Category Archives: Civic Studies

Political Friendship and Tolerant Gladiators

“The ideal citizens,” Huckfeldt writes, “…are those individuals who are able to occupy the roles of tolerant gladiators – combatants with the capacity to recognize and respect the rights and responsibilities of their political adversaries” (Huckfeldt, Mendez, & Osborn, 2004). While this image of powerful citizens locked in gentlemanly conflict is perhaps more startling than most, it fits well within the broader normative framework of deliberation. Citizens and theorists looking to design ideal democratic systems are quickly confronted by two powerful countervailing forces: diversity, it appears, is both significantly beneficial and, unfortunately, difficult to achieve. Huckfeldt’s tolerant gladiator offers a potential poultice for this problem – a path which allows equally for vigorous debate and the highest cordiality. Citizenship, under this definition, is a Socratic sport; you spar with your strongest arguments, but only in service to the higher calling of Truth.

In perhaps less colorful terms, Mutz describes the role of deliberative citizen as requiring restraint. People should certainly engage in ‘cross-cutting’ political dialogue, but they should not engage with the full-hearted gusto suggested by Huckfeldt. Instead, “discussants must at times refrain from saying all they could say in the interests of smooth social interaction” (Mutz, 2002). While Huckfeldt envisions impassioned debates where participants – whether ultimately agreeing or not – are brought closer together through the experience of discussion, Mutz concedes softly that for social lives to function discussants must “agree to disagree.”

This view is supported by Mutz’s empirical work on deliberation. If, as she finds, the beneficial impact of exposure to cross-cutting views comes primarily from familiarizing participants with “legitimate rationales for opposing viewpoints,” then a good deliberator should not be an outspoken gladiator, but rather a respectful listener. Danielle Allen similarly argues that ideal citizens must share a sense of ‘democratic friendship’ (Allen, 2009). Just as Mutz finds that the social constraint of workplaces creates an ideal setting for cross-cutting political dialogue (Mutz & Mondak, 2006), Allen argues that similar constraints face society as a whole. On the micro-level, we may self-sort into homophilous neighborhoods and institutions, but on the macro-level we are all just as stuck with each other as coworkers. Citizens don’t have to like everyone they interact with, but they do have to extend basic courtesy and respect, forging bonds of ‘democratic friendship’ analogous to the friendship they find with colleagues.

While Mutz finds that exposure to diverse perspectives does not play a significant role in deepening a person’s knowledge of their own position, Huckfeldt finds the opposite: political conversations do “enhance the capacity of citizens to provide reasons for their support of a particular candidate” (Huckfeldt et al., 2004). Furthermore, political diversity does not create a paralyzing ambivalence but rather reduces the potential for extreme polarization. Citizens exposed to heterogeneous messages are “more likely to develop an attitude toward the candidate that incorporates positive and negative assessments.” Ultimately, such exposure may reduce “enthusiasm for the campaign” but does not depress turnout or “encourage people to back away from their commitments as citizens.”

Here we see the justification for Huckfeldt’s tolerant gladiators. If political debate serves to sharpen our own understanding, then we owe it to our interlocutors to press them on their positions; to find the holes in their armor and encourage refinement of beliefs. The process of debate makes us all better – thus allowing tolerant combatants to walk away as friends. Furthermore, such collegial confrontation may also increase the potential for citizens to find better solutions. In his work, Page argues that diversity serves an instrumental benefit: the right perspective can make a problem easy (Page, 2008). Thus any group seeking solutions to an ever-changing array of complex problems would do well to consider diverse perspectives; to find the perspective that makes the current problem easy. However, the mere presence of diversity may not be enough. Diverse perspectives must be brought to the surface and critically considered through the spirited debate of tolerant gladiators. As Bernard Manin argues, “diversity of views is not a sufficient condition for deliberation because it may fail to bring into contact opposing views. It is the opposition of views and reasons that is necessary for deliberation, not just their diversity” (Manin, 2005). If citizens follow Mutz’s path of sitting in silence rather than risking confrontation, diverse perspectives – even if present – may not be adequately considered.

