Facts/Values/Strategies Conference

I will offline tomorrow, attending the Facts/Values/Strategies mini-conference co-hosted by Tufts’ University’s Tisch College of Civic Life and The Good Society, the journal of civic studies for which I serve as an editor.

In preparation for this conference, I’ve been reading the conference papers – which each seek to integrate facts, values, and strategies in conceiving of citizen’s roles in civil society. The papers have been engaging and inspiring, and I’m looking forward to a day and a half of dialogue digging into these topics.

The framing statement for the conference is below:
Current global crises of democracy raise fundamental questions about how citizens can be responsible and effective actors, whether they are combating racism in the United States, protecting human rights in the Middle East, or addressing climate change. If “citizens” are people who strive to leave their communities greater and more beautiful (as in the Athenian citizen’s oath), then their thinking must combine facts, values, and strategies, because all three must influence any wise decision. Mainstream scholarship distinguishes facts, values, and strategies, assigning them to different branches of the academy. Many critics have noted the philosophical shortcomings of the fact/value distinction, but citizens need accounts of how facts, values, and strategies can be recombined, both in theory and in practice. John Dewey, Hannah Arendt, Mahatma Gandhi, Jürgen Habermas, Amartya Sen—and many other theorists of citizenship—have offered such accounts.

Actual civic movements also combine facts, values, and strategies in distinctive ways. For instance, the American Civil Rights Movement used the language of prophesy, and Second Wave Feminism strategically advocated new ways of knowing.

These papers propose theoretical, methodological, historical, and empirical responses and case-studies related to the question: how should citizens put facts, values, and strategies together?


Isotta Nogarola

Isotta Nogarola was a great one of the great female humanists of the Renaissance.

Born to a wealthy family in Verona, Nogarola was trained in the humanist arts – as was the custom for aristocratic men and women of the day.

Women, however, were expected to do little with their training but be personally enriched to that they may later similarly enrich their own children.

Nogarola, however, sought to further enrich the humanist field by entering into scholarly correspondence with some of the leading humanists in Italy.

Her letters drew scorn from the greater public. There is a long history in the Western world of women being excluded from the public sphere; of being silenced and branded as unclean if they dare speak up.

Nogarola was no exception – rumors spread that she was a prostitute, and that she had engaged in incest.

The reasoning for these rumors?

An eloquent women is never chaste.



The Gender of Folly

In Erasmus’ famous 1511 essay, The Praise of Folly, the embodiment of Folly herself delivers satirical oratory, praising herself and critiquing the norms and institutions of the day.

The piece itself is wonderfully well written, and there is a wealth of scholarship examining Erasmus’ satirical intents.

But there is one element of the essay which I have always found particularly striking. As Folly finalizes her argument, she closes her refined rhetoric by stating:

If anything I have said shall seem too saucy or too glib, stop and think: ‘tis Folly, and a woman, that has spoken. But of course you will also remember that Greek proverb, “Even a foolish man will often speak a word in season,” unless, perhaps you assume that this does not extend to women.

Patricia Bizzell notes that scholars have generally paid little attention to Folly’s gender – after all, female muses and even fools were common in Renaissance oration, with roots dating back further.

Yet ignoring Folly’s gender seem a misstep  – it is not incidental, but rather a core element of Erasmus’ satire. Folly’s gender allows her dismiss herself – after all, ‘tis Folly, and a woman, that has spoken – even as she delivers outspoken criticism of society.

Her gender also makes her an outsider, as Bizzell writes:

I can’t take the persona’s gender for granted, especially as she’s depicted in Holbein’s illustrations for an early edition of the Praise: a woman in a fool’s cap and bells and an academic gown, speaking from a rostrum to an audience of men similarly attired (see Moriae 1989).

And while female personas were perhaps common in Renaissance work, Folly’s place as an orator is particularly notable. As Bizzell points out, “in the Renaissance, a woman who practices rhetoric in public, whether by orating or publishing, is usually deemed to be unchaste.”

