why study social justice?

I just finished teaching a philosophy course in which the primary question was “How should I live?” We spent some time reading and thinking about personal and internal questions, such as what constitutes happiness and truthfulness and whether those are possible and desirable states. We also talked about political justice, reading a fairly standard canon of Mill, Rawls, Nozick, and Scanlon, plus Bayard Rustin, Kwasi Wiredu, Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze, Steve Biko, Audre Lorde, and Susan Bickford. The premise of those readings was that it might be important to know what justice is when choosing how to live a good life.

Meanwhile, my students were introspecting about the principles that guide their lives and how those principles are organized into networks of moral ideas.

The students, as they recognize, emphasize attitudes toward concrete other people in their lives plus values related to learning: empathy, openness, and hard work. The kinds of ideals that figure in political theory–liberty, equality, welfare, and democracy–are mostly absent or marginal from their maps of their own animating ideals.

They offered several explanations for this gap between what I’d assigned and what they perceived when they looked inward. Some thought it was evidence of their own privilege: they don’t have to think about freedom because they take it for granted. (For the same reason, they don’t list “having enough to eat” as a guiding principle.) Others thought their introspective maps were developmentally appropriate: their job right now is to learn and revise their views, not to hold onto principles. Some were skeptical about the validity of any abstract principles of justice. And some thought that their own views reflected political discouragement or disenfranchisement at a hard time in our history. They don’t strive directly for democracy because they don’t believe that they can.

The question arises, Why should we study and conduct research on justice? Why should justice be part of any curriculum, and specifically a curriculum whose leading question is about the good life for the individual students?

I think my colleagues in academia (writ large) would divide on that question.

For some academics, justice seems irrelevant to their professional work or is a mere matter of opinion. “Who decides what’s good or bad?” is a frequent question. It suggests that we scholars and students shouldn’t try to define justice and defend our stances in academic contexts, publications and classrooms. The most we should do is to study and explain why various populations define justice in various ways.

For some academics, commitment to justice is measured by the degree of one’s distaste for the prevailing political and economic system. The way to assess whether a colleague is oriented to justice is to see how strongly she or he opposes the status quo. One way to demonstrate such opposition is to study various concrete forms of injustice. Thus justice-oriented scholars are those who investigate and teach situations that should be abhorred.

By this standard, my curriculum would be deficient, since we did not go deeply into the empirical facts about poverty, racism, or tyranny. Moreover, we read authors chosen for their divergent views. By the time you see that Hayek and Nozick would like less government than we have, and Rawls and Scanlon would like more, you could perhaps conclude that we have about the right amount of government. I’m not saying that splitting the difference would be valid logic, but the question is whether ideological diversity might have the psychological effect of making students confused or complacent.

I belong to a third category of academics, for whom being seriously concerned with justice means asking what it is and what we can do to promote it. Both parts of that question are topics for research. One can study what justice is by critically investigating the available theories and their relationship to concrete facts. One can also study strategies and tactics for promoting justice. Those two topics intersect, because a goal without any plausible strategy is not much of a goal; and a strategy without a defensible account of its purpose is not worth undertaking. I criticize what’s called “ideal theory” in political philosophy because its focus on end states–without serious consideration of strategy–yields misleading results.

Speaking of privilege, I am privileged to move across communities with quite different ideological centers. One day recently, I was at a conference where libertarian economists were well represented and may have predominated. A speaker showed a photo of FDR and said something like, “Since we’re all classical liberals, I can count on you to hate this guy.” I suspect the speaker overestimated the ideological uniformity of his audience; I may have had some company in deeply admiring Franklin D. Roosevelt. But it was certainly a different context from the Tufts classroom where, on the very next day, we discussed this fascinating exchange between Hillary Clinton and Black Lives Matter activist Julius Jones about how to diagnose and address racial injustice in America. The center of gravity in that room lay somewhere between Clinton and Jones, with only one student openly asking whether the assumption that those two people share–that America is deeply racist–is a given.

The disadvantage of posing the question “what is justice?” in a truly open way is that one can discourage action. For instance, I think that the pending tax bill is awful, but I also have questions about some arguments against it. There’s a strong equity-based argument for curtailing the charitable tax deduction, and there’s even a case that the Republicans have generated new federal revenues while passing a deeply unpopular tax cut for the upper stratum, which is likely to be repealed. The net result, as early as 2019, may be a larger stream of revenue than would have had been possible without this bill. But making such critical points (if anyone paid attention) could dampen enthusiasm for the opposition, and there’s a plausible case that the tax bill is on its way to passage because of relatively weak popular opposition. I wouldn’t want to undermine anyone’s motivation to protest by posing awkward questions.