While these two visions of citizen responsibility may seem to conflict, there may be room in democracy for both. Consider Lynn Sanders’ thoughtful warning against deliberation:

If we assume that deliberation cannot proceed without the realization of mutual respect, and deliberation appears to be proceeding, we may even mistakenly decide that conditions of mutual respect have been achieved by deliberators. In this way, taking deliberation as a signal of democratic practice paradoxically works undemocratically, discrediting on seemingly democratic grounds the views of those who are less likely to present their arguments in ways that we recognized as characteristically deliberative. In our political culture, these citizens are likely to be those who are already underrepresented in formal political institutions and who are systematically materially disadvantaged, namely women; racial minorities, especially Blacks; and poorer people. (Sanders, 1997)

This is a particularly sharp criticism for debate-centric deliberation. Not everyone wants to be a gladiator, and not everyone is trained or welcomed equally to the task. If we begin by falsely assuming the absence of power, rigorous debate may easily have the effect of silencing the diverse perspectives it is intended to awake. Perhaps, then, political friendship must precede gladiatorial combat. The fiercely tolerant exchange envisioned by Huckfeldt may indeed be the political ideal, but it cannot succeed as long as some voices are systematically silenced. The ideal citizen, then, must learn to navigate the social structures in which political debate is embedded. They must at times refrain from speaking in order to truly hear the other side, but they ought to cultivate tolerant gladiators through these political friendships. After all, if political friends never advance to tolerant gladiators, if they ultimately both sit in silence to avoid uncomfortable confrontation, then they have merely succeeded in a facade of social harmony; no deliberation or real exchange of ideas is ever achieved.


Allen, D. (2009). Talking to strangers: Anxieties of citizenship since Brown v. Board of Education: University of Chicago Press.

Huckfeldt, R., Mendez, J. M., & Osborn, T. (2004). Disagreement, ambivalence, and engagement: The political consequences of heterogeneous networks. Political Psychology, 25(1), 65-95.

Manin, B. (2005). Democratic Deliberation: Why We Should Promote Debate Rather Than Discussion. Paper presented at the Program in Ethics and Public Affairs Seminar, Princeton University.

Mutz, D. C. (2002). Cross-cutting social networks: Testing democratic theory in practice. American Political Science Review, 96(01), 111-126.

Mutz, D. C., & Mondak, J. J. (2006). The Workplace as a Context for Cross‐Cutting Political Discourse. Journal of politics, 68(1), 140-155.

Page, S. E. (2008). The difference: How the power of diversity creates better groups, firms, schools, and societies: Princeton University Press.

Sanders, L. M. (1997). Against Deliberation. Political Theory, 25(3), 347-376.



Civic Games Contest 2017

I’m very excited to join my civic colleagues Daniel Levine and Joshua Miller on the Civic Games Committee; with the support of the Entertainment Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon University, we recently announced the 2017 Civic Games contest, a design competition for analog games that seek to promote the understanding and/or practice of good citizenship.

You can read the full call for submissions on the website for The Good Society, the Journal for Civic Studies.

The three overall winners of the content will have their games presented at the Frontiers of Democracy conference in late June 2017. Frontiers is the birthplace of civic studies and the field’s premier conference.

Gaming and civics has always felt like a natural confluence to me – multiplayer games, definitionally, bring people together. Games of all types – whether cooperative, competitive, or narrative – are about navigating complex landscapes of divergent perspectives and external constraints. They are about thinking, strategizing, and acting.

And, of course, they are fun.

If you have an idea for a civic game, please consider submitting – and if you don’t you should still follow the Facebook Page for updates.



Collective Action and the Problem of Embeddedness

Divergent conceptions of homophily fall within a broader sociological debate about the freedom of an individual given the structural constraints of his or her context. As Gueorgi Kossinets and Duncan Watts argue, “one can always ask to what extent the observed outcome reflects the preferences and intentions of the individuals themselves and to what extent it is a consequence of the social-organizational structure in which they are embedded” (Kossinets & Watts, 2009). If our neighborhoods are segregated is it because individuals prefer to live in ‘like’ communities, or is it due to deeper correlations between race and socio-economic status? If our friends enjoy the same activities as ourselves, is it because we prefer to spend time with people who share our tastes, or because we met those friends through a shared activity?

