Monthly Archives: December 2018

what the humanities contribute to interdisciplinary research projects

Cases for Culture is an initiative that explores “a Hybrid Genre of Scholarship between STEM and the Humanities.” One of the cases on its website is an interdisciplinary study that I am part of. We are investigating the impact of a new arts center on Boston’s Chinatown, with a focus on whether it combats the negative consequences of gentrification. Our team encompasses humanists from Drama & Dance and social scientists from Public Health and Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning, with me (a philosopher morphed into some kind of social scientist) as the PI.

The question for this post is: What do the humanities contribute? What can they offer that is not available from the social and behavioral sciences? I’d suggest:

  1. Answers to the question: What is this thing? What should we call this human-made practice, artifact, or phenomenon? What adjectives may we apply to it?
  2. Is it good? “Good” here is a shorthand for other value-laden concepts, such as “authentic,” “equitable,” “beautiful,” “liberatory,” and many more.

In our study of the Pao Arts Center in Chinatown, I take these to be social science questions: Who attends arts events? Why? What happens to them as a result? What are the broader consequences? How and why is the Center supported?

But I take these to be humanities questions: What are the performances that people see at Pao? For instance, is a given performance rightly named a “classical Chinese opera”? If so, what does that mean? What are its origins and boundaries and how has it varied? Or: what is the building in which Pao is situated? Is it a “modern” high-rise? A work of “Western” architecture? And can we call a specific classical Chinese opera performed in a specific way in a particular 21st-century high-rise in Boston’s Chinatown “authentic,” “traditional,” “innovative,” “appropriated,” “self-conscious,” “popular,” “elitist,” or “subversive”?

To address those questions, one must interpret the cultural product itself. Putting the interpretation together with social scientific findings about causation creates a powerful hybrid. Only through this combination can one say whether it is desirableto introduce a certain genre or style of culture into this social context.

Some caveats:

First, the disciplines are not as sharply distinguishable as I have implied. Any person can contribute to inquiries within any discipline (if given appropriate support and a willingness to learn). And each discipline is continuous with everyday human cognition. Even astrophysics is a distant extension of our ordinary interactions with physical objects and our naked-eye stargazing. Still, disciplines extend our everyday cognition in impressive ways. Like other forms of specialization, they enable greater sophistication. The humanities dramatically extend our everyday capacity for interpreting the deliberate creations of other human beings.

Second, in claiming that the humanities address the question “What is this?” I do not imply that a given artifact has an essence. The Pao Arts Center, for example, is an assemblage of very diverse performances, each performed by many people who have diverse intentions, for notably heterogeneous audiences in a complex space that evolves over time. So any responsible answer to the question, “What is the Pao Arts Center?” must be long and complicated. It’s an essay question, not multiple-choice. But that simply reinforces the importance of the question. A cultural product is not like a chemical compound that has predictable effects in a body. Complex as chemistry may be, culture is much more so.

Third, I don’t mean that humanists monopolize normative (moral, ethical, political, and aesthetic) judgment. All human beings have rights to make their own judgments; claiming expertise about the right and the good is problematic. Still, the humanities tend to pose relatively subtle questions that have normative implications–not “Was that a good show?” but rather “Was that a traditional rendition of the opera?” “In what ways was it innovative?” Expertise is useful for these questions. Also, the humanities demand reasons for normative claims. In a peer-reviewed article, you don’t just assert that a work of art was (for example) “appropriated.” You argue for that thesis. Thus the humanities represent the everyday practice of deliberation–giving reasons for value-laden interpretations–made more sophisticated by specialization.

See also what are the humanities? (basic points for non-humanists)an empirical study of the humanitiescan the arts mitigate the harms of gentrification? A project in Boston’s Chinatown; the Tisch Program in Public Humanities; and how to tell if you’re doing good

Habermas with a Whiff of Tear Gas: Nonviolent Campaigns and Deliberation in an Era of Authoritarianism

Just published: Levine, Peter (2018) “Habermas with a Whiff of Tear Gas: Nonviolent Campaigns and Deliberation in an Era of Authoritarianism,” Journal of Public Deliberation: Vol. 14 : Iss. 2 , Article 4. 


Authoritarianism is gaining around the world. Statistics show that deliberation shrinks when authoritarianism grows. In the face of authoritarian repression, directly promoting and organizing deliberation is likely to fail. However, Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan (2011) find that nonviolent campaigns have a strong record of success against authoritarian states. Although nonviolent campaigns are not themselves deliberative or aimed at building deliberative democracy, I argue that some of the reasons that make them successful also stand to benefit public deliberation. Thus the most promising strategy for expanding deliberation in an increasingly authoritarian world is to support nonviolent campaigns and to reinforce strategies of nonviolent confrontation that also yield deliberation. Jürgen Habermas anticipated this argument in his defense of social movements. Revisiting that aspect of Habermas’ thought challenges interpretations that treat him as a theorist of calm, rational discourse.

I’m grateful to the Journal of Public Deliberation for commissioning this piece. At first, I wasn’t sure I had an article to contribute, but now I see its thesis as fairly central to my political philosophy. I’ve long been drawn to deliberative modes of politics, in which people listen and learn before they act. But I have also always believed in contentious politics: nonviolent but confrontational modes like strikes and occupations. Here I put them together.

This is also the first appearance in peer-reviewed form of my “SPUD” framework, which has proven useful in more practical contexts. For instance, I presented it at an #Indivisible gathering that ended up in this Washington Post article.