The advantage, of course, is learning. I feel challenged and enriched by the conference at which libertarians were well represented. I think I understand better the relative advantages and disadvantages of three ways of understanding what works in the real world: talking with people, conducting scientific research on impact, and observing price signals. The last category is valuable for reasons that you won’t notice if you hang around all the time with lefties.

In the end, we need both commitment and critical analysis, both true openness to alternative views and effective, coordinated action. We need utopian vistas and hard-nosed tactics. The balance is very hard, but there must be at least a place for abstract and dispassionate inquiry into the nature of justice.

[See also: social justice should not be a clichéwe are for social justice, but what is it?a method of mapping moral commitments as networks.]

revisiting the Port Huron Statement’s focus on universities

(en route to Michigan) The Port Huron Statement (1962) inaugurated the New Left. I had forgotten that it concludes with an argument that universities are the most promising sites of social change. It’s interesting to revisit that argument 55 years later.

The statement is written in opposition to a “dominating complex of corporate, military, and political power.” It defines the Republican/Dixiecrat coalition as “the weakest point” in that complex, vulnerable to political opposition. In our time, someone writing a similarly radical manifesto might target the neoliberal political coalition in Congress, which often includes mainstream Republicans and moderate Democrats. Despite partisan polarization that makes Congress ineffective, this coalition musters majorities for policies that neoliberals like and that radicals oppose.

“But” says the statement, “the civil rights, peace, and student movements are too poor and socially slighted, and the labor movement too quiescent, to be counted with enthusiasm. From where else can power and vision be summoned? We believe that the universities are an overlooked seat of influence.”

This would be like saying in 2017 that #Blacklivesmatter, #Occupy, and the #Dreamers lack the resources to challenge the ruling coalition–and labor is too moderate–so social change should start in universities.

That seems an implausible claim on its face, but the Statement offers reasons:

First, the university is located in a permanent position of social influence. Its educational function makes it indispensable and automatically makes it a crucial institution in the formation of social attitudes. Second, in an unbelievably complicated world, it is the central institution for organizing, evaluating and transmitting knowledge. Third, the extent to which academic resources presently are used to buttress immoral social practice is revealed [by the way defense contractors and corporations rely on academia for technical research].

The Statement acknowledges the university’s serious limitations but adds even more reasons to focus there:

Any new left in America must be, in large measure, a left with real intellectual skills, committed to deliberativeness, honesty, reflection as working tools. … A new left must be distributed in significant social roles throughout the country. … A new left must consist of younger people … A new left must include liberals and socialists, the former for their relevance, the latter for their sense of thoroughgoing reforms in the system. … A new left must start controversy across the land, if national policies and national apathy are to be reversed. The ideal university is a community of controversy, within itself and in its effects on communities beyond. … A new left must transform modern complexity into issues that can be understood and felt close up by every human being. … The university is a relevant place for all of these activities.

Reflecting on this argument in 2017, I’d propose:

  1. Quite a few people still think this way. In particular, they continue to see social movements, labor, and the universities as the promising sites of radical change, but they believe that the first two are too weak or quiescent. Political parties and campaigns, municipal governments, and working-class cultural movements are resources that seem to be overlooked, then and now.
  2. You don’t have to be paranoid to be concerned about the ideological capture of the university, if you are a conservative. That was an explicit proposal of a hugely influential document in 1962.
  3. Some reasons that the university resists the ideals of the Port Huron Statement are unfortunate: e.g., the influence of Big Money on research. But the university also resists these ideals because of worthy principles: independence, nonpartisanship, and intellectual diversity. (On the other hand, a friendly reading of the Port Huron Statement would conclude that its authors liked robust, untrammeled, and diverse debate.)
  4. It’s interesting to read this document in conjunction with recent and widely-publicized research by Kyle Dodson, who finds that students’ interactions with faculty tend to moderate their political opinions, but participation in student-led groups makes them more radical. The Port Huron Statement, of course, was written by students, not by faculty. Perhaps it prefigures today’s student organizing but not the current curriculum.

college student voting rose in 2016

Today, my colleagues at Tisch College’s Institute for Democracy and Higher Education have released their national study of college students’ voting, based on the voting records of 9,784,931 students at 1,023 higher education institutions.  The team finds a national college turnout rate of 48.3% in the 2016 presidential election, up from 45.1% in 2012, with significant variations by race, gender, field of study, and institution type. Women voted at rates about seven points above men in both years. (It’s interesting that the dynamics of the 2016 campaign didn’t change that pattern.) Asians and Latinos increased their turnout substantially. African Americans’ turnout slipped from a high baseline in 2012.

