on the grounds for political dispute

In a heated[1] debate among me, Ezra Zuckerman, and Kieran Healey, Ezra argues that

purity in one’s constructionism… means forswearing political action, or at least any political action that is justified in terms of a critique of social valuations and the institutions that support them.

I disagree, on the grounds that political action is adequately grounded in perceived self-interest, moral valuation, etc., and depends essentially upon persuasion and power, not Truth. I use the word “agonistic” to describe this claim, borrowing from Chantal Mouffe’s approach.

As I was pondering this question this morning, driving to work (I didn’t bike today because it’s raining), I was listening to my favorite morning talk show. Media Matters’s Eric Boehlert was on, discussing Ann Coulter’s latest outrage as well as, more to the point, the latest in a series of studies demonstrating, as Boehlert puts it, that “the more you watch Fox News the less they [sic] know.” Essentially: Fox News viewership is negatively correlated with current-events knowledge across several domains.

Now, as a partisan I find this finding delicious, and as a democratic theorist I find it horrifying, since it means many people are making moral decisions without access to accurate information with which to evaluate these decisions. And I think, of course, Fox News should be very embarrassed about it, since their theoretical mission includes “presenting news in what it believes to be an unbiased fashion, eschewing ideological or political affiliation and allowing the viewer to reach his or her own conclusions about the news.”

I do not, however, think that it follows that Fox News viewers would hold the same positions I do if they were adequately informed. That would imply what we might call epistemic democracy: in the context of equivalent information, disparate citizens would be likely to converge on a single position because that position is rooted in the true volonté generale.

A similar theory underlies the UNC Young Democrats’ tee shirt from a few years back: “Fighting incompetence since 1939” (I may have the year wrong). Really? Incompetence? Again, as a partisan, I’d prefer my Republicans a little less competent!

In both of these cases, I think the urge toward an epistemic grounding for democracy – truth for Ezra, competence for the UNC-YD – forecloses the possibility of a deliberative or agonistic form of democracy. In this view, political claims are made as more or less convincing statements about more or less contested values and preferences in politics. Importantly, these claims are anchored in never-fully-shared and often internally inconsistent systems of preferences. They refer to (hopefully widely) shared understandings of facts (hence the concern over the Fox News findings) but their convincingness, or lack thereof, is far from exhausted by these facts.

[1] Is there any other kind?

Author: andrewperrin

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

19 thoughts on “on the grounds for political dispute”

  1. I’m not sure anything we say will convince Ezra, but here’s my take on the political issues Andrew raises. In my primitive analysis (which I use in teaching) there are three distinct dimensions that may be analyzed with respect to the bases for political stances: (1) interests, (2) values, (3) factual claims (i.e. “reality” claims). I distinguish interests from values (while admitting the fuzziness of both concepts) because I think the empirical evidence is overwhelming that both matter: people do prefer what benefits them individually, but they also pay attention to principles derived from moral or ethical systems. People who have different interests or values may agree completely on the facts (reality) but still disagree markedly on social policies and politics. Factual information (education) is relevant only if convinces people that their understandings of means-ends relationships are wrong.

    Missing from the scheme as I teach it is identity, which I also think matters a lot, but in the scheme I teach could be subsumed under values. I support certain kinds of policies or political grouops because I am the kind of person (have an identity) that entails supporting those policies or groups. So faculty information might also persuade me on some kind of identity basis: that specific others are or are not in the categories for which I feel that I share an identity. (There is also the related but different concept of solidarity, which need to be distinguished, but this is a blog post, not an article.)


  2. Sigh. Since my name is being invoked repeatedly, I guess I need to say something. This is difficult because I cannot make heads or tails of what Andy and OW wrote or what it has to do with what I wrote. The interested reader can decide for themselves. Otherwise, I will just say (and then respond no further, but will read anything that is written):

    * I’d love to see if Andy and OW can actually agree on what it is that they are apparently trying to convince me of. This would involve: (a) not imagining/caricaturing what it is that they think that I wrote, but actually reading it and engaging with it; and (b) being able to agree between them on what their position is. For the life of me, I can’t see what OW’s statement has to do with Andy’s or why she thinks that they are on the same side of an issue relative to me.

