trying to keep myself honest

(Madrid) This summer–which is not over yet–has already been full of rich and challenging discussions for which I am grateful.

In June, I spent several days discussing some lesser-known works of Friedrich Hayek with a group of mostly classical liberals/libertarians.

In late June and early July, more than 160 experienced scholars, practitioners, and activists from many countries visited Tisch College for a series of linked events: the American Political Science Association’s Institute for Civically Engaged Research, a convening of city staff from 15 Cities of Service, a gathering of Bridge Alliance members, the eleventh annual Summer Institute of Civic Studies, Lead for America’s summer institute, and the Frontiers of Democracy Conference. These people certainly held diverse ideological views, but a strong voice came from participants whom I would associate with intersectional movement politics–people who favor bottom-up, extra-institutional movements to confront white supremacy, patriarchy, and related “-isms.”

And now I am in Madrid for the Ibero-American Meeting on Civic Studies. I am very much enjoying my academic colleagues from Argentina, Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico, Spain and Venezuela who hold diverse views. While here, I have also visited a traditionally “red” working class Madrid neighborhood and met with radical Spanish architects and have heard a senator from the PSOE (socialist) party lecture. They have given me a dose of European social democratic politics. In contrast to intersectional movement politics, this is largely about building mass institutions (unions and parties) for “the people,” understood as singular.

I remain basically an American center-leftist. Barack Obama is my favorite president and have sent a little money to Kamala Harris. But since I fear intellectual complacency and clichés, I am always grateful to have my presumptions challenged. Libertarianism, intersectional movement politics, and social democracy feel like a triangle of ideas that keep me (somewhat) honest from three directions.

I think I hear the classical liberals saying, “Society is too complex to be modeled, let alone regulated or planned, because it is a function of countless individual choices, and the millions of agents can react to any effort to constrain or guide them by changing their behavior. Opportunity costs are ubiquitous and especially difficult to measure. Talk of ‘social justice’ arrogantly replaces what individuals want in their own circumstances with a specific theory of what they should want and implies that someone has the right to enforce that. Instead, policy should be maximally general, durable, and predictable so that individuals can form and implement their own plans in their contexts.”

I think I hear intersectional activists saying, “People are dying as a result of racism and transphobia and sexual violence. That is because other people hold deeply seated world-views that categorize their fellow human beings into hierarchies and create boundaries. These world-views are fundamental causes of injustice and must be challenged. There is no substitute for the people at the top of the hierarchies [people like me] acknowledging their advantages and changing their own lives accordingly.”

And I think I hear the social democrats say, “When large numbers of ordinary people have organized themselves into unions, parties, and social movements, they have countered corporate capital and negotiated mixed economies that have generated equity and security along with prosperity. But such organizations require substantial discipline (constraining individual choice) and broad identities, such as ‘worker’ or ‘citizen.'”

See also: on hedgehogs and foxes; The truth in Hayek; identities, interests, and opinions

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reclaiming our kids’ walk to school

(Madrid) In June, I was with an international group, and we were lamenting that no one from any of our respective countries seems very comfortable allowing their children to walk alone to school. We all walked to school when we were kids, even though the crime rate–at least in the US–was much higher then. It seems as if parents raised in the mid-1900s let their late-1900s children walk around dangerous cities, but we are too nervous to let our early-2000s offspring do the same.

Now I am in the very dynamic and impressive MediaLab Prado, a “citizen laboratory that functions as a meeting place for the production of open cultural projects.” And I have just encountered Camino Escola Seguro, A Safe Path to School. In part, it involves knitted safety notices that assure families that local shopkeepers and residents are keeping their eyes on the streets and making them safe for children to walk to school.

I’m not saying this would work everywhere. Maybe it won’t work at all. But I love the spirit of people reclaiming the common resource of a safe walk to school.

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What is the appropriate role for higher education at a time of social activism?

(Posted in Madrid) In the current issue (and available free online) is my article entitled, “Another Time for Freedom? Lessons from the Civil Rights Era for Today’s Campuses,” Liberal Education, Winter 2019, Vol. 105, No. 1.

