Author Archives: Peter

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.

open positions at Tisch College: senior researcher for student programs, postdoc in Civic Science

Please consider applying and spread the word …

Senior Researcher, Student Programs – Tisch College (More details here)

The Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life prepares students in all fields of study for lifetimes of active citizenship. Tisch College promotes new knowledge in the field and applies this knowledge to evidence-based practice in programs, community partnerships, and advocacy efforts. Central to the university’s mission, the college offers Tufts’ students opportunities to engage in meaningful community building, civic and political experiences, and explore commitments to civic participation.

The Senior Researcher will report to the Director of Programs at Tisch College and be based on the Medford/Somerville Tufts University Campus.  As a member of the Tisch College Student Programs team, the Sr. Researcher will focus on designing and implementing a comprehensive assessment strategy encompassing all Tisch College programs and endeavors. In addition, the Senior Researcher will grow and promote a shared vision for assessing civic engagement across all the Health Sciences campuses.  Tufts has made a commitment to be an anti-racist university, and this is also an important aspect of this role. The Senior Researcher will be committed to ensuring that all assessment and evaluation is conducted with a commitment to equity.        

Specific responsibilities will include: conducing literature reviews and background research; designing and conducting quantitative, qualitative, and mixed methods assessment designs; developing and executing an external publication plan, including collaborations with Tufts faculty and, where appropriate, colleagues across the nation and internationally; collaboration with the advancement team and Tufts faculty to secure grant funding; coding and transcribing data; curating and preparing data sets for various audiences; developing and executing a plan for representing Tisch College Programs with conference presentations; conducting program evaluation for community-engaged, service-learning initiatives across Tufts; providing feedback, assistance, and support to colleagues on research and evaluation related questions; performing administrative duties as needed; and participation in Tisch College and Tufts’ meetings and activities.

Postdoc in Civic Science–Tisch College (read more here)

Deadline: May 20, 2021 at 11:59 PM Eastern Time. Please note that this position was inadvertently shown as closed for a week or more, but it remains open.

Tufts University’s Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life will award a Postdoctoral Fellowship in Civic Science for the 2021-22 academic year (June 1, 2021-May 31, 2022). This postdoctoral fellowship is offered in partnership with the Charles F. Kettering Foundation in Dayton, OH and involves some work at Kettering’s offices in Dayton as well as full-time employment at Tufts in the Boston area.

The Tisch College Civic Science initiative (https://tischcollege.tufts.edu/civic-studies/civic-science), led by Dr. Peter Levine and Dr. Samantha Fried, aims to reframe the relationships among scientists and scientific institutions, institutions of higher education, the state, the media and the public. It also asks about the relationships and distinctions among those institutions, historically and today. With this context in mind, Civic Science seeks to…

  • Reconfigure the national conversation on divisive and complex issues that are both scientific and political in nature, thereby connecting scientific institutions, research, and publications to people’s values, beliefs, and choices.
  • Define and advance the public good in science, thereby finding ways for scientific institutions to better serve communities.
  • Explore the concept of knowledge as a commons (or common-pool resource), developing a line of work pioneered by Elinor Ostrom and her colleagues
  • Develop curricula that simultaneously attend to scientific and civic issues and that teach students to understand and communicate both kinds of narratives together to a variety of audiences.
  • Develop approaches to democratic governance that are attuned to the role of the scientific enterprise in society.
  • Ask what it would mean to earn the trust of communities that have been historically marginalized by the institution of science, and what science would look like if this was a priority.
  • Intervene at institutional and grassroots levels, alongside a robust theoretical analysis.

A PhD is required. Applicants must also demonstrate a strong interest in investigating the intersections of science and civic matters as the focus of their postdoctoral year.

Civic Science is interdisciplinary, and this fellowship is open to specialists in any relevant field.

problem-solving, not worrying, is addictive

The main points I learned from Ezra Klein’s interview with Brown professor Jud Brewer may be very widely known already, but they were new to me. This is what I took away …

Anxiety and worrying can be habitual, even addictive. Most people are probably addicted to these behaviors at least some of the time. The mystery is why we would become addicted to something that brings discomfort, not pleasure. One answer is that we are not directly addicted to worrying. The addictive habit is problem-solving.

You wake up in the morning and realize you want coffee. Without expending much mental energy at all, you identify that need, locate the coffee, water, mug, and machine, make yourself a cup, and enjoy it. You experience an arc from the problem to the solution, which repeats many times every day. It brings satisfaction and is deeply habitual, partly because it is adaptive. Solving problems increases the odds of survival.

But what if you cannot solve the problem that you have identified? Perhaps it is beyond your control–you are powerless–or perhaps you cannot address it now. For instance, you will be able to deal with the problem during the meeting scheduled for next Tuesday at 3, but you can’t do anything about it until then.

