Monthly Archives: November 2012

the Deliberative Democracy Handbook in Chinese

This is the cover of the Deliberative Democracy Handbook, edited by John Gastil and me, in Chinese. It was published in Taiwan, and the back cover says (according to Google’s translation, as edited by me):

“Twenty years after the lifting of martial law, we are still on the bumpy road to democracy. We  need to reconstruct the relationship between citizens and the state and think about more possibilities for citizens to participate. This book will open our imagination to democratic deepening. “- Tie-chi (political commentator) …

Let people who hold different beliefs and values be in dialogue– from listening to the formation of consensus–and produce better, more specific and viable policy options. The new global wave of democratic reform, “deliberative democracy,” is breaking through the dilemmas of democracy in advanced countries such as Denmark, Germany, the United States, Australia, and Brazil.

It’s interesting that the cover shows a fist, whereas the English-language version shows hands clasping in agreement. I like the confrontational imagery of the Taiwanese edition–for even deliberative forms of democracy involve power. (A Japanese edition is in progress as well.)

against methodological individualism or why neighborhoods are not like broccoli

I am reading Robert Sampson’s Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect, which William Julius Wilson calls “one of the most comprehensive and sophisticated studies ever conducted by a social scientist.” Sampson makes a strong case for considering neighborhoods (which are examples of settings or contexts) separately from individual people, and then looking empirically at how the two are related. That is a different approach from assuming that people are the only real or important social entities, whereas things like neighborhoods are mere amalgams of variables. His method also challenges the widespread application of medical treatment models to social issues.

Consider, for example, broccoli. Eating broccoli is a behavior of individuals. Its probability is influenced by an individual’s tastes, desires and beliefs; the availability, market demand, and cost of the vegetable; the alternatives; and prevailing social meanings. We observe a positive correlation between eating broccoli and health. The question is whether the broccoli causes the good health outcomes, when lots of other factors might be implicated. For instance, maybe people who eat broccoli are also people who smoke less. So we control for as many other factors as we can. Ideally, we experiment by giving a randomly selected treatment group broccoli and comparing them to a control group.

Neighborhoods are also observed to correlate very strongly with individuals’ outcomes. People are much healthier, wealthier, and safer in some neighborhoods than in others–in Stockholm as well as Chicago. So it is tempting to treat a neighborhood like broccoli, and examine its impact on residents while holding other factors constant. There are even randomized experiments in which people are given vouchers to move into new neighborhoods. But here are several reasons why neighborhoods are not like broccoli:

  • Neighborhoods are defined relatively. Everyone could eat broccoli, but everyone cannot live in a given city’s most fashionable neighborhood. If people were randomly assigned to move into the most fashionable (or hippest, or most dangerous) neighborhood, it would lose its character.
  • Neighborhoods are connected. If you switch from French fries to broccoli, no connection is created between the two vegetables. But if lots of people move from Chinatown to Flushing (Queens), the two communities are changed by means of the important new links between them.
  • Neighborhoods are spatially related. If Neighborhood B lies between A and C, then residents of B are probably affected by conditions in A and C–unless, for example, a gigantic Interstate separates B from C. Also, A and B may both belong to a larger district that excludes C. One cannot tell the relationships among neighborhoods without mapping them spatially (whereas one can see which vegetables people eat by examining individuals’ choices).
  • Neighborhoods are influenced by the reasons people live in them. Broccoli is broccoli whether your mother makes you eat it or you love it stir-fried with chillies. But some neighborhoods are open destinations of choice–everyone who can afford the rent is welcome, and that is part of their charm. Others are racially segregated or deeply traditional, so that an outsider would feel uncomfortable or unsafe moving in. The “effects” of a neighborhood on its residents are often related to the way that people come to live in it.
  • Neighborhoods matter intrinsically. Regardless of its effect on residents, we might like to preserve Greenwich Village (or The Mission, or Koreatown). The neighborhood’s survival does not trump human concerns, but it adds an extra concern. In contrast, nutritionists don’t care about broccoli except as means to promote health.
  • Perceptions of neighborhoods linger even when their populations or features change, creating lasting effects. Sampson finds, for example, that perceptions of neighborhoods’ disorder in Chicago are weakly related to actual disorder yet predict poverty rates years later, as people choose to relocate and invest in neighborhoods they perceive as orderly. (Unfortunately, both Black and White observers use the proportion of the population that is Black, rather than any objective signs of disorder, to decide which neighborhoods are disorderly.)

One of Sampson’s great contributions is to help develop ways of directly assessing contexts, not merely individuals’ perceptions or experiences of their environments. He and his colleagues call that science ecometrics, although I find that the same word has also been claimed for a branch of ecological economics.

(Those thoughts are loosely inspired by Sampson, not meant as a paraphrase.  See also “more to life than individual attributes.”)

centers for politics in higher ed

I am spending today at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at St. Anselm’s College in Manchester, NH. I will give a public talk here and also meet to discuss the Institute’s programs. I’ve done much the same thing (i.e., speak and consult) at several similar centers, including the Graham Center for Public Service at the University of Florida, PACE (the Political and Civic Engagement Program) at Indiana University, and the Institute for Policy and Civic Engagement at University of Illinois-Chicago. I also serve on the advisory boards of the Center for Civic Literacy at IUPUI in Indianapolis, Cambridge University’s Forum for Youth Participation & Democracy; the Center for Engaged Democracy at Merrimack College; and the California Civic Engagement Project at UC-Davis. I am recently back from the Netter Center for Community Partnerships at Penn, and I work full-time for the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service at Tufts.

