what qualifies a theorist to be part of civic studies?

We are almost halfway through the 2014 Summer Institute of Civic Studies at Tufts University. A group of 24 professors, graduate students, and civic leaders from many countries (only half are from the US) are deep into discussing several thousand pages of theoretical readings. We present the readings as an emerging–and disputable–canon for a field we call “civic studies.”

What qualifies an author to be included?

I have argued here that the only serious question for human beings as members of communities is: “What should we do?” Importantly, the question is not “What should be done?” which is much more commonly addressed in modern scholarship. Thus we must reform scholarship to make it address the citizen’s essential question.

A contributor to the nascent discipline of civic studies helps us to decide what we should do. A theorist of civic studies is someone who doesn’t just address that question in a particular context (e.g., “What should we parents of X school do to improve it?”). Instead, she or he offers guidance about broad categories of situations–perhaps about all situations that confront human beings. That is the screen through which I put potential contributors to the canon of civic studies.

So far this week, we have considered Jurgen Habermas, Elinor Ostrom, Robert Putnam, Harry Boyte, Albert Dzur, and Bent Flyvbjerg. Roberto Mangabeira Unger is up next.

As an example, Habermas addresses the question, “What should we do?” roughly as follows. It is a moral question, about what is right or just to do. It is not the question: “What do we want?” nor “What does our perspective, bias, or interest cause us to want?” We may have to choose against our desires or interests. The claim that something is right is like the claim that something is true. In both cases, we put the proposition before other human beings and seek their free agreement. If, for example, I assert that it would be right or just for me to pay lower taxes, then–if the conversation is free and public–I will have to give reasons persuasive to my fellow citizens. It won’t matter what my motives are. My arguments will have to be valid from others’ perspectives.

(By the way, if I make a claim about my motives–e.g., “I really only want to pay lower taxes because I want to help others,” that is a separate proposition that can also be tested by other human beings. They can look for consistency and other evidence of sincerity. Claims of justice, truth, beauty, and sincerity require different justifications but are alike in that they are all requests for free assent and they all promote reasonable inquiry.)

Thus what we should do is (a) whatever we decide to do in a very good conversation. But that implies (b) that we must participate in such conversations. And since they do not occur automatically, we must (c) work to make them happen, which is not just a matter of organizing and facilitating discussions but also of changing the incentives and rules that apply in public life so that democratic discussions flourish more. Finally, discussion by itself is insufficient to accomplish justice, so we must (d) press the economic and political systems to respond to reasonable public opinion.

This leaves much to be worked out–and is not ultimately satisfactory to me–but it qualifies Habermas as a civic theorist.

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University’s Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.

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  • Tom Flanagan

    Deliberation, as a participative practice, differs from communication, as a broadcast mechanism, of course. One is comparatively difficult while the other is comparatively easy. Only through participation in deliberation can one genuinely “feel” — as in a sense of being a part of — the emerging coherence from within a group. Sustainable collective action thrives on the feelings that are linked to a fully theorized understanding of a possible course of action. And, in situations of dire circumstance, can (do) implies ought (to do) through an inversion of the ethical axiom of the responsibilities of the privileged credited to Immanuel Kant: “Ought implies can.”

    Hassan Ozbekhan, the ethicist and planning guru from the Wharton School popularized this inversion of thought in several presentations and ultimately in an essay that was published in June of 1966 under the title “The Triumph Of Technology: ‘Can Implies Ought’.” The point is that without agreement over what can reasonably be done in a collective fashion, the political will for collective action will not emerge. Where collective action is essential and where a fully theorized understandings of our situations and our options for action is lacking, we can sit and watch each other boil, only to individually scramble for imagined safety,

    A comparable contemporary restatement is seen in inversion of “where the is a will there is a way” to “where there is a way there is a will.”

    Ozbekhan, too, would seem to qualify as a civic theorist.

  • Andrea Morisette Grazzini

    Yes. What should WE do.

  • What I have found, reading broadly across the literature of deliberative practices, is that many practitioners-as-authors have come around to invoking theorists, most especially Habermas. However, they seem to do it as means of legitimating their practice by citing ideal principles. But, most of them never actually evaluate how well their practices achieve those principles. Further, many of the authors that do this are working with deliberative processes which were not designed on the basis of the principles they come around to invoke. For example, many group processes came out of group psychology work – which was oriented to problem solving and did not have any political science principles as a foundation for design of those processes. Decades later, practitioners of those methods come to invoke Habermas and other deliberative theorists as explanations for why their practice works well. But a large swath of publishing by practitioners seems to be a lot more about using theorists as a means of advocacy than as an evaluative standard with which to form an evidence-base for their practices.

    • PeterLevine

      Kevin, I agree that we have a lot more work to do to understand whether practical deliberative democracy promotes Habermasian values. One question is whether the forums themselves produce “ideal speech situations,” or something close to that standard. Some research has been done on that topic (e.g., by John Gastil, Archon Fung, Tina Nabatchi, Jim Fishkin). Of course, the deliberations are not “ideal,” but I think they are promising. The bigger question, in my opinion, is whether organizing good small-scale deliberations can promote the formation of a true public sphere at the level of the nation-state. That is unknown.