In such cases, the addictive desire to address a problem causes your brain to turn it over and over, looking for a new way to solve it now. This is anxious worrying. It is unfortunate because it wastes the most precious scarce resource of all–the very stuff of life–which is time. It also tends to reduce your ability to deal with the problem at hand or other problems that may arise, because it may cost you sleep, confidence, mental sharpness, and other useful assets.

Jud Brewer’s recommendation is to replace the addictive behavior with another one that is equally or more compelling. One option is kindness: do something good for someone else. That seems right, except that there may be no available outlet for kindness when you need it. You can’t wake other people up at three in the morning to be nice to them. It is also challenging to shift one’s attention away from oneself when one is anxious.

A different option is curiosity. We are drawn to curious inquiry for much the same reasons that we are drawn to problem-solving: it is adaptive. Answering a question brings satisfaction. Brewer especially recommends asking curious questions about one’s own bodily state. The nervous system is the locus of the anxiety, and one can investigate it with curiosity. “Where do I feel nervous? How does my breath feel?”

I am certainly no expert in the science of happiness or psychological approaches to well-being. But I keep my eyes open for this kind of research, for two main reasons. First, I am always glad to learn useful tips. Second, I am fascinated by the interplay among three questions: 1) What are practical ways to enhance the quality of life (or to reduce suffering)? 2) What constitutes a good or admirable life? And 3) What are metaphysical and epistemological truths that pertain to those two questions? (For instance, is there a benign and omnipotent creator? Does the self exist?) Some people have argued that these three questions fit naturally together: an admirable person knows the truth and attains happiness as a result of believing and doing the right things. I am much less confident about such harmony.

See also: questions about happiness; why we wish that goodness brought happiness, and why that is not so; unhappiness and injustice are different problems; three truths and a question about happiness; how to think about the self (Buddhist and Kantian perspectives), etc. etc.

The Tufts Equity Research Group

This is a video of me and my colleague Dr. Wenhui Feng discussing the Tufts Equity Research Group. I talk broadly about our research, and Wenhui shares some specific findings about COVID-19 vaccination. We are in the field right now with a new national survey, so please stay tuned for results and check out our interactive website about equity in the USA, which I describe in the video. This presentation was at the Tufts Clinical & Translational Institute (CTSI)’s annual Translational Research Day 2021.

wildlife commons

As a follower of the late Elinor Ostrom (1933-2012), I am glad to see Michelle Nijhuis‘s article “The Miracle of the Commons” in Aeon. Nijhuis draws on her book, Beloved Beasts: Fighting for Life in an Age of Extinction (2021), which looks important.

I would offer the following very brief summary as an enticement to read more of the article. We can think of beloved megafauna, like wild elephants and lions, as public resources. Their survival is good for human beings in general, yet individual humans can profit from hunting them one by one.

If we apply a simple tragedy-of-the-commons model, then these beasts are doomed unless “something is done.” And that something must be some kind of enforced prohibition on hunting, perhaps connected to state ownership of the land. However, we should be concerned that the state will use its powers badly–that poachers will bribe wardens, or officials will prove incompetent, or authorities will turn a blind eye to development.

Ostrom found, instead, that communities are entirely capable of managing and protecting vulnerable public resources. They need mechanisms for allocating tasks and benefits and making decisions–and the authority to do so.

Nijhuis shows that communities in Namibia have been very successful at preserving endangered species when permitted–and, to some extent, supported–to manage these commons themselves. This is a perfect example of a commons as neither a “tragedy” (doomed to failure), nor a “comedy” (sure to work out well), but a “drama” whose outcome depends on us.

See also many previous posts about Ostrom.

the case for (and against) nonviolence

During a whole semester reading and debating Martin Luther King Jr, I think my students and I built a richer understanding of nonviolence as a political tradition and alternative. Several students noted that they had moved from thinking of nonviolence as a restriction or limitation (i.e., you must exclude violent means) to a powerful approach of its own.

The Case for Nonviolence

  1. It tends to work. Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan find that nonviolence has a higher rate of success than violent methods, at least in their sample of large movements aimed at major political change. (See Why Civil Resistance Works.)

One reason is that nonviolence actually draws larger and more diverse participants, and big and diverse movements are more likely to win. It is true that some people feel a need to employ violent means, but they tend to be tilted toward young men. Nonviolence broadens the base of a movement. I also think that nonviolent movements are more favorable to intense internal debate and discussion, and that is useful for success. (See the value of diversity and discussion within social movements.)

It is worth noting, however, that the success-rate of nonviolent social movements has fallen during the 2000s. I interpret both nonviolence and state repression as general approaches that evolve over time as their practitioners innovate and learn. I think that nonviolent strategies improved dramatically from 1955-1989 while autocrats stagnated, but the autocrats are learning fast. (See why autocrats are winning (right now).)

