Civic Studies at Tufts

In this summer’s issue of Jumbo Magazine (which is sent to prospective Tufts students), I say that Tufts offers “the best mix of experiential [opportunities], like internships and service learning, with academic rigor about civic engagement.”

In this public forum, I should apologize for my competitive claim. If other campuses do more or better than we do, that is good news. But I can elaborate on what I meant.

Virtually every US college or university offers experiential civic education, in the form of student-led groups, service placements and internships, and projects assigned in courses.

Meanwhile, all colleges and universities offer courses relevant to being an effective and responsible citizen, from “Intro to American Government” in political science to courses on specific social issues, to courses that help one to understand cultural identities and differences. Indeed, the liberal arts curriculum as a whole is civic education, if it is done well. (It can be civic mis-education, if it is done very badly.)

However, there is typically a gap between students’ civic experiences and the curriculum. When they are engaged in civic activities, students–like all human beings–usually interact with finite numbers of other individuals within voluntary groups and networks, formal organizations, or enterprises. As individuals and collectively in these groups, they make value-judgments: What counts as a problem? What would be a good outcome? They create and enforce (or undermine and revise) norms that influence their collective behavior. They work together in various ways, producing products and outcomes. And they face characteristic challenges. Some people may slack off, some may misinterpret the purpose of the group, some may mistreat others, and so on.

These issues are addressed in the curriculum, but in a scattered way and not as a major focus. One can learn about ethical judgments in philosophy, about free-rider problems in economics, and about voting procedures in political science. But a student would be hard pressed to identify these relevant aspects of many different courses from various disciplines and put them together.

Hence the Civic Studies Major at Tufts. Our introductory and capstone courses and the electives (including internships) are specifically designed to address the problems of acting together in voluntary groups. These problems have practical significance, and one can learn how to manage them from practical experience. But these problems are also intellectually complex, and one can learn from theory, history, and empirical studies. Our aspiration is put those forms of knowledge together.

See also civic education and the science of association.

do wicked problems justify inclusive processes?

The original article that coined the idea of “wicked problems” has been cited nearly 19,000 times. In their 1973 piece,* Rittel and Webber explained why we lacked fully satisfactory social policies and criticized two popular approaches: expert-designed solutions and maximum individual choice.

Rittel and Webber did not offer an alternative to those two flawed approaches, but many people since then (including me) have argued that wicked problem necessitate inclusive processes. Because social problems have the features Rittel and Webber name, everyone must play a role in defining and addressing problems–continuously and together. Our focus shifts to designing good processes.

In this post, I want to raise a dilemma: inclusive processes must include many people who hold strong and plausible reasons to reject the social theory that leads to the idea of wicked problems in the first place. It is hard to envision a process that is hospitable to people who reject the social theory that justifies it.

But first, what social theory are we talking about? Rittel and Webber offer 10 criteria to define wicked problems. I have summarized their list (with some reorganization) here. For the moment, let’s focus on these specific issues:

“Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but good-or-bad” (p. 162). Yet people disagree about what is good. Furthermore, “Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem” (p. 165). Thus we can endlessly disagree about the center or “locus” of the problem. This is one reason that “There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem” (p. 161). There is no way to develop an exhaustive list of all the possible solutions (p. 164). And “Every wicked problem is essentially unique” (164)

The underlying model in Rittel and Webber is a network of causes and effects. Each problem affects others. There is no root cause. For instance, the issues of racism, poverty, guns, militarization, violent crime, lack of public safety, disinvestment, segregation, substance-abuse, mental illness, educational deficits, etc. are all tangled up. We can intervene at many different points, and each intervention has limitations and challenges. Also, facts cannot be separated from normative judgments, and judgments are permanently contested. For instance, to say that “crime is up this year” is to imply a whole set of judgments about how people should be able to act, who gets to decide, and what should matter to the community.

The challenges that Rittel and Webber identify do not (by themselves) entail democratic processes. These challenges might instead imply pessimism: maybe there simply are no solutions. Or these challenges might suggest some kind of modus vivendi: people who disagree about problems should leave each other alone. Or perhaps we need more sophisticated technical methods in order to identify satisfactory solutions.