  • Here is the full national report.
  • This is an interactive portal where you can explore the data yourself.
  • The team also sent individual reports to 1,005 colleges, with their own turnout data broken down as much as possible by students’ demographics and fields of study.
  • On NPR, Danielle Kurtzleben covers the release in a story headlined, “2016 Voter Turnout Dropped At HBCUs, Climbed At Women’s Colleges, Study Finds.”

assessment criteria for participation in a seminar

Thinking that I should be explicit about how I define good participation in a seminar that I’m teaching, I circulated these eight criteria:

  • Being responsive to other students. (Responsiveness needn’t always be immediate, verbal, or occur within the class discussion itself.)
  • Building on others’ contributions, and sometimes making links among different people’s contributions or between what they have said and the text.
  • Demonstrating genuine respect for the others, where respect does not require agreement. (In fact, sometimes respect requires explicit disagreement because you take the other person’s ideas seriously.)
  • Focusing on the topic and the texts, which does not preclude drawing unexpected connections beyond them.
  • Taking risks, trying out ideas that you don’t necessarily endorse, and asking questions that might be perceived as naive or uninformed.
  • Seeking truth or clarity or insight (instead of other objectives).
  • Exercising freedom of speech along with a degree of tact and concern for the other people.
  • Demonstrating responsibility for the other students’ learning in what you say (and occasionally by a decision not to speak).

Students also privately wrote how they will assess themselves. Their assessments will be for their reflection alone–I won’t ever see them.

See also: responsiveness as a virtuewhat makes conversation go well (a network model); and network dynamics in conversation.

science, law, and microagressions

We live and work in settings that are diverse but unequal. Opportunities and outcomes can often be predicted on the basis of race/ethnicity, culture and religion, gender and sexual orientation, and class background. In these settings, we communicate constantly. Some of our communications are blatantly inappropriate, threatening the recipients or intentionally and obviously making them feel unwelcome and inferior. Some are acceptable or even helpful. And in between, some are arguably problematic. They are being called “microaggressions“–“aggressions,” because they are wrong; and “micro-” because they are not blatantly or clearly objectionable when taken one at a time.

One problem with them is that they may combine with many similar statements to create an overall environment that prevents people from flourishing and succeeding. Another problem is that they are simply unethical. Even if a given aggression contributes no harm at all, it is not what a person should say to another person.

Our culture is uncomfortable with ethical distinctions. Even children are taught that ethical claims are opinions in contrast to facts. We are quick to see explicitly ethical claims as subjective and biased. To criticize another person’s expression on ethical grounds seems arrogant, judgmental, and a possible threat to liberty.

In contrast, two major forms of reasoning are confident and widely viewed as legitimate: science and law. So there is a constant temptation to convert an ethical discussion about what is right into a science-like or law-like analysis.

For instance, in Aeon recently, the psychology professor Scott O Lilienfeld wrote that all policies and programs that target microagressions

hinge on one overarching assumption: that the microaggression research programme aimed at documenting the phenomenon is sound, and that the concept itself has withstood rigorous scientific scrutiny. This is not the case. Microaggressions have not been defined with nearly enough clarity and consensus to allow rigorous scientific investigation. No one has shown that they are interpreted negatively by all or even most minority groups. No one has demonstrated that they reflect implicit prejudice or aggression. And no one has shown that microaggressions exert an adverse impact on mental health.

Lilienfeld concludes, “Until the evidence is in …, I recommend abandoning the term microaggression, which is potentially misleading. In addition, I call for a moratorium on microaggression training programmes and publicly distributed microaggression lists now widespread in the college and business worlds.”

I agree that it would be useful to know more about the consequences of definable categories of communication. The consequences of any form of speech will vary depending on the situation, the speaker, the recipient, etc. There won’t be one empirical finding about microagressions, but there may be many useful findings.