    * I actually think that Andy’s footnote is quite telling. Perhaps the difference between us is that I actually am naive enough to think that debate can generate light, as well as heat. (You can keep your Mouffe and her nihilism, thanks very much. My reading recommendation of the day is Martin Hollis’ The Cunning of Reason– recommended to me by an ASR reviewer who rejected a paper of mine a few years back, and more than worth the price of that rejection. For Hollis, the rational ideal is achieved when we recognize the force of someone else’s argument despite such acceptance being against our interests. Such an ideal is rarely achieved, but we are lost if we lose it as our ideal.)


    1. It’s funny to see these two things go together.

      Step 1: assume the worst in people:

      not imagining/caricaturing what it is that they think that I wrote, but actually reading it and engaging with it

      Step 2: then suggest that the ideal is that we take each other more seriously.

      the rational ideal is achieved when we recognize the force of someone else’s argument despite such acceptance being against our interests


  3. “I cannot make heads or tails of what Andy and OW wrote or what it has to do with what I wrote.”

    Here’s my take. You wrote:

    there is a major price (!) to such purity in one’s constructionism—i.e. it means forswearing political action, or at least any political action that is justified in terms of a critique of social valuations and the institutions that support them.

    I dispute that a purely constructionist position forecloses political action, even via a critique of social valuations and institutions. I ground that dispute in a theory of political communication/deliberation/agonism that recognizes that political claims are carried out on shifting sands and need not be anchored in pre-construction facts. That’s the dispute, as I understand it.

    I shall place the Hollis book on my to-read list. I doubt if you’ll do the same for Mouffe.


    1. Andy:

      Since you are engaging now, I’ll give it one last try.

      To wit:

      My point is (and has been) that this kind of account of political action only works (if it does) as an *observer’s* attempt to characterize *others’* political action. But no one who is personally engaged in serious political action (i.e., not cafe chatter, but actual action intended to change something) actually justifies their *own* political action in “agonistic” terms. When you argue for and try to mobilize others on behalf of a cause, you frame it in terms of a promise to do a better job of dealing with objective conditions than do existing or alternatives.

      Think of our joint participation in the petition against the ASA petition drive (irony, that; huh?). Our mini social movement was justified (to ourselves and to our audiences) on the basis of facts that we believed any ASA member could recognize. We believed that there was an alternative way of constructing the institution (with more transparency, democracy, etc) based on the same objective conditions (i.e., a rough consensus on what sociology is, on what sociologists are trying to achieve, modern communication systems, level of compensation, etc). Sure, those objective conditions are themselves social constructions. But they are longer-term constructions that were essentially fixed within the time-frame of the dispute. We could rely on them for being quite real with respect to the relevant time frame. And so they do indeed represent a kind of truth– not an absolute truth**, but a pragmatic truth– i.e., the constructed world we happen to live in, and are compelled to grapple with.

      I’m sure you will tell me that this is all consistent with “agonism,” perhaps because who can say whether we were right and the ASA was wrong. (Actually, the ASA conceded [in their actions, but not in their words] that we were right) But this is an outsider’s view (which, even if a participant believed, she would never say publicly). From the standpoint of *us participants* in the petition drive, we knew damned well who was right and who was wrong, since we believed strongly that our political action would do a better job addressing objective conditions. And now consider the counterfactual where we did not have such beliefs. Who among us would have participated? My point is that whether or not there is an objective basis for adjudicating between the sides in a political contest, *the participants think there is*, and this is why they are participating!

      One may counter by saying that some people participate in politics purely to gain power, and any justification based on objective conditions is mere cynical manipulation. No doubt. But again, my point is that *you* do not think of, and certainly do not justify, your *own* political action in these terms. Is this why you participated in the ASA petition drive?

      **Note to your pal Shakha (boy do those scatterplotters circle the wagons quickly!): I didn’t “assume” that my positions were being caricatured; I actually read what they wrote. Note e.g., how Andy tags with me with talk of “Absolute Truth” when I said nothing of the sort.)

