Before joining MIT, Nicole Wilson worked as a research assistant for two graduate students studying informal trade in Lagos, Nigeria. She was quickly captivated by the country’s vibrant commercial hub, with its population of nearly 22 million.
“I had never spent more than a week or two abroad, but I convinced myself and the people who hired me that I was adaptable enough to make it work,” says Wilson, a doctoral student in sixth year in political science. “My initial commitment was for three months, but I ended up loving the experience and extended it for about a year.”
During this period, Wilson learned of an event that shaped his academic future.
“There was the demolition of a large informal settlement, where people were violently evicted from their homes,” she recalls. Private landowners, with the support of Lagos State security forces, were clearing the land to build a luxury residential complex. “I wanted to understand what conditions made these demolitions possible, how the land system worked in Nigeria and Lagos in particular, and what kinds of downstream impacts replacing informal settlements with gated communities might have,” says Wilson.
Today, this last question constitutes the heart of Wilson’s thesis project. His research examines the political behavior of an emerging middle class in Nigeria as it increasingly moves into private enclaves. Wilson’s seven years of field trips to Lagos, during which he interviewed government officials, property managers, and residents from different neighborhoods, produced a wealth of information with widely varying implications.
“The changes taking place in Lagos are similar to those in many other contexts of rapid urbanization in Asia and Africa,” says Wilson. Her research, she hopes, will shed light on the “political role of the middle class in the democracies of the South.”
Pay for the service
Wilson’s work is part of an ongoing debate among social scientists. Some argue that the growing middle class “plays an important role in democratization and the formation of a strong social contract between government and citizens,” she says. Other researchers question this notion, pointing to evidence of middle-class disengagement. Wilson has a personal interest in the migration of the middle class to gated estates which provide a sense of isolation from surrounding society and offer services such as electricity, water and security which would normally be provided by the State.
“Given these changes in where and how the middle class lives, I wonder what the implications are for their engagement with the state, with an emphasis on tax compliance and political participation,” Wilson explains.
People’s willingness to pay taxes depends at least to some extent on their satisfaction with government services. People Wilson interviewed in Lagos told her they were “dissatisfied with the government’s performance and its ability to provide reliable services, including security,” she says. Given these attitudes, she initially expected tax compliance among these residents to be low.
However, after surveying property managers, Wilson’s prediction changed. “I learned that wealth managers, rather than acting as a substitute for the state, sometimes act as intermediaries, communicating taxpayer information to the government and encouraging and facilitating payments,” she says.
Wilson found that administrative data is consistent with this story. “The data I collected shows that people who live in estates are actually more likely to pay their property taxes, which is surprising if you follow the logic that paying taxes is largely based on reciprocity,” she said. “If we find otherwise, we must ask ourselves: ‘Why is this?’ »
In addition to the presence of property managers who could incentivize compliance, these neighborhoods are much more legible to the state: Residents of gated communities have mailing addresses and can be easily located, she notes. Wilson also believes that “social norms can play a role if these neighborhoods are close-knit.” She is currently conducting a survey of property managers to understand why we are seeing these trends.
Wilson is also investigating the other side of his thesis question, involving political participation. With recent election data and targeted surveys, it aims to estimate gated community residents’ participation rates and engagement in political protests and public meetings.
Although residents of private communities benefit from greater tax compliance and continued political participation, Wilson is hesitant to argue that the shift to privacy has little impact on democratic engagement. “Moving into these enclaves could change residents’ relationship with the broader political community, in terms of their connections with other Lagos citizens. » Furthermore, if middle-class residents do not withdraw their taxes when they opt for private service delivery, pressure on the state to improve public service delivery could be reduced.
As a sociology and criminal justice major at the University of Georgia, Wilson explored a range of professional interests. She interned at a child advocacy center but left front-line work to focus on better understanding the institutions that shape people’s lives. After graduating, she moved to Washington, where she worked in various jobs, including for a human rights organization. A year-long stay in an intentional community gave him time to think strategically about the next steps in his career.
At American University, she found what she was looking for: a master’s program in justice, law and society. There, she says, “I met political scientists.” While assisting a professor in the Peace and Violence Research Lab, Wilson learned skills in data collection and statistical analysis. She felt drawn to the field of international development, but felt she needed field research experience to decide whether to pursue a doctorate. She landed in Lagos, where her work on a survey project resolved the question. MIT’s political science doctoral program came next.
“I was attracted to the MIT Governance Lab, which emphasizes working with practitioners,” she says. GOV/LAB, as it is called, partners with civil society organizations and governments to test theories of political behavior and ways to make governments more accountable. Professor Lily L. Tsai, founder and director of the laboratory, serves as co-chair of Wilson’s dissertation committee, alongside Associate Professor Noah Nathan.
Although her focus has been on Lagos, Wilson says: “I’m also interested in other cities, particularly in the United States, and I like to think of myself more as an urban policy specialist rather than a of African politics. »
Reflecting on his college experience, Wilson also cites the enrichment his teaching opportunities have brought him. In addition to assisting with quantitative methodology courses, she has served as a teaching instructor for an experiential ethics course offered to undergraduate students and as the department’s instructional development officer through the Teaching Lab and of learning from MIT. “I learned that I really love teaching,” she says.
After earning her doctorate, Wilson hopes to “end up in a job at a teaching-focused institution that will allow me to continue doing research,” she says. “I want to make an impact with my work, and the influence I can have through teaching often feels much more direct and tangible.”