In reflecting on these centers (and many others that I know more vicariously), I see some common themes and strategic choices:

They are all nonpartisan efforts, but they are concerned, in part, with explicitly political participation. They challenge two prevailing trends. In political science, politics is treated remotely and dispassionately, as something to be analyzed but not practiced by the political scientist or student. Meanwhile, in community service and service-learning, explicitly political action is often marginal or even discouraged. In contrast, most of these centers cite political action in their mission statements.

They almost all seek to combine practical experiences for students (such as internships or service projects) with academic study, plus intellectually challenging events and discussions, faculty-led research, and collaborations between the college or university and its neighbors.

They are almost all physical places on campuses that attract people with political and civic interests, but without a bias toward a particular ideology or party.

The differences among the centers are also significant. They indicate the choices one would have to make in starting or reorienting a center like this:

  • Geographical scope. Local, regional, national, or international?
  • Type of engagement or participation. Should the center emphasize deliberation (as at Colorado State’s Center for Public Deliberation)? Or preparation for public service careers? Or activism for social justice? Or policy analysis?
  • Place in the curriculum. Should the center offer a a certificate, as at PACE, or a minor, as at the Graham Center? One specialized course or short list of courses, like “Education for Active Citizenship” at Tufts? A co-curricular leadership program, like the Graham Center’s Civic Scholars, or the Bonner Network‘s more than 75 programs nationwide?
  • Role of faculty. Does the center promote research on politics and policy, broadly defined? Or research on citizen engagement in politics, as at Illinois-Chicago? Or research on civic education, as at IUPUI? Or research that requires civic engagement, such as participatory-action research?
  • Public programs and products. The Graham Center, for example, serves the whole state by offering high-profile conferences on state and national issues. Harvard’s Institute of Politics does the same with a national and global focus. The California Civic Engagement Center produces reports on topics like voting rates in California counties. The Illinois-Chicago center maintains a web portal for Chicago citizens.

Clearly, no single recipe is best, but these are some of the tradeoffs and choices that any institution must address.


Why the Garden Club Couldn’t Save Youngstown

Sean Safford’s book Why the Garden Club Couldn’t Save Youngstown (Harvard University Press, 2009) is essential reading for anyone concerned with active citizenship and civil society. Safford poses a contrast between Youngstown, OH and Allentown, PA, two old steel cities that were economically and demographically indistinguishable when the fatal crisis hit the American steel industry in the 1970s. Youngstown entered a downward spiral and now has a median household income of $25,000, median home value of $52,000, a male life expectancy of 73 and a murder rate of 12.6 deaths per 100,000. Meanwhile, Allentown has turned into a successful post-industrial economic center with a median household income of $34,000, median home value of $144,000, male life expectancy of 76 and a murder rate of 4.5 per capita. (These are statistics that I have collected.)

Safford traces the starkly different outcomes to the civic infrastructure of the two cities. In the steel era, both had economic networks dominated by the interlocking boards of their local businesses. And both had social networks composed of private clubs. But only Allentown really had a separate, robust civic network. Safford defines “civic organizations [as] those for which the primary goal is to improve the community in some way” (p. 75). In Allentown, the universities’ boards and the Boy Scouts were among the most prominent civic groups. Youngstown also had civic organizations, but not a network of overlapping civic boards. When the economic crisis killed Youngstown’s businesses and left the local elite competing for scarce financial resources, they had no place to gather, plan, and collaborate. But in Allentown, local leaders talked and cooperated in their overlapping civic organizations.

Their discussions led to specific new initiatives, like the Ben Franklin Technology Partnership, which has incubated high-tech businesses. They also developed new overall strategies. The business elite, organized as a civic cadre through the Lehigh Valley Partnership, converged on a similar development strategy as the grassroots activist groups, organized as the Community Action Coalition. Meanwhile, Lehigh University reoriented itself as a civic hub with links to both activists and business (p.131).

Allentown has not drawn more external investment than Youngstown but has used its indigenous capital much more effectively, with less damaging competition (p. 125). Importantly, it was not the number of associations or the rate of associational membership that mattered. Rather, organizations were configured into a network that encouraged deliberation and collaboration in Allentown, but not in Youngstown. In national data, we find a correlation between the number of civic organizations per capita and a community’s economic success, but Safford’s closer look suggests that the density of organizations is probably just a rough proxy for the strength of the local network that permits discussion, collaboration, and relationship-building.

(See my post from years ago on Youngstown’s political corruption, which is related to its weak civic infrastructure. See also “economic benefits of civic engagement” and “civic engagement strengthens employment: the case builds.”)

Jack Gilbert, A Brief for the Defense

The poet Jack Gilbert died this week. One of his most famous poems is “A Brief for the Defense,” from which I quote a couple of excerpts:

Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving
somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.
But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants.
Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not
be made so fine. …

If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.

The charge against us is that we enjoy life despite others’ suffering. Does the defense (quoted above) make a good case on our behalf? Does it depend on the mention of God? Or is there a secular, ethical case for relishing life despite suffering?

Some years ago, I would have said that the best way to live is not to count one’s own happiness more than anyone else’s. My welfare or happiness should (ideally) represent about one seven-billionth of my concern. Now I am not so sure. I think that subjective happiness is only roughly correlated with objective conditions, such as prosperity and freedom. As Gilbert puts it in this poem, “There is laughter / every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta.” On the other hand, people are generally bad at being happy, we cannot make each other happy, and a world in which we all strove for each other’s happiness would be strangely empty. Everyone would be taking in other people’s laundry. Emerson and Nietzsche put the point too strongly, but they has an insight. Not only demanding justice for others but also achieving happiness for ourselves is a worthy moral objective. (See also my posts on “all that matters is equanimity, community, and truth,” “unhappiness and injustice are different problems,” and “Mill’s question: If you achieved justice, would you be happy?.”)