Still, note the assumptions that underlie this call for a scientific approach:

  1. A given act (in this case, a speech-act) should be criticized if, and only if, it causes a measurable harm. Moral philosophers would call this assumption “consequentialism.”
  2. Categories of behavior can be usefully abstracted from contexts and defined with necessary and sufficient conditions. This reasoning uses what Jonathan Dancy [in Moral Reasons, 1993, p. 65] calls “switching arguments”–arguments that isolate a given feature of a situation and assume that if it has a moral significance in its original context, it must have the same significance when the context is “switched” to another one. 

These are controversial positions. Kantians, virtue-ethicists, and others dispute consequentialism for various reasons, holding that an act can be right or wrong regardless of its causal impact. And particularists deny the validity of “switching arguments,” on the basis that a given feature can change its moral significance depending on the context. They criticize what Alfred North Whitehead called the “fallacy of misplaced concreteness.”

I don’t want to litigate those debates here, but merely to suggest that a scientific investigation of microaggressions makes strong assumptions about what should matter ethically. Those assumptions violate many ordinary people’s intuitions and ways of reasoning about what is right.

Meanwhile, legalistic reasoning influences the discourse of microaggressions. It’s not that critics want to make these acts literally illegal, but they introduce legal-sounding analysis. A microaggression deserves some kind of disciplinary intervention–perhaps not a punishment, but at least an authoritative statement that the speech is inappropriate in its context. A teacher or other authority figure who fails to intervene can be held responsible for creating a hostile environment.

But disciplinary responses threaten other values: freedom of speech, diversity of opinion, authentic expression of privately held views, and freedom from arbitrary judgments. Jesse Singal thinks that “microaggressions are being defined so broadly and so subjectively that students who are exposed to them are likely to come away very, very confused about what constitutes acceptable speech on campus — and campus disciplinary systems could get seriously gummed up in the years to come.” Thus we feel the pressure to introduce regular rules and policies that strike the appropriate balance and are predictable. Rule by people is to be replaced by rule of law.

Jürgen Habermas laments the tendency to “juridify” or “judicialize” what he calls the “Lifeworld.” For instance, when well-intentioned governments seek to protect pupils and parents against unfairness in testing and discipline, he writes, fairness “is gained at the cost of a judicialization and bureaucratization that penetrates deep into the teaching and learning process,” depersonalizing the school, inhibiting innovation, and undermining relationships [Theory of Communicative Action, vol. 2, p. 371.] Habermas reads the New Social Movements that have arisen since the 1970s–both on the right and the left–as efforts to protect the authenticity of the everyday Lifeworld from both the market and the intrusive welfare-state. It is an ironic outcome when these movements ultimately “juridify” such contexts as classrooms by turning ethical judgments into legalistic arguments. For example, some people cut their teeth in liberatory social movements but end up as diversity & inclusion specialists inside institutions, writing empirical papers (science) and establishing policies (law).

I am inclined to agree with Habermas that the underlying process is specialization. In large and technically complex modern societies, it pays to differentiate one’s expertise and authority. Constantly increasing specialization is thus a fundamental process of modernity. [Ibid. p. 374]. Science and law are two categories of specialization, each endlessly ramifying into sub-specialties. They seek legitimacy and often obtain it. Lilienfeld’s review of psychological research is an example of a scientist asserting authority on the basis of expertise.

Science and law are sometimes in tension. Behavioral scientists may argue that laws lack empirical basis; lawyers may block empirically justifiable rules on constitutional grounds. But these two systems also easily interlock. For instance, both disciplines need to categorize behavior and draw causal implications. 

Science and law offer important checks on the kinds of judgments that we may reach intuitively in ordinary life. When we assert that a given statement has (or does not have) effects on specific individuals, that is a causal claim that must stand up to scientific scrutiny. When we make a judgment about an individual’s speech, we should check it against general principles that would block favoritism and arbitrariness.

But these two limited forms of reasoning can distort or block ethical judgment–as when Lilienfeld uses the lack of scientific evidence to support a “moratorium” on the use of the word “microagression,” even though that is ultimately an ethical category. The imposition of law and science can overwhelm the following values:

  • Responsibility: We are obligated to make judgments about speech, our own and others’. We can’t offload responsibility onto bureaucratic or scientific systems.
  • Judgment and discretion: There is no algorithm that can settle subtle cases. It is up to the moral agent to decide, under circumstances of uncertainty and moral ambiguity. Discretion cuts two ways, sometimes requiring us to excuse behavior that violates policies or that has negative effects, and sometimes requiring us to condemn behavior that is allowable and inconsequential.
  • Holism: Good judgment requires concern for the whole individual, the whole situation, and the whole community.
  • Relationships: Ultimately, what matters are relationships among differently situated human beings. Relationships are affective as well as rational, embodied as well as communicative, implicit as well as explicit, and prolonged over time.