The tension between these two approaches is what Granovetter called the “problem of embeddedness,” (Granovetter, 1985) because neither the agent-based nor structural view captures the whole picture. As Granovettor 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.”

The challenge of embeddedness can be seen acutely in network homophily research, as scholars try to account for both the role of individual agency and the structures which shape available options. In their yearlong study of university relationships, Kossinets and Watts observe that both agent-driven and structurally-induced homophily play integral roles in tie formation. Indeed, the two mechanisms “appear to act as substitutes, each reinforcing the observed tendency of similar individuals to interact” (Kossinets & Watts, 2009). In detailed, agent-based studies, Schelling finds that individual preference leads to amplified global results; that extreme structural segregation can result from individuals’ moderate preference against being in the minority (Schelling, 1971). Mutz similarly argues that the workplace serves as an important setting for diverse political discourse precisely because it is a structured institution in which individual choice is constrained (Mutz & Mondak, 2006).

Consider also Michael Spence’s economic model of gender-based pay disparity (Spence, 1973). Imagine an employee pool in which people have two observable characteristics: sex and education. An employer assigns each employee to a higher or lower wage by inferring the unobserved characteristic of productivity. Assume also that gender and productivity are perfectly uncorrelated. Intuitively, this should mean that gender and pay will also be uncorrelated, however Spence’s game-theoretic model reveals a surprising result. After initial rounds of hiring, the employer will begin to associate higher levels of education with higher levels of productivity. More precisely, because an employer’s opinions are conditioned on gender as well as education, “if at some point in time men and women are not investing in education in the same ways, then the returns to education for men and women will be different in the next round.” In other words, Spence finds that there are numerous system equilibria and, given differing initial investments in education, the pay schedules for men and women will settle into different equilibrium states.

Here again, we see the interaction of agency and structure. Whether initial investments in education differed because of personal taste or as the result of structural gender discrimination, once a gender-based equilibrium has been reached, individual investment in education does little to shift the established paradigm. A woman today may be paid less because women were barred from educational attainment two generations ago. That inequity may be further compounded by active discrimination on the part of an employer, but the structural history itself is enough to result in disparity. Furthermore, this structural context then sets the stage for inducing gender-based homophily, as men and women could be socially inclined towards different workplaces or career paths.

Given these complex interactions, where past individual choices accumulate into future social context, it is perhaps unsurprising that teasing apart the impact of agency and structure is no small feat; one that is virtually impossible in the absence of dynamic data (Kossinets & Watts, 2009). Individuals embedded within this system may similiarly struggle to identify their own role in shaping social structures. As Schelling writes, “people acting individually are often unable to affect the results; they can only affect their own positions within the overall results” (Schelling, 1971). Acting individually, we create self-sustaining segregated societies; opting into like communities and presenting our children with a narrow range of friends with whom to connect.

Yet the very role that individual actions play in building social structures indicates that individuals may work together to change that structural context. It is a classic collective action problem – if we collectively prefer diverse communities, than we must act collectively, not individually. In her extensive work on collective action problems, Elinor Ostrom finds that “individuals frequently do design new institutional arrangements – and thus create social capital themselves through covenantal processes” (Ostrom, 1994). Embeddedness presents a methodological challenge but it need not be a problem; it simply reflects the current, changeable, institutional arrangement. That individual actions create the structures which in turn effect future actions need not be constraining – indeed, it illustrates the power which individuals collectively posses: the power to shape context, create social structures, and to build social capital by working together to solve our collective problems.


Granovetter, M. (1985). Economic action and social structure: The problem of embeddedness. American journal of sociology, 481-510.

Kossinets, G., & Watts, D. J. (2009). Origins of homophily in an evolving social network. American journal of sociology, 115(2), 405-450.

Mutz, D. C., & Mondak, J. J. (2006). The Workplace as a Context for Cross‐Cutting Political Discourse. Journal of politics, 68(1), 140-155.

