. The second comes from the policy failures she sees in democracies, autocratic states and dictatorships and getting to the roots of these. And the third is bringing up a new generation of scholars and economists, watching her students grow and transition in bright young academics.
“The economist of the future will need to learn how to talk to representatives of other social sciences a lot more than it has been the case in the past or today,” she says. “I think economics is becoming a lot more integrated with other social sciences, with political science, with psychology, with sociology, with history, with anthropology. And there are many questions which we can only answer if we work together.”
Zhuravskaya knows how important encouragement in the early stages of a career is which is why she’s always pushing her students to pursue their goals, to pursue their dreams, to help them become the best economists they can be.
“As I grow older, bringing up the new generation of scholars is something which I find really gratifying,” she says. “I meet motivated, interesting, bright students and before you know it, they grow into brilliant young academics. This transition is really quite amazing.”
“I try to lead by example,” she continues. “Part of the overall mission of being educators is to do work that other people afterwards can stand on your shoulders and continue.”