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January 30, 2009

micro-politics in a committee room

I spent two days of this week with a federal advisory committee, deciding what questions to ask on certain official surveys. I was struck (as I sat with my colleagues in an underground hotel room), that various combinations of "discourses" were governing the discussion:

Each of these discourses confers power or status. If you wanted to get a particular item included on the survey, you could probably improve your chances by impressing colleagues with your savvy as a traveler or by talking like a knowledgeable parent--or by letting everyone know that you have downloaded the previous years' data and done a fancy statistical analysis. In other words, status transfers (I suspect) from one domain to another.

It strikes me that some people gravitate to issues that can be decided by applying rules. They are relieved, for instance, when a decision can be made automatically by superimposing the rules of statistics and the bureaucratic structure. Other participants chafe against such limits and feel comfortable making case-by-case value-judgments.

Some people jump at the chance to express opinions when their favored discourses arise. If you're a statistics jock, you speak up whenever an issue is statistical. If you have a nine-year-old at home, you mention anecdotes relevant to the fourth-grade data. It's partly about making pleasant conversation, partly about contributing good insights--and partly a matter of status and power. This is not to say that everyone is trying to maximize their influence. Some are sincerely modest and diffident. But power is present.

No setting could seem less like the "agonistic" political spaces that impressed Hannah Arendt. She admired ancient Greek agoras and revolutionary assemblies in which people expressed their inner selves in heroic speeches and deeds. I've been hanging out with nerds in a hotel conference room. But politics is everywhere, and that's not a bad thing.

January 30, 2009 12:19 PM | category: none


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