Category Archives: civic theory

looking for deliberative moments

It’s not so unusual to enter a discussion without having a firm view of what should be done (perhaps without even having focused on the agenda), to listen and speak for a while, and finally to reach a collective decision that wasn’t predictable in advance. Before the discussion begins, some of the participants may know what they want, but others are unsure or flexible, and the conversation forms or shifts the consensus.

However, it is not easy to find recordings or transcriptions of such processes. I spent part of the last long weekend reading the minutes of US school boards and city councils, scanning the translated transcripts of 50 village assemblies in southern India, dipping into legislative records from several countries, and even searching for archives of email exchanges within organizations that have come to light due to leaks or lawsuits. I found brief moments in which a few people seemed to be listening to make up their minds, but no sustained examples of that phenomenon.

My belief in the existence of deliberation might seem naive, except that I have experienced it many times–even in the past few months–and nobody seems surprised when it happens. I think we are used to it, but recorded examples are scarce.

Two reasons occur to me, and they may have some significance for political theory.

One is a kind of Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle for deliberation. Once you record a conversation and make it publicly available for public review, the tenor shifts. Participants know that they are speaking to an audience composed of people who are not part of the conversation, not accountable for the decisions, and not able to reply in time to affect the outcome. Participants begin articulating positions and reasons that strangers can assess later, instead of trying to decide what to do. Thus the presence of an observer shifts the phenomenon, especially if the observer is an anonymous audience in the future.

The other reason involves the typical function of official meetings. As I scan town council minutes, legislative records, and transcripts of Indian village assemblies, I see people talking under tight time pressure in order to convey specific positions. For instance:

[Member of the] Public: You have read that street lights are going to be fixed. When are you going to install?

Male (Officer): We have passed resolution, made a budget and allotted the work. Very soon we will do it.

Public: We need ration shop at Pappanaickenpatti. There are more than 300 cards in our town. Every time we have to come all the way from our village. By the time we reach the shop, all the items will be sold out. We request you to consider our petition. We are very badly in need of separate ration shop at our village. We are ready to construct a building for this purpose.

Male (Officer): We will discuss with the civil supplies officer and let you know. (source)

Or:

[Board of Trustees] President Raymond remarked she was impressed by the commitment to distance and blended learning by the District through the creation of the Department because it illustrated the learning models were ones the District was interested in fully developing and not just using during the current school year.

Trustee Taylor wondered if the vision was to have a single platform for all distance learning in the District.

Ms. Anderson cautioned it was important the District not make any major shifts at the present time related to the changing of learning platforms since the current model was very fragile. She would like to focus more on developing best practices for the platforms currently being used, due to the current strain teachers and students were under, and then look at creating more of a sustainable model in the future.

(source)

I think these people are doing valid public work. They are putting concerns, questions, directives, and commitments on the record. Before and after these recorded moments, the same individuals may have had many conversations in which they tried to learn about the situation and about other people’s views. The public event may also spur later discussions in their community.

These transcripts do not make me cynical about deliberative democracy. I imagine that the same people listen and learn. But deliberation is very rare during the moments that are captured on the public record.

This is a challenge for me because I am helping to develop methods for modeling deliberative conversations, and I am not finding a lot of material to analyze. I am especially interested in the regular decision-making processes of governments and other organizations. Yes, I also like citizens’ forums or “minipublics”–venues where representative people are convened to discuss public questions. I even co-edited a Handbook about them! But I think they are atypical, which means that evidence derived from them would not generalize well. (Besides, Indian village councils are minipublics, and they sound a lot like US public meetings.)

If you have suggestions for transcripts or videos that I could model, I would be grateful. In any case, I think our theories of democracy should take account of this pattern. Although we imagine that deliberation should occur in legislatures and town meetings, this is unlikely. A public meeting is a moment in a larger stream of discourse. Its function is to memorialize a set of positions and reasons, while the learning and the change take place elsewhere.

Civic Studies as a response to crises in American higher education

This is a panel at the American Enterprise Institute yesterday, part of a daylong conference on “The Future of the American University: Civic Education, Past and Present.” I am on the panel with Justin Dyer, the dean of the new School of Civic Leadership at the University of Texas at Austin, and our moderator, AEI’s Yuval Levin. I made a case for Civic Studies as a new field and then enjoyed the discussion with my two colleagues and the interesting questions from the audience.

The rest of the day was interesting and valuable and can be explored here.

choosing models that illuminate issues–on the logic of abduction in the social sciences and policy

It’s very common for people to use different explanatory and evaluative ideas to describe the same concrete situation, whether it’s the Israel/Palestine conflict, or bias in law enforcement, or almost anything else.

