Monthly Archives: August 2019

civically engaged research in political science #APSA2019

(Washington, DC) Rogers Smith concluded his presidential address at the American Political Science Association’s annual meeting with a call for more engaged scholarship, which I would define as co-producing knowledge with people who belong to the communities being studied. Smith said that if political scientists had conducted more civically engaged research with such communities as African Americans after the Civil Rights era, gay Americans after Stonewall, industrial workers after deindustrialization, or rural whites since 2000, the discipline would have been better prepared to understand important political developments that have ensued–and those constituencies would trust political science more.*

Strengthening engaged scholarship in political science is a personal commitment of mine. Thanks to Smith’s leadership, colleagues and I offer the APSA Institute for Civically Engaged Research (ICER) through Tufts’ Tisch College. The first ICER was held last June, and the next one will be in 2020.

I believe that there are few fully documented, peer-reviewed examples of civically engaged projects in political science–especially compared to the large body of such studies in fields like public health. Many political scientists actually conduct civically engaged research, and they do it well. But peer-reviewed publications generally report only the findings of such studies, with hypotheses, data, and conclusions. It’s very rare to document the partnership that produced the research. The best examples that I have found are not peer-reviewed but are put online by institutes committed to the process of partnerships, such as MIT’s GovLab, or by the nonprofit organizations that collaborate with political scientists. There is also some important writing about collaboration, but without much detail about specific projects.

The shortage of fully-documented, peer-reviewed examples means that civically engaged research is not sufficiently valued in the discipline. The work involved in building and maintaining relationships only pays off to the extent that it results in generalizable findings that can be presented as if they came without a partnership.

Another result is that it’s hard to teach engaged scholarship. Appropriate reading assignments are scarce. Many of our readings for ICER did not come from political science. Relatedly, it is hard to discuss some of the serious issues that arise for engaged research in political science, because there is a scarcity of texts that explicitly address such issues.

A third consequence is that the partners who influence political science go unrepresented. One of my great heroes is Elinor Ostrom, whose work richly deserved the Nobel Prize that she won. She was an exemplary partner of many grassroots groups, from Indianapolis to Nepal, and learned a great deal from them. But they are not visible in her published work.

I suspect that one cause is the relatively strong grip of a certain form of positivism in political science, compared to fields like public health, education, and anthropology. The peer-review process focuses on findings and evidence, not process.

Another reason is that civically engaged research in political science presents special challenges. The discipline is not defined by a single methodological toolkit. Political scientists use methods that overlap with those employed in other fields, from the interpretation of classical texts to ethnography to econometrics. What defines the discipline is an explicit focus on power, authority, and governance.

When nonprofit organizations or social movements and networks focus explicitly on power, authority, and governance, we think of them as “political” entities. We readily assign partisan and ideological labels to them. For an academic, it can be tricky to work with groups that are political, let alone partisan. One solution is to downplay the partnership and simply report the findings. (Get-out-the-vote works, for example.)

The problem in a field like public health is that issues of power tend to be overlooked or concealed. But the problem for political science is that those issues are front-and-center.

Engaged research requires such values as loyalty, reciprocity, and trust. A scholar who forms a partnership with a non-academic group must commit (to some extent) to the needs and agendas of that group. If its agenda is political, such a commitment poses at least a potential challenge to the academic’s need to be nonpartisan, intellectually honest, and independent. We witnessed this tension during ICER when an excellent local elected official visited and basically told the political scientists that unless their work advances her agenda, it is part of the problem.

My conclusion is that Smith’s call for more engaged research in political science is an ambitious one. We do have the asset of plenty of political scientists who are quietly involved in exemplary partnerships. We do not–yet–have a sufficient body of explicit examples that help to build knowledge of how to do partnerships well.

*This is my paraphrase based on memory; some of the details may be wrong. See also: The American Political Science Association Institute for Civically Engaged Research (ICER) at Tisch College this summer; engaged political science; scholarship on engaged scholarship; Participatory Action Research as Civic Studies; and conservative engaged scholarship

courses that count for the Civic Studies major at Tufts, fall 2019

Required Introductory Course:

CVS 0020/PHIL 0020/PS 0020: Introduction to Civic Studies (Brian Schaffer, Peter Levine) (The syllabus from last semester is here, but it will change somewhat.)

