Lifeworld and System: a primer

The great social theorist Jürgen Habermas has drawn attention–for more than half a century–to the problem that he calls the “colonization of the Lifeworld by System.” Here is my explanation, based mainly on a rare concrete example from his Theory of Communicative Action, vol. 2. 

The Lifeworld, for Habermas, is the background of ordinary life: mainly private, somewhat naive and biased, but also authentic and essential to our satisfaction as human beings. It is a “reservoir of taken-for-granteds, of unshaken convictions that participants in communication draw upon in cooperative processes of interpretation.” In the Lifeworld, we mostly communicate with people we know and who share our daily experience, so our communications tend to be opaque to outsiders and certainly not persuasive to people unlike us. But Habermas argues that we are incapable of thinking about everything at once. In order to reason and communicate, we must take most points as givens. Only then can “single elements, specific taken-for-granteds” be brought up for conversation and critical analysis.

Meanwhile, the “System” is composed of formal organizations, such as governments, corporations, parties, unions, and courts. People in a System have official roles and must pursue pre-defined goals (albeit sometimes with ethical constraints). For example, defense lawyers are required to defend their clients, corporate CEOs are supposed to maximize profit, and comptrollers are supposed to reduce waste in their own organizations. In the current period, there are fundamentally two Systems: markets (in which instrumental action leads to profit) and governments (in which instrumental action demonstrates power). Although the people who work in markets and governments are complex individuals with other commitments, their official work responsibilities are to maximize money or to administer power.

To illustrate the Lifeworld, Habermas invites us to envision an “older construction worker who sends a younger and newly arrived co-worker to fetch some beer, telling him to hurry up and be back in a few minutes.” The senior worker assumes that a whole set of beliefs and values are shared on the team: German construction workers enjoy and expect to drink beer at breaks during the workday, beer is for sale in the vicinity, the younger and/or most recently hired person is the one who does unpaid chores for the group, and so on. Each of these assumptions could be brought into doubt and subjected to debate. For instance, as Habermas suggests, the younger worker might say, “But I don’t have a car,” or “I’m not thirsty.” Other “elements of the situation” might generally pass unnoticed yet become relevant as circumstances change. If the younger worker is an immigrant without health coverage and he falls off the ladder as he goes to buy the beer, several relevant laws and controversies may suddenly occur to the workers, moving from their background knowledge to topics of explicit discussion. But at any given moment, simply by virtue of being human, the workers must assume most features of the situation as a shared and implicit background, a “vast and incalculable web of presuppositions.” This is their Lifeworld.

In order for the workers (or any other group of people) to be free and self-governing, they must be able to render any aspect of the Lifeworld problematic. It is a definitive feature of modernity that no assumptions are considered immune to critique; and it is a condition of democracy that no critique is blocked by law or other force. When the younger construction worker notes that no beer is available within walking distance and he doesn’t have a car, he is giving a reason for someone else to go. This turns his work group into a small Public Sphere. To the extent it is democratic and deliberative, his reasons will require responses.

Imagine (to go beyond Habermas’ presentation of this example) that the radio is playing as these men work. A news program includes an interview with a feminist activist who criticizes the construction industry for hiring very few women, followed by an immigrant leader who notes that alcohol is forbidden to Muslims (thus the assumption that everyone wants to drink beer is exclusionary), followed by a health expert who attributes disease to excessive daytime beer consumption. These people are making arguments that compel critical attention to specific aspects of the workers’ Lifeworld. They represent the larger Public Sphere of the Federal Republic or the European Union. It doesn’t matter whether the interviewees have self-interested motivations, such as selling copies of their books, or whether the radio station is a for-profit company trying to attract listeners. The format of any reasonably well-run news program will compel the speakers to give reasons that can be checked and assessed by reporters and listeners. This is a case of a democratic Public Sphere challenging citizens to reflect about aspects of their Lifeworld.

But although every particular point should be subject to discussion, the whole Lifeworld must be protected. One reason is that we need the Lifeworld to think at all, for we are capable of testing a specific assumption only while holding our other assumptions for granted. A second reason is that our Lifeworld is ours, a condition of living authentically. Any political program that tries to strip a group of people of their accumulated assumptions all at once would be totalitarian. A radio program that brings separate issues to the workers’ attention expands their thinking; but if a revolutionary government seizes all the radio stations and begins broadcasting propaganda against contemporary German working-class culture as a whole, that is a threat to their Lifeworld.

Meanwhile, the Lifeworld is vulnerable to manipulation by interested parties who act instrumentally. For example, suppose that on the radio, the workers hear men with similar accents to their own praising a particular brand of beer. Maybe women are also heard, enjoying these men’s company and appreciating their good taste. It sounds as if friends have entered the real Lifeworld of the construction site, but these supposed friends are really actors who are are paid to sell beer. Of course, the workers will understand the purpose of an advertisement, yet by skillfully imitating their authentic Lifeworld, the ad can affect their behavior. No reasons need be given; no rebuttal is invited. In this case, Habermas would say that the Lifeworld of the workers has been colonized by the System of markets. The System of government might similarly colonize their Lifeworld if a candidate for public office started talking on the radio as if he were their friend who shared their values and experiences.

In discussions of Systems colonizing Lifeworlds, common examples include commercial advertisements that masquerade as authentic communications. These are cases of “commodification”: firms mining the Lifeworld for economic advantage. Habermas also emphasizes the tendency of welfare state bureaucracies to “juridify” or “judicialize” the Lifeworld. For instance, when well-intentioned states seek to protect pupils and parents against unfairness in testing and discipline, 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.

A neo-Marxist line of criticism faults Habermas for equating juridification with commodification and the state with the market. This critique hold that the underlying process is capitalist exploitation, and the welfare-state is only a threat to the Lifeworld because it is a tool of capital. Habermas disagrees. For him the underlying process is growing specialization, a feature of modernity. He insists that in socialist societies, the state colonizes the Lifeworld in a parallel way to the market’s colonization in capitalist societies; and in welfare states, both threats operate at once.

[It turns out that I have posted 58 times before on Habermas, collected here. My broadest posts are probably Habermas and critical theory (a primer)saving Habermas from the deliberative democrats; and Ostrom, Habermas, and Gandhi are all we need.]

Take the #CivXNow Pledge!

CivX
Next week, the Lou Frey Institute, in collaboration with our friends at iCivics, the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, and the Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts, is excited to host the upcoming ‘Democracy at a Crossroads’ Civic Education Summit in Washington, DC. With generous support from the Carnegie Corporation, the Hewlett Foundation, and the McCormick Foundation, civic education leaders from across the country will get together with influential individuals in politics, government, business, and society to discuss why civics matters, and why it demands attention.

What is really exciting is that the success that Florida has had in civic education, thanks to the work of its teachers and growing out of the Sandra Day O’Connor Civic Education Act, will be highlighted on center stage!

If you are so inclined, consider taking the pledge to help our young people learn the civic skills and develop the civic dispositions so necessary in this 21st century America!


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Normalizing the Non-Standard

I recently read Eisenstein’s excellent, What to do about bad language on the internet, which explores the challenge of using Natural Language Processing on “bad” – e.g., non-standard – text.

I take Eisenstein’s use of the normative word “bad” here somewhat ironically. He argues that researchers dislike non-standard text because it complicates NLP analysis, but it is only “bad” in this narrow sense. Furthermore, while the effort required to analyze such text may be frustrating, efforts to normalize these texts are potentially worse.

It has been well documented that NLP approaches trained on formal texts, such as the Wall Street Journal, perform poorly when applied to less formal texts, such as Twitter data. Intuitively this makes sense: most people don’t write like the Wall Street Journal on Twitter.

Importantly, Eisenstein quickly does away with common explanations for the prevalence of poor language on Twitter. Citing Drouin and Davis (2009), he notes that there are no significant differences in the literacy rates of users who do or do not use non-standard language. Further studies also dispel notions of users being too lazy to type correctly, Twitter’s character limit forcing unnatural contractions, and phones auto-correcting going out of control.

In short, most users employ non-standard language because they want to. Their grammar and word choice intentionally convey meaning.

In normalizing this text, then, in moving it towards the unified standards on which NLP classifiers are trained, researchers explicitly discard important linguistic information. Importantly, this approach has implications for not only for research, but for language itself. As Eisenstein argues:

By developing software that works best for standard linguistic forms, we throw the weight of language technology behind those forms, and against variants that are preferred by disempowered groups. …It strips individuals of any agency in using language as a resource to create and shape their identity.

This concern is reminiscent of James C. Scott’s Seeing Like a State, which raises deep concerns about the power of a centralized, administrative state. In order to function effectively and efficiently, an administrative state needs to be able to standardize certain things – weights and measures, property norms, names, and language all have implications for taxation and distribution of resources. As Scott argues, this tendency towards standardization isn’t inherently bad, but it is deeply dangerous – especially when combined with things like a weak civil society and a powerful authoritarian state.

Scott argues that state imposition of a impose a single, official language is “one of the most powerful state simplifications,” which lays the groundwork for additional normalization. The state process of normalizing language, Scott writes, “should probably be viewed, as Eugen Weber suggests in the case of France, as one of domestic colo­nization in which various foreign provinces (such as Brittany and Occitanie) are linguistically subdued and culturally incorporated. …The implicit logic of the move was to define a hierarchy of cultures, relegating local languages and their regional cultures to, at best, a quaint provincialism.”

This is a bold claim, yet not entirely unfounded.

While there is further work to be done in this area, there is good reason to think that the “normalization” of language disproportionally effects people who are outside the norm along other social dimensions. These marginalized communities – marginalized, incidentally, because they fall outside whatever is defined as the norm – develop their own linguistic styles. Those linguistic styles are then in turn disparaged and even erased for following outside the norm.

Perhaps one of the most well documented examples of this is Su Lin Bloggett and Brendan O’Connor’s study on Racial Disparity in Natural Language Processing. As Eisenstein points out, it is trivially impossible for Twitter to represent a coherent linguist domain – users around the globe user Twitter in numerous languages.

The implicit pre-processing step, then, before even normalizing “bad” text to be in line with dominant norms, is to restrict analysis to English-language text. Bloggett and O’Connor find that  tweets from African-American users are over-represented among the Tweets that thrown out for being non-English.

Dealing with non-standard text is not easy. Dealing with a living language that can morph in a matter of days or even hours (#covfefe) is not easy. There’s no getting around the fact that researchers will have to make difficult calls in how to process this information and how to appropriately manage dimensionality reduction.

But the worst thing we can do is to pretend that it is not a matter of concern; to begin our work by thoughtlessly filtering and normalizing without giving significant thought to what we’re discarding and what that discarded data represents.

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Don’t Miss the Sept. 20th Nevins Fellowship Confab Call

As we announced last month, NCDD is hosting a special Confab Call with the McCourtney Institute for Democracy and Healthy Democracy next Wednesday, September 20th from 1-2pm Eastern / 10-11am Pacific. The call is the best place to learn more about this incredible opportunity to have a D&D trained student come work with your organization at no-cost, so we strongly encourage the NCDD network to register today!

Confab bubble image

During the call, NCDD Member and McCourtney’s Managing Director Christopher Beem will provide an overview of the Nevins Democracy Leaders Program and its aims, discuss the training that the future fellows are going through, and share more about how your organization can take advantage of this great chance to help cultivate the next generation of D&D leaders while getting more support for your work – all for FREE! We’ll also be joined by NCDD Member Robin Teater of Healthy Democracy, who will share her experiences hosting a fellow this summer.

NCDD is proud to have partnered the last couple years with the McCourtney Institute to help identify organizations in the field that can host Nevins fellows, and we’re continuing the exciting partnership this year. You can get a better sense of what the program experience is like by checking out this blog post from a 2017 Nevins Fellow about their summer fellowship with NCDD Sponsoring Member The Jefferson Center.

This is a rare and competitive opportunity for leading organizations in our field, and this Confab Call will be one of the best ways to find out more about how your group can take advantage of this program, so make sure to register today to save your spot on the call! We look forward to talking with you more then!