Ostrom, E. (1994). Covenants, collective action, and common-pool resources.

Schelling, T. C. (1971). Dynamic models of segregation. Journal of mathematical sociology, 1(2), 143-186.

Spence, M. (1973). Job market signaling. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 87(3), 355-374.


On Violence and Protest

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the role of violence in social movements. Such violence could take many forms, from punching nazis to property damage.

Conventional wisdom among the mainstream left is that such violence isn’t a good tactic: not only is morally problematic, it is typically unsuccessful.

In his biography of Gandhi, Bhikhu Parekh describes Gandhi’s utility argument against violence, which went hand in hand with his moral argument against violence:

Gandhi further argued that violence rarely achieved lasting results. An act of violence was deemed to be successful when it achieved its immediate objectives. However, if it were to be judged by its long-term consequences, our conclusion would have to be very different. Every apparently successful act of violence encouraged the belief that it was the only effective way to achieve the desired goal, and developed the habit of using violence every time ran into opposition. Society thus became used to it and never felt compelled to explore an alternative. Violence also tended to generate an inflammatory spiral. Every successful use blunted the community’s moral sensibility and raised its threshold of violence, so that over time an increasingly larger amount became necessary to achieve the same results.

There are some compelling points in that argument, but it fails to address the larger question: is violence never a justifiable means for social change, either morally or pragmatically?

After all, Gandhi’s level of commitment to non-violence may not be the example we want to follow. In an extreme example of pacifism, Gandhi wrote of Jews in World War II Germany:

And suffering voluntarily undergone will bring [Jews] an inner strength and joy which no number of resolutions of sympathy passed in the world outside Germany can…The calculated violence of Hitler may even result in a general massacre of the Jews by way of his first answer to the declaration of such hostilities. But if the Jewish mind could be prepared for voluntary suffering, even the massacre I have imagined could be turned into a day of thanksgiving and joy that Jehovah had wrought deliverance of the race even at the hands of the tyrant. For to the godfearing, death has no terror. It is a joyful sleep to be followed by a waking that would be all the more refreshing for the long sleep.

In contrast to Gandhi’s view, there are many reasons to think violence in response to genocide may be permissible – or should even be encouraged.

My friend Joshua Miller recently reflected on this question, writing:

…in many ways, the canonization of Gandhi and Martin Luther King have served to create an artificial standard of non-violence that no social movement can ever really achieve and that neither the Civil Rights movement nor the Indian independence movement actually achieved. Plus, if violent repression by the police goes unmentioned in the media but activist violence becomes a regular topic of debate, then it will appear that the only violence is coming from the activists. 

I particularly appreciate his insight regarding the ‘canonization’ of Gandhi and King – they both deserve praise for their work and impacts, but we tend to enshrine them as peaceful activists who could do no wrong; who should be emulated at all costs. Malcolm X, on the other hand, is pushed by the wayside, his story is less told. Yet he did have an important and lasting impact on the American civil rights movement; could King’s pacifism have succeeded without Malcom X’s radicalism?

I have no easy answers to these question; indeed, such easy answers do not exist. But I think we owe it to ourselves to think through these questions – is violent protest ever morally justified? If it can be morally justified at times, is it ever pragmatically justified? Do our collective memories of history really capture what happened, or do we tell ourselves a simpler, softer story – do we only remember the way we wish it had happened?

Perhaps, as Camus wrote, there is no sun without shadow, and it is essential to know the night.




There have been a number of rallies, protests, and marches lately, which has gotten me thinking about Charles’ Tilly’s delightful acronym WUNC: worthiness, unity, numbers, and commitment. As Tilly writes:

The term WUNC sounds odd, but it represents something quite familiar. WUNC displays can take the form of statements, slogans, or labels that imply worthiness, unity, numbers, and commitment.

The combination of tactics used and WUNC displays, Tilly argues, is what gives a campaign its distinctiveness.