This is the first of several pending articles in which I explore the interactions between social movements and institutions. My motive is to encourage people who sit in institutional settings to pay attention not only to activists who make demands but also to the movements to which these activists belong. In order to relate appropriately to a given movement, it’s important to assess whether it has robust internal discussions, whether it is a space for learning, how it develops leaders, what norms it enforces on its members, and other such characteristics. Interpreting a movement is valuable whether you want to be a good ally, merely treat the movement fairly, or actively counter it because you oppose its influence.

In this piece, I use as a hook a fascinating New York Times op-ed by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in which he described the movement that had engulfed Historically Black Colleges and Universities by 1961. A sample passage from my article:

In the model of civic action that King describes, college students plug into national social movements that have leaders and organizations outside higher education. The students’ involvement is youth-driven: students recruit other students to participate. …

Like most participants in social movements, the students King describes in the Times essay have transformational goals. They do not aim to modify the policies and practices of existing institutions—such as their own colleges—but to rebuild or reconstitute the whole society. Student activists, King writes, are “seeking to save the soul of America. . . . One day historians will record this student movement as one of the most significant epics of our heritage.” Today, movements like Black Lives Matter and climate activism do not merely advocate specific policies but attempt to fundamentally transform society, from white supremacy to racial equity, or from carbon-dependence to global sustainability.

By contrast, colleges and universities—including the HBCUs of 1961—are institutions. As such, they are inevitably led by people who have extensive experience, who must therefore be older. Institutions can encourage youth voice and can change as a result of social movements. For instance, a range of curricular and policy reforms that promote greater racial equity and diversity can be traced back to the civil rights movement. But institutions will predictably resist more radical transformations. They are not movements; they are targets of movements.

The tension between movements and institutions is inevitable, but higher education has a particular commitment to ideological pluralism and debate. Although pure neutrality is impossible and a misleading ideal, colleges and universities must demonstrate a reasonable degree of impartiality about the contested issues of the day. As academic institutions, they value reflection and “organized skepticism.”11

When today’s colleges and universities go beyond classroom teaching to offer experiential civic education, a typical model involves supporting students to choose and define their own issues and to develop and implement plans of action—not signing them up for specific social movements that will demand sacrifice. Often, an institution’s recruitment takes the form of a general invitation to civic engagement, civic learning, or dialogue, not a call to join a movement.

See also: pay attention to movements, not just activists and events; the value of diversity and discussion within social movements; social movements of the sixties, seventies, and today; a sketch of a theory of social movements

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how to improve the civil society of a school

Students learn to be citizens by joining, forming, leading, and influencing extracurricular groups in their own schools. A school’s whole array of groups is its “civil society.” The number, diversity, reach, purpose, vitality, and interconnection of these groups is important for youth development, generally, and for civic education, in particular.

Discussing this topic with teachers this morning, I received an excellent question. How should we encourage all students to participate? What should we do about the fact that 9th-graders sign up for many groups but membership trails off fast? How about the students who are too busy because they work? And what about the kid who wears headphones all day and just doesn’t want to connect?

I think I began my reply with two caveats. First, I don’t know how to motivate teenagers nearly as well as teachers do. And second, some kids really may face serious barriers to membership, no matter how hard you try to include them.

That said, the challenges of a school’s civil society are like those of any civil society. Like teenagers, adults exhibit different degrees of commitment. They drop out when they lose interest or as a response to disagreements. Many free-ride, staying in a group to get its benefits without doing a fair share of the work. Some work extra hard and well but aren’t noticed.

Addressing these problems constitutes Alexis de Tocqueville’s “art and science of association.” It’s never easy but there are good practices. Impose regular penalties for non-contribution but make initial penalties very light so that they are actually enforced and violators can recover easily from being penalized. Keep a clear and public list of who belongs and who doesn’t and clarify what constitutes membership versus exit. Rotate responsibilities. Incorporate low-cost methods of monitoring compliance, such as sign-in sheets. Implement efficient mechanisms for conflict-resolution. (For these principles, see, among other sources: Ostrom, Elinor. “Design principles and threats to sustainable organizations that manage commons.” Santiago, Chile, March. 1999.)

Learning these practices is a core task of civic education. We traditionally learn them only from experience, but it is possible to learn some of them from texts and discussion. Students who learn to lead groups are better placed than any adults to actually generate viable groups in their own schools. Thus I would recommend teaching strategies for recruitment and group-management explicitly, and then encouraging student leaders to be primarily responsible for the vitality of their own civil society.

