Author Archives: sshugars

Defining Deliberation

While there are many definitions of deliberation – and many substantive debates about what constitutes ‘good’ deliberation (or perhaps it must be good to count as deliberation) – I like Jane Mansbridge’s ‘minimalist definition’ as a good starting point for understanding the term.

Deliberation, she writes, is “mutual communication that involves weighing and reflecting on preferences, values and interests regarding matters of common concern.”

While there is much that may be missing from this definition, I do think that it captures the core of what deliberation is all about. It is, fundamentally, a form of communication which engages reason and normative beliefs about shared concerns.

But the simplicity of this definition, perhaps under-states the value of deliberation; the power people can have in shaping their own communities.

Dewey writes that:

Democracy is much broader than a special political form, a method of conducting government, of making laws and carrying on governmental administration by means of popular suffrage and elected officers. It is that, of course. But it is something broader and deeper than that…It is, as we often say, though perhaps without appreciating all that is involved in the saying, a way of life, social and individual. The key-note of democracy as a way of life may be expressed, it seems to me, as the necessity for the participation of every mature human being in formation of the values that regulate the living of men together: which is necessary from the standpoint of both the general social welfare and the full development of human beings as individuals.

When Dewey writes that ‘democracy is a way of life’ he means that the ideal of democracy can only be achieved when we co-create our values and institutions together; when we deliberate to answer the question, what should we do?

But more fundamentally, the Deweyian invocation to democracy as a way of life, tells us that deliberation is democracy. It is not “just talk” or isolated blather. Deliberation is the very stuff of democracy itself – and when we live our lives as good citizens, engaging regularly and rationally in conversation with all members of our community; when we treat every conversation as a chance to improve ourselves and co-create our world; when we take democracy as a way of life –

Then we are indeed creating democracy itself.

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The Joint Effects of Content and Style on Debate Outcomes

I am heading out later today to head to the Midwest Political Science Association (MPSA) conference. My advisor, Nick Beauchamp will be presenting our joint work on “The Joint Effects of Content and Style on Debate Outcomes.”

Here is the abstract for that work:

Debate and deliberation play essential roles in politics and government, but most models presume that debates are won mainly via superior style or agenda control. Ideally, however, debates would be won on the merits, as a function of which side has the stronger arguments. We propose a predictive model of debate that estimates the effects of linguistic features and the latent persuasive strengths of different topics, as well as the interactions between the two. Using a dataset of 118 Oxford-style debates, our model’s combination of content (as latent topics) and style (as linguistic features) allows us to predict audience-adjudicated winners with 74% accuracy, significantly outperforming linguistic features alone (66%). Our model finds that winning sides employ stronger arguments, and allows us to identify the linguistic features associated with strong or weak arguments.

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Whoa, “Woah”

The interjection “whoa” – defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as: a command to a horse to stop or stand still” or “a general interjection expressing surprise, delight, etc.” has been in use since the early 19th century.

Consider, for example, the use of the word as an intransitive verb in an 1838 issue of New Sporting Magazine: “He..climbed up the fence, ‘whoaing’ and crying to his horse to ‘stand still’.”

There is some evidence that the word has existed since long before that. One etymological dictionary, for example, dates the word to the 1620s; defining it as “a cry to call attention from a distance, a variant of who.”

But in the age of the internet, a funny thing has started happening:

Whoa. W. H. O. A. has more and more frequently come to be spelled as ‘woah’, as if the ‘h’ is precariously trying to escape from the whole messy situation.

In 2013, Slate wrote a whole piece on the gaining popularity of the wrong / new spelling: “All things considered, it’s been a banner year for “whoa,” no matter how you prefer to spell it,” they write.

And, as Mashable points out, the ACLU and Merriam-Webster dictionary recently sorted the whole thing on Twitter:

“We don’t include [woah] as a variant,” Merriam-Webster wrote in response to a query from the ACLU, “but we’re pretty sure you still have the right to say it.”

That is, after all, what it means for English to be a living language.

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I Stand With CEU

It is a sad day for democracy and for intellectual freedom. This morning, after an expedited process, Hungary’s Parliament voted 123 yes / 38 against for amendments to the National Higher Education Law that will make it impossible for Central European University (CEU) to operate.