Thinking about Justice:

ENG 176/CVS 0110/PJS 176/ENV 176: Earth Matters (Elizabeth Ammons)
CVS 0014/PHIL 24: Introduction to Ethics (Monica Link)
CVS 0018/PS 0041/PHIL 0041: Western Political Thought (Vickie Sullivan)
CVS 0015/REL 0001: Introduction to Religion (Owen Cornwall)
CVS 0210/UEP 0286: Environmental Ethics (Sheldon Krimsky)
PHIL 0092-03/Env 0095-01 Climate Change Ethics (George Smith)
PHIL 0191:03 Seminar: Race and Black Progress (Lionel McPherson)
SOC 188 Seminar: Du Bois’s Sociological Dream (Freeden Oeur)

Social Conflict, Inequality, and Violence:

CVS 0027/SOC 0011: Sociology of Race & Ethnicity (Staff) PS 121: Seminar: Political Culture in Comparative Perspective (Conuelo Cruz)
CVS 0121/SOC 113: Urban Sociology: Global Perspectives on Space, Inequality and Resistance (Anjuli Fahlberg)
CVS 0129/ECON 144: Income Inequality, Poverty, and Economic Justice (Elizabeth Setren)
HIST 109: Decolonization: Race, Empire, Archive (Kris Manjapra)
SOC 112: Criminology (Daanika Gordon)

Civic Action and Social Movements:

ANTH 144: Media of the Middle East (Amahl Bishara)
CVS 0033/REL 0042/HIST 125/AMER 15: Religion and Politics in American History (Heather Curtis)
CVS 0035/PSY 13: Social Psychology (Keith Maddox)
CVS 0131/SOC 106: Political Sociology (Anjuli Fahlberg)
CVS 0132/CSHD 165: Families, Schools, and Child Development (Christine McWayne)
CVS 0133/PS 0118-02: Organizing for Social Change (Daniel LeBlanc & Kenneth Gladston)
ENG 23/CVS 0031: Dissent & Democracy: American Literature to 1900 (Elizabeth Ammons or Nathan Wolff)

Civic Skills:

AMER 0145: Mass Incarceration and the Literature of Confinement (Hilary Binda)
CVS 0049/PHIL 92-02: Philosophy for Children (Susan Russinoff)
CVS 0145/ENV 120: Introduction to Environmental Fieldwork (Staff)
CVS 0147/CSHD 167: Children and Mass Media (Julie Dobrow)
CVS 150-04: Dialogue, Identity, and Civic Action (Jonathan Garlick)
CVS 0170/CSHD 143-02: Developing Leaders Who Make a Difference: Leadership in Civic Context (Diane Ryan)
CVS 0183/UEP 0130/PJS 0131: Negotiation, Mediation, and Conflict Resolution (Robert Burdick)
ED 164: Education for Peace and Justice (Deborah Donahue-Keegan)
ENV 170/CVS 0149: Environmental Data Analysis and Visualization (Kyle Monahan)
EXP 0079: EPIIC: Education for Public Inquiry and International Citizenship
PJS 50: Science and Civic Action (Jonathan Garlick)

Internship Seminar:

CVS 099: A required internship. This includes a weekly 2.5 hour class with graded assignments and a final project.

on gaffes as evidence of sincere beliefs

Among the many millions of words that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton uttered over the past decade are these two statements. Obama: “They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion …” Clinton: “you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables.” These remarks are widely interpreted as evidence of the politicians’ authentic, private opinions about millions of Americans who are rural, white, lower-income, and tend to vote conservatively.

This method of analysis is practiced across the spectrum. In the midst of a long forum in Iowa, Joe Biden recently said that “poor kids” are “just as talented as white kids,” apparently revealing a hidden worldview in which poor = people of color and success = whiteness.

Michael Kinsley famously defined a “gaffe” as “when a politician tells the truth – some obvious truth he isn’t supposed to say.” Kinsley later clarified that the gaffe reveals “the truth about what he or she is really thinking” (not the truth about the world).

