Dr. Erin Tolley, an assistant professor in the political science department at UTM, recently received the 2018 Annual Research Prize in Social Science at the University of Toronto. The award, created by the Office of the Vice-Principal, Research and UTM’s Research Council, recognizes the outstanding contributions of an early career researcher in each division: Humanities, Sciences, and Social Sciences. When The Medium asked Tolley about how it felt winning the Annual Research Prize in social science, the political science professor remarks that “It’s always an honour anytime you’re recognized by your institution and by your peers.”
Tolley began her academic journey at the University of Saskatchewan where she majored in Political Studies and attained a Bachelor of Arts degree with high honours in 1999. During her undergraduate career, she took one course in political science because it was a requirement to study journalism, her first love. Tolley stated that, “I didn’t come to university interested in politics. I didn’t think politics was interesting at all.” After taking the course, she realized that political science interested her and she chose to continue studying the discipline.
At this point, Tolley remembers that she had “no plans to become a professor.” Instead, she worked in the Federal Civil Service after completing her Bachelor degree. In 2001, Tolley was awarded a Masters of Arts in Political Science from the University of Western Ontario. “Eventually I went back and got my Ph.D.,” she mused. Tolley was later awarded her Doctorate of Philosophy in Political Studies from Queens University in 2013. That same year, she also joined the University of Toronto faculty in the Department of Political Science as an assistant professor.
Tolley stated that she is most known for her research on the “sociodemographic diversity in Canadian politics,” specifically how factors such as, “race and gender affect people’s political behaviour”. Branching out from this research area, Tolley is also interested in “gender and [the] condition of women in politics”.
Tolley’s most well-known study focused on “how the media in Canada report on political candidates, and how that coverage differs for radicalized candidates when you compare it to the coverage of White candidates.” Her research finds that racialized candidates had been negatively portrayed in the media, where the media was “less focused on electoral issues” in the campaigns of these candidates. According to Tolley, this “positions radicalized candidates in a political way [and citizens to see them as] less politically viable. [It] affects how candidates will interact with the media and the electoral outcomes.”
Tolley reflects on the current state of diversity in politics stating that, “In federal politics, the proportion of Members of Parliament who are racialized is on par with Canadians of racialized backgrounds.”
Despite this, Tolley asserts that diversity is still an issue as “we need to think about diversity in more ways than who is in office. There are people from particular communities who are underrepresented in federal politics. [There are not] very many Black politicians, Indigenous people, [and there is a] whole other raft of identities that we see missing.”
This issue becomes problematic because the consequences of underrepresentation or misrepresentation can be vast. “When elective bodies don’t reflect the populations that they represent, the decisions might not reflect the decision of Canadians,” says Tolley. This causes an issue with the “effectiveness in legitimacy of the decisions that are taken”.
Tolley goes on to speak of the consequences of these issues in Canadian politics on a broader scale. “Canada’s multicultural character [causes citizens to be] less under the impression that race affects political outcomes in Canada.” She reinforces that “the expression of racism or prejudice is very subtle [but] it’s there and we need to pay attention to it.”
When asked what advice she would give to students who find politics intimidating but desire to be informed citizens, Tolley says that they should “take a broader view on what they think politics is about. There’s nothing really intimidating about politics. Political conversations are happening in every aspect of our life. People are living politics every day. We’re making political choices when we decide to spend money at one place or another.” Tolley recommends that students “think of it as power in everyday acts.”