CEU is one of the most prestigious institutions of higher education in central Europe, and a pillar of democracy. Founded after the fall of communism and “based on the premise that human fallibility can be counterbalanced by the critical discussion of ideas and that this critical spirit can be sustained best in societies where citizens have the freedom to scrutinize competing theories and openly evaluate and change government policies.”

The message sent in moving to shutter this great institution is clear. As MEP Tamás Meszerics – who was denied the opportunity to address assembly in opposition of the measure – wrote in his statement: the government hates everything it cannot control.

Hungarian Prime Minster, Viktor Orbán has long been a leading symbol of Europe’s rising radical right. The election of President Trump, I’m afraid, has only emboldened his efforts against democratic values.

The attack against CEU is a tragic move against a valuable institution, and raises disturbing implications for intellectual freedom and democracy around the world. We cannot allow leaders of any part to silence critical voices, legislate against reason, and stifle political dissent.

To be clear, the fight for CEU is far from over. In Budapest today, thousands took to the street to protest this outrageous legislation. CEU – which just days ago found itself fighting for its life – has a helpful guide of actions you can take to support the institution. Specifically, they encourage you to:

I stand with CEU – do you?

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Public Opinion and Social Influence

The presence of homophily is frequently found as a core feature of social networks. The principle that “similarity breeds connection” results in personal networks skewed towards homogeneity along numerous demographic and interpersonal lines (McPherson, Smith-Lovin, & Cook, 2001).

Festinger argues that homophily is a direct result of social influence: beliefs are only coherent through a process of social comparison and therefore people “tend to move into groups which, in their own judgment, hold opinions which agree with their own” (Festinger, 1954). The problem of embeddedness  – that people’s attempts at purposive action are embedded in concrete, ongoing systems of social relations – is inherent in this argument.

Reviewing the literature on social comparison, Festinger finds that individuals’ beliefs are malleable to social influence because the beliefs of others serve as guideposts in forming one’s own opinion. Foreshadowing Sunstein’s ‘law of group polarization’ (Sunstein, 1999), Festinger argues that this process of forming beliefs through social comparison is a primary driver of what he calls “social quiescence” (Festinger, 1954). This in turn serves as a driver for homophily, as people self-select out of groups unable to reach social quiescence, instead selecting into groups that more appropriately “satisfy their drive for self evaluation.”

Within the political domain, Lazarsfeld pioneered an understanding of public opinion as a process of social influence: a process driven significantly by personal conversations and everyday talk. While earlier understandings took media to be the primary source of political information and influence (Lippmann, 1922), Lazarsfeld suggests a “two-step flow” of communication: ideas and opinions may originate in media, but they flow first to opinion leaders.

What we call public opinion is then formed in a second step when these leaders disseminate information along lines of social influence. Importantly, opinion leaders generally exert greater social power than media, due to the many “psychological advantages” personal contacts have in exerting political influence (Lazarsfeld, Berelson, & Gaudet, 1948). These advantages include trust, conflict avoidance, and “persuasion without conviction,” e.g., the ability to actually take someone to the polls.

Perhaps most interesting for deliberative theory, however, is Lazarsfeld’s argument that “the weight of personal contacts upon opinion lies, paradoxically, in their greater casualness and non-purposiveness in political matters” (Lazarsfeld et al., 1948). In purposive political talk, individuals engage critically and intentionally, mentally prepared with “armor against influence.” Everyday talk, on the hand, catches us unprepared.

The passive exposure that comes from casual conversations presents a pervasive opportunity for powerful personal influence. We again see this argument manifest in Mutz and Mondak’s study of the workplace as a site for cross-cutting political dialogue. Workplaces may have a smaller proportion of political conversations than other settings, but the sheer volume of casual conversations makes workplaces as a key setting for political contact (Mutz, 2002).

Such public-minded talk ceased to be the sole purview of the Greek agorá long ago: when democracy is a way of living, as Dewey writes, even the most seemingly mundane sites of human interaction become critical elements of the deliberative system.

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Invention as Knowledge Production

In Kenneth Arrow’s “Economic Welfare and the Allocation of Resources for Intervention,” he begins with what may seem like a bold statement: Invention here is broadly interpreted as the production of knowledge.