We should navigate between two obstacles, I think. One mistake to view rival ideas as simply subjective, because they are often value-laden, and to view politics as a mere clash among people with different subjective views. The other is to imagine that empirical research can settle such disputes by validating one model or (at least) refuting some of them. We can deliberate about competing models, but the discussion requires more than data.

It is often assumed that a model generates hypotheses, and we can test the model by testing its hypotheses. Nancy Cartwright disputes this assumption. She suggests that models are not like vending machines that yield hypotheses, but more like “fables” that present vivid scenarios and “morals”—suggestions for behavior—that we should look for in the world (Cartwright 1999, 185-6; Cartwright 2010).

Similarly, Max Weber understood an “ideal-type,” such as feudalism or the state, not as a hypothesis but as a “conceptual construct” that “offers guidance in the construction of hypotheses” (Weber 1905/1949, 93, 90). This means that disproving a hypothesis suggested by a model does not disprove the model, although repeated failures to suggest valid hypotheses might encourage us look for alternative models.

The fable of the tortoise and the hare does not pose an inference about reptiles and rabbits, or even a ceteris paribus hypothesis that moving slower yields better outcomes. Rather, it defines two personality types that may be worth looking for in the world; it cautions against arrogance; and it may suggest hypotheses, e.g., that making decisions more rapidly reduces the quality of information (Rae, Heathcote, Donkin, Averell & Brown 2014). Similarly, the model of the Prisoner’s Dilemma suggests that we should look for problems and form empirical hypotheses that involve individuals choosing independently. The model also makes a conceptual contribution by sharply defining cooperation and defection (Johnson 2020). Choosing any such model is a matter of judgment or practical wisdom, not a question of deciding which model is true

Forming and selecting an explanation for a specific situation is the logic of abduction. Deduction means drawing inferences from known premises; induction means generalizing from cases; but abduction involves connecting a single case to a relevant general idea. Charles Sanders Pierce coined the word (Douven 2021). Pierce was a pragmatist, and abduction is a pragmatic necessity, even in the natural sciences.

I would add that it is appropriate to apply normative principles when forming and selecting models of a society. First, the point is to improve situations, not only explain them. Second, any given model incorporates normative elements, even if it pretends to be strictly explanatory, and it should be assessed as such.

For Weber, an ideal-type is “an attempt to analyze historically unique configurations or their individual components by means of genetic concepts” (Weber 1905, 93). An ideal-type cannot be the basis of deductive conclusions about reality, because “a description of even the smallest slice off reality can never be exhaustive”; the “number and type of causes which have influenced any given event are always infinite”; and “there is nothing in the things themselves to set some of them apart as alone meriting attention” (Weber 1905, 78). Instead, we rightly choose our concepts to address aspects of specific situations that provide insights about our own problems, as we see them from “particular points of view” (Weber 1905, 81, italics in the original). Ideal-types are “model types which … contain what, from the point of view of the expositor, should be and what to him is ‘essential’ … because it is enduringly valuable” (Weber 1905, 97).

Weber objects to the assumption that we study phenomena to derive general laws that we can then apply deductively, as if a concrete investigation were the means to the end of general knowledge. He claims that the reverse is true; ideal-types are means to understanding the unique constellations of events that rightly concern us (Weber 1905, 79).

In the article that originated the concept (now almost a cliché) of “wicked problems,” Rittel and Webber posit that often solutions to social problems “are not true-or-false, but good-or-bad.” They write, “Normally, many parties are equally equipped, interested, and/or entitled to judge the solutions,” and “their judgments are likely to differ widely in accord with their group or personal interests, their special value-sets, and their ideological predilections” (Rittel & Webber 1973, 162-3).

They mention that “‘Crime on the streets’ can be explained by not enough police, by too many criminals, by inadequate laws, cultural deprivation, deficient opportunity, phrenological aberrations, etc.” (Rittel & Webber 1973, 166). In fact, evidence has overwhelmed phrenological explanations for crime, while other explanations have become more persuasive since Rittel and Webber wrote. But they are right that reasonable people may choose different explanatory models and frameworks for the same phenomena. Like Weber, they argue that data cannot settle such choices, but “attitudinal criteria guide” rightly us. People choose explanations that are “plausible” and useful for their “intentions” and “action prospects” (Rittel & Webber 1973, 166).