I happen to endorse Rittel’s and Webber’s social theory. I would add a commitment to collaborative self-governance as a quasi-intrinsic good. Communities should create the social world through their deliberate action. If that is right, then Rittel and Webber provide helpful arguments against expert-led, top-down approaches and make space for democratic processes. However, democratic processes require additional justification. They certainly do not always succeed–no matter how you define success. And if you don’t agree that collective self-government has intrinsic value, you may understandably look for alternatives.

Further, many people have reasons to doubt the underlying social theory. If the root problem is capitalism–which is really bad and not just disliked by some–and if the solution is workers’ control of the means of production, then all this talk of “wicked problems” is just a ham-handed justification of the status quo. The same is true if individual negative liberty is the highest good, the problem is state coercion, and the solution is a free market. Or if the problem is white supremacy and the solution is liberation from that.

These three views are incompatible with mine and (to an extent) with each other. Obviously, I could be wrong, and one or more of these alternatives could be correct. Since I am unsure, and since I respect my fellow human beings, I favor a democratic process to debate our differences and decide together. Yet the kinds of processes I would build or endorse reflect my social theory. They are ameliorative rather than revolutionary. They envision people constantly focusing on a few tangible, immediate problems at a time, taking concrete steps to ameliorate those problems, and reflecting on the effects as they ripple out. The processes I envision are truly inclusive, which means that at some stage, the police, the capitalists, and the state bureaucrats should be part of the discussion, not defined as the problem.

The question is why people who disagree with those premises should want to participate. That dilemma is not merely theoretical; large numbers of people actually do disagree. Perhaps it is wiser not to use the theory of wicked problems to justify inclusive processes.

Horst Rittel and Melvin M. Webber, “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning,” Policy Sciences 4.2, 1973, 155-169. See also: wicked problems, and excuses; Complexities of Civic Life; and what must we believe?

the student

A Victorian house on a stately street,
Formal, ornate. The bell breaks the silence.
Would a gift have been wise--something to eat? 
When to shift from pleasantries to science?
A ticking clock, long rows of serious books,
China, polished wood, a distant dog barks.
Pay attention, this might have some value.
It's rude to seek help without taking advice.
Now say what you've really come for, shall you?
Then: time to go? Did our talking suffice?
Not for years now have I been the visitor.
This is my parlor and I am the grey one,
The host, the ear, the kindly inquisitor.
How can it be that it's my turn to play one?

See also: Midlife.

Andrei Rublev by Andrei Tarkovsky

In the Guardian, Steve Rose called Andrei Rublev by Andrei Tarkovsky (1966) “the best arthouse film of all time.” When I had a day alone recently, I watched its three hours. Here are some notes that don’t duplicate anything I can find in English on the Internet. They do contain plot spoilers.

The setting is Russia in the first decade of the 1400s. The people are beset by Tatars, oppressive rulers, and plagues. The landscape often looks like an environmental catastrophe. Tarkovsky uses many long takes, panoramic shots, and set-pieces in which the actors are positioned like figures on a stage or in a painting.

Rublev is a monk and icon-painter. Despite being the moral focus of the film, he is on screen not much more than three other monks. Maybe it was just me, but I found it challenging to keep track of individuals from one scene to another. That task is easier in a written text, because narrators typically use names and may inform us when we have already encountered a given character. Tarkovsky seems content to present life in the confusing way that it actually unfolds.

In the opening scene, a man makes a solo hot-air balloon ride, rising next to an unfinished Orthodox cathedral and then across a river dotted by small boats. Some people help him while others try to bring him down. Although the balloon is anachronistic, it looks suitably medieval. It closely resembles the great bell that is cast in the final scenes of the film–for the same cathedral–and raised from its subterranean mold across the river to the belfry. The balloon and the bell have similar sizes, shapes, and trajectories. The balloon-ride appears to be a stunt that fails, whereas the bell is a spiritual and aesthetic success accomplished by the people, working together.