Even as humanists education expanded to include upper class women as well as men, women continued to be barred from the study of rhetoric. Oratory and rhetorical debate were fields where learned men battled. For a woman to enter such an arena – to share her voice in the public sphere was, in Bizzell’s words, like “the only female player in a touch football game…what chaste women would take such a risk?”

All this leaves unanswered the question of exactly what Erasmus’ argues for in Folly, but it raises the importance of gender in transmitting that message.

The role of the Fool has long been to speak truth to power, protected by their own foolishness and disdained place in society. Folly, the unchaste woman, has particular power in this regard – power bestowed by her entire lack of power.

Though ‘entire lack’ is a blatant overstatement here, as the woman rhetor, well trained in the humanists arts, is no doubt of a certain class and a certain race – maligned for her gender but more empowered than others nonetheless. As Bizzell concludes:

If we think of ourselves as symbolically risking making fools of ourselves, we might consider the implications of taking on not only the fool’s disregard for social convention, which allows social criticism and the enactment of solidarity, but also the fool’s embrace of marginal social positions as well.

Perhaps this is ultimately why the persona of Folly spoke so strongly to me when I first read Erasmus’s mock-encomium. In the persona of the foolish slut, I saw, on the one hand, ways to compensate for my lack of gender privilege, that is to wrest rhetorical freedom out of the liabilities I incur as a woman breaking the taboos that still to some extent obtain on a woman’s speaking in public. On the other hand, I saw ways to undermine my race and class privileges, which may prevent me from identifying with oppressed people as much as I want to do: this very adoption of the ass-eared cap lends a provisionality to my words which, I hope, invites all others into the rhetorical process with me.


Two Years

I have recently completed the second year of my doctoral program in Network Science at Northeastern University, and it feels an appropriate time to satisfy my periodic indulgence for self-reflection.

Two years. That is a long time, though also not a long time. I know “new” businesses which have been open more than two years; I remember “recent” events which took place far longer than two years ago. Two years is nothing, it is a blink of an eye. Yet the last two years have seemed so long. So long in a good way: I have learned so much, changed so much, grown so much.

It’s been a great two years.

Before I continue, it is worth noting – for those of you playing at home – that, no, I am not almost done. I have at least three years left; so even the halfway mark seems a distant point on the horizon.

But I am entering what I can only describe as the ‘grown up’ phase of my studies. I am officially done with course work – though I will no doubt continue to take classes from time to time.  I’ve nearly put test-taking behind me – though I’ll spend the next several months studying for our Qualifying Exam. On the surface, then, it may seem as though little has changed…but this moment marks a subtle turning point in my academic life; as I increasingly shed the title of student and move into the role of researcher.

I rather imagined this would occur as a crystalizing event. As though I might crawl into my doctoral studies, quietly cocooned until I miraculously emerged a scholar.

And though I knew that’s never how it would happen, I find it nonetheless remarkable how transformative the meticulous metamorphosis has proven to be. I have learned so much – not just facts and skills, though I have learned those,  too – but the past two years have fundamentally shifted the way I think and approach problems.

At the end of my first semester, I wrote that I had “been learning how to see the world through a particular epistemic frame: learning what questions to ask and what tools to deploy in answering them.”

At the end of my first year, I boasted that I could “trade nerdy jokes with people from any discipline” – a remark meant to highlight the value of interdisciplinary work. “As much as I have to learn from everyone I meet,” I wrote,  “We all have something to learn from each other.”

This sentiment is reflected in the theme that comes to mind when I reflect on my past year of learning:

Year 2: I think I might know things.

The first year gave me the lay of the land; helped me learn the contours of all the things I didn’t know. The second year helped me start defining that landscape for myself. It would perhaps be an overstatement to say the second year helped be begin to make my own contributions – but it left me with the ineffable sense that I am on a path to be able to make contributions.

I still have much to learn – there is always more to learn. But as I wind down the second year of my studies, learning feels so much more like the every day act of living rather than the frantic attempts of someone in over their head.