Finally, I’m grateful to appear in the special issue on “Deliberative Democracy in an Era of Authoritarianism.” The other articles are good and make a coherent whole. A running question is whether carefully designed deliberative fora (“minipublics”) are part of the solution to authoritarianism, irrelevant to authoritarianism, or a potential tool of repression. If they are part of the solution, what else is needed to accompany them? I’m close to the part of the spectrum that says “they’re irrelevant,” but the range is helpful.

you can go home again

(Syracuse, NY) I’m in the city where I was born and raised but haven’t resided in 33 years. 

One result of this kind of visit is to make the intervening years fold away like a picture book put back on its shelf. When we travel to foreign places, I find that all the vivid new experiences stretch time. The journey feels long; regular life feels distant. But as soon as we’re in the airport on the way back home, the days of travel shrink to a finite memory, as if we’d had a few moments away.

The same can happen to decades. A third of a century seems rich and complex while you live it, but returning to where you began shrinks those years back to size.

Another result is a reminder of how little detail we retain. I once knew all kinds of information: What would you see if you turned that corner? Who lives in that house? What minor joy or sorrow once accompanied that building for me? It’s all flattened by the slow passage of years.

See also Mike Kelley, Jim Shaw, and memories of Rust Belt adolescencethe Times’ poverty mapportrait of a librarymy home as described by Stephen Dunn; and three poems about the passage of time: nostalgia for nowechoes; and the hourglass.

armchair quarterbacking Chuck and Nancy

Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer left the White House with a priceless quote from Donald Trump: 

 And I’ll tell you what, I am proud to shut down the government for border security … So I will take the mantle. I will be the to shut it down. I’m not going to blame you for it. The last time you shut it down it didn’t work. I will take the mantle of shutting down, and I’m going to shut it down for border security.

It’s no surprise that after the meeting, Trump hopped around the West Wing flinging papers like Rumpelstiltskin. I also appreciate why people are expressing support and solidarity for Nancy Pelosi after she got talked over by the world’s most blatant sexist mansplainer.

Still, I thought the two senior Democrats talked like professional politicians in ways that are problematic.

  • Don’t say that you want to have the discussion in private. That looks like a shady preference for backroom deals. I understand that the future Speaker wanted to get a real deal that would keep the government open–thus helping millions of Americans–and she feared that Trump would back himself into a corner in a public argument, thus preventing a deal. Her motives were good. But you don’t say that you want to meet in private. If the meeting is going to be televised, you use it as a public debate about what is best for the country.
  • Don’t say “The Washington Post today gave you a lot of Pinocchios.” That creates a conflict between Trump and a media product (the Post’s Fact Checker feature) that many will not recognize and few will trust. Simply state that Trump has not built any of the wall. Dare him to claim that he has. Ask him what proportion of the 2,000 mile border he thinks he has already walled. 
  • Don’t get into a debate about whether the House should vote or not. Trump is right that his bill can’t pass the Senate without Democratic votes. Which body votes when is Inside Baseball. Stick to the substance. The wall is a bad idea and you will oppose it.
  • Don’t quip, “When the president brags that he won North Dakota and Indiana, he’s in real trouble.” Sen. Schumer knows that these are red states that the Republicans were expected to win. But he sounds like a New Yorker with contempt for two states in the Midwest. Or, at best, he sounds like a competitor in the sport of winning the most elections. The issue is the wall. Is it good or bad for America? Is it worth a government shutdown?
  • Don’t miss opportunities to score debating points. “I thought Mexico was going to pay for the wall, Mr President?” “Here’s a deal, Mr. President–you can say you already built the wall and we won’t have to pay for it.”

Perhaps I am asking for more rhetorical vim, and that’s not a fair demand of two consummate legislative tacticians. But I think I am also asking for leaders who talk to the American people as citizens rather than as spectators of the game of politics.

Cooperative Congressional Election Study and Tisch College of Civic Life: Postdoctoral Fellowship

Tufts University will award a Post-Doctoral Fellowship to a scholar with expertise in American political behavior and survey data analysis for the 2019-20 academic year. The Fellowship is partly funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation and will be awarded to a scholar with a Ph.D. in Political Science or a related discipline with research interests that intersect with the Cooperative Congressional Election Study (CCES). Applicants should have completed the requirements for their Ph.D. by the time of appointment, which is planned for August 1st, 2019.

The post-doc will be located at Tufts University in the Department of Political Science and in the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life. The primary responsibilities for the successful candidate will be to assist with the release and analysis of the 2018 CCES. The post-doc will work directly with Professor Brian Schaffner and will help prepare technical materials related to the CCES, in addition to being involved in planning for the 2020 CCES. In addition to working on their own research, the post-doc will also be expected to collaborate on CCES-related research papers with Schaffner and the other CCES co-PIs, with the aim of producing several publications in peer-reviewed outlets. The post-doc will also have the opportunity to work on research for other projects in Tisch College, including the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) and the Institute for Democracy & Higher Education (IDHE). The post-doc will have the opportunity to participate in the Summer Institute of Civic Studies (a seminar for faculty, advanced graduate students, and practitioners) at Tisch College from June 20-28, 2019 and will be expected to be part of the Tisch College community, attending talks and events.


Scholar with a Ph.D. in the field of Political Science or in a related discipline who is not yet tenured. Proficiency in Stata or R statistical programs.

Application Instructions

All applications must be submitted via Applications should include: (1) a cover letter which includes a description of your research plans, particularly as they relate to the CCES; (2) your CV; (3) one writing sample; and (4) three letters of recommendation which should be uploaded by your recommenders to Interfolio directly.

Review of applications will begin February 1, 2019 and will continue until the position is filled.

Questions about the position should be addressed to Professor Brian Schaffner at

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