Monday, January 11, 2021

Francesca Polletta's "Inventing the Ties That Bind"

Francesca Polletta is professor of sociology at the University of California, Irvine. She is the author It Was Like a Fever: Storytelling and Protest Politics and Freedom Is an Endless Meeting: Democracy in American Social Movements, and coeditor of Passionate Politics: Emotions in Social Movements.

Polletta applied the “Page 99 Test” to her latest book, Inventing the Ties That Bind: Imagined Relationships in Moral and Political Life, and reported the following:
On page 99 of my book, Inventing the Ties that Bind: Imagined Relationships in Moral and Political Life, I describe how New Yorkers—better known for their fractiousness than their harmony—worked together to come up with ideas for redeveloping Lower Manhattan in the wake of the 9/11 attack. They had participated in a series of public forums to solicit public input into the rebuilding process, and I was interested in how they, as distinct from forum organizers, understood their participation.

So yes, this page does provide a good sense of my overall argument, which is that Americans have a rich language for cooperating across differences. Indeed, it is richer than civic reformers often imagine. Today, we often hear calls for Americans of different backgrounds or political allegiance to meet one another, share personal stories, develop a sense of empathy for the other’s experience, and—it is hoped—develop the broader solidarity that can overcome our scarily deep political and social divisions. There is nothing wrong with such efforts, I argue, although, each one of the steps in that process is much harder than often recognized. More important, though, I suggest that we pay more attention to the ways in which ordinary Americans talk about cooperating.
Interviewees, especially those who participated in Listening to the City [one of the forums], also suggested that they were representative of the public in a more political sense. "I felt I was a representing a voice of the city," one said. Another explained her participation by remarking that "I think the voice of the residents [of Lower Manhattan specifically] needs to be heard." One interviewee was disappointed "that there wasn't more Hispanic representation." She went on, "The Hispanic community is abdicating responsibility here." Another observed that "the majority of people were in the demographic age thirty-five to fifty-four, so I would have liked to see more African Americans and other nationalities in that age group." An interviewee who found himself at a table with mainly Cantonese-speaking Chinatown residents wished that there had been "demographically a better cross-section ... so although in my table the Chinatown view was overrepresented, it means that on other tables that view wasn't even being expressed."

Two interviewees likened Listening to the City to the United Nations, again alluding to a body made up of representatives. It is also a body whose members are charged with finding compromises in the interests of the greater good, and this too seemed to have been important to participants. Many interviewees talked about the group's ability to reach compromises and, indeed, about their own willingness to compromise as something they had appreciated. As a Listening to the City participant recounted: "I guess I come from a higher income family than some of the people at the table, and other people have different priorities. You can’t ignore them when there is someone in front of you rather than just a statistic. You have to say, ‘I guess they’re right, we should compromise on this fact, on affordable housing,’ and things like that.” Another noted, “Some of my opinions were changed but nothing drastic, more compromises that I could see.” A woman said she was pleased to discover that “people are much more willing to compromise” than she had thought.
Organizers of public deliberative forums, like the ones in which these New Yorkers participated, are adamant that forum participants are not representative of the public. Thinking of themselves that way might lead them to believe that their joint recommendations should have the force of public will, which they do not. And forum organizers are adamant that compromise is antithetical to the spirit of deliberation. Compromise is about cutting the best deal one can, rather than being open to changing one’s opinions and interests based on what one learns in the forum.

But the participants I interviewed seemed to think about representation and compromise differently. They did not just want to speak from their own experience; they wanted to take into account the priorities of other groups—including people who were not at their table. They used the analogy of the United Nations to capture the diversity of views they wanted to consider—and to signal their determination to go beyond simply trading opinions. Compromise, too, they understood differently than organizers did. It wasn’t narrow bargaining aimed at preserving one’s interests, but rather a way to acknowledge change in one’s opinions without seeming to be a pushover. In sum, paying attention to the ways in which Americans think about the ties that bind—and act on those ties—offers possibilities for civic action and solidarity that we might otherwise miss.
Learn more about Inventing the Ties That Bind at the University Chicago Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue