two approaches to social capital: Bourdieu vs. the American literature

The phrase “social capital” is used in (at least) two very different senses and discussions.

One is an Anglophone discussion among social scientists who seem generally comfortable with a liberal market order. Important participants include James Coleman, Robert Putnam, Elinor Ostrom and (using the related phrase “collective efficacy”) Robert Sampson and Felton Earls. These social scientists understand social capital as the value that derives from collaborating and solving collective-action problems together. It’s measured by rates of joining, socializing, participating in the institutions of civil society, and trusting one’s peers. It can exist in any group, regardless of wealth and prestige. For instance, Sampson, Earls and their colleagues found that levels of collective efficacy varied greatly among Chicago neighborhoods, independent of race and class.

The central hypothesis in this literature is that higher social capital predicts better outcomes (safety, education, health, employment). This hypothesis is often proven in empirical studies. The deepest explanation is that these desirable outcomes are public goods, subject to problems of collective action, and social capital is the capacity—inherent in a group—to address problems of collective action successfully. For instance, safe streets represent a public good, and when people voluntarily maintain order, the streets are safer.

The other discourse is loosely Marxian and of Continental European origin; the most influential theorist is Pierre Bourdieu. For Bourdieu, social capital can only be understood in relation to economic capital and cultural capital. All three forms are the result of past labor, which accumulates or materializes in forms that can then be owned and by–and used to the advantage of–specific individuals or closed groups, such as firms.

Economic capital means ownership, or the ability to own, the means of production (factories, offices, farms, mines). Cultural capital means personal characteristics that you can learn in order to set yourself apart as a member of an advantaged group. For example, if you know how to dress for and behave at a corporate job interview, you have acquired cultural capital. And social capital means membership in any group that has value for those who belong.

Thus a paradigm case of social capital for Bourdieu is being connected to specific aristocrats in a way that puts you within the group known as “the nobility.” You might be a poor and boorish noble: then you would have social capital without much economic or cultural capital. Still, each of the three pays off in ways that are fundamentally economic.

For Coleman et al., the effort required to build social capital is at least partly altruistic. When you try to help others around you, it turns out that you benefit as well from the public resource of social capital. Social capital is non-rivalrous or win/win. If poor people in Chicago build more social capital, that does no harm to Lake Shore millionaires. It might even reduce their tax burdens by boosting graduation rates and cutting crime in the city as a whole.

The Bourdieuian form of social capital is competitive and maybe even zero-sum. If you form a connection to an aristocrat that gives you a leg up in society, I am less advantaged. According to Bourdieu, people build social capital to advance their own interests, strategically targeting others who have various forms of capital to add to their networks:

The existence of a network of connections is not a natural given …  It is the product of an endless effort at institution. … In other words, the network of relationships is the product of investment strategies, individual or collective, consciously or unconsciously aimed at establishing or reproducing social relationships that are directly usable in the short or long term. …

The reproduction of social capital presupposes an unceasing effort of sociability, a continuous series of exchanges in which recognition is endlessly affirmed and reaffirmed. … This is one of the factors which explain why the profitability of this labor of accumulating and maintaining social capital rises in proportion to the size of the capital. Because the social capital accruing from a relationship is that much greater to the extent that the person who is the object of it is richly endowed with capital (mainly social, but also cultural and even economic capital), the possessors of an inherited social capital, symbolized by a great name, are able to transform all circumstantial relationships into lasting connections. They are sought after for their social capital and, because they are well known, are worthy of being known (‘I know him well’); they do not need to ‘make the acquaintance’ of all their ‘acquaintances’; they are known to more people than they know, and their work of sociability, when it is exerted, is highly productive.

Although these theories are different, they could both apply in a society as a whole. After a discussion with students last week, I am inclined to the following hypotheses:

  1. Access to the highest rungs of socioeconomic advantage requires (or at least benefits from) Bourdieu-style social capital. If you want to get a seat on the Supreme Court, it seems almost necessary to attend Harvard’s or Yale’s law school, partly because of who you know as a result. Social capital may also get you into those law schools in the first place. For instance, I can think of someone who attended Law School on his way to federal judicial appointments; his mother had also been a judge, and his grandfather had attended Yale.
  2. Well-being in the middle and lower rungs depends on social capital in the Coleman/Putnam sense. If you are trying to get through high school and obtain some post-secondary education, get a job, stay out of jail, and live to the median age, it’s very helpful to be embedded in networks of cooperation and mutual support. Those networks have value even if the other members are not rich and powerful.

See also: David Brooks/Pierre BourdieuBourdieu in the college admissions officeChua and Rubenfeld, The Triple Packagesocial capital and economic mobility“social capital”: political and apolitical and when social advantage persists for millennia.

why learn game theory? (a lesson plan that includes a game)

You may or may not be interested in games: playing them, designing them, or analyzing them with the tools of game theory. It is certainly understandable if games are not your thing. However, I believe that everyone should develop the skill of understanding interpersonal situations in terms of the choices and consequences that confront every actor, which is the essence of game theory.

This is a way of detecting problems that you might be able to fix. It is also a way to be more fair. Too often, we analyze situations in terms of the choices that confront us and the results that will befall us if we make any choice. We see other people as doing the right or the wrong thing, from our perspective. It is important to step away from that first-person view and assess the choices–and the costs and benefits–that confront everyone. Then their behavior may seem more reasonable, and the root of the problem may lie in the situation, not in the other people’s values.

When used as models of real life, games simplify and abstract. That is both a limitation and a huge advantage: a model can clarify important problems and patterns that may be hidden in the real world’s complexity.

Games do not presume that the players are selfish; in fact, altruists can get tangled up with coordination problems that games model well. Nor do games assume that people have full information or act rationally; uncertainty, randomness, and error can be built in.

Games do model situations in which people or other entities (e.g., animals, companies, nations) make separate choices, and the outcome results from the interaction of their decisions. Games are not very helpful for modeling other kinds of situations. One important form of civic action that they do not model well is a discussion about what is right (and why). Exchanging opinions and reasons isn’t well illuminated by a game. Therefore, I do not think that civic actors should only learn from games, yet game theory is a useful skill.

One way to introduce game theory is to play a game and reflect on how it works as a model.

Almost identical lesson plans can be found all over the Internet for a classroom game that models the Tragedy of the Commons using Goldfish crackers. I’m not sure who deserves the authorial credit for designing this lesson in the first place, but I have adopted it for several different classes and will share my current design.

Materials: goldfish crackers (“fish”); plastic bowls (“lakes”); and forks (as tools for fishing).

Each group of four people should sit in a circle around its lake, which contains nine fish to start. Players “fish” by removing the goldfish from the bowl with a fork. All groups fish for 15 seconds while the instructor keeps time. Then students put down their forks and the fish “reproduce”: each fish left in the lake produces two offspring, up to a total population of 16, which is the carrying capacity of the lake. Then you repeat fishing for another season until either the seasons are over or the fish run out.

I do not explain the goal or what counts as winning, because that will vary in interesting ways.

Each round has different rules.

  1. We play three seasons without talking at all.
  2. We play three seasons and may talk before the game begins and during it.
  3. Each group plays an unannounced number of seasons before I stop them. They may talk.
  4. We play three seasons silently, and each group rotates one fisher at a time. That person may spend as little or as much time as she likes. As long as she holds her fork, the others must wait.
  5. We play using game 2 rules, except students may take fish from any table.

I keep track of the largest number of fish collected by any individual in each game and the number of fish left in the whole room at the end of each game.

Below are the results from yesterday’s game, with 52 Tufts undergrads. Note that 68 fish were left when the number of seasons was unknown and students could talk. That is more than seven times more fish than survived in the first game, with a known number of seasons and no ability to communicate orally.

Questions for discussion:

  • Did we observe “tragedies,” or not?
  • When we did not, why not? What solutions did groups come up with?
  • What were individuals trying to achieve? (Responses will likely vary: obtaining the most fish, trying to be fair, trying to look like nice people, learning by experimenting with different tactics.)
  • Were your objectives affected by your perception of what other players were trying to achieve? (A norm can be understood as a shared sense of the goal.)
  • What is the optimal solution? (Students should consider: maximizing the number of fish consumed, or the number of fish preserved at the end, and/or equity among the players. Other proposals may also emerge.)
  • What parameters are included in the game? (Responses should include: attributes of the physical world; attributes of the community; official rules; and rules-in-use.)
  • How realistic is the scenario? What is it a realistic model of?
  • What assumptions does it make? How might those differ in reality? For instance, what if we played with $100 bills instead of Goldfish crackers?
  • Why did everyone follow the instructor’s rules? Why not just grab the Goldfish?
  • To what extent did additional rules emerge in practice? Is it realistic that people followed rules?
  • In general, is it helpful to model a society using games? What assumptions does a game model make? (Selfishness?) What might a game not model well?

See also: evolution, game theory, and the morality of modern human beingsthoughts about game theory; and game theory and the fiscal cliff (ii).

nonviolent civic work under conditions of extreme violence

My Tufts colleague Anjuli N. Fahlberg, a sociologist, has done extraordinary work in Rio de Janeiro’s City of God. Despite a staggering level of violence in that neighborhood, the residents have created a wide array of impressive initiatives that offer social services, education, and culture and promote social justice. Local activists are networked with peers in other communities they have been effective at the national level in Brazil.

Anjuli helps rebut the claim that “civic engagement” is only for privileged people. She also reveals interesting patterns that may generalize to other places. For example:

CBO [community-based organization] leaders had to monitor their activities and tactics closely so as not to conflict with the political and economic interests of the drug trade. They did this in several ways. For one, they decidedly avoided local politics, which meant avoiding any contact with political or community leaders known to be working for the drug trade and declining favors from local political candidates. … Since Solange and other CBOs refused to engage in violent governance, they found power in its opposite: moral governance. Moral governance emphasized transparency, fairness, equality, justice, and the use of resources for their stated activities. Notably, nearly all CBO leaders were women and thus offered a visual, embodied distinction from violent politics, which were controlled almost entirely by men.

This is from Anjuli N. Fahlberg, “Rethinking Favela Governance: Nonviolent Politics in Rio de Janeiro’s Gang Territories,” Politics & Society, September 11, 2018. Read the whole thing. You can also watch Anjuli’s talk at last year’s Frontiers of Democracy conference, here:

churchgoing and Trump

The Democracy Fund’s Voter Study Group has released an important new paper by Emily Ekins entitled, “Religious Trump Voters: How Faith Moderates Attitudes about Immigration, Race, and Identity.”

Ekins notes that Trump performed best in the 2016 GOP primaries among Republican voters who never attend church (getting 69% of their vote). Examining Trump voters during 2018, she finds correlations between regularity of church attendance and positive attitudes toward racial and religious minorities, acceptance of diversity, approval of immigration (and opposition to the border wall), and concern about poverty.

Here I illustrate that pattern with attitudes toward Black people as the dependent variable. The trend line controls for race, gender, income, education, and age. All the data come from Trump voters. Because the correlation between church attendance and racial attitudes among Trump voters holds with these controls, Ekins suggests that it is causal.

This might not be a case of cause-and-effect. A third factor might underlie both tolerance and church attendance. However, I posited a similar causal hypothesis early in 2017, after I’d met with a conservative Southern pastor who despised Trump’s leadership style and attitudes. This pastor blamed Trump’s support on coach-potato “Christians,” those for whom Christianity is an identity rather than an actual faith, those who get their ideas from Fox News or Breitbart, not from fellow congregants.

Some colleagues and I tried to test this hypothesis using survey data and failed to find it, which is a null result worth noting. Still, I’d like to think that Ekins is right—perhaps more so in 2018 than in 2016.

Why would this pattern hold?

First, Ekins shows that church-attending Trump supporters volunteer and trust other people much more than Trump supporters who rarely or never attend Church. It may be that people who help others and feel they can rely on others are less likely to despise and fear strangers. In turn, church-attendance may promote volunteering and trust, or it may manifest a broader form of social capital that explains both tolerance and church-attendance.

Robert Putnam introduced a distinction between “bridging” and “bonding” social capital. The bridging kind connects people who are diverse in some respects; the bonding kind may increase solidarity in opposition to outsiders. One could imagine that churches enhance bonding social capital. America is said to be most segregated on Sunday mornings, and churches distinguish insiders from outsiders. But volunteering and trusting generic others are measures of bridging, not bonding, social capital. Insofar as churches encourage volunteering, they are trying to create bridging social capital.

Another mechanism could be leadership. Real churches have leaders, both clergy and laypeople. Church leaders are expected to be responsive and responsible and to hold the group together. In contrast, Trump just says whatever comes into his mind, usually makes no effort to deliver what he promises, and is happy to divide. I have hypothesized that people who are familiar with real leadership in local voluntary associations would despise Trump’s style. Although we were unable to show that pattern using survey data, Ekins’ new results may suggest that it holds.

A third mechanism could be the content of the faith. I happen not to be religious, and I could criticize the specific content of many sermons and texts on ethical grounds. I am aware that there are mega-churches that show huge audiences jingoistic videos of American military might; there are clerics who praise Trump or cite Romans 13 to defend the administration’s policies. In my opinion, these examples are idolatrous as well as unjust, but my argument does not depend on romanticizing the content of religious expression.

I would argue, instead, that real faith is demanding. You can find passages and examples that reinforce bigotry, but you will also encounter texts that challenge you. Faith may be consistent with almost any policy position—as we can see from the enormous range of political opinions among clergy—yet participation in a deep and complex religious community is inconsistent with all simplistic attitudes about other people. Cable news and propagandistic websites reinforce what their audiences want to hear, but scripture is strange and demanding. Since religious texts are very hard to figure out by oneself, they require discussion and debate. In turn, the people in any given discussion usually turn out to have idiosyncratic and incompatible interpretations. This is why Martin Luther, despite his break with The Church, believed that we all need a church to keep us honest. Even if the content of preaching and liturgy doesn’t turn us into people who understand and care for others, the decision to attend a service may reflect a desire to become such a person.

In short, religion as a pure identity: bad. Religion as a community of people who struggle to address issues of moral and existential importance: good. Voters who actually attend church are more likely to experience the good form of religion, compared to those who identify as Christians without showing up on Sunday.

See also: the prospects for an evangelical turn against Trumpthe Hollowing Out of US Democracywhy Trump fans aren’t holding him accountable (yet); and why Trump fans aren’t holding him accountable (yet)

undergraduate Introduction to Civic Studies Course

PHIL-0020-01-Intro to Civic Studies at Tufts University (Fall 2018)

  • Ioannis D. Evrigenis, Professor of Political Science
  • Erin I. Kelly, Professor of Philosophy
  • Peter Levine, Lincoln-Filene Professor and Academic Dean, Tisch College

Civic Studies is an interdisciplinary field of study that focuses on critical reflection, ethical thinking, and action for social change. People who think and act together to improve society must address problems of collective action (how to get members to work together) and deliberation (how to reason together about contested values). They must understand how power is organized and how it operates within and between societies. They must grapple with social conflict, violence, and other obstacles to peaceful cooperation. When tensions arise within a group, people face questions of justice and fairness, and they must confront questions about appropriate relationships to outsiders of all types. This introductory course explores ethical, political, and theological frameworks for understanding how people can and should organize themselves to improve societies. Readings are drawn from philosophy and political theory, economics, the history of social movements, and other disciplines. This course provides theoretical grounding for Civic Studies majors and for other students interested in social change.


Mark Lilla, The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics. On order at the Tufts bookstore. Recommended: David Grann, Killers of the Flower Moon.

Final grades will depend on:

  • 10% class participation
  • 25% first paper (5-7 pages)
  • 25% second paper (5-7 pages)
  • 30% a simulation (a group exercise that comprises six short writing assignments, each worth 5%)
  • 10% in-class midterm exam

September 5: Introduction

September 10: A “feeling of personal responsibility for the world”

September 12: What is a citizen? Who is a citizen?

Aristotle, Politics III.1-5 .

September 17: The citizen in a modern democracy

John Dewey, The Public and its Problems, Chapter 5, “Search for the Great Community.

Problems of Collective Action

September 19: Elinor Ostrom and the Bloomington School

Elinor Ostrom, Nobel Prize Lecture  (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site.(video or text)

September 24: Ostrom Continued

Thomas Dietz, Nives Dolsak, Elinor Ostrom, and Paul C. Stern, “The Drama of the Commons” in Elinor Ostrom, ed., Drama of the Commons, pp. 3-26.

Elinor Ostrom, “Covenants, Collective Action, and Common-Pool Resources

September 26: Collective Action Problems at Scale

James Madison, The Federalist #10.  (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site.

Jane Mansbridge, Beyond Adversary Democracypp. 23-35, 59-76, 163-182 293-8 

October 1: Spontaneous Order

Friedrich Hayek, “The Pretence of Knowledge ” Nobel Prize Lecture (1974)

Friedrich Hayek” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed,Introduction (pp. 1-8), Chapter 3 “Authoritarian High Modernism”

Draft of first paper due

October 3: Social Capital as a Solution

Robert D. Putnam, “Community-Based Social Capital and Educational Performance,” in Ravitch and Viteritti, eds., Making Good Citizens, pp. 58-95

Identifying Good Ends and Means

October 9: Habermas and Deliberative Democracy

First group assignment  (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site. due

October 10: Habermas Continued

  • Jürgen Habermas, Between Facts and Norms, pp. 359-379

October 15: Implementing Deliberative Democracy

Nabatchi, Matt Leighninger, Public Participation for 21st Century Democracy (2015), pp. 241-285 and 305-324 

Danielle E. Allen, Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship Since Brown, v. Board of Education pp 140-186

Final draft of first paper due

October 17: Scholars in Public Deliberation

Visiting speaker: Prof. Jonathan Garlick

Bent Flyvbjerg, ” Social Science that Matters ” (2006)

(additional reading)

October 22: John Rawls

John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, pp. 3-19, 52-57

October 24: John Rawls, continued

John Rawls, “The Idea of Public Reason Revisited”

Nina Eliasoph, Avoiding Politics, pp. 1-22

Lynn Sanders, “ Against Deliberation

Exclusion and Identity

October 29

Audre Lorde, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.” 

Steve Biko, Black Consciousness and the Quest for True Humanity” 

The Book of Nehemiah 

Second group assignment   due

October 31: Identity and the Common Good

Lilla, The Once and Future Liberal 

November 5: Social Movements

Charles Tilly, ” Social Movements, 1768-2004″

Jürgen Habermas, Theory of Communicative Action, vol. 2, pp. 391-6.

Marshall Ganz, “Why David Sometimes Wins: Strategic Capacity in Social Movements,” in Jeff Goodwin and James M. Jasper, Rethinking Social Movements: Structure, Meaning, and Emotion (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2004) pp.177-98.

November 7: Community Organizing

Saul AlinskyReveille for Radicals1946 (1969 edition), pp. 76-81; 85-88; 92-100, 132-5, 155-158.

Myles Horton and Paulo Freire, We Make the Road by Walking, pp. 115-138

November 14: Midterm in class

November 19: Nonviolent Campaigns

Martin Luther King, Stride Toward Freedom, chapters 3, 4, and 5.

? Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan, Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict, chapters 1 and 2 

November 26: Nonviolence

Bikhu Parekh, GandhiChapter 4 (“Satyagraha”), pp. 51-62;

Timothy Garton Ash, “Velvet Revolution: The Prospects,” New York Review of Books, December 3, 2009

The Person in Community

November 28: Plato, Apology of Socrates

December 3: Plato, Apology of SocratesCrito

December 5: Civic Education: What all this means for what students should learn

Joel Westheimer and Joseph E. Kahne, “Educating the ‘Good Citizen’: Political Choices and Pedagogical Goals,” PS Online

Third group assignment  (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site. due

December 10: Civic Studies at Tufts and Beyond

Draft of second paper due

Dec. 20: Final paper due.

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from classical liberalism to a civic perspective

Earlier this summer, I was in the van Mises Room in the Friedrich von Hayek Program in the James Buchanan Building at George Mason University, talking about my intellectual hero, Elinor Ostrom, who learned a great deal from Hayek and Buchanan. This is a sketch of how I presented my own position. By the way, the audience was ideologically diverse, and each attendee held nuanced views; but I wanted to say something about the people for whom the space was named.

Hayek objected to thinking about “social justice” for two reasons that I endorse. First, no person or group has nearly enough cognitive or moral capacity to decide what everyone deserves across a whole society. Second, thinking about “social justice” encourages ideas about what the state should do to make the society just and to keep it just. I’ve collected quotations from a wide range of political theorists who move quickly from ideas of social justice to blueprints for states. There’s an interesting “tell” in Philip Pettit’s influential book Republicanism when he distinguishes between the objectives of “the authorities” (people who exercise power in a republican system) from what “we, as system designers” seek. He imagines his readers to be system-designers, but we are not that. We are participants in existing systems. And if we had the power to design and enact a real polity, we should be primarily concerned with humility and with placing limits on our own power to dictate to others. Hundreds of millions of people were shot or gassed in the 1900s by people who thought their job was to design polities and who had opportunities to do so.

The main question that confronts us is what should we do, not what regime should we live in. If I could choose which country I’d like mine to resemble–Denmark, Burkina Faso, or North Korea?–I would vote for Denmark. But I don’t need an elaborate theory to help me answer that question, nor do I need a theoretical rationale for my choice. Interestingly, everyone from a classical liberal to a social democrat would concur. It appears that well- designed, balanced regimes that rest on strong civic cultures optimize both freedom and equality.

I can vote on whether to make the US a little more like Denmark, and that is the way I usually choose to vote (i.e., for candidates of the left or center-left in our system). But my vote is far from the most consequential civic decision I make, and those candidates won’t redesign our regime. Like me, they are embedded in complex systems that they seek to adjust from where they are.

However, none of the above means that we should cease assessing the justice, fairness, and desirability of the situations that we observe around us. In fact, we must not only assess but try to remedy the injustices we see. That is our duty as ethical persons. We can think about social justice as members of a society, not as designers of it.

In a polycentric world, we are participants in many overlapping and nested political, economic, cultural, linguistic, and natural systems, all at once. We are immanent in these systems but we can influence them. We have moves to make in the “games” that we find ourselves in, but we can also change the rules or shift to different games. We are public entrepreneurs who can choose where and how to exercise leverage.

As such, we have much to gain from Vincent and Elinor Ostrom and the Bloomington School of Political Economy. First, we obtain the concept of polycentricity itself and a theory of ourselves as a participants in numerous interrelated systems. Second, the Institutional Analysis and Development Framework gives us a way of identifying the “action arenas,” “contexts,” “actors,” etc. that we must understand in order to be effective. Third, the list of design principles that Lin Ostrom and colleagues gleaned from experiments and observations is not only useful for practice–which it is–but it also exemplifies a process of gleaning rule-of-thumb guidelines from complex reality.

Yet the Bloomington School does not suffice. It focuses on certain problems that confront groups of people–e.g., how to encourage contributions and discourage free-riding–but not on other problems, such as how to deal with disagreements about principles or about the justice of boundaries among groups. The School offers a response to power asymmetries (basically, the classical liberal response of reducing concentrated power and encouraging people to manage their own concerns at the local level). This response is important but it doesn’t satisfy me as way of dealing with massive disparities in wealth and power or oppressive mentalities and norms.

Finally, the Bloomington School’s concrete suggestions (when abstracted from its philosophical background) are too value-neutral. The design principles, for example, would be just as useful for fascists as for democrats; just as useful for a cocaine cartel as for a community hospital.

We need to know what is right. As human beings, we lack direct access to certainties about ethics and justice. Our intuitions and are badly fallible. Most of our forebears had terrible values, and we are also subject to error for the same reasons they were. The best we can do is to listen and learn from people who have different values and interests from our own. Under the heading of “listening and learning,” I include not only discourse and deliberation but also art and narrative.

Thus we need a theory of communication, a theory that helps us to avoid propaganda and ideology, to distinguish good rhetorical moves from bad ones, and to design good formats for discussion (broadly defined). For that theory, I’d look to the Frankfurt School more than the Bloomington School, to Habermas more than the Ostroms.

And both the Frankfurt School and the Bloomington School are most helpful for relatively stable situations in which a community exists and faces problems of collective action or of disagreement. These schools are less helpful for moments when a community needs to be formed, when some people are excluded from a community that they have a right to join, or when some people want to exit a system that they find oppressive. For these situations, we need the tradition of nonviolent civil resistance represented by Gandhi and King. I come to that tradition without a fixed commitment to pacifism (I happen to think that some wars are just). Instead, I believe we can learn general principles from cases in which people forego violence yet still confront power.

The Bloomington School offers a framework: a cluster of theories, models, theses, and findings. I think we need a larger framework that encompasses the Bloomington School plus theories of deliberation and of nonviolence.

See also: social justice from the citizen’s perspectiveagainst state-centric political theorythe legacy of Elinor Ostrom and the Bloomington School; and Habermas, Ostrom, Gandhi (II).

new special issue of The Good Society on reintegrating facts, values, and strategies (open access)

Newly published–and free without a subscription through November — is The Good Society‘s Special Issue on Reintegrating Facts, Values, Strategies, vol. 26, no. 2-3 (2017). Guest edited by me.

Table of Contents

civility: not too much, not too little

This is the summer for critiques of civility as a virtue or goal. See, for instance, the Color of Change video entitled “Civility Will Not Save Us,” or Tavia Nyong’o’s and Kyla Wazana Tompkins’ argument that “the accusation of incivility is a technique of depoliticization.” For them, the “opposite of civility is not incivility, but militancy.”

I take these points seriously. I have never made civility a core goal. I define my work as civic, but civic doesn’t equal civil. Civic politics surely encompasses militant direct action when the circumstances demand it. It’s true that “civility will not save us” because mass participation and resistance are often needed. If “civility” means being nice to political opponents, or accepting the validity of their claims, then sometimes civility is inappropriate. Frederick Douglass was asked to debate apologists of slavery. The British fascist leader Oswald Mosley invited Bertrand Russell to debate him. Both Douglass and Russell were right to refuse these invitations–some people should be shunned.

Further, demands for civility can represent efforts to suppress worthy activism.  William Chafee’s book Civilities and Civil Rights: Greensboro, North Carolina, and the Black Struggle for Freedom is a classic account of how calls for “civility” were used to try to block Martin Luther King.

Yet, I don’t agree that civility lacks value completely. For one thing, it can be rhetorically most effective to take the high ground. In 1965, Bayard Rustin made the case for talking directly to the undecided middle of the US electorate in ways that would persuade them to support the immediate political goals of the Civil Rights Movement (“From Protest to Politics: The Future of the Civil Rights Movement“). Whenever we move from protesting to trying to determine policy, we need rhetoric that appeals widely. Rustin was an architect of the March on Washington, at which King gave his “I Have a Dream Speech.” According to my friend Harry Boyte, the organizers of the March distributed flyers that said, “In a neighborhood dispute there may be stunts, rough words, and even hot insults. But when a whole people speaks to its government, the dialogue and the action must be on a level reflecting the worth of that people and the responsibility of that government.” They saw that to demonstrate civility was persuasive and empowering.

To be sure, the agenda of the Civil Rights Movement was left unfinished. This week we read of a Trump voter in Alabama who remembers “that Rosa Parks time” as “just a scary time,” when “her parents, fearing violence, had sent her to the country to stay with relatives.” She believes Barack Obama is a Muslim and fears that the memorial to the victims of lynching may stir up “race war.”  The March on Washington hardly converted this person to justice. But it did help to shift more than 50% of American voters to support a set of landmark bills that made a significant difference, and I would credit these victories to a combination of militancy plus civility.

For his part, Donald Trump would be much more popular if he presided over a strong economy, pushed right-wing policies, but refrained from daily violations of basic civility. His tweets may cost him a friendly majority in Congress. They are contrary to justice, but they are also uncivil, and the incivility may cost him worse politically.

These cases illustrate that political success does not (necessarily) trade off against civility. The two can go together.

Further, we can understand civility not as a way of expressing our views but as a set of rhetorical techniques that invite the other person to talk. Douglass would gain nothing from hearing the speech of slavers. He knew from personal experience what slavery meant, and his position was correct. A debate had no value. But I am in a different position from Douglass. My views about most current issues are murky, evolving, and deeply fallible. I could be wrong–in fact, I certainly am wrong about many things, but alas, I don’t know which ones. For me, inviting others to speak is a way of learning. The Civic Commons says (or used to say): “We’re as interested in each other’s opinions as we are in our own. And we act like it.” If that is civility, then it is a valuable stance for anyone who may be wrong—which certainly includes me.

A third argument in favor of civility is that we should strive to live in a democracy that includes an element of public deliberation. Uncivil discourse is not the main barrier to that form of government. The major obstacles are disenfranchisement, the influence of money, and poorly designed political institutions. But the value of good talk should not be set at zero. Learning to listen and speak to all is part of a more complex formula for achieving a deliberative democracy.

In the end, I can’t help turning to old Aristotle for guidance on how to think about civility if we view it as a virtue.

Aristotelian virtues don’t come with algorithms for determining when and how to exercise them. That requires good judgment, attention to the particular circumstances, experience, and tolerance for uncertain outcomes. We can overdo or neglect any virtue by failing to apply practical judgment (phronesis).

The previous paragraph suggests that any virtue is a “mean” between too much and too little. Thus, in the case of civility, we should apply a Goldilocks principle: rhetoric shouldn’t be too cold or too hot for the circumstances, but just right. Both proponents and opponents of civility make valid points–aimed at the excesses and the deficiencies of civility. Exercising the appropriate amount protects you from both critiques. It’s just that it’s hard to know where the mean lies.

Aristotle would also suggest that each virtue intersects with others. A valuable way to reason about whether we are being too civil, or not civil enough, under particular circumstances is to consider related virtues and vices. Is someone’s civility a manifestation of intellectual humility and fallibalism, compassion, and love of peace? Or does it represent complacency, cowardice, and indecision? Is someone’s righteous indignation a sign of love for justice, commitment, solidarity, and courage, or rather a retreat into self-congratulation?

It takes judgment to know. We should be quick to judge ourselves and much slower to criticize others. And we should welcome a variety of responses, because the same norms are not right for all people in all social and political positions.

civic education that is less about the state

We are completing the tenth (!) annual Summer Institute of Civic Studies, which revolves around the three schools of civic theory outlined below. (Each “school” encompasses diverse views and criticisms.) Today we talked about what these theories would mean for civic education at various levels and in several nations.

I certainly don’t advocate assigning The Theory of Communicative Action vols. 1-2Governing the Commons, or Hind Swaraj in an 8th grade civics class. But we might involve 8th graders in managing common resources, incorporate them in the public sphere by inviting them to join public deliberations, and ask them to develop strategies for addressing power disparities at the human level. Indeed, we do all these things, but they tend to be somewhat marginal in civics curricula around the world, which focus much more on the state, the law, and the citizen in relation to those.

The Bloomington School of Political Economy (Elinor Ostrom et al) The Frankfurt School in its second generation (Jurgen Habermas et al) Nonviolent social movements (Gandhi/King)
Fundamental problem People fail to achieve what would be good for them collectively People manipulate other people by influencing their opinions and goals People fail to view others (or themselves) as fully human
Characteristic starting point People know what they want but can’t get it People don’t know what they want or want the wrong things Some people won’t recognize other people as fellow citizens
Prominent example of failure We destroy an environmental asset by failing to work together Government or corporate propaganda distorts our authentic values One national or ethnic group exploits another
Essential behavior of a citizen Working together to make or preserve something. Talking and listening about controversial values. Using nonviolent sacrifice to compel change
Keyword Collaboration Deliberation Relationships
Instead of homo economicus (the individual who maximizes material self-interest) we need … Homo faber (the person as a maker) Homo sapiens (the person as a reasoner) or homo politicus (the participant in public assemblies) A satyagrahi (the person as a bearer of soul force)
Role of the state A set of nested and overlapping associations, not fundamentally different from other associations (firms, nonprofits, etc.) Citizens form public opinion, which should guide the state, which makes law. The state should be radically distinct from other sectors A target of demands
Modernity is … A threat to local and traditional ways of cooperating, but we can use science to assist people in solving their own problems A process of enlightenment that liberates people, but it goes wrong when states and markets “colonize” the private domain For Gandhi: An imperialist imposition, undermining swaraj
How facts and values are combined Not explicitly. Implicitly by using research on collective action to liberate people for reflective self-government By proposing counterfactual ideals such as “the ideal speech situation” and diagnosing the reasons these are not met Through “experiments in living”

In a prophetic mode

Main interdisciplinary combination Game theory plus observations of indigenous problem-solving Normative philosophy (mainly achieved through critical readings of past philosophers) plus system-level sociology Critical theology plus military strategy

social justice from the citizen’s perspective

I believe that each of us is responsible for forming a view–even if it’s tentative and evolving–of social justice. This is our theory of how rights, goods, and powers should be distributed in our society and who should be able to change that distribution in various ways. Any decent theory must address much more than equity, because liberty, community, harmony, diversity, sustainability, efficiency, and democracy are also values worthy of consideration.