See also: morality in psychotherapy; insanity and evil: two paradigmsprotecting authentic human interaction;  is all truth scientific truth?free speech at a university; and don’t confuse bias and judgment.

explore Tisch College

(Washington, DC) Yesterday’s launch of a very attractive new website for the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life provides a reason to explore what we offer at Tisch. We provide advanced civic education for students in all of Tufts University’s undergraduate, graduate, and professional programs; research about civic life in the United States and around the world; and practice–partnerships with a wide range of civic organizations. That’s a unique combination in higher education. The new website gives a much-improved overview of our programs.

college curricula for civic learning and engagement

I’d welcome recommendations of particularly promising undergraduate courses or programs that are intended to boost students’ civic knowledge, skills, and engagement. I’m especially interested in two approaches: 1) requiring a specific course with a civic focus for all students at a given institution, or 2) offering a major, minor, or certificate program for especially interested students.

Civic education at the college level may address contested concepts (justice, citizenship, democracy), skills (from facilitating meetings to reading regression tables), bodies of knowledge (how a bill becomes a law; the texture of the local geographical community; social determinants of health …), self-understandings and identities (“Who am I and what is my role in the community?”), and relationships among students or between students and others. The list of possible outcomes is so long that one reasonable view is: A civic education is a liberal education–it’s the whole curriculum and co-curriculum. But it’s valuable to consider what to offer (or perhaps even require) in the finite span of one course or one major.

Many colleges and universities require first-year seminars. Students can typically choose a course from a menu, but all the seminars create a similar experience, which is supposed to build a community among the students. To the extent that first-year seminars address issues of civic importance, this is also a way of teaching ideas and skills relevant to citizenship. At Cal. State Chico, the guiding principle of the first year seminar program is “Public Sphere Pedagogy.” Chico aims to shift “from a typical classroom setting” to real public dialogues with “diverse campus and community members.”

Other institutions require a particular course or sequence of courses for all students. Columbia’s Core Curriculum is a distinguished example that dates to the early 1900s. Since Columbia’s Core course on “Literature Humanities” has included the Iliad, Oresteia, and Inferno for all of its 75 years, every Columbia College student since WWII has read those books. “The communal learning–with all students encountering the same texts and issues at the same time–and the critical dialogue experienced in small seminars are the distinctive features of the Core.” One could focus mainly on formal, historical, or theological issues while reading texts like the Inferno; but among the topics emphasized in the Core seminars are explicitly civic ones: “What does it mean, and what has it meant to be part of a community?” “By what rules should we be governed?”

At Florida Gulf Coast University, all 13,000 students must take the University Colloquium, an “interdisciplinary environmental education course designed to explore the concept of sustainability as it relates to a variety of considerations and forces in Southwest Florida. In particular, we will consider environmental, social, ethical, historical, scientific, economic, and political influences.” The Colloquium requires 10 hours of service, which can go toward FGCU’s universal requirement of 80 hours for graduation.

Note the interesting difference in content focus: classic texts at Columbia; the local physical and human environment at FGCU.

At least 31 institutions offer majors with titles like “Civic Engagement,” “Service Learning,” “Civic Leadership,” “Community Service,” or “Leadership, Ethics, and Social Action,” and variations on those themes.* I would add majors in “Peace & Justice Studies,” “Advocacy Studies,” “Citizenship & Civic Engagement,” and others to this list.

These programs almost always require community-service experiences or internships. Most also require a foundational course. Butin* finds that the content of these courses varies a great deal. The most frequently assigned material is research about civic engagement in America, e.g., Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone or excerpts from de Tocqueville; but those particular texts are assigned in a minority of all the foundational courses.

Majors are usually more ambitious than minors or certificates, but a program like the University of Maryland’s Civicus is not only a certificate with some required courses; participants also live together in a dedicated dorm and conduct service projects beyond their courses. In that situation, a certificate may be more intensive than a major.