Our diverse starting points do not guarantee that we must reach divergent conclusions. We can learn from one another, and to do so, we should collect and share evidence. For instance, imagine that my initial model presumes a root cause, such as structural racism. Someone demonstrates that it is possible to disrupt a cycle of inequality by adopting a policy, such as reforming employment contracts for police, that does not address the root cause. My initial model was not refuted, but the evidence may persuade me that I could achieve more with a cyclical model that has no “root.” I have learned and shifted my view, but I have not refuted the root-cause model, which I might even use again on another day.

This is a pragmatist conception of the relationship between evidence and models (cf. Aligica 2014, 166-199). Note that in this conception, evidence is not merely instrumental to an outcome, because it may also persuade us to change the outcome that we think is best to pursue.

See also: what must we believe?; different kinds of social models; making our models explicit; social education as learning to improve models. Sources: Cartwright, N. (1999). The dappled world: A study of the boundaries of science. Cambridge University Press; Cartwright, N. (2010). Models: Parables v fables. In R. Frigg & M.C. Hunter, Beyond mimesis and convention: Representation in art and science (pp. 19-31). Springer Netherlands; Weber, M. 1905/1949. “Objectivity” in Social Science and Social Policy. In E.A. Shils, & H.A. Finch (Eds.), Max Weber on The Methodology of the Social Sciences. Glencoe Ill.: The Free Press, 50- 112); Rae, B., Heathcote, A., Donkin, C., Averell, L., & Brown, S. (2014). The hare and the tortoise: Emphasizing speed can change the evidence used to make decisions. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 40(5), 1226–1243; Rittel W.J. & Webber, M.M., (1973) Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy Sciences 4, 155-69; Douven, Igor, “Abduction”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2021 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), Aligica, P. (2014) Institutional Diversity and Political Economy: The Ostroms and Beyond. New York: Oxford University Press

different kinds of social models

In my public policy course this week, we used a Harvard Kennedy School case entitled “A Rising Storm: Eric Garner and the Explosive Controversy over Race & Policing,” which introduced questions about criminal justice, violence, and race in New York City.

In my own work based on national survey data, I find that being Black raises the odds of being mistreated by the police almost five-fold (4.6 times) when considering gender, education, age, English-language proficiency, household income, housing type, county-level income, and any mental health diagnosis. However, the Kennedy School case also draws our attention to the 75% drop in homicide and 50% drop in rape in New York City between 1990 and 2013, which require explanation and assessment.

I suggested that we all use mental models (simplified representations of the world) to think about such issues. Our models may be more or less precise and articulated in our own heads. If we want to know what’s best to do, we are obliged to clarify our models to ourselves and seriously consider whether alternatives might be wiser.

I asked students to consider models of different forms and types:

  • A root-cause model explains many phenomena as the result of one underlying cause. Just as you should expect a weed to return unless you pull it up by its roots, so you should expect a social injustice to recur unless you remove its roots–that is the implication of the metaphor. “Radical” comes from the Latin for “root,” and proponents of root-cause models often feel that they are the radicals.

In this case, the root might be white supremacy, invoked to explain police bias, the distribution of wealth and poverty, the unequal impact of public schools, and other current realities.

Classical Marxism recommends a different root-cause model: the economic system always gives rise to the state, and a bourgeois state employs police to protect the economic elite. Substantial reform is impossible without a revolution. Finally–as a student astutely noted–some libertarians might offer a root-cause model in which the underlying problem is state power, always fundamentally violent (regardless of the economy); police violence is a predictable manifestation.

  • A cyclical model is built of components that affect each other, often reciprocally or in loops. For instance, perhaps racial discrimination worsens poverty, poverty increases the prevalence of crime, and crime exacerbates poverty by raising costs for victims and perpetrators and by discouraging investment. Those elements might be only a few parts of a more elaborate cyclical model.

This kind of model resists the notion of a “root” and instead encourages us to “break the cycle” by acting on vulnerable links. For example, reforming police union contracts would not address white supremacy, but it might break a specific cycle that involves impunity for violent officers, and that change could have positive effects across a connected system.

  • An organizational model would treat the NYPD as an entity with a mission, budget, personnel, and outcomes. We might presume that by changing the organization, we can get different outcomes. For instance, it may matter what the NYPD measures when it assesses its employees. Should officers be promoted for making many arrests for minor offenses, or not?