      P.S. As for your assuming that I do not plan on reading Mouffe, your assumption in this case is correct. But I reject the implication that this makes me closed-minded. I’m sure that I’m no different from you in being way behind in my reading; but when I hear about something that seems to promise to teach me something new, it definitely has a chance of moving up on the list. Sorry, but I haven’t heard anything about Mouffe that motivates me in this way. If my account of Hollis does this for you, then great. Otherwise, please don’t read it on my account. I’m sure you’ll agree that I don’t deserve such consideration.


      1. I agree that the ASA dues petition case rests on a truth claim, since the claim had to do with the inaccuracy of the Council’s claim. My argument is that that’s a special case and certainly not representative of all political action.

        Consider, as an alternative, the Occupy actions, which offer a critique of inequality and skewed economic policies. Although there are exceptions (e.g., Taibbi’s piece on Wall Street “cheating,” which tries to make the issue cheating instead of inequality itself), Occupy’s claims are moral and tendentious, articulating (more or less clearly) a position on wealth and inequality that is certainly not rooted in a non-constructed facticity.

        On a much smaller level, I am part of a small group of UNC faculty meeting to discuss the proper role of athletics in the university. To the extent that we offer any programme at all, it will certainly be one based on a vision of how things ought to be and an accompanying critique of how they are, not a hard-and-fast demonstration that they are, unconstructedly, wrong.

        I have been involved in various sorts of political activism for nearly 30 years, beginning with Nashvillians for a Nuclear Arms Freeze and moving from there. Rarely have I believed, as a committed activist, that the ideas I have advocated are demonstrably more true than others’; rather, they express and are based in a value system that I feel is better and that I believe many others feel is better. This is not nihilism by any stretch; it is a recognition that moral claims build upon, and conflict with, claims that are the product of multiple constructions and therefore never incontrovertibly rooted.

        Perhaps my reading of your position is incorrect, as I have certainly understood your advocacy of a non-constructed truth as a necessary condition for political activism to be a claim that Absolute Truth is necessary to license such activism. Can you explain how a pre- or non-constructed truth is distinct from an absolute one?

        Mouffe provides a useful way of thinking about how democratic life ought to operate that avoids both the unreasonable rationalism of Habermas and the identity approach of Habermas’s critics from the left. You’re under no obligation to read her, of course, but it hardly seems polite to dismiss her as “nihilism” sans evidence.


      2. Thanks for engaging on this, Andy.

        And thanks for conceding re the ASA petition drive. I don’t see why this is a “special case” though. Think of the other example I have repeatedly mentioned– i.e., battles against discrimination. As far as I can tell, such battles are always framed in terms of objective indicators of performance.

        As for Occupy, it is outside the scope of my argument because it is about someone else’s activism. (That said, it seems to me quite clearly based on claims about, the real world; else, why the slogans based on indicators of income inequality?)

        Otherwise, and with all due respect, I don’t find your account of your other political activity to be cogent. OK, so when you come up with a recommendation of the role of athletics at UNC, it will not have a QED at the end. You may not speak in terms of definitive proof, but you will make a recommendation based on what is most *likely* to lead to a better outcome for the school. It will be framed in terms of objective indicators (whether or not objective evidence will be collected, it will be in principle be verifiable via objective evidence) of whether UNC is meeting its overall mission, etc– i.e., in terms of consequences that are verifiable by the public to which you are addressing.

        Your anti-nuclear activism also seems to assume that if you didn’t think you could put a QED at the end of your statements, then this is tantamount to conceding that you had no objective leg to stand on. See above on that. And you go further and say that all you can say by way of justifying your position was based on your feeling that it was the right one (“a value system that I feel is better and that I believe many others feel is better”). Sorry, but I am highly skeptical that this is how you and your colleagues justified your position to one another and to the public. I would warrant that if I read any of the literature put out by you and your collleagues, it would be framed in terms of the likely dire consequences (based on, in principle, verifiable objective indicators) of not having a nuclear arms freeze.

