outline of a session on civic agency

This morning, I enjoyed working with an impressive group of Rwandan professionals (academics, clinicians and others). The outline of the session could work for other groups and is “open source”–available for anyone to borrow.

I open with my formula that a good citizen is someone who seriously asks “What should we do?” I have probably overdone this refrain–it’s in video form here and here–but I see value in it. Imposing the discipline of this question blocks the cheap path of discussing what should be done (by someone else). It forces us to notice which groups we belong to and how they work. And it emphasizes the value dimension (“should”), which is often evaded in a culture dominated by science and technical expertise.

So I ask people to talk about a range of issues that matter to them and try to impose the discipline of discussing only what we should do about each one.

I then argue that in order to ask, “What should we do?” we must belong to one or more functional groups that offer agency to their members. (I don’t see a clear maximum size to such groups, but responsiveness certainly becomes problematic at large scales.)

I usually ask about the groups that people belong to or have joined in the past that enable their members to ask the citizen’s fundamental question.

Groups address an enormous range of issues, from putting on an entertaining show to challenging the patriarchy. Any group will also face three categories of internal problems–challenges to its own survival and functioning that arise more or less regardless of the issues it addresses. I present these categories one at a time, and we talk about examples (and solutions) that have arisen in people’s experience. The categories are:

  1. Problems of collective action: how to get people to contribute attention, energy, and resources to the group rather than free-ride or drain value from it. Note that these problems arise even in groups that pay their employees and require and assess their performance. Even then, degrees of contribution still depend on the norms of the group. A relevant concept here is “social capital,” which I would define as the rules and practices that allow groups of people to function well together.
  2. Problems of discourse: how to make wise decisions about the “should” part of “What should we do?” in the face of disagreement and moral uncertainty. People disagree about values. In fact, premature consensus is a threat to wisdom. But how can we disagree in ways that prevent manipulation, misinformation, balkanization, faction, etc.? (Rwandans are a little unwilling to talk about deep disagreements, for reasons I understand, and I didn’t push the matter.)
  3. Problems of the we versus the them. Any group needs boundaries, or it cannot function, but how should it relate to those who don’t belong? What if a dominant group doesn’t want your kind to join it? Groups commonly face ethical questions about how to treat outsiders as well as strategic questions about how to force their way in when they are excluded from where they want to be.

See also: what should we do?what if something is not your problem?; and Ostrom, Habermas, and Gandhi are all we need.

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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