From this perspective, “invention” isn’t inherently about creating things, it is fundamentally about generating new knowledge. That knowledge may or may not result in new technologies or devices; knowledge itself is the creation.

Arrow uses this definition to point to a core need for the “knowledge economy.” Invention – knowledge creation – is an inherently risky business decision. As Arrow writes, “By the very definition of information, invention must be a risky process, in that the output (information obtained) can never be predicted perfectly from the inputs.”

This inherent risk multiplies. If I can’t guarantee to produce a certain knowledge you can’t guarantee to pay me for it. If you do make such a guarantee, if you agree to pay me regardless of what knowledge I create, then – under the classic economic models of utility – I no longer have motivation to generate that knowledge.

Furthermore, once and idea is generated, it is, in some respects, free. If I undertake the risk of producing knowledge and everyone profits equally from my labor, then – again, under classic economic models of utility – I no longer have motivation to generate knowledge. I’d rather free-ride off your knowledge creation.

This is, in fact, the underlying logic of the patent system: potential inventors will only have motivation to invent under a system that guarantees benefits from successful invention.

What I find particularly interesting about the “knowledge production” definition of invention, though, is that it assumes, in a certain sense, that knowledge is perfectly replicable. What’s missing from this framing is an idea that knowledge I generate can only be generated, uniquely, by me.

That’s not so say that once I generate an idea, you can’t interpret it and use it to generate your own idea. Indeed, one might say such a process is the very essence of science; as thought percolates across time and disciplines, through interpretation by human inventors. That is the very nature of progress.

Arrow’s definitions remind me of Lauren Klein’s work on Elizabeth Peabody: the transcendental scholar and educator who created impossibly complex mural charts. These charts were intentionally difficult to interpret, not as a tactic of frustration but to invite the viewer into a process of knowledge co-creation.

The interpretation of art is not the sole property of the artist; and an understanding of knowledge does not belong solely to the person who had the idea. That isn’t just an economic challenge to be overcome: it is a declaration of the very essence of knowledge. Knowledge doesn’t exist in a vacuum; it doesn’t just spring to life within one person’s brain. Knowledge only comes to be as a process of co-creation; as a slow accumulation of fuzzy recollections. It is humanity’s ultimate collective endeavor. We only make progress together.

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Economics of Matching

A canonical problem in graph theory is that of matching – pairing people (or nodes) based on mutual preference. The classic example of this – framed, unfortunately, in a cis-heteronormative way – is known as the marriage problem. Assuming knowledge of the whole population, men have a ranked-order list of appropriate female partners and women similarly make a ranked-order list of appropriate male partners. The question then, is can we, as an all-knowing mathematician, make a matching in which no non-matched (opposite sex) pair would prefer to be with each other than with the partners they are matched with?

The mathematical solution to “stable marriage matching” is elegant, and worth at some point a post of its own. But for the moment, I was recently struck by the economic implications of this problem. That is, I had always considered it from the vantage point of the all-knowing observer, with the implicit understanding that such scope of vision is what makes the solution possible.

Roth’s 2008 article, What have we learned from market design?, brings a new perspective to the market failures that can result from the lack of such global coordination. Because it’s such an interesting story, I include below a long excerpt describing the history of today’s residency-matching program for medical school graduates:

The first job American doctors take after graduating from medical school is called a residency. These jobs are a big part of hospitals’ labor force, a critical part of physicians’ graduate education, and a substantial influence on their future careers. From 1900 to 1945, one way that hospitals competed for new residents was to try to hire residents earlier than other hospitals. This moved the date of appointment earlier, first slowly and then quickly, until by 1945 residents were sometimes being hired almost two years before they would graduate from medical school and begin work.

When I studied this in Roth (1984) it was the first market in which I had seen this kind of “unraveling” of appointment dates, but today we know that unraveling is a common and costly form of market failure. What we see when we study markets in the process of unraveling is that offers not only become increasingly early, but also become dispersed in time and of increasingly short duration. So not only are decisions being made early (before uncertainty is resolved about workers’ preferences or abilities), but also quickly, with applicants having to respond to offers before they can learn what other offers might be forthcoming. Efforts to prevent unraveling are venerable, for example Roth and Xing (1994) quote Salzman (1931) on laws in various English market from the 13th century concerning “forestalling” a market by transacting before goods could be offered in the market.

