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April 4, 2011

why political recommendations often disappoint: an argument for reflexive social science

In an essay entitled "Why Last Chapters Disappoint," David Greenberg lists American books about politics and culture that are famous for their provocative diagnoses of serious problems but that conclude with strangely weak recommendations. These include, in his opinion, Upton Sinclair's The Jungle (1906), Walter Lippman's Public Opinion (1922), Daniel Boorstin's The Image (1961), Allan Bloom's Closing of the American Mind (1987), Robert Shiller's Irrational Exuberance (2000), Eric Scholsser's Fast Food Nation (2001), and Al Gore's The Assault on Reason (2007). Greenberg asserts that practically every book in this list, "no matter how shrewd or rich its survey of the question at hand, finishes with an obligatory prescription that is utopian, banal, unhelpful or out of tune with the rest of the book." The partial exceptions are works like Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation that provide fully satisfactory legislative agendas while acknowledging that the most important reforms have no chance of passing in Congress.

The gap between diagnosis and prescription is no accident. Many serious social problems could be solved if everyone chose to behave better: eating less fast food, investing more wisely, using less carbon, or studying the classics. But the readers of a given treatise are too few to make a difference, and even before they begin to read they are better motivated than the rest of the population. Therefore, books that conclude with personal exhortations seem inadequate.

Likewise, some serious social problems could be ameliorated by better legislation. But the readers of any given book are too few to apply sufficient political pressure to obtain the necessary laws. Therefore, books that end with legislative agendas disappoint just as badly.

The failure of books to change the world is not a problem that any single book can solve. But it is a problem that can be addressed, just as we address complex challenges of description, analysis, diagnosis, and interpretation that arise in the social sciences and humanities. Every work of empirical scholarship should contribute to a cumulative research enterprise and a robust debate. Every worthy political book should also contribute to our understanding of how ideas influence the world. That means asking questions such as: "Who will read this book, and what can they do?"

Who reads a book depends, in part, on the structure of the news media and the degree to which the public is already interested in the book’s topic. What readers can do depends, in part, on which organizations and networks are available for them to join and how responsive other institutions are to their groups.

These matters change over time. Consider, for example, a book that did affect democracy, John W. Gardner's In Common Cause: Citizen Action and How It Works (1972). After diagnosing America's social problems as the result of corrupt and undemocratic political processes and proposing a series of reforms, such as open-government laws and public financing for campaigns, Gardner encouraged his readers to join the organization Common Cause. He had founded this organization two years earlier by taking out advertisements in leading national newspapers, promising "to build a true 'citizens'' lobby—a lobby concerned not with the advancement of special interests but with the well-being of the nation. … We want public officials to have literally millions of American citizens looking over their shoulders at every move they make." More than 100,000 readers quickly responded by joining Gardner's organization and sending money. Common Cause was soon involved in passing the Twenty-Sixth Amendment (which lowered the voting age to 18), the Federal Election Campaign Act, the Freedom of Information Act, and the Ethics in Government Act of 1978. The book In Common Cause was an early part of the organization’s successful outreach efforts.

It helped that Gardner was personally famous and respected before he founded Common Cause. It also helped that a series of election-related scandals, culminating with Watergate, dominated the news between 1972 and 1976, making procedural reforms a high public priority. As a book, In Common Cause was well written, fact-based, and clear about which laws were needed.

But the broader context also helped. Watergate dominated the news because the news business was still monopolized by relatively few television networks, agenda-setting newspapers, and wire services whose professional reporters believed that a campaign-finance story involving the president was important. Everyone who followed the news at all had to follow the Watergate story, regardless of their ideological or partisan backgrounds. In contrast, in 2010, some Americans were appalled by the false but prevalent charge that President Obama's visit to Indonesia was costing taxpayers $200 million per day. Many other Americans had no idea that this accusation had even been made, so fractured was the news market.

John Gardner was able to reach a generation of joiners who were setting records for organizational membership.* Newspaper reading and joining groups were strongly correlated; and presumably people who read the news and joined groups also displayed relatively deep concern about public issues. Thus it was not surprising that more than 100,000 people should respond to Gardner's newspaper advertisements about national political reform by joining his new group. By the 2000's, the rate of newspaper reading had dropped in half, and the rate of group membership was also down significantly. The original membership of Common Cause aged and was never replaced in similar numbers after the 1970s. John Gardner's strategy fit his time but did not outlive him.

Any analysis of social issues should take account of contextual changes like these. Considering how one’s thought relates to the world means making one's scholarship "reflexive," in the particular sense advocated by the Danish political theorist Bent Flyvbjerg. He notes that modern writers frequently distinguish between rationality and power. "The [modern scholarly] ideal prescribes that first we must know about a problem, then we can decide about it. … Power is brought to bear on the problem only after we have made ourselves knowledgeable about it."** With this ideal in mind, authors write many chapters about social problems, followed by unsatisfactory codas about what should be done. As documents, their books evidently lack the capacity to improve the world. Their rationality is disconnected from power. And, in my experience, the more critical and radical the author is, the more disempowered he or she feels.

Truly "reflexive" writing and politics recognizes that even the facts used in the empirical or descriptive sections of any scholarly work come from institutions that have been shaped by power. For example, in my own writing, I frequently cite historical data about voting and volunteering in the United States. The federal government tracks both variables by fielding the Census Current Population Surveys and funding the American National Election Studies. Various influential individuals and groups have persuaded the government to measure these variables, for the same (somewhat diverse) reasons that they have pressed for changes in voting rules and investments in volunteer service. On the other hand, there are no reliable historical data on the prevalence of public engagement by government agencies. One cannot track the rate at which the police have consulted residents about crime-fighting strategies or the importance of parental voice in schools. That is because no influential groups and networks have successfully advocated for these variables to be measured. Thus the empirical basis of my work is affected by the main problem that I identify in my work: the lack of support for public engagement.

Reflexive scholarship also acknowledges that values motivate all empirical research. Our values--our beliefs about goals and principles--should be influenced and constrained by what we think can work in the world: "ought implies can." Wise advice comes not from philosophical principles alone, but also from reflection on salient trends in society and successful experiments in the real world. An experiment can be a strong argument for doing more of the same: sometimes, "can implies ought." If there were no recent successful experiments in civic engagement, my democratic values would be more modest and pessimistic. If recent experiments were more robust and radical than they are, I might adopt more ambitious positions. In short, my values rest on other people’s practical work, even as my goal is to support their work.

Finally, reflexive scholarship should address the question of what readers ought to do. A book is fully satisfactory only if it helps to persuade readers to do what it recommends and if their efforts actually improve the world. In that sense, the book offers a hypothesis that can be proved or disproved by its consequences. No author will be able to foresee clearly what readers will do, because they will contribute their own intelligence, and the situation will change. Nevertheless, the book and its readers can contribute to a cumulative intellectual enterprise that others will then take up and improve.

*In 1974, 80 percent of the "Greatest Generation” (people who had been born between 1925 and 1944) said that they were members of at least one club or organization. Among Baby Boomers at the same time, the rate of group membership was 66.8%. The Greatest Generation continued to belong at similar rates into the 1990s. The Boomers never caught up with them, their best year being 1994, when three quarters reported belonging to some kind of group. In 1974, 6.3% of the Greatest Generation said they were in political clubs. The Boomers have never reached that level: their highest rate of belonging to political clubs was 4.9% in 1989. (General Social Survey data analyzed by me.)

**Bent Flyvbjerg, Making Social Science Matter (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), p. 143

April 4, 2011 8:20 AM | category: philosophy | Comments



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