An Association as a Belief Network and Social Network

I will present a paper entitled “An Association as a Belief Network and Social Network” at next week’s Midwestern Political Science Association meeting (remotely). This is the paper.


A social network is composed of individuals who may have various relationships with one another. Each member of such a network may hold relevant beliefs and may connect each belief to other beliefs. A connection between two beliefs is a reason. Each member’s beliefs and reasons form a more-or-less connected network. As members of a group interact, they share some of their respective beliefs and reasons with peers and form a belief-network that represents their common view. However, either the social network or the belief network can be disconnected if the group is divided.

This study mapped both the social network and the belief-network of a Rotary Club in the US Midwest. The Club’s leadership found the results useful for diagnostic and planning purposes. This study also piloted a methodology that may be useful for social scientists who analyze organizations and associations of various kinds.

Two illustrative graphs …

Below is the social network of the organization. A link indicates that someone named another person as a significant influence. The size of each dot reflects the number of people who named that individual. The network is connected, not balkanized. However, there are definitely some insiders, who have lots of connections, and a periphery.

The belief-network is shown above this post. The nodes are beliefs held by members of the group. A link indicates that some members connect one belief to another as a reason, e.g., “I appreciate friendships in the club” and therefore, “I enjoy the meetings” (or vice-versa). Nodes with more connections are larger and placed nearer the center.

One takeaway is that members disagree about certain matters, such as the state of the local economy, but those contested beliefs do not serve as reasons for other beliefs, which prevents the group from fragmenting.

I would be interested in replicating this method with other organizations. I can share practical takeaways with a group while learning more from the additional case.

See also: a method for analyzing organizations

modeling social reality

I’m working on an article and have recently posted various excerpts in draft form.* This is the current outline:

  1. A model is a simplified representation of social reality that may take the form of a diagram, a story, a thought-experiment, an ideal-type, or an analogy to something that’s better understood.
  2. Human beings use models to navigate the social world.
  3. Judgment (phronesis) requires choosing and applying models of social reality.  
  4. Social models characteristically have empirical and normative aspects (both “facts” and “values”).
  5. Models can be categorized by their forms, e.g., root-cause, cyclical, genealogical, historical-institutionalist, organizational, game-theoretical, interest-group-coalition, etc.
  6. A model offers guidance, much as a fable suggests a moral (Cartwright 1999; Johnson 2020).
  7. The empirical details of a model should be testable and falsifiable, but new evidence typically modifies a model; it doesn’t invalidate the model. This is because (a) the model has normative aspects that are not empirically falsifiable; and (b) methods, concepts, sources, normative principles, and specific facts interrelate.
  8. Models are wise or unwise, not true or false. The best model is the one that does the most good, not the one that is most correct.
  9. The logic of applying a model to a given case is abductive (per C.S. Pierce), not inductive or deductive.
  10. Choosing a good model requires understanding and considering other options; it’s comparative.
  11. Therefore, (a) good education for civic life involves exploring multiple models, never one model; and; (b) good participation in civic life involves sharing one’s model and listening to others.

*See choosing models that illuminate issues–on the logic of abduction in the social sciences and policy; different kinds of social models; social education as learning to improve models; making our models explicit

the coincidences in Romola

In George Eliot’s Romola, we see events from the perspective of four major characters (one at a time): Tito Melema, Baldassarre Calvo, Tessa, and Romola herself. Four people can have up to 3! = 6 bilateral relationships. In Romola, each of these six potential connections is filled out with several independent interactions.

Just for example, Tito encounters Nessa on his first day in Florence and then on several important occasions, Baldassare takes shelter in the farm where Tessa lives, Tessa’s toddler runs into the street and into Romola’s arms, and Tito washes ashore at Baldassare’s very location on the shore of the Arno. In that last case, the older man has no reason to expect his enemy to appear, but when this happens, he understandably feels that “something was being brought to him” for a reason–as a “fortunate chance for him” (italics in the original).

These distinct connections arise over a short period in quite a large community. (The population of Renaissance Florence was on the order of 100,000, but that understates the improbability, since Baldassare has been enslaved in the Middle East and encounters Tito almost as soon as he finds himself in Florence. The odds of that encounter must be one in a million.)

I think we generally assume that we pass through life with one thing just happening after another–sometimes as a result of our decisions, but often by sheer contingency. Occasional coincidences should be expected as a matter of probability, but they do not mean anything. Every one out of a million events will be a one-in-a-million event.

These assumptions make Romola look contrived and perhaps didactic, evidently the work of an artist who has deliberately connected four characters in the maximum number of ways to explore symmetries and contrasts. The text seems unlike life.