In 1945, American medical schools agreed not to release information about students before a specified date. This helped control the date of the market, but a new problem emerged: hospitals found that if some of the first offers they made were rejected after a period of deliberation, the candidates to whom they wished to make their next offers had often already accepted other positions. This led hospitals to make exploding offers to which candidates had to reply immediately, before they could learn what other offers might be available, and led to a chaotic market that shortened in duration from year to year, and resulted not only in missed agreements but also in broken ones. This kind of congestion also has since been seen in other markets, and in the extreme form it took in the American medical market by the late 1940’s, it also constitutes a form of market failure (cf. Roth and Xing 1997, and Avery, Jolls, Roth, and Posner 2007 for detailed accounts of congestion in labor markets in psychology and law). Faced with a market that was working very badly, the various American medical associations (of hospitals, students, and schools) agreed to employ a centralized clearinghouse to coordinate the market. After students had applied to residency programs and been interviewed, instead of having hospitals make individual offers to which students had to respond immediately, students and residency programs would instead be invited to submit rank order lists to indicate their preferences. That is, hospitals (residency programs) would rank the students they had interviewed, students would rank the hospitals (residency programs) they had interviewed, and a centralized clearinghouse — a matching mechanism — would be employed to produce a matching from the preference lists. Today this centralized clearinghouse is called the National Resident Matching Program (NRMP).

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Deliberation in a Homophilous Network

The social context of a society is both an input and an output of the deliberative system. As Granovetter argued, “actors do not behave or decide as atoms outside a social context, nor do they adhere slavishly to a script written for them by the particular intersection of social categories that they happen to occupy. Their attempts at purposive action are instead embedded in concrete, ongoing systems of social relations” (Granovetter, 1985). This “problem of embeddedness” manifests in a scholarly tension between studying the role of individual agency and the structures that shape available actions.

Consider, for example, the presence of homophily in social networks. A priori, there is no reason to attribute such a feature to a single mechanism. Perhaps homophily results from individual preference for being with ‘like’ people, or perhaps it results primarily from the structural realities within which agents are embedded: we should not be surprised that high school students spend a great deal of time with each other.

From a deliberative perspective, widespread homophily is deeply disconcerting. Networks with predominately homophilous relationships may indicate disparate spheres of association, even while maintaining a global balance on the whole. The linking patterns between an equal number of liberal and conservative blogs, for example, reveals distinctively separate communities rather than a more robust, crosscutting public sphere (Adamic & Glance, 2005).

Such homophily is particularly troubling as diversity of thought is arguably one of the most fundamental requirements for deliberation to proceed. Indeed, the vision of democratic legitimacy emerging from deliberation rests on the idea that all people, regardless of ideology, actively and equally participate (Cohen, 1989; Habermas, 1984; Mansbridge, 2003; Young, 1997). A commitment to this ideal has enshrined two standards – respect and the absence of power – as the only elements of deliberation which go undisputed within the broader field (Mansbridge, 2015). Furthermore, if we are concerned with the quality of deliberative output, then we ought to prefer deliberation amongst diverse groups, which typically identify better solutions than more homogenous groups (Hong, Page, & Baumol, 2004). Most pragmatically, homophily narrows the scope of potential topics for deliberation. Indeed, if deliberation is to be considered as an “ongoing process of mutual justification” (Gutmann & Thompson, 1999) or as a “game of giving and asking for reasons” (Neblo, 2015), then deliberation can only properly take place between participants who, in some respects, disagree. In a thought experiment of perfect homophily, where agents are exactly identical to their neighbors, then deliberation does not take place – simply because there is nothing for agents to deliberate about.

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Evaluating Communication Channels

I’ve been reading a lot lately about the communication channels people leverage to stay in touch with each other. A particularly engaging series of articles begins with panic about the results of the 2004 General Social Survey (GSS): As McPherson, Smith-Lovin, and Brashears write, the modal respondent reports having no confident with whom they “discuss important matters.” That is down from a modal response of 3 in 1985.