See also a portrait of American teenagers’ out-of-school life; and class disparities in extracurricular activities.

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the ethics of playing hardball with the federal budget

Congress must pass appropriation bills by late September and must raise the debt limit by about Oct. 1 to allow the government to pay its bills. Failure to do either will have substantial economic impact. Neglecting to raise the debt limit could be catastrophic, since the federal government has never defaulted before.

A solution could either be a real agreement or a mere patch–a bill that continues current spending levels for a few months and raises the debt limit enough to get us to the next short-term deal.

Since the economy seems fragile, and federal (and state) elections are a mere 16 months away, the political stakes are high. In fact, I think the negotiation over the budget and debt limit is the most important political story of the present moment.

Conventional wisdom holds that an incumbent president has more to lose from a sudden recession than members of Congress do. Thus Donald Trump is probably most at risk if there is no deal. Although most Americans disapprove of his economic policies, I still think his popularity would fall further if we entered a recession.

For their part, the Democrats must decide how hard to bargain. That is an ethically complex question, and it confronts not one actor (an imaginary, monolithic party) but many Democratic members of Congress who have disparate values and interests.

Democrats have good ethical reasons to play hardball. They have policy goals (spending, immigration, climate) that they can advance by forcing Trump to swallow compromises. By pushing hard, they risk a government shutdown or a default, but the moral responsibility for a crisis would be shared. Whatever happens, we are headed for a recession at some point, and the country may be better off if it comes in time to unseat Trump rather than late enough that we must weather the downturn during his second term.

On the other hand, Democrats shouldn’t intentionally drive Trump into an impasse because they are happy to hasten a recession. To see that that is wrong, apply Immanuel Kant’s test of publicity. It is unethical to do something unless you can admit you are doing it. That is especially true of political leaders in a republic, because it is definitive of republics that everyone must explain their actions to everyone else. I don’t think the Democrats could face the electorate saying that they had intentionally driven the economy into recession.

But there is a fine line between: (a) driving a hard bargain for good causes while not worrying overly about the collateral risk to the economy and (b) actively pushing a breakdown in order to cause a recession and win the next election. I would drive right up to the edge of (b) but not over that line.

A subtler question is what to do about raising the domestic discretionary spending limits. Democrats believe that raising these caps will truly help people. However, increasing spending without raising taxes is a fiscal stimulus. As such, it has some potential to forestall a recession. Thus raising the domestic spending limit is win/win for Trump and the congressional Democrats (although an ideological loss for congressional Republicans). The problem is that a win/win deal could get Trump re-elected. I think I would bargain hard on immigration and climate regulation and give way on domestic spending for this year.

See also: on playing hardball with the shutdown (2019); should Democrats play constitutional hardball in 2019-20?; avoiding arbitrary command

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the First Ibero-American Meeting of Civic Studies

This week is the 11th annual Summer Institute of Civic Studies at Tufts’ Tisch College, and we are discussing such topics as identities versus interests and opinions and Gandhi versus Jinnah on means and ends. (The links are to my personal ruminations, but in the seminar, we discuss original texts.)

Coming up soon is the First Ibero-American Meeting of Civic Studies, which two of my friends explain in the video:

According to my translation from the website:

Improving a society requires the commitment of its citizens. Based on this conviction, the Camilo José Cela University Foundation presents the First Ibero-American Conference on Civic Studies, following the trail of the pioneering institution of this academic discipline, the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life of Tufts University (USA).

The objective is to create a theoretical and methodological framework to promote active citizenship. Civic Studies tries to answer the question “what should we do?” Combining ethical reflection (what is good and right?), analysis of the facts (“what is happening”?) and strategies (” What could work? “). Based on this eminently practical call, Civic Studies tries to make civic education in colleges and universities have a transformational purpose.

The First Ibero-American Meeting of Civic Studies is an initiative of the Camilo José Cela University Foundation. It aims to promote this understanding of civic education in the Ibero-American context. Despite the social and cultural diversity of the countries convened [Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico, and Spain], the UCJC Foundation believes that the development of this academic discipline can serve to cultivate active citizenship that contributes to the creation of more stable and just societies.