        As for your last question (“Can you explain how a pre- or non-constructed truth is distinct from an absolute one?”), I’d be happy to address it (though I don’t think I’d use the terms you’re using). Let’s go with the example of the ASA petition drive. As discussed, we assumed various things about the world in going about our drive– e.g., that there are thousands of sociologists out there who have strong commitments to their identity, they believe that membership organizations are more effective when they are more democratic and more transparent, etc. None of us knew these things with certainty, and they are certainly all social constructions– i.e., there are quite plausible counterfactual worlds, which are like ours in many respects but in which these things are not true. Certainly, it’s not hard to think of a slightly different world in which the social sciences developed differently, and sociology never came into existence. But from the standpoint, and in the timeframe of our political action, these things confronted us as relatively fixed, hard facts, upon which we could rely with a very high degree of certainty.

        Similarly, if we try to address discrimination, we would do it based on, say, indicators of human capital that are only meaningful in the socially constructed world and not in some quite plausible, counterfactual world, in which other metrics of skill are salient. But we rely on the indicators from our world in pressing our claims because however much they are socially constructed, we can rely on them as relatively unchanging features of our world.

        A final example: when we say that there is an objective basis upon which to evaluate financial-market prices, this is because these prices pertain to assets that have objective value in the real economy– e.g., the market value of GE (total shares outstanding * stock price) can be assessed relative to the income that GE generates. Sure, GE income is something that has meaning in a particular, socially constructed economy, and not in many quite plausible counterfactual economies. But for those of us in this world, we can apply confidence intervals around what GE’s income will be (I analyze this example in some detail in this piece: http://web.mit.edu/ewzucker/www/handbook_chapter_on_market_efficiency.pdf, and that is really just an elaboration of stuff I originally wrote for orgtheory: http://orgtheory.wordpress.com/2008/10/31/realists-constructionists-and-lemmings-oh-my-part-ii/; the bit about Obama turning out to be a Commie is my lame attempt to think about a counterfactual world in which expectations about corporate profits would be significantly undermined).

        Sorry, I’ll retract the “nihilism” crack, though it’s not obvious to me that everyone regards nihilism as pejorative. It certainly is one for me though, and so I agree I shouldn’t have thrown it around so casually.

        I will be offline for awhile, but look forward to reading anything you write in response.


  4. Speaking of reading carefully, now note that Ezra treats my post as if the only issue on the table is whether Ezra is right or wrong and that the only possible purpose I could have had in writing would be to defend Andrew’s position and attack Ezra. Ezra thus believes that any divergence between what I said and what Andy said is evidence of fuzzy thinking or a failure of the two of us adequately to work as a team in the all-important task of addressing Ezra’s arguments on a point by point basis. There will be a quiz.

    Jeez. And I thought my goal was to give a thumbnail sketch of what I do think in the apparently-silly goal of talking in a positive sense about what I think matters in politics and advancing a discussion on the topic. I actually saw it as sketching some issues beyond what Andy laid out.I even went so far as to say that it is the framework I use in teaching, in the hopes of seeing whether other people had ideas that might help me clarify my thoughts. I naively imagined that there are other interesting things to talk about besides debating with Ezra. Silly me.


  5. OW: Since I am now going to slink away from scatterplot in shame (is there some way of turning off the “notify me of follow-up comments” once it has been turned on???), would you please do me the kind favor of reading the first nine words of your previous post. In my incomporable vanity and foolishness, I somehow imagined that the first nine words (in which, a simple reading suggests that you were making common cause with Andy in a position that is distinct from mine) might have something to do with the rest of your post. And I apparently am so obtuse that I thought then when a “debate” is joined, this will involve engagement with prior points. Oh the shame of it.


  6. Thanks OW. I now understand what you intended with that prefatory remark. It makes perfect sense. It was intended to dismiss my willingness/capacity to engage in productive debate, and thereby justify making statements that were orthogonal to the previous debate. In other words, “Get lost, and let us get back to talking to each other” Boy am I dense, huh? Ok, so I’m finally getting lost now. But can someone please please tell me how to turn off the “notify me of follow-on comments”???