As Caroline Levine (yes, my sister) shows, Romola learns as the story unfolds. She figures out that life is not foreordained and prophesies are unreliable–sometimes true, but only by chance. (Prophesies are important in this political novel, since the main political actor, Savonarola, gains his influence through prophesy.) Romola concludes that human beings make free moral choices that alone determine what happens. Her conclusion seems inconsistent with the density of coincidences in the plot, which should instead suggest (as the addled Baldassare concludes) that everything has been set up for a reason.

Caroline notes that plotted narratives typically have a strange feature. The author knows what will happen and selects the events to narrate with that outcome in mind. It’s a flaw in a plotted narrative if we’re told things that don’t matter later.

Imagine two events that occur in a sequence, A and B. In a novel, A should have an affect on B, yet B is the cause of A in the sense that it explains why A is narrated.

This means that Romola may (or may not) be correct about how life works, but she is wrong about her own story as it is told in the eponymous novel. Her story is determined by an omniscient creator and organized to reach coherent conclusions.

For me, the density of coincidences is a bit alienating: it’s like seeing the puppeteer’s hands. As the coincidences mount, I think: this is just too improbable. I prefer Middlemarch, which also has coincidences, but at a much lower rate. Still, perhaps the best conclusion is that any narrated story is a contrivance. In this case, it’s contrived to teach us that only our choices matter, and that is a bit of a paradox.

Source: Caroline Levine, “The Prophetic Fallacy: Realism, Foreshadowing, and Narrative Knowledge in Romola,” in Levine and Mark W. Turner, From Author to Text: Re-Reading George Eliot’s Romola (Ashgate 1998), pp. 135-164. See also Wallace Stevens’ idea of order; my favorite book (on Middlemarch, from 2008); Martin Luther King’s philosophy of time; Hilary Mantel and Walter Benjamin.

register and propose sessions for Frontiers of Democracy 2024

Dates: June 13 (5pm) until June 15 (1 pm) at Tufts University in Medford, MA

Please hold the dates (June 13-15), register and purchase tickets at the “early bird” discount rate until March 29, and consider proposing one or more sessions for the conference by April 16.

This year’s special theme is “Violence, Nonviolence, and Robust Democracy.” We anticipate robust conversations (and disagreements) about what defines and causes political violence and about the potential and limitations of nonviolent strategies. This year’s plenary speakers on the nonviolence theme will include This year’s plenary speakers on the nonviolence theme will include Damien ConnersHeather CronkJalene SchmidtMaria Stephan, and Thupten Tendhar. Jessie Landerman and Keisha E. McKenzie from Everyday Democracy will lead an interactive plenary session on Prime Time Propaganda: Using Narrative, Dialogue, and Facilitation Techniques to Confront Violent Forms of Communication

The nonviolence theme is not exclusive; we welcome sessions on other topics related to Tisch College’s “North Star”: building robust, inclusive democracy for an increasingly multiracial society. In particular, we are eager to continue last year’s rich conversations about religious pluralism and democracy and would welcome proposals in that area, whether or not they relate to violence and nonviolence. 

Although we will consider proposals for presentations or panels of presentations, we generally prefer proposals for other formats, such as moderated discussions, meetings devoted to strategy or design, trainings and workshops, case study discussions, debates, and other creative formats.

The conference agenda will develop over the next several months.

Cost: $240 for a standard ticket with discounts for current students. This includes hors d’oeuvres on June 13, breakfast and lunch on June 14, and breakfast and lunch on June 15. Other meals and lodgings are not provided.

Learn more and register

Biden’s democracy agenda is limited but Trump is against democracy

Tisch College Dean Dayna Cunningham and I have a piece in The Conversation today. We begin:

President Joe Biden argues that “democracy is on the ballot” in the 2024 election.

We believe there are potential threats to U.S. democracy posed by the choices voters make in this election. But the benefits of American democracy have for centuries been unequally available, and any discussion of the current threats needs to happen against that background. …

For us, Biden’s talk of democracy is a useful starting point for a broader conversation about U.S. democracy and the 2024 election. …

BLM protests and backlash

In 2020, Jacob Rubel, who was then my advisee as a Tufts undergrad, launched with the lead author Mathis Ebbinghaus a project to assess the policy impact of Black Lives Matter protests. He got support from another advisee of mine, Jane Romp, and two other Tufts undergrads to hand-collect data on police budgets and political processes in 264 US cities (all of the 300 largest cities for which data were available), and he collaborated with Mathis Ebbinghaus and Nathan Bailey on the analysis. The results are now published as:

Mathis Ebbinghaus, Nathan Bailey, Jacob Rubel, “The Effect of the 2020 Black Lives Matter Protests on Police Budgets: How ‘Defund the Police’ Sparked Political Backlash, “Social Problems, 2024;, spae004,

Overall, funding for police did not change to a statistically significant degree from 2019-2021. Larger protests accompanied increases in police budgets, but not to a statistically significant level (hence that relationship could be noise). However, in cities where Republican voters were more numerous, larger protests were associated with increases in police budgets. The authors consider the timing of elections and show that this backlash was not a result of electoral pressures. Rather, cities with more Republican voters seem already to have had more conservative (or pro-police) political cultures, and those city leaders reacted to BLM protests by increasing funds for police.

