Posted by: holdenlee | February 3, 2014

The Scholar Speaks: Political Engagement and Information

Every Saturday, Erica Cao hosts The Scholar Speaks, a radio show where Gates Cambridge scholars share their research and stories. This past week she interviewed Farhan Samanani, who is currently doing a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Cambridge. (Recording here.) Farhan talked about understanding political engagement through personal stories, and how we might disseminate information to help people make better choices. Here are some highlights from the interview, very liberally summarized.

(Any misrepresentations are my fault entirely; please let me know.)

Using ethnography to understand the roots of political engagement 

Could you tell us about your work?

I’m doing fieldwork in Kilburn, an area in west London which has a large population of working-class Irish immigrants, but at the same time is nestled between areas with great disparity in wealth. I explore the problem of community, and especially how the sense of belonging fits into the broader idea of citizenship.

As an ethnographer, I make a self-conscious effort to get to know people in the place. In particular I have to use myself as an instrument, and the fact that I don’t quite fit. One way to gain information is from what other people tell me, but another way is to acclimatize myself: some places feel more familiar, some places make me nervous, and I have to break that apart and figure out what makes me nervous. This is not an empirical method, but it can give some in-depth information that other methods can’t.

Where does political engagement come from? People often talk cynically about “self-interest,” the “single interest platform,” and how voters are poorly educated, but that seems disingenuous. How do we reconcile this? We look at how people live their lives, in a mundane way, and what’s close to their hearts. If you can understand that, then you understand their priorities and their reasons and goals for political engagement. They might make some claim about immigrants that sounds grumpy, but if you listen to them they’re telling a story about family roots and the social support system.

We might not agree with the actions they take, but we should start to investigate politics on that level.

Information is a public good

How do we draw people’s attention to broader global issues that aren’t reducible to the immediate?

The way we present moral issues matters more than anything else. For instance, the flooding in Pakistan was as serious as the Haitian earthquake, but the earthquake got significantly more attention in the news, and brought in more donations. The earthquake in Haiti happened suddenly and snapped the public to attention. In contrast, the flood was a slow-moving disaster, and so perhaps the reporters thought, “It’s raining a lot. Is this a story worth reporting on?” and relegated it to the “world” section in the newspaper.

Thus the news affects how much global issues penetrate our lives; it has tremendous impact. (We don’t immediately think about how news affects aid.)

Should reporters be obligated to report news that reflects the needs of the people?

News is a public good, and like public goods it suffers from an externality problem. For example, education benefits everyone, but few have an incentive to invest, so the government steps in to provide schooling. Here we have a problem though: if the government provides news as a public good, then it impinges on free press.

Information is a public good, as well as the emotional narrative that surrounds information. Many times it helps people identify with broader issues by giving them a human story. Of course the emotionalization can be done badly, and there is a dark side; sometimes the efforts of the press can be concentrated in the wrong places.

How do we put concepts of citizenship into practice?

We have to relate politics to everyday experience. The book Nudge tells us that behavior depends on subtle environmental cues, and argues that we can change human behavior and foster civicmindedness by improving the environment, architecture, etc.

This is a step in the right direction, but it is reductionist. Many of the results are based on experiments in controlled conditions. You can’t just whiten the boulevard to make people act differently, because people are more complicated than that. We have to find ways to intervene holistically, give people something they can identify with.

Giving people the information to make moral choices

One thing we can do is to offer people the tools to make moral choices. One example is comparison shopping. People already use Amazon as an authoritative rundown on prices; what if Amazon could provide information on how their products are made? It could then factor in the cost of your personal set of values: are you willing to pay a penny on the pound to mitigate environment harm, or 2% more to source locally or avoid unfair working conditions? Then it could figure out what would be cheapest for you. This would not be preachy but empowering, as people’s choices give them a way to express who they are.

That would be a phenomenal tool: It wouldn’t be someone telling me: consume less fossil fuels, you made all the wrong choices–my first reaction there would be to be insulted, and be defensive. It’s better to give people the tools and information to let them set their own priorities.

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