  1. It improves the odds that the resulting system will be democratic.

This is another empirical finding from Chenoweth and Stephan. One reason is that nonviolence allows a negotiated settlement and the peaceful exit of the incumbents. Autocrats have reason to fear violent movements and may respond by fighting almost to the death. They are more likely to settle with a movement that demonstrates nonviolence.

Relatedly, nonviolence prevents a cycle of escalating violence that makes democracy harder to attain. And it compels a movement to use relatively democratic methods for making decisions internally, because the leaders cannot violently compel their own people. That prepares the movement to govern democratically if it wins. And it gives the participants the specific skills and values that will be most useful to them in democratic governance.

  1. It is a variety of self-limitation, and self-limitation is valuable

Movements face twin risks: heating up too much (until they cannot sustain the intensity), or else dwindling away. It’s important to keep the intensity within bounds. One way to do that is to establish explicit or implicit norms of behavior. Nonviolence is not the only norm that works to regulate intensity. In the Intifada, the rule was to use rocks, not guns or bombs. From a pragmatic perspective, that worked–the effort persisted for two years. However, nonviolence has the advantage of being an intuitive, bright line that people understand, even under duress.

  1. It brings a particular kind of dignity, self-respect or efficacy to the participants

Martin Luther King Jr. described his goal as “seeking to instill in my people a sense of dignity and self-respect.” He recalls that African American Montgomerians “who had previously trembled before the law were now proud to be arrested for the cause of freedom. … They looked the solicitor and the judge in the eye with a courage and dignity for which there was no answer.”

It is possible that nonviolence is especially likely to enhance self-respect, because nonviolent movements are self-reliant. They don’t depend on guns, which are impersonal tools (and are often supplied by outsiders of some kind). The accomplishments of a nonviolent movement are theirs alone.

  1. It is compatible with uncertainty about one’s goals and strategies.

Gandhi emphasizes this point. If you do not know (for sure) what your ultimate objective should be, and you are not certain about the best path forward, you should prefer nonviolence. Violence is irrevocable and closes options. (see Gandhi on the primacy of means over ends.) As King says, nonviolence permits learning, including learning from the other side: “Here is the true meaning and value of compassion and nonviolence, when it helps us to see the enemy’s point of view, to hear his questions, to know his assessment of ourselves.”

I recently found a very nice statement of a similar idea at the very end of The Combahee River Collective Statement (1977) which is a seminal text for today’s social movements:

In the practice of our politics we do not believe that the end always justifies the means. Many reactionary and destructive acts have been done in the name of achieving “correct” political goals. As feminists we do not want to mess over people in the name of politics. We believe in collective process and a nonhierarchical distribution of power within our own group and in our vision of a revolutionary society. We are committed to a continual examination of our politics as they develop through criticism and self-criticism as an essential aspect of our practice.

  1. It might be particularly relevant to a dispersed minority group that confronts a basically stable regime.

King depicted violence as futile in a situation like the USA in his time:

When one tries to pin down advocates of violence as to what acts would be effective, the answers are blatantly illogical. Sometimes they talk of overthrowing racist state and local governments. They fail to see that no internal revolution has ever succeeded in overthrowing a government by violence unless the government had already lost the allegiance and effective control of its armed forces. Anyone in his right mind knows that this will not happen in the United States. In a violent racial situation, the power structure has the local police, the state troopers, the national guard and finally the army to call on, all of which are predominantly white.

King thought that nonviolence looked promising in comparison.

  1. It is compatible with ethical scruples, including the principle that you should not kill.

Maybe sometimes we do have to kill. I don’t see how Auschwitz could have been closed without killing the German soldiers posted to the beaches of Normandy (and many, many more). However, if nonviolence has at least as good a chance of succeeding as violence does, then surely, it is better not to kill.

II. The Case Against?

  1. It doesn’t work all the time.

(Would it have ended slavery or defeated Nazism?)

2. It does not satisfy all kinds of people

Maybe more people will participate in a nonviolent social movement than an armed insurrection, but what about the people who feel compelled to arms? Don’t they need some kind of outlet?

3. It demands sacrifice–up to and including death–from the people who should be least obliged to sacrifice, those who are oppressed.

(Then again, a violent campaign is also bound to cause casualties, including completely innocent ones. And to leave the status quo unchallenged is to tolerate ongoing violence and oppression.) See: the kind of sacrifice required in nonviolence and the question of sacrifice in politics.)

4. It might rely on certain external factors, such as media and partisan competition.

Both Gandhi and King were able to play to audiences of voters who had reasonably free access to media and choices at the ballot box. Even though most African Americans and all Indians were disenfranchised, white British and US voters had the power to make change. That means that success is somewhat contingent on factors that cannot always be counted on. Contrary to I.4, above, nonviolence is not always self-reliant.

5. It requires a mildness or compassion toward opponents that they may not deserve.

(Then again, I am not sure that defeating an opponent by using effective non-violent means is all that kind.)