Consider the Pussyhats of the women’s march: the sea of pink emphasized the march’s impressive numbers and indicated participant’s unity. Importantly, this type of display operates on both an external and internal level. That is, observers note participant’s numbers and unity; while participants get energized by the event’s numbers and unity.

This internal effect is particularly important because rallies often serve primarily as a mechanism to energy loyal participants, rather than as tactic to achieve a direct outcome.

When I was headed to yesterday’s protest against President Trump’s anti-immigrant legislation, I was thinking about this piece in particular. Would there be some visible element that would make a person’s participation in the rally clear? Probably not with such short notice.

There was a group on my train with their protest signs out. Another passenger stopped and started asking them questions; where was the rally today? What time did it start? What exactly did the targeted executive orders do?

On my way home following the rally, I got a lot of reactions to my own protest sign. Had I been protesting at the airport? How was the crowd at Copley? One woman just honked enthusiastically as I walked by.

There are so many things going on right now; so many ways that the pluralism of our society is under attack, it seems nearly impossible to come up with a single symbol that could encompass all we stand for and all we believe.

But maybe we don’t have to. A WUNC display doesn’t need to be as tidy as matching hats or colorful pins. Perhaps a miscellaneous smattering of signage is enough. Perhaps these varied messages – some funny, some sad, some angry, some simple, each subject to the peculiarities of its maker – perhaps each of the signs are indeed united under a single banner: resist.


Science and Technocracy

Reading Warren Weaver’s 1948 article, “Science and Complexity,” I was struck by his description of science and his impassioned argument for its importance:

Science clearly is a way of solving problems – not all problems, but a large class of important and practical ones. The problems with which science can deal are those in which the predominant factors are subject to the basic laws of logic, and are for the most part measurable. Science is a way of organizing reproducible knowledge about such problems; of focusing and disciplining imagination; of weighing evidence; of deciding what is relevant and what is not; of impartially testing hypothesis; of ruthlessly discarding data that prove to be inaccurate or inadequate; of finding, interpreting, and facing facts, and of making the facts of nature the servants of man.

Increasingly, we seem to live in a “post-factual” era, where experts are maligned as mere technocrats; where knowledge is dismissed as perspective.

There are good arguments against technocracy: history has numerous examples of the dangers of sidelining personal experience in favor of detached technical expertise. But science is not technocracy. We can embrace science, embrace facts, without resorting to a totalitarian technocratic system. As Weaver writes:

Yes, science is a powerful tool, and it has an impressive record. But the humble and wise scientist does not expect or hope that science can do everything. He remembers that science teaches respect for special competence, and he does not believe that every social, economic, or political emergency would be automatically dissolved if “the scientists” were only put into control.




Social Movements and Leadership

In his autobiography, appropriately titled The Long Haul, activist and educator Myles Horton writes about the leadership of social movements. While great charismatic leaders serve an important galvanizing role and go down in history as the leader of the movement, the real power of a social moment is that it multiplies leadership – it turns the people themselves into leaders.

He tells the story of a elderly black woman who started a Citizen School. She heard the idea somewhere, figured it out, and taught a few other people how to do it as well. She had no idea Citizen Schools were happening all over. It was simply an idea which she could pick up and make her own. Horton writes:

It’s only in a movement that an idea is often made simple enough and direct enough that I can spread rapidly. Then your leadership multiplies very rapidly, because there’s something explosive going on. Please see that other people not so different from themselves do things that they thought could never be done. They’re emboldened and challenged by that step into the water, and once the get in the water, it’s as if they’ve never not been there.


Perspectives on Protest

Last Saturday’s Women’s March has been widely praised as one of the largest acts of protest in US political history. Attendees talked about the amazing sense of camaraderie, and the inspiration of seeing more people than they could imagine taking to the street.

But, of course, the march isn’t without its disagreements. Now that it’s over, skeptics will ask “but how do we turn this into real action?” And leading up to the march, there were a number of difficult and important questions: who is represented in the women’s march? Who is really represented? What is the role of violence in protest?