The second third major scene opens with a man being tortured in the public square as someone cries out that he might be innocent. The artist-monk Kirill walks past this execution and into the cool interior of a church, where he meets another icon-painter, Theophanes the Greek. They discuss the project that will involve Rublev and become his masterpiece. Back outside, we see the dead man’s bloody body.

In several key scenes, the Russian folk are shown in authentic rituals or celebrations–enjoying a jester mocking the Boyar nobility, enacting the Passion of Christ, or engaging in a midnight pagan orgy. (Compare Natascha’s dance in War and Peace.) In several scenes, they are cruelly crushed by Russian nobles, Tatars, or a conspiracy of both.

Observing these events, Rublev develops a populist and antinomian Orthodox theology. He feels he cannot complete his commission to paint the cathedral because it would require an image of the Last Judgment to terrify the people. Inside the bare cathedral, an apprentice reads 1 Corinthians 11 while the mute girl Durochka, a “holy fool” with long blond hair, watches in fascination:

“If a woman does not cover her head, she should have her hair cut off; and if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut or shaved off, she should cover her head. A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man. For man did not come from woman, but woman from man …

Rublev gets an idea: “They are celebrating. It’s a holiday! They are not sinners. Nor is she [Durochka], even if she doesn’t wear a cover.” He will paint joyous scenes for the people.

The interior of the church immediately after Rublev has announced his plan, showing the Holy Fool and the monk Daniil, who had commanded the reading of Corinthians.

Muteness is a motif. The jester has his tongue cut out. Durochka cannot speak. Andrei takes a vow of silence and refuses to paint after he kills a man to save Durochka. The new bell almost fails to ring–and if it never works, the Grand Duke will have its caster flogged to death.

Andrei has several foils, starting with the man in the balloon ride. Another is Kirill, who betrays the jester to the authorities and later quits holy orders, decrying monkish hypocrisy but seeking worldly gain for himself.

An important foil is Boriska, the young son of a bell-caster who died–with the whole family–of the plague. Boriska claims to know his father’s professional secret. With passionate intensity and perfectionism, he leads a crew to make a great bell, using the melted plate of the Grand Duke. He has lied about the secret, but he turns to God for help. Whether the bell will work is genuinely suspenseful. Foppish Italian visitors observe the young artist with pity: “il povoro regazzo” is bound to die a Russian’s death, tortured by a tyrant, because the bell won’t work. Their foreigners’ chatter is interrupted by the bell sounding sonorously. Boriska confesses his lie to Andrei, who says, “Let’s work together, you casting bells and me painting icons.” He then paints the cathedral’s interior in resplendent colors that we see in the epilogue, after three hours of monochrome.

how to keep political science in touch with politics

On the last day of the American Political Science Association’s Institute for Civically Engaged Research (ICER), Rogers Smith visited. As APSA president, he had played a major role in launching and inspiring ICER. Rogers offered original and thoughtful remarks to this year’s cohort. Some of what he said reminded me of his APSA Presidential Address, which is available on YouTube.

In that address, Rogers defines civically engaged research as “research done through respectful partnerships with social groups, organizations, and governmental bodies in ways that shape both our research questions and our investigations and answers.” Civically engaged research is not fieldwork or other qualitative or quantitative research about communities.

He justifies civically engaged research as a way of keeping in touch with important trends and movements in the real world:

While there are dangers, we modern political scientists have probably done too little civically engaged research, not too much. The work we have done has also been skewed toward groups with which researchers have strong ideological affinities. Though such rapport can be productive, as a discipline, we must learn from all segments of our societies. If more of us had been attending to the diversity of Black organizers in the 1960s, to anxious fundamentalists as well as assertive LGBTQ advocates in the 1970s, and to angry farm and factory workers in the early 21st century, we might have perceived sooner many major changes in American politics. And if more of us had actively worked with these groups to help them address their concerns and helped them in ethically defensible ways, then Black communities, conservative religious groups, gay activists, and workers and farmers might feel less suspicion and disdain toward academics than many do in the US today. The same may be true in other regions of the world. Intellectual honestly means I can’t guarantee that more civically eengaged research would have helped in these ways, but I know we didn’t do much, and in the light of where we are today, it is worth trying to do more.

