Civic Expertise

In response to my unhelpful guide on how to resist, my friend Joshua Miller responds with his own post, writing:

I think we – we scholars who tackle the civic arena – ought to be able to give advice, and not simply advocate a life of unspecified restless action. Too often we study the politics of governments but we need to practice a different politics: of relationships and of institutions. But I don’t yet know what advice to give. I am still a little bit heeding the instructions: don’t just do something, sit there.

This is a common complaint within the civic domain – ‘talk’ is useless if it doesn’t lead to action, our scholarly leadership is too ivory-tower if it doesn’t translate to practical advice. There’s something entirely unsatisfying if the outcome to all our civic work and scholarship is merely to “advocate a life of unspecified restless action.

I subtitled my guide unhelpful, and Miller reasonably agrees that it is.

Yet, I find something meaningful in this vague, unhelpful result. We don’t know what advice to give because there are no easy answers and we, civic scholars and citizens alike, are in the process of figuring it out.

If we somehow did have answers and we simply doled them out to anyone who would listen, such expertise would interfere with everyone else’s education. Such a process would defeat the goal itself. We don’t have answers because the task before us is to figure it out together.

Miller by no means intended to suggest such a brash professionalism of civic scholarship – saying we should be able to give advice is a far cry from claiming everyone should look solely to us for instructions on what to do.

But while the intentions of those approaches are worlds apart, the practical line between them may be thinner then we’d hope.

I think of the great story from organizer and educator Myles Horton. A group of striking workers he’d been working with comes to him in desperation:

They said: “Well, you’ve got more experience than we have. You’ve got to tell us what to do. You’re the expert.” I said: “No, let’s talk about it a little bit more. In the first place, I don’t know what to do, and if I did know I wouldn’t tell you, because if I had to tell you today then I’d have to tell you tomorrow, and when I’m gone you’d have to get somebody else to tell you.”

One guy reached in his pocket and pulled out a pistol and says, “Godddamn you, if you don’t tell us I’m going to kill you.” I was tempted to become an instant expert, right on the spot! But I knew that if I did that, all would be lost and then all the rest of them would start asking me what to do.

While may feel like we’ve failed to live up to our scholarly and civic duty if our work does not result in practical advice, Horton would argue that the goal of our work should always be education and building the capacity of those around us.

We don’t have to know the answers, we have to create space for people to figure out the answers for themselves. Even when the stakes are high. Especially when the stakes are high.

It’s debatable whether Horton was right to take his commitment to such extreme measures, but there’s always a piece of me that thinks he might be right.

You can’t tell someone what to do when you’re just a person trying to figure out what to do.

And I don’t think accepting that means our scholarship has no value. Our research can help broaden the scope of conversation, shed light on what works in certain time and contexts, but we’ll never have the perfect answer for what we should do now.


Bent Flyvbjerg argued in favor of phronetic social sciences. “At the core of phronetic social science stands the Aristotelian maxim that social issues are best decided by means of the public sphere, not by science,” Flyvbjerg writes. “Though imperfect, no better device than public deliberation following the rules of constitutional democracy has been arrived at for settling social issues, so far as human history can show. Social science must therefore play into this device if it is to be useful.”

Flyvbjerg provides the following specific advice on how social scientists should do this:

  1. Producing reflexive analyses of values and interests and of how values and interests affect different groups in society
  2. Making sure that such analyses are fed into the process of public deliberation and decision making, in order to guarantee that legitimate parties to this process, i.e., citizens and stakeholders, receive due diligence in the process.

This is more specific than advocating for a life of unspecified restless action, but it falls short of offering actual advice. The role of the phronetic social scientist is to add value to the public conversation.

This may feel like too little in times when the questions are big and the stakes are dire. But it is, perhaps, enough…or even exactly what is needed.

Then again, I am certainly not above simply advocating for a life of unspecified restless action.


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