I view public policy programs (whether undergraduate or graduate) as somewhat different from programs in civics. I like to say that the question for Civic Studies is “What should we do?” whereas the question for public policy is “What should be done?” (Or, “What should a policymaker do?”) However, public policy programs can emphasize the citizen’s side of policymaking. Some assign all their students to participate in simulations in which they role-play various official leaders in a fictional crisis. These simulations typically fill a limited number of days before the main coursework begins and serve to build a community while teaching civic skills. I am not aware of any institution that offers or requires a simulation for its whole undergraduate student body, but that’s an interesting prospect.

* Dan Butin, “’Can I major in Service-Learning?’ An Empirical Analysis of Certificates, Minors, and Majors,” Journal of College & Character, vol. 11, No. 2 (2010), pp. 1-18.

what gives some research methods legitimacy?

I’m back from a meeting of people who practice and advocate mixed-methods research (research that integrates quantitative and qualitative data). They have identified barriers or biases against such work. Editors and reviewers tend to be either quantitative or qualitative experts, journals impose tight word limits that are frustrating if you want to describe two complementary methods, and so on.

A more general question is how any type of scholarship gains legitimacy. I have observed several efforts to legitimize new methods, such as Community Based Participatory Research (CBPR) and Participant Action Research (PAR), as well as defenses of older methods that are being squeezed out, such as philosophical argumentation within the discipline of political science.

It is worth considering what gives scholarly methods legitimacy in the first place. I would offer a roughly Weberian theory. For Weber, “modernity” means secularization and specialization. Under those two conditions:

  1. It pays to demonstrate a specialized skill or capacity, because desirable social roles are now doled out to specialists—not (or at least not officially) to people who have social rank and pedigree.
  2. Specialists not only receive, but they also need, tools and methods that require scarce resources. A particle physicist needs a supercollider, to name an extreme example. If you can’t get access to the necessary instruments, you can’t practice the trade.
  3. The society as a whole lacks confident, consensus beliefs about ethics, metaphysics, epistemology, and aesthetics (the classic four pillars of philosophy). But you can’t talk or think very well without having beliefs about those matters, and it’s difficult to justify them satisfactorily to people who disagree. Therefore, we make routine progress within smaller communities that share beliefs or that may even be defined by their shared beliefs.

You can see the result of these conditions in the development of academic fields. For instance, classicists used to be numerous and influential in universities. They possessed specialized skills: fluency in Greek and Latin and the experience of having already read all the major ancient classics at least once. These texts were widely believed to be better (ethically and aesthetically) than most or all of what had been written since. However, whole categories of people could not read them; for instance, very few women were taught Greek or Latin. They certainly couldn’t see the rare ancient manuscripts needed for the philological work of establishing authentic texts. Thus, being a classicist was rewarded with status and with scare resources, such as access to teaching jobs and libraries.

As the Greco-Roman classics receded in importance and lost their privileged place in the culture, people began to want to study modern literature. But virtually everyone in a country like England could read works in English. How then could English literature professors justify their special social role? One step was to develop a canon of difficult works that could claim to be as valuable as the ancient classics were. Having read Shakespeare and Milton set you apart a bit. Another step was to introduce philology and epigraphy to the study of modern texts. (That also required direct access to manuscripts and rare printed volumes). And a third step was to develop specialized and non-intuitive ways of reading, such as by applying theoretical frameworks.

Already in the eighteenth century, the editors of The Literary Magazine could claim legitimacy on the basis of specialization: “a selection has been made of men qualified for the different parts of the work, and each has the employment assigned him, which he is supposed most able to discharge” (quoted in Kramnick 2002).

At that time, there was still considerable consensus about values. In modernity, however, ethical, metaphysical, epistemological, and aesthetic values are seen as controversial and perhaps culturally relative. Fortunately, you needn’t justify a given philosophical premise in order to write an ordinary work of literary criticism today; you can just cite a major theorist who has been deemed legitimate within the scholarly community. Names of theorists become tokens that justify premises, much as scripture might justify spiritual assumptions within a traditional religion.

This is a purely external, sociological explanation of the development of modern literary criticism. I believe that the discipline yields valuable insights, so I welcome its development. Indeed, if literary criticism produced little public value, it might collapse. Specialized occupations need public support in the long run. Still, a Weberian perspective allows us to identify specialization and a reliance on canonical theorists as two responses to modernity, irrespective of whether the resulting scholarship is any good.