I would add two points from my own perspective.

First, there is value in engaged research with (and not only about) right-wing communities and dominant communities. But this does not mean that individual scholars are obliged to conduct such research.

In practice, a disproportionate number of civically engaged social scientists identify with oppressed groups outside the academy, and that is why they feel compelled (as well as motivated) to work with these groups. Often scholars of color, they offer profound insights about the communities that they both study and belong to. No one should expect them to study right-wing whites (unless they want to). Instead, they offer insights from the perspective of the oppressed. For instance, I presume that scholars who are closely engaged with Asian-Pacific Islander groups knew about burgeoning anti-Asian hate well before it made headlines.

Yet we have much to learn from research conducted with conservative and/or demographically dominant groups. Years ago, I visited a prominent land-grant university to meet with the faculty who practiced “community-based” research. This university is located in a largely white and rural part of its state, but the faculty were driving to the nearest big city to do their engaged scholarship in urban neighborhoods that they admired more than their own geographical community. I thought that research about and with neighbors was a gap that should somehow be filled.

Second, the idea that an academic discipline must engage with movements and institutions challenges its self-understanding as a science.

In a simple model of science, facts result from good methods and data. You needn’t engage with planets or atoms in order to understand how they work; you can observe them or otherwise collect data about them. Within pockets, a similar approach to social science works well enough. You needn’t engage in a given election to crunch voting data and generate valid and useful findings about the election. But the human world is different from nature in two relevant ways–it is shot through with values, and it is influenced by intentional human agency.

Social scientists can choose to study many topics. Which questions to focus on is fundamentally a value-judgment, an assessment of what counts as an important issue or problem. Individual scholars are entitled to form their own opinions about priorities, but we are always wiser when we reason about values with other people. If our ears are open, we can learn about new injustices, new opportunities, and even new rights that we did not see before. In that sense, staying in touch–yet always critical–is essential for setting a wise research agenda about the human world.

Society is also unpredictable in a particular way. Human beings are aware of current trends and patterns. They can use their understanding of how things are going to make things look different in the future. They can invent, and no one can foresee a true invention until it arises.

Often, social scientists identify the central tendency in data, but data always come from the past. While we observe society, participants are busy working to disrupt it. History involves ruptures as well as continuities, and statistical social science is relatively badly suited to understanding the breaks. Sometimes, we can see substantial change coming better when we are closer to the action.

On a spectrum from a physicist who studies the eternal laws of the universe to a newspaper reporter who writes what happened yesterday and what it portends for tomorrow, a political scientist stands somewhere in between. History has long arcs but also many contingencies.

As Rogers Smith notes, the behavioral revolution has transformed political science. It presumes that political behavior has regularities that can be understood in a detached way. I believe that behavioral social science has yielded important insights. Yet this research reflects the Zeitgeist; it does not stand outside of history.

Today’s mainstream model of voters and democratic institutions is rather jaundiced. Data show that people lack the motivation and capacity to make well-informed judgements about public issues. But these data come from recent decades, when many organizations and institutions that inform and organize people’s thinking have become old and weak. If it were true that human beings never want reliable information about matters distant to their own private interests, then it would have been impossible to build professional journalism, or civic education in public schools–or even robust political parties that generate social analysis. While those institutions were being built up, the academic discussion of democracy was quite optimistic. (See: Dewey, John.) Now that those same institutions are in decline, the empirical evidence suggests that voters are incapable of forming thoughtful and independent opinions. This whole research paradigm reflects its context, and the context can change. But change requires engagement.

See also: don’t let the behavioral revolution make you fatalistic; why political science dismissed Trump and political theory predicted him, revisited; methods for engaged research; civically engaged research in political science #APSA2019; we should be debating the big social and political paradigms; Participatory Action Research as Civic Studies.