There have been a number of great pieces about the racism of the white feminist movement, which has historically, unapologetically, sidelined women of color. In the New York Times, Jenna Wortham reflected on a picture from the Women’s March: Angela Peoples holding a sign that reads, “Don’t Forget: White Women Voted for Trump.” Wortham writes that of all the iconic images to come out of Saturday, this was the one she found most resonant: “It felt indicative of the ways in which the day’s events could be viewed as problematic: the notion that women’s rights were suddenly the most important cause in our nation, or that there haven’t been protests and activist movements worth attending until the election of Donald Trump.”

There have also been interesting discussions about core beliefs required for feminism, as a feminist anti-abortion group was removed from the list of official march partners.

Finally, the march has also raised important questions about the role of violence in protest – and the role of the police in responding to protest. The women’s march was praised for it’s lack of violence – which some have attributed to divergent police response to a largely white protest. That praise also overlooks the work of the Black Bloc – which sought to disrupt the status quo during inauguration and resulted in an infinitely meme-able clip of a neo-Nazi getting punched in the face.

In the Nation, Natasha Lennard argued that while such protests are often greeted with distain by more mainstream activists, their work is essential to to overall goal we seek. Most of us are free riders, benefiting from their actions while distancing ourselves from their tactics. As Lennard writes:

To talk with any romance for the black bloc risks falling into the worst tropes of bombastic revolutionary writing. We don’t don black masks and become instant revolutionary subjects. We don’t necessarily achieve more with property damage than a larger, more subdued rally achieves. In every case, the standard of achievement depends on the aims of the action, and all of us are far from creating the rupture we want to see in the world. One broken window, or a hundred, is not victory. But nor is over half a million people rallying on the National Mall. Both gain potency only if they are perceived as a threat by those in and around power. And neither action will appear threatening unless followed up again and again with unrelenting force, in a multitude of directions. You don’t have to choose between pink hat and black mask; each of us can wear both.

I raise this topics of disagreement around the march, because they are all important questions and they will not go away. Coalitions are hard to build and maintain, and we won’t ever agree on everything – from policy to tactics.

There’s a conventional wisdom that conservative win because they are better at collectively getting on message, while liberals are lost arguing amongst themselves.

But I don’t think that failure and disorganization are a intrinsic part of pluralism. As we continue in the work that comes out of the Women’s March, I don’t want to see us brush these disagreements under the rug – I want to see us embrace them. We need to keep raising these issues, keep having these conversations – and we need to keep working together.

I don’t think those ends are incompatible.


Five Stages of Grief

As conceived by Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, the five stages of grief are: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

Of course, as Kübler-Ross herself has said and as anyone who has ever lost someone knows, those stages aren’t linear or fully distinct. They all kind of jumble up in surprising and unpredictable ways. Grieving is a complicated endeavor.

Interestingly, while Kübler-Ross began her model through working with terminally-ill patients, she later expanded it to encompass any form of loss. Loss of a loved one, loss of a job, even loss of an election.

In some ways, that last seems ridiculous – while the Kübler-Ross model has been used to describe the loss felt by fans of a losing sports team, “election grief” seems like it would most likely fit into this category. You wanted something, you invested time and energy trying to get that thing, and then you didn’t get it. It is sad, you grieve, you move on. There’s always next year.

Or, perhaps, four more years.

But I think election grief – particularly around this election – is different. It feels different. My grief, my sadness, my anger, my bargaining – it’s not because we didn’t win, it’s because of how much we still have left to lose.

The sense of loss isn’t about a candidate and it isn’t about a party – it’s a loss of country, of community, of place.

What is this world around me and why do I suddenly not belong in it? Why is everything upside-down and unpredictable? Why does the future suddenly seem so unclear?

Everything is different now and it won’t ever, ever be the same.

Of course, the current election grief faced by liberals isn’t the first or only grief of this kind to be felt in this country. I imagine that President-elect Trump’s victory was fueled in part by Americans who felt this way before the election.

It is, as Joy James has said, the nature of black life under white supremacy, “being denigrated and victimized by your designated protectors is shocking to the core.”

And this, perhaps, is the most tragic thing. It’s hard to see a way forward when so many of my friends and neighbors are fearful for their very lives.