    1. EZ: So I thought it over and decided I was wrong to get sarcastic on you. I should have either ignored you or said “leave me out of your battle with Andy. My comment wasn’t about you.” Andy positioned his post as a debate with you so it is reasonable for you to view that as the topic of this thread.

      It bugged me that you thought it was somehow a meaningful criticism to say that Andy and I were not saying the same thing. Since I’m trying to de-escalate, I think I”ll leave it at that.


    1. Good grief yourself, Charlie Brown. If you have a different interpretation of what OW wrote, I’m all ears.

      (Never mind my requests for saving me from these posts. Occurred to me that I can just send scatterplot to spam– and I will– but I do want to read your response to my post first. I do hope this wasn’t it.)


  7. Ezra, based on your reply here I think we have no particular disagreement. You concede that the grounds upon which each of these political positions is staked are socially constructed, but because they are “relatively unchanging features of our world.”

    I have no dispute whatsoever with that position, but wish only to refer back to the original conversation about social construction in medical sociology. My point was precisely that: that demonstrating something to be socially constructed is a fool’s errand because the character of a thing as socially constructed does not imply its malleability or how much it can or tends to change. Therefore pure constructionism is compatible with political action.


  8. Andy: If you say we have no disagreement with my previous comment then you seem to be conceding that in all cases of political action in which you have been engaged, you do indeed justify them in terms of objective conditions in the world. This is not pure concstructionism though, but a more pragmatic version. Recall the debate between Kieran and me, and see in particular the bit about fictive Chairman Ponzi (see http://orgtheory.wordpress.com/2008/10/26/realists-constructionists-and-lemmings-oh-my-part-i/#comment-78162; https://scatter.wordpress.com/2011/11/09/blood-pressure-the-slavery-hypothesis-and-social-construction/#comment-13006). Kieran insists that a pure constructionist need not recognize any objective basis against which to judge asset prices (or collective beliefs in general) and therefore no way to justify intervening in them (e.g., trying to pop a bubble). This is how pure constructionism entails an exit from politics. Just as a pure realist (Chairman Greenspan) has no basis for intervening because he believes that prices are always correct, neither does a pure constructionist (Chairman Ponzi, or maybe Chairman Performativity). In order to justify such an intervention (and politics more generally), one must pragmatically regard certain constructions as relatively unchanging–i.e., “objective”– facts about the world. Just as you in your political activity pragmatically regard certain long-term constructions as objective conditions, and work to change the shorter-term, contingent constructions that are built within those conditions. When you do this, you are necessarily adopting a different view of “bubbles” (and short-term social constructions generally) than the one that Kieran assigned to the pure constructionist. You are saying that for all practical purposes, there is indeed an objective basis against which to assess (and, depending on the costs and benefits of intervention) to intervene in such a bubble.

    As for your point about medical sociology, I actually agree with something you wrote in the other post– which is that such claims need to be made relative to counterfactuals (I haven’t read the pieces you mentioned and so do not mean to suggest that they haven’t done this). But pursuing this is not a “fool’s errand.” Rather, it is simply a very challenging research task that should be at the forefront of our research agenda. In my ARS piece, I review the Columbia musiclab experiments as providing very rare opportunity to examine such counterfactuals (albeit with a relatively limited mechanism underlying the social construction). The fact that most research on social construction falls short of this standard does not mean we should give up on it; quite the contrary.


  9. I think we’ve taken enough laps around this particular racetrack. We disagree, and we keep recycling the same examples to support our disagreement. I think readers can figure out for themselves which of us is closer to right.


    1. K.

      (Truth be told though, it is only I who can be blamed for recycling the same examples– so no need to take that upon yourself. And the reason I do this is bc neither you nor Kieran has been able to deal with the example in question, and what it suggests. Alls I can say is that the world is better off not having performativistas as regulators– it is just too bad that sociology doesn’t enjoy the same relief. But I know that scatterplotters would very much like some relief from me, so I will depart the scene.)


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