If you are trained to think in terms of representative samples, this method seems invalid. Take a large random sample of, say, Barack Obama’s public comments, and you will not find any pejorative comments about rural Americans. The “cling-to-guns” remark is constantly quoted because it is a statistical outlier. As Kinsley asked (criticizing his own concept): “why should something a politician says by accident — and soon wishes he hadn’t, whether true or not — automatically be taken as a better sign of his or her real thinking than something he or she says on purpose?”

In fact, there is a plausible theoretical reason to interpret gaffes as evidence of sincere beliefs. Let us assume that many individuals hold stable private beliefs about important topics, such as white rural voters or children of color. They realize that some of these beliefs are best kept to themselves. What they believe is unpopular and likely to be condemned. So they exercise mental discipline to block themselves from saying what they believe–most of the time. The problem is that we also have a tendency to state what we do believe. That tendency sometimes defeats the individual’s self-censorship, and out pops a gaffe.

You would not expect a sincere but impolitic belief to be common in the speaker’s discourse. It would not appear with statistical frequency, because self-censorship is pretty effective. But an anomaly is revealing. Why did Biden utter his remark about poor kids and white kids unless, in his private thoughts, poor = minority?

I summarize this theory because I think it can be valid in some cases, and I would not rule out the practice of pouncing on gaffes. But it is worth considering some alternative theoretical frameworks:

Perhaps in addition to some stable private beliefs, we also hold many unstable beliefs–ideas that come and go, that we half-believe or only occasionally believe, that we believe even though we also believe their opposite, that we adopted habitually early on but have sincerely rejected since then, or that we believe until we consider their logical implications, at which point we drop them.

Perhaps there are other common speech acts besides stating a sincere belief or not stating that belief. For example: trying out an idea that you’re not sure is true, saying something that you disbelieve by pure accident, saying something purely for its rhetorical affect, or saying something that you half-believe because you’re trying to make some other point that is salient for you at the time.

Perhaps what we believe is rarely stable because we are strongly influenced by the immediate context, by what we happen to notice at the moment from amid the Jamesian “blooming, buzzing confusion” of the world.

Perhaps conversation is highly relational, so that often what we’re doing when we talk is responding to a discussion partner. Responsiveness can turn into hypocrisy when we say one thing to one audience and a different thing to a different audience, just to win their favor. But responsiveness is also a virtue. Particularly if you consider a topic that isn’t politically or ethically loaded, it can be praiseworthy to be able to say different things to different people, just because you care about them.

To the extent that these theories obtain, deriving information from a gaffe is invalid.

See also character understood in network terms; stability of character; responsiveness as a virtue; marginalizing odious views: a strategy.

conservative engaged scholarship

For the sake of argument, let’s define “engaged scholarship” as …

The organized production of knowledge by groups that include some professional academic researchers and some people who are not academics and belong to the communities, populations, or organizations being studied.

I don’t have a representative sample of projects of engaged scholarship, but I would venture these generalizations:

  1. Often the topics are issues that are priorities on the left or center-left, such as health disparities, access to government services, or environmental damage.
  2. Often the communities that participate in the research lean left: low-income urban neighborhoods, migrant farmworkers, etc. (In 2004, I met with Penn State faculty interested in community-based research and observed that most did not work in their surrounding communities–conservative central Pennsylvania–but drove to Philadelphia to do their engaged research.)
  3. Yet some of the underlying values of this approach can be seen as conservative: a preference for the local and the nonprofit/voluntary sector over Big Government, deep appreciation for local traditions, and a tendency to do something directly about problems rather than trying to win elections to change laws. I’ve even argued that the most authentically Burkean conservative field in the US today is the field that connects universities with communities through service, community-based research, and other partnerships.

Especially given the third point, you’d expect to see conservative engaged scholarship. The academic researchers might vote Republican instead of Democratic or Green, they would work in and with communities that preferred Trump over Clinton, and they would study issues like taxes, regulation, zoning, and abortion (as problems).

But I am hard pressed to find any examples. There are cases in which conservative adolescents conduct research on issues of their choice and scholars support them. But in those cases, the scholars’ focus is usually on the kids and their learning, not the issue that the students have chosen to address.