Classical liberals offer reasons not to ask the question of social justice. I ultimately disagree but believe that their concerns should influence us. We should make sure to ask the question of social justice in the right way. It is interesting, too, that Gandhi anticipated several of the main concerns raised by such classical liberals as Friedrich von Hayek. (As is often the case, the libertarian right and the highly participatory left share some common concerns.)

Here are the objections:

  1. Adding the word “social” to a personal belief is pretentious and arrogant. To say that your view represents social justice–instead of talking about what you think is “‘moral’ or simply good”–means substituting your “individual judgment” for what the society has come to believe collectively. Talk of social justice is “ultimately the result of a contempt for what really is a social phenomenon and of a belief in the superior powers of individual human reason” (Hayek, The Constitution of Justice, p. 65).
  2. We don’t know enough to define social justice. We are too cognitively limited, too biased. We cannot see moral advances that may arise in the future. We should respect local norms and diverse cultural heritages. As Gandhi said in opposition to a specific plan for Indian independence, “the only universal definition to give [the word “independence” or swaraj] is ‘that status of India which her people desire at a given moment.’” They will desire something in 10 years that we cannot imagine now.
  3. By asserting a view of social justice, we implicitly adopt the perspective of the state and imply that the state is responsible for achieving justice. “Seeing like a state” may not be an inevitable result of discussing social justice, but authors as diverse as Martha Nussbaum, Philip Pettit, and John Rawls exemplify this move: they argue that if social justice demands something, then the state is responsible for it. That means that they talk like state-builders or advisers to states.
  4. People differ in interests and values. Consensus is neither likely nor desirable. No conception of social justice imposed by a state on a whole society is really compatible with our fundamental plurality. For example, since we disagree about the value of toleration, state-imposed toleration will not satisfy everyone (even if it’s better than state-imposed censorship and oppression).
  5. “The state” is an abstraction. Actual states (even dictatorships) are always complex amalgams of people, rules, and physical assets–such as guns and filing systems–with multiple power centers. And the people who work for or within a state also belong to other social institutions, including markets and families. So no state acts simply according to its official doctrines and policies.
  6. Even if we know what a state should do, it’s hard to see how we can make an actual state do it. To imagine an ideal state is like assuming a can opener on a desert island. The practical question of how to found, reform, or revolutionize the actual state is unavoidable.
  7. It’s not clear that what makes some states work better than others is the degree to which they embrace abstract theories of social justice. If you’re a libertarian or a social democrat, you have good reasons to consider Denmark one of the best societies in the world. It optimizes liberty and equality pretty well. That’s because its institutions are more capable and less corrupt than most other nations’. Much depends on basic efficiency and integrity.
  8. Steps toward social justice can be dead ends. Motion in another direction sometimes leads to greater social justice. For instance, if you lived in 19th century Scandinavia, you might have assumed that equity required curtailing the power of capital. Instead, a social system that made capital very comfortable seems to have created the comity that then allowed labor and capital to negotiate a more equitable distribution. The road that led to equity did not start off in that direction.

One conclusion–Hayek’s, for example–would be to discourage talk of “social justice.” You should say what you like, or what you believe is good, not what is “socially just,” because that is just a sign that you are seeing like a state.

I draw a different conclusion. We should not evade the question with which I began this post: What is social justice? It’s our obligation to reason about who deserves what across the whole society and even the globe. In all likelihood, reality will not meet our respective standards of social justice, and then we should try to change things.

But the point of the question is to guide our own behavior. We don’t (and shouldn’t) have the opportunity to pick a perfect social democracy, a pure free market, or a theocracy. Institutions are (and ought to be) plural, evolutionary, overlapping, impure, and internally inconsistent.  It’s a pitfall to imagine ourselves as the designers of brand-new societies or as voters able to choose among different systems. We are people embedded in complex systems who have limited reasoning capacity, limited empathy, limited imagination, limited resources, and limited leverage. In engaging the institutions we have, we should consider opportunities to advance social justice. When we talk about social justice, we are saying, in effect, “My fellow members of this specific community, this is how I think that the whole system should be organized, and that has the following implications for what we should do next.”

See also against state-centric political theoryGandhi on the primacy of means over endspolycentricity: the case for a (very) mixed economyThe truth in Hayekwe are for social justice, but what is it?