We might consider two variants of an organizational model:

  • In one, the NYPD is fundamentally a bureaucracy, per Max Weber. It is made of people who have clear responsibilities within a hierarchy. Bureaucracies are supposed to make reliable, predictable decisions. However, some degree of discretion is inevitable, and bureaucracies strive to handle human choices by either (a) minimizing discretion or (b) ensuring that bureaucrats are as professional as possible. Professionalism means competence and trustworthiness. Per Michael Lipsky (1969), police are “street-level bureaucrats,” faced with constant discretionary decisions. If data show that actual police officers’ choices are biased or otherwise detrimental, then they should either (a) lose discretion or (b) become more professional as a result of better hiring and training.
  • In another variant of the organizational model, the NYPD is a public agency. The people of New York vote for elected leaders, who appoint senior police officers as their agents. If we object to the outcomes, then (a) a majority of voters have the wrong beliefs or values, or (b) the electoral system is flawed so that elected leaders don’t represent the people, or (c) those leaders’ will is being frustrated by their agents.
  • In a genealogical model, the NYPD and related institutions (such as the New York City Public Schools) derive from predecessors. Like you and me, these organizations have ancestors that are responsible for much that’s true about them today. Among the NYPD’s predecessors were slave patrols that arose in 19th century America to prevent enslaved people from escaping to freedom. However, institutions typically have many ancestors, not just one, and the NYPD could also be traced back to village constables in England or to law enforcement bureaucracies in 19th century France and Germany. (After all, the word “police” is French.) The point of a genealogical model is to uncover historical causes that may require recompense, reparation, and repair.
  • In a behavioral model, you might think of human beings as a species that has proclivities to violence (including sexual violence) as well as tendencies to cooperation and care. You might think that mass societies with high degrees of anonymity will permit violence unless it is surveilled and deterred. Relatedly, you might think of peace and social order as collective goods that pose dilemmas at large scales. (Why should individuals sacrifice to protect strangers against violence?) In that case, police departments might represent solutions to a problem of collective action. This analysis is not necessarily conservative–in the sense of protective of the status quo–because the 30,000 armed police officers of the NYPD represent at least an implicit source of violence. A behavioral model might suggest that the police also need surveillance and deterrence. And we might consider alternative ways of achieving the collective good of peace, without armed officers.
  • In an interest group model, the population of New York City is configured into many organized groups, although some people (such as unlicensed street vendors like Eric Garner) may not have effective organizations. Groups gain power from numbers and/or money. Among the most relevant groups in this case are the police unions, civil rights organizations, the city’s Democratic Party and specific political campaigns, and business interests. The reality on the streets is the result of competition and negotiation among interest groups. The best way to change outcomes is to form or strengthen groups that reflect the interests that concern you.

Different types of models can certainly be merged. That said, a model should not be excessively complicated, because the point is to enable wise judgement. A huge page of symbols and arrows will not yield clarity.

Also, there is a risk of letting our initial assumptions drive everything, so that we go looking for any components that confirm what we already thought. (A genealogical argument here, a bit of root-cause rhetoric, a specific proposal for breaking a vicious cycle ….) I think we are more likely to learn something new by following the logic of a particular model to its conclusion and then seriously considering alternatives to it.

See also: social education as learning to improve models; making our models explicit; police discrimination, race, and community poverty; the political economy of policing; professionals as grizzled veterans or as reflective learners; what must we believe?; and Complexities of Civic Life.

social education as learning to improve models

Some theses for consideration:

  1. Everyone who acts to change society has a mental model that represents portions of the social world.
  2. It is better for our models to be explicit in our own minds, so that we can be clear about what we are assuming and open to changing our assumptions.
  3. Our models must be sufficiently complex. (For instance, if you think that the Israel-Palestine conflict has just two parties, that is unacceptably simple.) But a model cannot be as complex as reality. Modeling is a matter of judicious simplification.
  4. Our models may include causal elements: e.g., “This phenomenon affects that one.” But they also inevitably reflects values. It is better for the value components to be explicit. They may take the form of ideals, goals, specific injustices, and other objects. Or they may be normative connections among objects, such as: “This situation merits that response.”
  5. A model may be an application of a more general framework to specific circumstances. In that case, we are obliged to have a good framework and to apply it correctly.
  6. We must check our models against events, observations, and other kinds of information from the world.
  7. We must compare our model to other models (and our framework to other frameworks) and constantly reconsider whether the alternatives offer insights. The assessment of social models is comparative: it’s a question of choosing the best model for the situation, given the alternatives. If we don’t seriously consider other models, we are not thinking hard about our own.

I think that educating for responsible civic participation is substantially about developing the skill of forming and improving social models. I am very skeptical of curricula–at any level–that offer students one model. That is not even a satisfactory way of understanding the model that is presented, because full understanding requires comparison. And it discourages the essential civic skill of critically assessing one’s model.

See also: making our models explicit; decoding institutions; a template for analyzing an institution