In this first edition, the theme of the meeting will be “The university as generator of citizenship.” We believe in a conception of the university in which both learning and research in any discipline is marked by the civic commitment of its environment. The meeting will involve a week of work between academics and experts with experience in citizenship training: through discussion and deliberation formats, attendees will work from a daily challenge posed by a guest expert, and exchange their own experiences when implementing civic education.”

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what the student debt proposals convey

Elizabeth Warren proposes to pay off $50,000 of college debt for everyone with household income under $100,000. Bernie Sanders proposes to pay off all $1.5 trillion of today’s student debt. They also offer proposals for making college more affordable later.

I am worried that both of these proposals–especially Sanders’–convey the message that Democrats and liberals represent high-status people who hold and value formal education. The reality is close to that: Democratic voters in 2018 were a coalition of whites with lots of education plus people of color from across the educational spectrum.

2018 national exit poll results

Directing financial support to higher education–and specifically retiring the debt of people who have already accumulated college debt–is an indication of the candidates’ priorities. I fear they will alienate people who don’t have or necessarily want advanced formal education. One of the major political cleavages of our age (also seen in Europe) divides knowledge-workers from people who work with their hands. The risk here is placing liberals and Democrats firmly on the knowledge-workers’ side. Or, as Antonio Gramsci would say, the “organic ideology” of a governing class dominated by the intelligentsia will favor spending money on education above almost anything else.

I do understand the following arguments. Education should be understood as a public good, not just an investment in the income prospects of the individual student. We already treat k-12 education as a public good and an entitlement. Since college now confers the same advantage that high school did half a century ago, it should be treated the same.

Furthermore, programs without means tests tend to be protected and reasonably well funded, whereas programs for the poor tend to be poor programs. Examples of successful universal programs include Social Security and Medicare here and most of the European welfare state.

Finally, even when a program covers wealthy people, federal income taxes (as opposed to other taxes) are collected in a pretty progressive way, so most of the cost falls on the wealthy.

On the other hand, as Jordan Weissman notes, one-time debt cancellation is not an entitlement or a program built for sustainability. Moreover, Sanders’ plan involves truly regressive spending. Families earning $173k or more hold an average debt of nearly $50k, which the federal government would hand them as tax-free income under his plan.

You could counter that families in the bottom quartile–who have real need–hold an average of $26k in college debt, usually more than their whole annual household income, and forgiveness would make the most difference to them. But it would also cost $1.5 trillion that could be spent on other things. And yes, even if the President of the United States calls himself a socialist, he’ll have limited resources and will have to choose. For instance, that’s $1.5 trillion that could have been added to a Green New Deal.

These proposals have a communicative goal. They convey that education is a public good and that we should all benefit from government support. The proposals are very unlikely to pass as written, and if they fail, they will prove to be mainly symbolic. Even if they pass, they will still have symbolic elements. For instance, the message that they cover everyone is meant to change opinions about government.

So I worry about what these ideas–especially Sanders’–actually convey. Democrats, especially White Democrats, have typically benefited from formal education and value it in everything they say and do. They admire science, professionals, credentials. If a Democratic president and Congress spend $1.5 trillion to subsidize higher education for people like themselves, that will cement the party’s class position.

See also college and mobility; what does the European Green surge mean?; working-class people versus elites on education; and why the white working class must organize

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Gandhi versus Jinnah on means and ends

(Posted while leading the 11th annual Summer Institute of Civic Studies, on questions like this one.)

A major theme in Gandhi’s thought it the primacy of means over ends.

In 1924, some Indian political leaders proposed the immediate creation of a new, independent “Federated Republic of the United States of India.” They argued that this end justified a wide range of strategies. They wanted to “delete the words ‘by peaceful and legitimate means’ from the Congress creed, so that men holding every shade of opinion may have no difficulty in joining” the independence struggle. That would have expanded the range of means employed to achieve the goal of home-rule.

Gandhi replied, “They say ‘means are after all means’. I would say ‘means are after all everything’. As the means so the end.” The “only universal definition to give it is ‘that status of India which her people desire at a given moment.’ If I were asked what India desires at the present moment, I should say I do not know.” For Gandhi, the means used to pursue swaraj (independence in its deepest sense) had to be good ones. “As the means so the end. Violent means will give violent swaraj. That would be a menace to the world and to India herself.”  