Most disciplines have used these means to capture scarce positions that bring status and resources.

  • Many natural and some social sciences use advanced mathematical techniques, which are difficult to learn. Physics and economics enjoy relative prestige in part because they use harder math than kindred disciplines do.
  • Many natural scientists need expensive instruments.
  • Ethnographers seem at first to be doing what anyone can do—observing human beings in their settings. But if you have done fieldwork in an isolated village in the global South, you have bona fides to be an ethnographer instead of a layperson.
  • Quantitative social science requires not only math skills but also large-n data, which is expensive to collect.
  • Qualitative researchers who achieve inter-rater reliability among numerous observers have the budgets and institutional support to hire and train those observers.
  • Some humanistic research requires access to rare objects.
  • Some practitioners of CPBR and PAR have social capital and cultural fluency in both academia and in highly disadvantaged communities. Their ability to code-switch sets them apart.

Within these communities, certain philosophical premises are typically shared. For instance, in most of the social sciences (both qualitative and quantitative), a moral value is something that a person or group holds and that has causes and consequences. It is not something that can be shown to be right or wrong, better or worse. However, a belief about the divine is incompatible with science and thus (implicitly) false. Among theologians, obviously, both of those assumptions are widely rejected. You have to be a kind of moral relativist to speak the language of social science, but that is a minority position in philosophy and theology.

Under such conditions, an approach like mixed-methods research struggles for legitimacy. Perhaps integrating quantitative and qualitative data would yield the most reliable findings under a range of common circumstances. However, the Weberian logic of modernity encourages some researchers to maximize their specialization in math, others to maximize their specialization in ethnography; and mixed methods fall uncomfortably in between.

One solution is a Weberian judo move: as experts criticize your lack of expertise, use their momentum against them by defining what you do as a difficult new specialization. That was one tactic recommended in the conversation about mixed methods. I find it more interesting to think about ways to combat the harmful consequences of modernity in intellectual life so that we begin to assign legitimacy differently. Obviously, the ideal way would be to reward solutions to public (including cultural) problems, rather than academic methods for their own sake. But that is a hard shift to accomplish.

[Citing Jonathan Brody Kramnick, “Literary Criticism Among the Disciplines,” Eighteenth-Century Studies, Volume 35, Number 3, Spring 2002, pp. 343-360. See also the future of classics and why social scientists should pay attention to metaphysics.]

loyalty in intellectual work

(Los Angeles) Academics and scholars most commonly relate to institutions, movements, or fields of practice by assessing them. They identify the underlying theory or rationale of a given practical effort and assess its plausibility and its consistency with principles of justice. They also observe the actual performance of the practice to date and render judgments about success or failure.

Since my undergraduate days, I’ve instinctively adopted a different stance toward fields of practice. I’ve seen them basically as groups of people. I’ve never taken their theories completely seriously, because I expect them to evolve. And I’ve never seen the empirical data about success or failure so far as dispositive, because I assume that efforts will fail until they are refined and improved. You can start from many premises and get good results if you are open to reflection and change. The theory is less important than it seems.

Fields of practice are working communities of people who are either worth joining or not. What inclines me to want to join a group is a sense of its members’ motivations (in a very general sense) and their capacity or potential. Once I feel that I’m part of the group, I adopt a stance of loyalty. That doesn’t prevent me from making critical comments, either privately or publicly, if that seems helpful to the cause, but it does pose a question about any possible communication: is it helpful?

In this general mode, I’ve found myself part of the following fields or movements since my undergraduate days in the late 1980s:

  • service-learning
  • public deliberation and dialogue
  • university/community partnerships
  • campaign finance reform
  • public or civic journalism
  • k-12 civic education
  • relational community organizing
  • certain political campaigns
  • Action Civics

Clearly, these efforts share some principles or norms. Of the enormous variety of projects and groups that are active around us, most wouldn’t appeal to me as much as these. In We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For, I tried to analyze and defend the norms underlying the fields that I most admire in generic terms. Still, I don’t go around looking for movements that match all these principles. Instead, I tend to join movements that seem appealing and then try to reflect on their emergent principles.

Relating to fields of practice in this way sometimes causes misunderstandings. I’ve noticed that sometimes people expect me to endorse the underlying “theory of change” of a given field very strongly and are disappointed when I won’t. I usually cannot say that a given strategy or premise is the best one available, because I don’t really believe that. Instead, I think that a field or movement turns into what people make of it. So I see myself as a member who wants to make the movement as good as it can be, not as an independent scholar who has judged the movement and found it superior to others.

