Elizabeth Sheridan Sperber

Assistant Professor

What I do

Professor Sperber specializes in comparative and international politics, with regional expertise in sub-Saharan Africa. At DU, she teaches classes on African politics, religion and politics, democratic erosion, identity and politics in a comparative perspective, and politicized ethnicity.

Professional Biography

Dr. Sperber's work has received awards at both Columbia University and Brown University and has received significant grant support. At Columbia, Sperber was also awarded a Mellon Interdisciplinary Graduate Research Fellowship through the Interdisciplinary Center for Innovative Theory and Empirics. She has published in journals such as Political Behavior, Politics and Religion, Perspectives on Politics, the International Journal of Social Policy, the American Journal of Public Health, and the Journal of International Affairs, among others.

Dr. Sperber is the recipient, with Erin Acampo Hern, of the 2018 Ted Jelen Award for the best paper published in Politics and Religion. In 2019-20 she was awarded a Kellogg Institute Research Fellowship at the University of Notre Dame. In 2021, she was invited to serve as the Chair of the Politics and Religion Section for the Midwest Political Science Association.

Degree(s)

  • Ph.D., Political Science, Columbia University, 2016
  • M.Phil., Political Science, Columbia University, 2011
  • BA, History; Africana Studies; Literatures & Cultures in English, Brown University, 2006

Research

Book manuscript

Professor Sperber's first book manuscript (in preparation) offers a new theory to explain why Pentecostal Christian movements have emerged as politically salient identities in some---but not all---sub-Saharan African states. The book relies on a mix of original cross-country and sub-national data from the case of Zambia to evaluate the theory's observable implications.

Other recent work:

In addition to her book manuscript and a comparative study of Renewalist (born again) Christianity in African and Latin American politics (under review), Professor Sperber also recently completed three papers that report results from two different community-engaged experimental research studies in Zambia---an overwhelmingly Christian country just south of the Democratic Republic of Congo. She is also leading a community-engaged archive building project that spans more than thirty African states and will provide new, public-access data to advance the study of religion and politics in sub-Saharan Africa. Details about these projects are below.

Community-Engaged Research in Sub-Saharan Africa

Between 2017-2019, Sperber laid the foundation for two community-collaborative studies that focus --- for the first time --- on common but understudied approaches to civic education and youth mobilization in politics in sub-Saharan Africa. Borrowing from community-engaged research models that are common in public health but rare in political science, Sperber built on her close partnerships with major civic organizations in Zambia, which were also eager to evaluate prominent local approaches within youth-focused civic education. Then, in partnership with Professors Gwyneth McClendon (NYU) and O'Brien Kaaba (University of Zambia), Sperber's international coauthor team and local civil society partners subsequently co-designed, collaboratively implemented, and have evaluated two different experimental (applied intervention) studies between 2019-2021 -- redesigning their second study to use only COVID-safe modalities. To the best of their knowledge, the resulting research offers the first rigorous exploration of how religious and non-religious civic education programs impact African youth political participation. The implications of these studies are significant, given the: (a) millions of dollars invested in civic education around the world; (b) the enduring prevalence of religious---and especially church-run---civic education and youth mobilization efforts; and (c) the fact that, in sub-Saharan Africa and throughout much of the developing world, relatively young cohorts both vastly outnumber the relatively old and engage in democratic politics at significantly lower rates.

Related papers and presentations:

Sperber, E., G. McClendon, and O. Kaaba. (Forthcoming, 2022) “The Power of Faith in Youth Political Participation: An Experimental Study of Religious Civics Education in Zambia.” Political Behavior.

Sperber, E., G.H. McClendon, and O’Brien Kaaba. (2021) “Estimating the Effect of Christian Messages on Civic Engagement: Preliminary findings from a community-collaborative study in Zambia” Kellogg Institute for International Studies, Working Paper #442. (This series is peer reviewed and open access.)

Sperber, E., G. McClendon, and O. Kaaba. “Consequences of Secular and Religious Civic Education Among Youth: Evidence from the Lead-Up to General Elections in Zambia.” Anticipated submission in April, 2022. Presented at UC Berkeley, University of Michigan, University College London, WZB Berlin Social Science Center, and MIT between Nov. 2021 and March 2022.


The Pastoral Letters Project: Building a Cross-Country Digital Archive

Details on this multi-year archive building effort are coming soon.