community organizing, community-engaged research, and the problem of scale

“I have yet to see something big that’s good.” So said a friend and esteemed colleague  at a conference that I have been attending for the past two days. The conference is on “Collaboration Research for Action and Equity in Education,” and most of the participants practice either community-engaged research or community organizing. They build or participate in rather small, participatory projects, but they also care about large forces and structures. So the problem that my friend posed is a fundamental one for them.

I actually don’t believe that the precise issue that matters is scale. In the 21st century, things that used to be limited to small scales (such as friendship networks and discussions) can now be very big. The difference that interests me is between relational politics and impersonal politics.

In relational politics, you know the other people you are affecting directly. You know their names and locations and something about what they want. There is at least a possibility that you can work together. In impersonal politics, you affect people you have never heard of or met. Impersonal politics includes such structures as votes, laws, rights, policies, large firms, and markets.

The two categories certainly come together. In fact, the street-level impact of impersonal politics is almost always relational. For instance, the edge of the policies that produce mass incarceration in the United States is the back of a police van in Baltimore. The police officers there knew Freddie Gray.

That example reminds us that relational politics isn’t preferable to impersonal politics. You can’t be truly cruel without being in a relationship with the victim. From office politics–or the activities of “street-level bureaucrats” (like police officers)–to torture, some of the most problematic human interactions are relational. And impersonal structures include such excellent creations as legal rights.

But we do need relational politics, because only in relationships can we learn from other people, build networks that are sources of power and capacity, and act with agency. It is only in relational politics that we can seriously ask the question “What should we do?” A difference between the conference I am attending and a more standard conference on urban America is not that this one has been more critical. There is a vast scholarly literature that documents and analyzes inequality and oppression. You can walk up and down the halls of a hotel during a sociology, public health, or education conference, and in every room they will be talking about oppression. But they are addressing the question “What should be done?”, not “What should we do?” Agency is lost when politics and research are impersonal rather than relational.

And yet practitioners of community-engaged research and community organizing are also deeply concerned about impersonal politics. One of the most frequently-used words at this conference was “neoliberalism,” understand as some kind of mass-scale and impersonal system. (But note that a social democracy would also be highly impersonal.)

So how can we make the relational improve the impersonal? I think the most common strategy is to create or support relational projects, connect them together in networks, recruit others to join the networks, and advocate for policies in institutions like universities that will directly support these projects. (For instance, we might advocate changes in the kinds of research that help scholars win tenure.) This strategy has been implicit in a lot of my own work. But I must admit that I don’t really believe in it, because I don’t believe that networks of relational projects will seriously trouble existing impersonal systems. Finding a better connection between the relational and the impersonal seems to me the most pressing issue of our time.

See also beyond small is beautiful; leverage as a moral issue; and civic relationships (what they are and why they matter).

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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.