(On a flight to Milwaukee): At a meeting earlier this week, experts and advocates debated data on the civic participation of particular disadvantaged groups. The groups we were talking about don’t vote or volunteer, according to surveys conducted by the Census Bureau and other authorities. A crucial question arose: Do we believe that voting and volunteering rates measure worthwhile forms of behavior? Why don’t we measure, for example, business deals that build the strength of an ethnic community? Or the kind of deliberate foot-dragging and noncompliance that is often the resort of poor people when faced with oppressive power?
It occurred to me that we don’t have theories that tell us how an individual should act to cause social change. There are plenty of theories that try to explain when and why social change occurs, e.g., because of revolutions in the means of production, technological innovations, shifts in demographics and geographical distribution, crises of rising expectations, failures of the prevailing ideology to match reality …. But there are not many theories about what you or I should do if we have political goals. The standard theories sometimes even suggest that you and I can do nothing, because social change is not influenced by deliberate human action–but that view is surely overstated. I may be missing useful theories, but all I can think of are nostrums about the power of small-scale collective action, by the likes of Margaret Mead, Einstein, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King. I find their advice more inspirational than analytical.
If there were a true academic discipline of citizenship, one of its main questions would be: What are the best strategies for obtaining social change if you are an individual situated in various ways? That would be quite different from a more standard question in political science, which is: Why do institutions and policies change? If we could answer the first question, then we could say much more about the kinds of civic engagement that are most valuable for people in various situations. That would be much better than the standard approach right now, which is simply to use the available data to measure “participation,” as if it were self-evident that voting and volunteering are effective.