Drawing on Karuna Mantena, I would suggest the following Gandhian reasons to focus on means rather than ends. Human beings are cognitively limited and cannot see justice far beyond our own present circumstances. Human beings are motivationally flawed and highly susceptible to various distorting and destructive impulses. Therefore, we must choose modes of politics that channel our impulses in beneficial rather than harmful directions. Forming too sharp a definition of justice (or any of its components, such as national sovereignty) can simply excuse bad behavior. Consequences are always difficult to predict and control, and trying to pursue elaborate ends is foolish. We disagree, and what we decide about justice right now is contingent on how we are organized, so it is crucial to get the organization right. Finally, how we participate in politics helps to constitute the world. By acting, we don’t merely bring about a result (usually an unpredictable one); we immediately create a new reality just in virtue of our action.

A focus on means and a reluctance to specify ends does, however, pose a risk. A person might (whether intentionally or inadvertently) select and defend means that generate a foreseeable outcome or that foreclose the outcome that others prefer. That could be a back-door strategy for getting the ends that the person wanted in the first place. To claim that you are too humble and aware of your own limits to know the best goals is disingenuous if it’s clear what ends your favored means will lead to.

This was essentially Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s quarrel with Gandhi. Gandhi insisted that the social movement for Indian independence must involve close collaborations among Hindus, Muslims and adherents of other faiths. Immediately after saying that he did not know what India wanted, he added that he only endorsed a few values, including “truthful relations between Hindus and Mussalmans.” (“Truthful,” for him, would imply a close, sincere, and interactive relationship.) For Gandhi, the means of political action in India must incorporate interfaith dialogue and cooperation.

Although Gandhi insisted that “Congress leaves swaraj undefined,” Jinnah could see that if Hindus and Muslims won independence together, they would found a democracy with a large Hindu majority. This new country might be secular, or it might be Hindu-dominated, but it couldn’t be an Islamic republic–simply because of demographics. Jinnah identified the Congress as a Hindu organization and created the Muslim League as an alternative. He objected when Congress tried to place its Muslim President, Maulana Azad, in the provisional cabinet for British India, arguing that the Muslim League should name all Muslim members. After Gandhi’s assassination, Jinnah eulogized him as “one of the greatest men produced by the Hindu community and a leader who commanded their [sic] universal confidence and respect.” Jinnah regretted Gandhi’s death “so soon after the birth of freedom for Hindustan [his term for India] and Pakistan.” Thus, although Gandhi claimed that “means are after all everything,” Jinnah saw that Gandhi’s means would prevent Jinnah’s goal, a sovereign Pakistan. And he charged Gandhi with having an implicit goal of his own: the creation of a “Hindustan.”

The broader, theoretical question is how to think about means and ends when sometimes the means that we choose for good intrinsic reasons have foreseeable ends that are subject to debate. Yet, if we propose a clear vision of our goal, how can we know that it is right, and who gets to evaluate it? Surely, that requires a process that is not simply designed to yield a given outcome.

For what it’s worth, this is my verdict on the case at hand. Gandhi joined and then led an interfaith party for swaraj that encouraged debates about both means and goals. Jinnah was a member of that party, albeit mostly before Gandhi’s arrival from South Africa. Jinnah and others had the right to quit the party and movement. Exit is a legitimate choice in movements and party politics. As a result of Jinnah’s exit, Gandhi’s means failed: Congress ceased to be a forum for dialogue and cooperation that included the kinds of people who preferred the Muslim League. But Gandhi’s failure doesn’t invalidate his general advice to focus on means rather than specific ends.

Drawing here on Karuna Mantena, “Another Realism, the Politics of Gandhian Nonviolence,” American Political Science Review, vol. 106, no. 2 (May 2012) and various original passages from Gandhi’s works that Mantena’s article led me to. Also drawing on Ramachandra Guha, Gandhi: The Years that Changed the World, 1914-1948 (New York: Knopf, 2018)

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the metaphor of going into a community

Researchers, students, government officials, organizers, activists–lots of people talk about “going into communities.” Although I resist the rhetorical move of “problematizing” everything, I think this metaphor deserves scrutiny. It assumes that communities are physically located and bounded, which is probably the exception, especially in the 21st century

It also assumes that we are not already “in.” If, for example, a group of Tufts students and faculty decide to go into Somerville to do some research or service, it’s worth noting that they were already in that city when they set out. A community should not be defined in a way that gerrymanders ourselves out of it. If we mean to name a demographic or social group, then we should say that. A demographic category is not a community.