It’s hard to see a way forward when my way of living and thinking, when my very concept of America, is antithetical to the views held by so many in this country. When their views are so antithetical to mine.

After the election, there was an explosion of thought pieces about how the American experiment has failed. But when I went to look that up, I instead found this piece from 2012:  The real conclusion of the American Experiment is that democracy ultimately undermines liberty and leads to tyranny and oppression by elected leaders and judges, their cronies and unelected bureaucrats. 

Thanks, Obama.

Having alternating halves of the country feel like their way of life is being threatened is no way to run a country.

But part of me also feels like this whole thing is a bit melodramatic. Democracy is hard. Our democracy is always failing. I wonder if really, there was ever a time when democracy just worked great and we all just got along.

It seems unlikely.

But that’s not a reason to give up; that’s not a reason to walk away. That’s not a reason to declare that the great American experiment has failed and there is nothing more to be done.

It’s a reason to fight, a reason to roll up your sleeves and work, a reason to talk with and listen to those who disagree with you. It’s a chance to engage in the hard work of democratic living.

Our democracy isn’t failing; we are continually building it as we go.


Power and Social Capital

This semester, I’m taking a class on social networks for which I recently read Sandra Susan Smith’s 2005 article “Don’t put my name on it”: Social Capital Activation and Job Finding Assistance among the Black Urban Poor.

I haven’t read a lot of formal Sociology papers, so I was a little taken aback by the articles lack of overt social justice norms while tackling a deep social justice issue, but the paper as a whole is a really interesting read.

Smith sets up the article by describing a common explanation of persistent joblessness among the black urban poor: social isolation, or, in network terms, ‘deficiencies in access to mainstream ties and institutions.” Her work, though, finds a different explanation: it’s not that poor urban blacks don’t have access to resources for finding jobs, it’s that there are functional deficiencies of their job referral networks.

More specifically, over 80% of the respondents in Smith’s study “expressed concern that job seekers in their networks were too unmotivated to accept assistance, required great expenditures of time and emotional energy, or acted too irresponsibly on the job, thereby jeopardizing contacts’ own reputations in the eyes of employers and negatively affecting their already-tenuous labor market prospects.”

There’s a simple way of reading this article which doesn’t delve deeply into the social justice discrepancy found by the study. Such a reading indicated that there is simply a difference between experiences, that “social capital deficiencies of the black urban poor may have less to do with deficiencies in access…[and] more to do with functional deficiencies – the disinclination of potential job contacts to assist to assist when given the opportunity to do so, not because they lack information or the ability to influence hires, but because they perceive pervasive untrustworthiness among their job-seeking ties and choose not to assist.”

But the root of these functional deficiencies are worth digging into. Why do they exist? Where do the come from? Smith doesn’t go into the detail in this paper, though she does get to an important aspect of it near the end of the paper:

Resembling the the distrusting job contacts described in this study, employers expected from black job seekers, especially males, tardiness and absenteeism, unreliability, and an unwillingness to work when on the job. Furthermore, they believed that probability of theft, cursing, fighting, and disrespecting authority were greatly enhanced with black hires relative to other racial and ethnic groups.

In other words, people declined to provide support to their job-seeking contacts not necessarily directly because they perceived those people to be lazy or too ‘ghetto’ in the words of the paper – but because they thought their employer might perceive the job-seeker as such.

Smith’s whole study is done among the black urban poor – people’s who’s job stability is tenuous and who rely heavily upon their employer’s goodwill. Recommending a bad employee presents a significant risk – a risk which is amplified by an employer’s negative stereotypes.

Smith uses the language of ‘functional deficiencies,’ but what’s missing from this discussion in an analysis of power, of employer’s ability to set the norms and threaten sanctions if those norms are violated.

John Gaventa argues that “power serves to create power. Powerlessness serves to re-enforce powerlessness. Power relationships, once established, are self-sustaining.”

It is the self-sustaining nature of those power relationships which we see in Smith’s study: if there are functional deficiencies in the social capital of poor urban blacks, it is because power made them so, and power re-enforces them