Why the dearth of conservative engaged scholarship? I can imagine five answers:

  1. It’s not missing; I just haven’t found it. Here is one program at Ashland University that might qualify, and maybe there are more.
  2. Conservatives are simply scarce in the social sciences and relevant humanities (especially in fields like public health and education, in which applied work is most common), and this scarcity explains why not many conservatives do engaged scholarship.
  3. Conservatives have found other rich veins to mine: quantitative economic modeling, Austrian School economics (which is not at all quantitative but is favorable to libertarian principles), constitutional law, and some domains of intellectual history. They’re busy there.
  4. Despite not liking government as much as (some) liberals do, conservatives are more aware of its power, including at the local level. Therefore, they are skeptical that working with a local nonprofit on a research study will make nearly as much difference as, say, running for office or advocating ideas that win elections.
  5. Principled conservatives haven’t yet figured out that they should embrace engaged scholarship. They should develop experience and exemplary cases that strengthen conservative voices in engaged scholarship.

I hope that the last point is true, because it would be good for the gatherings and networks of engaged scholars if they included more conservative concerns, populations, and thinkers.

See also: America’s authentic conservative movement; the left has become Burkean; ideology in academia and elsewhere; trying to keep myself honest; scholarship on engaged scholarship; engaged political science; loyalty in intellectual work; the state humanities councils, connecting the public to scholarship;

Garret Hardin and the extreme right

Garret Hardin’s 1968 Science article entitled “The Tragedy of the Commons” has been cited more than 40,000 times. It is appropriately influential, since the problem he analyzed is pervasive and profound. The example of global warming could kill us all, as could the example with which he began his article: the nuclear arms race.

Hardin saw ubiquitous “tragedies,” situations defined by the “solemnity of the relentless working of things,” “the inevitableness of destiny,” and “the futility of escape” (quoting Alfred North Whitehead). That stance provoked Elinor Ostrom and her colleagues to identify solutions. In place of the tragedy of the commons, Ostrom observed a drama that may end as either a comedy or a tragedy, depending on how we act. I find her response to Hardin extraordinarily important.

Several recent articles have explored Hardin’s apparent connection to radical anti-immigration campaigns. These articles have been prompted by the El Paso murderer’s writings (which have environmentalist echoes) plus the recent death of John Tanton, the founder of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR). Tanton was inspired by Hardin, who served on the FAIR board. See, for example, Matto Mildenberger, “The Tragedy of the Tragedy of the Commons (subtitled: “The man who wrote one of environmentalism’s most-cited essays was a racist, eugenicist, nativist and Islamaphobe—plus his argument was wrong”) and Alexander C. Kaufman, “The El Paso Manifesto: Where Racism and Eco-Facism Meet.”

I don’t have extra insights into Hardin and have not directly evaluated the charges in these articles. But I have long wondered about the strange normative claims in the “Tragedy of the Commons” article.

For instance, at one point, Hardin considers whether a system of private property plus legal inheritance is just. He answers that it is not, because “legal possession should be perfectly correlated with biological inheritance–that those who are biologically more fit to be the custodians of property and power should legally inherit more.” Instead, in our system, “an idiot can inherit millions,” which we “must admit” is unjust, although it does help to prevent a tragedy of the commons by protecting property rights (p. 1247).

Hardin says that this conclusion about justice follows from his training as a biologist. But biology cannot demonstrate that the biologically fittest deserve the most property. Biology should not yield normative conclusions at all. From the perspective of science–the study of nature–there is no justice, not even a reason to prefer environmental sustainability over a tragedy of the commons.

One reason that some people try to derive ethics from biology is naturalism: they posit that there can be no truths about right and wrong, only truths about nature that science uncovers. Therefore, we should replace any ethical claims with scientific ones. In my view, this is misguided, but it isn’t necessarily pernicious; plenty of people who hold decent values are naturalists, in this sense of the word.

A different reason is some kind of enthusiasm for Darwinian nature, understood as a realm of power and selection-of-the-fittest, in contrast to our debased societies that coddle the weak. This is not naturalism but evil. Reading “The Tragedy of the Commons” many times, I always assumed that Hardin was a naturalist, but now I wonder if he was at least tinged by evil.

See also: Seeing Like a Citizen: The Contributions of Elinor Ostrom to “Civic Studies”; against inevitability; is all truth scientific truth?; and does naturalism make room for the humanities?.