If a community is a web of relationships, then to enter it you must form relationships with at least some of the people who belong to it–face-to-face or remotely. You cannot then simply leave it by moving your body away. You can break off the relationships, but that is also a way of relating to other people, with consequences.

If we decide to move to a different location to do work, that doesn’t mean that we go from a state of not being in a community to being in one. It means that we have a chance to form relationships with new people, and most of them probably move around a lot, too.

The whole spatial metaphor of traveling in and out of communities may be left over from classical field ethnography–traveling to Samoa to collect data–but it easily misleads.

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engaged political science

Today we begin the American Political Science Association’s Institute of Civically Engaged Research (ICER) at Tisch College. The participants are about 20 political scientists–PhD candidates and current professors–who are interested in engaged scholarship. I am leading the ICER along with Amy Cabrera Rasmussen (Cal State-Long Beach) and Valeria Sinclair-Chapman (Purdue) and a roster of visitors.

In one of our sessions today, we will discuss four readings that offer varied perspectives on what engagement might mean for political scientists:

  •  Flyvbjerg, Bent. “Social science that matters.” Foresight Europe 2 (2005): 38-42.

Flyvbjerg, a Danish planning professor, stimulated considerable debate in American political science with pronouncements like this: “No predictive theories have been arrived at in social science, despite centuries of trying. This is a wasteful dead end.” Flyvbjerg advocates “phronetic” social science, in which the scholar prompts and joins public discussion of four questions: “(1) Where are we going? (2) Who gains and who loses, and by which mechanisms of power? (3) Is this development desirable? (4) What, if anything, should we do about it?” The words “desirable” and “should” indicate a concern with normative questions; Flyvbjerg calls his questions “value-rational.” But the key issue is “praxis”: what should “we” (a group to which the social scientists belongs) do?

Hacker is a distinguished Yale professor and policy entrepreneur. He developed and advocated the “public option” as a complement to the Affordable Care Act. In that case, he engaged the national public in a discussion of what to do and formed a kind of partnership with laypeople who included the President of the United States. Hacker stands at one end of a power/status continuum, the other end of which might be a Youth Participatory Action (YPAR) project in which a social scientist and a few adolescents study their own neighborhood. Hacker concludes that by “speaking the truth to the power [that he] studied,” he learned about the political process (e.g., the nuances of interest groups’ agendas) and so became a “better political scientist.”

Marta Struminska-Kutra describes her struggles to conduct an ethical research project in an unnamed but specific city, with its own power dynamics and hierarchies. In this theoretically demanding paper, she explores the compensating advantages and limits of three approaches. A “critical perspective” uncovers and challenges power but can be paternalistic and impotent if the community doesn’t share the “liberal, egalitarian, environmental, and collective” values of the researcher. The “constructivist perspective” fully honors local values and goals but risks paralysis and satisfaction with the status quo. And the “pragmatist perspective”–aimed at addressing concrete problems–risks benefitting only the people who have defined the problems in the first place. She suggests a practice of deliberately shifting among the three.

  • Tickner, J. Ann. “On the Frontlines or Sidelines of Knowledge and Power? Feminist Practices of Responsible Scholarship.” International Studies Review, vol. 8, no. 3, 2006, pp. 383–395. JSTOR,

This is a presidential address for the International Studies Association in which Tickner questions the role of IR scholars–men like Henry Kissinger–who stand beside policymakers (also usually men) in the capitals of empires. She juxtaposes an ideal of the “intellectual as an exile in his or her own society, … who raises embarrassing questions, is unsettled, unsettles others, and stands on the side of the weak and unrepresented.” She finds support for that stance in feminism. But she concludes with a call for pluralism, wanting to make space for scholars who stand on the frontlines (even “implementing legislation”) as well as those who stand on the sidelines, closer to “those who have not been the subject of history.”

See also Bent Flyvbjerg and social science as phronesis; what gives some research methods legitimacy?; principles for researcher-practitioner collaboration; and Participatory Action Research as Civic Studies.

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