That is to say, I am still learning – I frankly hope to always be learning – but for the first time it feels as though I could contribute nearly as much as I could learn.

Or more plainly: I think –

I might I know things.



Re-Learning to be Human

I’m returning from a two-week blogging hiatus – the first of several I will be taking over the summer months.

This break was prompted by the madness of finals week: when my blogging devolves into posting snippets of homework assignments, it feels appropriate to take some time off. And then  I decided to take the following week off as well. I was, I decided, in the most general sense of the term, on vacation.

I wasn’t lying on a beach somewhere or taking in the tourist sites, but rather I was staring at the wall, staring at my desk, catching up with people, completing miscellaneous errands, and fundamentally trying to remember how I normally live my life.

Most probably due my emersion in deliberative literature, the phrase that most came to mind this past week was Dewey’s expression, learning to be human.

“To learn to be human,” Dewey writes, “is to develop through the give-and-take of communication an effective sense of being an individually distinctive member of a community; one who understands and appreciates its beliefs, desires and methods, and who contributes to a further conversion of organic powers into human resources and values.”

Like much of Dewey’s writing, the expression comes dangerously close to an impossibly lofty, grandiose vision.

On its face, it seems almost absurdly metaphorical – are humans not born human? In what sense, then, might a human learn to be human?

Dewey argues that what we call “human” is much more than a collection of biological traits. Rather, being human, in it’s most fundamental sense, is essentially a social construct: “everything which is distinctively human is learned.”

Yes, we must indeed “learn to be human.”

And if this sounds absurd, I recommend reflecting on the expression the next time you emerge from an intensely focused cocoon. When you can’t remember what time you normally get up or what you’re supposed to do when you feel hungry. When you have this vague sense that you used to have friends, but you haven’t actually spoken to any of them in weeks. When you’re trying to remember your priorities in life, or maybe just trying to remember how to determine your priorities. When you have no real sense of what’s going on around you, just the unmistakable sense that things have been going on.

When you realize you’ve cordoned yourself so far off from society that you actually need to reintegrate before you can meaningfully engage –

That’s when you’re learning – or relearning, perhaps – what it means to be human.

And as Dewey argues, this isn’t something we can do by ourselves; one does not learn to be human alone. Rather, learning to be human is a fundamentally social endeavor, an ongoing process through which we each learn how to act and interact. It is the every day work of learning and growing; of becoming who we are.


Axelrod’s Cognitive Networks

Before introducing the cultural diffusion model he is now better known for, Axelrod proposed mapping individuals’ reasoning process as a causal network.

“A person’s beliefs can be regarded as a complex system,” he argued, and, “given a person’s concepts and beliefs, and given certain rules for deducing other beliefs from them” it is therefore possible to model how “a person would make a choice among alternatives” (Axelrod, 1976).

Axelrod called these networks of beliefs and causal relationships “cognitive maps,” and he engaged other scholars in deriving cognitive maps for select political elites using a detailed hand-coding procedure of a subject’s existing documents.

For Axelrod, the representation of beliefs as a network was a natural and obvious extension of how individuals reason. “People do evaluate complex policy alternatives in terms of the consequences of a particular choice would cause, and ultimately of what the sum of these effects would be,” he argued. “Indeed, such cause analysis is built into our language, and it would be very difficult for us to think complete in other terms, even if we tried” (Axelrod, 1976).

Axelrod takes the nodes of these networks to be concepts, with directed edges between them indicating causal links. Importantly, the nodal concepts are not things but rather “variables that can take on different values.” This makes the cognitive map “an algebraic rather than a logical system.”

Axelrod saw great value in the approach of cognitive mapping – seeing them as tools to understand decision-making, resources capable of meaningful policy suggestions, and imagining how individuals’ maps could aggregate into a collective.