See also: police discrimination, race, and community poverty; on the phrase: Abolish the police!; who protested in 2020? how change is made

Be the Leaders You Want to See: A Civic Learning Week Webinar with Congressman Dennis Ross

Good afternoon, friends! For Civic Learning Week, we were grateful to be joined by former Florida Congressman, Dennis Ross. Congressman Ross talked with us about civil discourse and student civic engagement. It’s one of my favorite webinars that we have done, and we hope that you enjoy it as well. And thank you Congressman Ross for joining us!

It’s The End of Civic Learning Week!

But civic learning never ends, does it? We all know and recognize that civic learning is a key part of life and the work that we do, and we have shared posts on our twitter accounts (@Loufreyinst and @FL_Citizen) that highlight some interesting research, events, and resources that we saw during the week. We want to make sure too though that we share some excellent support materials from our coalition partners in the CivXNow network!

The CivXNow Coalition, a project of iCivics, is a nonpartisan, ideologically diverse coalition of over 325 organizations who believe in you and this important work you do. In the spirit of Civic Learning Week, the coalition came together to share their  classroom resources (lessons, curricula, and professional development) that embody the best of their work. 

As a proud member of the CivXNow coalition, the Lou Frey Institute/Florida Joint Center for Citizenship is happy to collaborate across the coalition to share these resources with you! We’ve partnered with organizations who, like us, want to champion civic education. Here you’ll find lessons and activities from Earth Force, Inquiring Minds, Emerging America – Reform to Equal Rights,  KQED, the Lincoln Presidential Foundation, the Lou Frey institute, New American History, and Periodic Presidents. 

Save these links, and use them! We are proud of the work our fellow members of the coalition have done, and we look forward to continue collaboration on civic learning throughout the year!

reading for personal interest: trends since 2003

I’m concerned about the state of reading, because I believe (and have seen evidence) that reading takes us out of our own minds into other people’s and enables us to make deep and creative connections. I feel myself growing less able to concentrate–although I did finally read Romola last week!–and I observe that my talented undergraduates are reading less than their predecessors did. I blame the distracting media environment rather than any generational fault.

Here are some data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics:

The line for ages 15 and older shows that adults are spending less time reading “for personal interest” than they were in 2003, down by about 28 percent. The BLS does not provide data on children. However, people between the ages of 20 and 24 (the classic college years) have seen a small increase in time spent reading for personal interest, albeit from a low baseline. The biggest decline is among those between 45 and 54, who read for half as long as they did in 2003, or about 10 minutes/day.

More education correlates with more reading, but all educational groups read less. Still, the decline for the most educated (those with graduate educations) is 28%, whereas the decline for people without high school diplomas is 87%. That group now reads for an average of 2.4 minutes a day, down from a substantial 18 minutes a day in 2003.

See also are we forgetting how to read?; a way forward for high culture; “The world wants the humanities”


I am so lucky: near the finish line
With no tragedies. My three sons are fine.
I may never have to open the door
To wrenching news or the grim stench of war.

I sleep all right these days, now that lust is less
A master, and guilt, that dogged hunter,
Lets me burrow in a secret shelter
Where I tell myself I deserve success.

When I heard Socrates had come down here,
I sent a boy to stop him. My knees are such
I cannot walk uphill to Athens much.
I hate to miss the clever talk, and I fear
The wise and famous will forget Cephalus.

It was like old times; we quoted lovely lines.
But I knew he'd start to press: “What do you mean,
Cephalus? Doesn't that come in different kinds?”
The more we examine hope, the more hope declines.
I left Socrates to my son, exited the scene,
And, wearing my silly wreath, resumed my place,
Performing prayers in the marketplace.

Cf. Plato, Republic 331d: “‘Very well,’ said Cephalus, ‘I will turn the whole argument over to you. For now is the time when I must take charge of the sacrifices.’ ‘Well,’ he said, ‘Aren’t I, Polemarchus, the heir to everything you have?’ ‘Certainly,’ he laughed, and he went at once to the sacrifices.” See also: Pindar on hope; philosophy and self-help; shelter