(Los Angeles) Academics and scholars most commonly relate to institutions, movements, or fields of practice by assessing them. They identify the underlying theory or rationale of a given practical effort and assess its plausibility and its consistency with principles of justice. They also observe the actual performance of the practice to date and render judgments about success or failure.
Since my undergraduate days, I’ve instinctively adopted a different stance toward fields of practice. I’ve seen them basically as groups of people. I’ve never taken their theories completely seriously, because I expect them to evolve. And I’ve never seen the empirical data about success or failure so far as dispositive, because I assume that efforts will fail until they are refined and improved. You can start from many premises and get good results if you are open to reflection and change. The theory is less important than it seems.
Fields of practice are working communities of people who are either worth joining or not. What inclines me to want to join a group is a sense of its members’ motivations (in a very general sense) and their capacity or potential. Once I feel that I’m part of the group, I adopt a stance of loyalty. That doesn’t prevent me from making critical comments, either privately or publicly, if that seems helpful to the cause, but it does pose a question about any possible communication: is it helpful?
In this general mode, I’ve found myself part of the following fields or movements since my undergraduate days in the late 1980s:
- public deliberation and dialogue
- university/community partnerships
- campaign finance reform
- public or civic journalism
- k-12 civic education
- relational community organizing
- certain political campaigns
- Action Civics
Clearly, these efforts share some principles or norms. Of the enormous variety of projects and groups that are active around us, most wouldn’t appeal to me as much as these. In We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For, I tried to analyze and defend the norms underlying the fields that I most admire in generic terms. Still, I don’t go around looking for movements that match all these principles. Instead, I tend to join movements that seem appealing and then try to reflect on their emergent principles.
Relating to fields of practice in this way sometimes causes misunderstandings. I’ve noticed that sometimes people expect me to endorse the underlying “theory of change” of a given field very strongly and are disappointed when I won’t. I usually cannot say that a given strategy or premise is the best one available, because I don’t really believe that. Instead, I think that a field or movement turns into what people make of it. So I see myself as a member who wants to make the movement as good as it can be, not as an independent scholar who has judged the movement and found it superior to others.
See also: loyalty to place in the age of jet-set academia; bringing loyalty back; Albert O. Hirschman on exit, voice, and loyalty; and “Seeing Like a Citizen: The Contributions of Elinor Ostrom to ‘Civic Studies‘” (because I see Ostrom as having a similar stance).