Computational Models of Belief Systems & Cultural Systems

Work on belief systems is similar to the research on cultural systems – both use agent-based models to explore how complex systems evolve given a simple set of actor rules and interactions – there are important conceptual differences between the two lines of work.

Research on cultural systems takes a maco-level approach, seeking to explain if, when, and how, distinctive communities of similar traits emerge, while research on belief systems uses comparable methods to understand if, when, and how distinctive individuals come to agree on a given point.

The difference between these approaches is subtle but notable. The cultural systems approach begins with the observation that distinctive cultures do exist, despite local tendencies for convergence, while research on belief systems begins from the observation that groups of people are capable of working together, despite heterogeneous opinions and interests.

In his foundational work on cultural systems, Axelrod begins, “despite tendencies towards convergence, differences between individuals and groups continue to exist in beliefs, attitudes, and behavior” (Axelrod, 1997).

Compare this to how DeGroot begins his exploration of belief systems: “consider a group of individuals who must act together as a team or committee, and suppose that each individual in the group has his own subjective probability distribution for the unknown value of some parameter. A model is presented which describes how the group might reach agreement on a common subjective probability distribution parameter by pooling their individual opinions” (DeGroot, 1974).

In other words, while cultural models seek to explain the presence of homophily and other system-level traits, belief systems more properly seek to capture deliberative exchange. The important methodological difference here is that cultural systems model agent change as function of similarity, while belief systems model agent change as a process of reasoning.



Computational Models of Cultural Systems

Computational approaches to studying the broader social context can be found in work on the emergence and diffusion of communities in cultural system. Spicer makes an anthropological appeal for the study of such systems, arguing that cultural change can only be properly considered in relation to more stable elements of culture. These persistent cultural elements, he argues, can best be understood as ‘identity systems,’ in which individuals bestow meaning to symbols. Spicer notes that there are collective identity systems (i.e., culture) as well as individual systems, and chooses to focus his attention on the former. Spicer talks about these systems in implicitly network terms: identity systems capture “relationships between human beings and their cultural products” (Spicer, 1971). To the extent that individuals share the same relationships with the same cultural products, they are united under a common culture; they are, as Spicer says, “a people.”

Axelrod presents a more robust mathematical model for studying these cultural systems. Similar to Schelling’s dynamic models of segregation, Axelrod imagines individuals interacting through processes of social influence and social selection (Axelrod, 1997). Agents are described with n-length vectors, with each element initialized to a value between 0 and m. The elements of the vector represent cultural dimensions (features), and the value of each element represents an individual’s state along that dimension (traits). Two individuals with the exact same vector are said to share a culture, while, in general, agents are considered culturally similar to the extent to which they hold the same trait for the same feature. Agents on a grid are then allowed to interact: two neighboring agents are selected at random. With a probability equal to their cultural similarity, the agents interact. An interaction consists of selecting a random feature on which the agents differ (if there is one), and updating one agent’s trait on this feature to its neighbor’s trait on that feature. This simple model captures both the process of choice homophily, as agents are more likely to interact with similar agents, and the process of social influence, as interacting agents become more similar over time. Perhaps the most surprising finding of Axelrod’s approach is just how complex this cultural system turns out to be. Despite the model’s simple rules, he finds that it is difficult to predict the ultimate number of stable cultural regions based on the system’s n and m parameters.

This concept of modeling cultural convergence through simple social processes has maintained a foothold in the literature and has been slowly gaining more widespread attention. Bednar and Page take a game theoretic approach, imagining agents who must play multiple cognitively taxing games simultaneously. Their finding that in these scenarios “culturally distinct behavior is likely and in many cases unavoidable” (Bednar & Page, 2007) is notable because classic game-theoretic models fail to explain the emergence of culture at all: rather rational agents simply maximize their utility and move on. In their simultaneous game scenarios, however, cognitively limited agents adopt the strategies that can best be applied across the tasks they face. Cultures, then, emerge as “agents evolve behaviors in strategic environments.” This finding underscores Granovetter’s argument of embeddedness (M. Granovetter, 1985): distinctive cultures emerge because regional contexts influence adaptive choices, which in turn influence an agent’s environment.