See also:  loyalty to place in the age of jet-set academiabringing loyalty backAlbert O. Hirschman on exit, voice, and loyalty; and “Seeing Like a Citizen: The Contributions of Elinor Ostrom to ‘Civic Studies‘” (because I see Ostrom as having a similar stance).

why do students sometimes lead social change?

(Cincinnati) At several critical points during the past century, college students have been at the vanguard of social change. Their agendas have not always been desirable; fascism, for example, had a student wing. But student activism is an important phenomenon. I think four frames of reference are most common for explaining it:

Age effects: Traditionally, most college students have been young. During young adulthood, individuals become aware of the social world but are still forming their identities and opinions. That gives them a certain critical detachment that is favorable to radical activism. They are also not overly burdened by experiences of political failure. Using that framework, we would expect younger adults consistently to be more active.

Generational effects: People who come of age during the same historical moment may form a shared and lasting identity as members of a given generation. The classic example (analyzed by Karl Mannheim in his seminal article) is the experience of being drafted into WWI. With this framework in mind, we might presume, for example, that German college students became highly active after 1965 because they shared the experience of growing up in prosperous homes with suppressed memories of the Nazi past. People born around the same time in contexts as different as Germany, Japan, and the Soviet Union might even share a common generational identity (e.g., as children of The Sixties) if some of their formative experiences were similar.

Historical effects: Major events can affect people differently depending on their social circumstances. For instance, when a war breaks out, only the young single men may be drafted. A budget crisis can cause the government to cut funds for higher education; then college students see their fees go up. With this framework in mind, we would expect college students to become activated soon after major events affect them specifically.

Class effects: College students come disproportionately from middle-class or wealthy homes. Thanks to college, they are destined for positions in the top half of the income distribution. We might then interpret college student activism as “bourgeois” activism and ask why the bourgeoisie is, or is not, activated at a given moment.

I would like to add a fifth type of explanation, derived from some thoughts in Offe (1985). College students may face specific material circumstances that encourage–or discourage–them from being politically active. These circumstances are variables that will influence students’ levels and forms of engagement even of we hold age, generation, class, and historical moment constant. In other words, these are consequences of how college is organized socially.

Offe argued that certain demographic groups predominated in the New Social Movements of the 1970s and 1980s, such as Second Wave feminism and environmentalism. Two especially active groups were “housewives” (his word) and college students. He proposed that both groups were exposed to explicit discipline that provoked them to criticize social norms. Married women faced explicit coercion from their husbands; students, from their universities and parents. Yet both enjoyed a degree of flexibility about how to employ their time. That meant that they were able to protest if they wanted to.

I think we can elaborate on these explanations. Typically, college students who attend large institutions along with many other full-time students experience the following material circumstances:

  • A great deal of fluid social interaction, not limited to a nuclear family or work unit. That means that students can easily find and select into activist groups.
  • A concentrated population of other youth, which attracts political actors looking for support. Politicians speak on campuses; they don’t go around to fast food franchises hoping to talk to all the service workers.
  • Some useful non-cash assets for social-movement participation, such as flexible time, access to information and ideas, and connections to well-positioned adults.
  • A significant level of protection for free speech, especially as compared to workers in for-profit enterprises (and often in state bureaucracies).
  • Institutions designed for political discourse and communication, such as student newspapers and governments.
  • Some encouragement, via the curriculum, to think critically.
  • Some ability to choose courses of study and career pathways, which they can use as leverage over parents and universities. For instance, a student may be able to threaten to go into social work instead of accounting and then negotiate with tuition-paying parents. Threatening to drop out may also offer leverage.

If these factors matter, then we would expect the level of college student activism to vary when they change. For instance, if students lose their ability to choose courses of study because the job market is bad, they will have less leverage. If their freedom of speech is reduced, that will either suppress activism or serve as a form of explicit discipline that prompts them to revolt.

See also basic theories of civic developmentthe New Social Movements of the seventies, eighties, and today and to what extent can colleges promote upward mobility.  Reference: Offe, Claus, “New Social Movements: Challenging the Boundaries of Institutional Politics,” Social Research, vol. 52, no. 1 (Winter 1985), pp. 817-68.