making our models explicit

We owe it to ourselves to develop an explicit model of any situation that concerns us. Whether we choose to share our model with other people is a choice, but we should always be ready to describe it to ourselves.

A good model simplifies reality in a way that enables wise judgments. It should include the most significant components of the situation and link them together. It will certainly not be complete or conclusive; in fact, an important reason to make our model explicit is to help think about what it may omit, what it assumes without sufficient evidence, how it may appear wrong to people who’ve had different experiences, and how it would change if the world changed.

In our Introduction to Civic Studies course so far this fall, we have already explored various models. For instance, Elinor Ostrom and her colleagues developed a template for modeling almost any institution, the Institutional Analysis and Design (IAD) framework. I discuss that framework in this 11-minute recorded lecture. (I also offer an introductory lecture about Ostrom). Later, we examined the social theory of Jürgen Habermas, which I presented as a model involving the Lifeworld, Public Sphere, and Systems in this 29-minute lecture. Both examples can be represented in the form of flow charts. But we also unpacked Robert Putnam’s model of social capital, in which the main construct–composed of numerous elements–causes good social outcomes (see this 18-minute lecture). And we discussed the mental model that guided the leaders of the Montgomery Bus Boycott when they chose to target the city’s bus company.

As these examples suggest, models can come in many forms. They need not be presented visually; Putnam’s model is an equation, and narratives also work. (We read a little of Pierre Bourdieu, who presented a model in the form of an emblematic story.) The components can be many kinds of things, from actors to psychological constructs to ideals. And the connections can be equally various. One component may cause or influence another, or it may exemplify, help to compose, encompass, intend, ground, block, explain, or evolve into another part of the model.

I would go so far as to describe making and critically assessing one’s own models as a fundamental civic skill.

See also: two models for analyzing policy; why social scientists should pay attention to metaphysics; individuals in cultures: the concept of an idiodictuon

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.