Moving beyond Axelrod’s grid implementation, Flache and Macy (Flache & Macy, 2011) consider agent interaction on the small world network proposed by Watts and Strogatz (Watts & Strogatz, 1998). This model randomly rewires a grid with select long-distance ties. Following Granovetter’s strength of weak ties theory (M. S. Granovetter, 1973), the rewired edges in the Watts-Strogatz model should bridge clusters and promote cultural diffusion. Flache and Macy also introduce the notion of the valiance of interaction, considering social influence along dimensions of assimilation and differentiation, and taking social selection to consist of either attraction or xenophobia. In systems with only positively-valenced interaction (assimilation and attraction), they find that the ‘weak’ ties have the expected result: cultural signals diffuse and the system tends towards cultural integration. However, introduction of negatively valenced interactions (differentiation and xenophobia), leads to cultural polarization; resulting in deep disagreement between communities which themselves have high internal consensus.



Having attended a conference last weekend, I meet a lot of people and had a lot of conversations…and had a lot of conversations about meeting new people.

One thing that kept coming up was people’s dislike of utilitarian networking – the idea that, especially when at a conference, you should talk to specific kinds of people or intentionally work on building certain relationships out of a pure utilitarian desire to leverage that relationship for your own good.

Perhaps I simply haven’t attended enough conferences, but I don’t find this concern very…concerning. To be clear, I do find the very idea of utilitarian networking to be distasteful, but I don’t find networking to be inherently utilitarian.

Or perhaps I’m just not doing it right.

In a previously life, I would go to social events and not talk to anyone. Not necessarily out of distaste for networking, but out of a general malaise about life. Then, some how, at some point along the line, I started talking to people.

And what I found was that people are really interesting.

Every conversation is like a window into a whole other universe of personhood. And the less you know the person, the more there is to learn.

So now when I go to events, I talk to people. As many people as meaningfully possible. Not out of a utilitarian drive to advance myself through connection, but out of a genuine desire to meet and learn from other.

Maybe I’m wrong, but I just though that’s what networking is.


Diverse Perspectives and Advertising

In the short half-life of scandals and outrage these days, I know it already seems like forever ago, but I wanted to take a minute to reflect on the “Kendall Jenner Pepsi ad” debacle of 2017. In the ad, reality star/model Jenner “throws off the chains of the modeling industry,” joining a Black Lives Matter protest, and ultimately bringing “everyone together by … handing a cop a Pepsi.”

You can see, perhaps, the problem.

There is plenty to analyze in terms of what is wrong with the ad, but, as someone with a background in marketing, I find myself more interested in a related question: how did the ad get made?

Interestingly, Pepsi used an in-house firm to design the ad – a move which many in agency life fingered as the culprit. If only Pepsi had had an outside perspective, an external agency with a beat on the broader culture, such an ad would never have been made. While there’s no way to know if that may have been a mitigating factor, ad agencies have made their fair share of gaffes, too.

But whether the ad was created by an in-house firm or an outside ad agency, it would have needed to go through numerous iterations and revisions. Numerous people must have looked at the ad concept, script, and footage. And none of them seemingly walked away questioning whether the ad could face backlash.

Now, I don’t know the demographics of the marketers who made this ad, but I’d bet good money that the majority of them were white.

And while that may be an implicit assumption which goes hand in hand with the very notion that this ad was created, it is worth pausing for a moment and reflecting on this.

When company’s make blunders like this, we shouldn’t just mock them and wonder how they got so out of touch. We more or less know, sociologically speaking, exactly how they got out of touch.

When everyone reviewing an ad is more or less the same, we shouldn’t be surprised when they turn out tone-deaf material.

The outrage here shouldn’t just be about one ad or about one company; we should all be outraged that we live in such a deeply segregated society that in a whole room full of people it is hardly surprising that not one black voice was heard.