Perhaps the most amusing response comes from Claude Fischer, who seems to think technical or human error is the most likely culprit of the precipitous drop – a claim he validates convincingly by showing that the 2004 GSS is poorly aligned with other relevant data.

But a broader line of inquiry is raised by these findings: just what does it mean to “discuss important matters” and how has our collective understanding of that question changed?

McPherson et al argue that the decrease in confidants could in fact be an artifact of modern life:    if people interpret “discuss” as requiring face-to-face interaction, and they have replaced such modes with phone or internet communication, they may find themselves no “discussing,” per se.

There is some reason to doubt this interpretation – most notably the work of Baym, Zhang, and Lin which finds that among college students in 2004, “the internet was used nearly as often as the telephone, however, face-to-face communication was far more frequent.”

Communication, however, has changed dramatically even since 2004. A senior in college then, I was a relatively late adopter and had only had my own cell phone – a flip phone, of course – for 2 years. I had a big, clunky desktop computer and I chatted with my classmate over AIM. I wasn’t on Facebook – it wasn’t yet really a thing – and I personally didn’t use MySpace or LiveJournal. Those sites didn’t seem to be as much about keeping in touch as about broadcasting yourself. I was 19 years old and I barely knew who my self was.

Looking back now, I wouldn’t be surprised at all if most of my conversations were face-to-face. While my phone and the internet provided some shortcuts and enhancements – face to face was the only way to really have a conversation.

Now I Snapchat my nieces every morning.

Personally, I would interpret the phrase “discuss” more broadly; I discuss important matter with people over the internet all the time. But what’s more interesting in this discussion is the arguably old-fashioned reticence to let go of face-to-face as being the only meaningful mode of communication.

But that, I think, undersells the richness of communication that is possible today – and it under appreciate’s people’s ability to leverage those communication channels.

It is easy, I suppose, to roll one’s eyes and claim that kids these days don’t know what it really means to have a conversation – but I think that is too much an oversimplification; and doesn’t give nearly enough credit to young people who want to communication, who are able to communicate, and who are fully capable of leveraging new channels and technology to discuss important matters in ways that were simply not possible before.

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Keeping the Public Sphere Open

Tomorrow I will be participating in a conference on “Keeping the Public Sphere Open” hosted by Northeastern’s NULab for Text Maps and Data. The conference is taking place from 9:30 am – 5:30 pm and is free and open to the public. You may register here.

Here’s the description from the conference website:

On March 24, the NULab will be hosting its first annual conference, showcasing the work of faculty, fellows, alumni, and research collaborators. The conference will include a range of panels and talks, all organized around the theme: “Keeping the Public Sphere Open.”

The keynote address will be delivered by Peter Levine, Associate Dean and Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship & Public Affairs in Tufts University’s Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life and Director of CIRCLE (The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement). Uta Poiger, Dean of Northeastern’s College of Social Sciences and Humanities and Professor of History, will deliver a welcome message to open the conference.

The conference will feature research from several NULab-supported projects. Ryan Cordell will speak about the Viral Texts project, Sarah Connell will discuss the Women Writers Project, Sarah Payne and William Bond will share the work of the Margaret Fuller Transnational Archive, and Elizabeth Dillon will talk about the Early Caribbean Digital Archive. There will also be talks by NULab faculty: Brooke Foucault Welles will present on networked counterpublics and the #HashtagActivism project; Nick Beauchamp will discuss his research into productive internet discourse, with Ph.D. candidate Sarah Shugars; David Lazer will talk about his work on transforming democracy by strengthening connections between citizens and town halls; David Smith will share research on modeling information cascades and propagating scientific knowledge; John Wihbey will present on the democratic role of news in an age of networks; Élika Ortega will discuss the architectures of print-digital literature; and Dietmar Offenhuber, Alessandra Renzi, and Nathan Felde will share the outcomes of a public event to digitize and tag posters from the Boston Women’s March.

Other talks will include the work of graduate students: Matt Simonson on social networks and cross-ethnic ties in Uganda; and Elizabeth Polcha and Nicole Keller Day on building the Digital Feminist Commons and how feminist humanists approach coding. NULab Fellow alum Jim McGrath (Brown University) will highlight some of the intersections between digital humanities and public humanities in his work at the John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage.

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