nsfThe weather sucked (and not just in Minnesota). Once again, our university spring break didn’t line up with the kids’, so my family didn’t get to go anywhere. And my big, make-the-best-of-it plans to catch up on deadlines and past-dues were only partially fulfilled, leaving me as stressed as ever. But enough about me.  The worst news of the past week–and the part of spring break that really matters—came out of Congress. This week, it was announced that the Senate had voted to restrict NSF funding for political science research to only those studies that promise to “contribute to military security or economic growth.” Talk about a shock and awe attack.

The measure, adopted in a voice vote, was an amendment to the budget bill that would fund the federal government through the end of September. The House of Representatives must vote on the final package for it to become law, but, since a vote that must take place before March 27 to avoid a government shutdown, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education, “[T]here is no reason to believe it will not include the… amendments.”

As the CHE reported, “[T]he vote drew an immediate reaction from the American Political Science Association, which called the ban a ‘devastating blow,’ ‘an exceptionally dangerous slippery slope,’ and a ‘remarkable embarrassment for the world’s exemplary democracy.’ And although this development seems to have come as a surprise to many observers, it probably shouldn’t have. Defunding political science research has long been a rallying point for some Congressional Republications (including the measure’s sponsor, Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn).

Read more: http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2013/03/21/senate-votes-defund-political-science-research-save-tuition-assistance-budget-bill#ixzz2OQRmabVj

I’m not quite sure what to do but hope our national social science associations will launch some kind of defense and counter-attack (“military-security” style?). In the meantime, though, there’s less doubt than ever that we mustdo more—much more—to advocate for the public value of social science research. This should be our clarion call.

We'd like to think this is Dick Vitale asking if UNC's community relations team is a bunch of "victim-blaming diaper dandies."
We’d like to think this is Dick Vitale asking if UNC’s community relations team is a bunch of “victim-blaming diaper dandies.”

“I have what I think is a sociology question for you,” a friend of mine in the administration recently said. Turned out to be a good one: “Why do organizations act so stupidly sometimes?”

“What prompted this question,” my friend went on, “is an email discussion with a friend [who lives in NC] about the controversy over the UNC rape allegation and the response of UNC [declaring the woman may have violated the school’s honor code]. On its face—and one must acknowledge that we don’t know all the facts—it appears that UNC is acting really stupidly. Really: accuse a possible rape victim of violating the honor code? What century do they live in?”

And the UNC case is hardly unique, he observed. “We don’t have to look long or far to find plenty of instances where organizations act in ways that to outsiders appear amazingly dumb or contrary to their own interests. Have sociologists looked at that phenomenon at all?”

I assured my friend that the apparent irrationality of organizations is a big topic of study for sociologists, a classic, in fact, with examples ranging from media relations to the home mortgage/subprime lending scandals. Among the most famous of these is Diane Vaughan‘s study of the reasons why NASA made the mistakes that led to the Challenger disaster.

For those of you interested in debacles like those at UNC specifically, I learned that the media relations side of things is often encapsulated under phrases such as “crisis communication” or “crisis response strategy.” For example, Brooke Fisher Liu has a chapter on how Duke University “handled” the lacrosse rape case a few years ago called “Effective Public Relations in Racially Charged Crises: Not Black or White” (Handbook of Crisis Communication, pp. 335-358). Indeed, there is a whole journal called Corporate Communications. And, perhaps even more to the point, there is a substantial literature on corporate snafus and extrication efforts. Just search Google Scholar with keywords “organizational mistakes” and you’ll be in the middle of it. Here’s an exemplary 1995 reference by the aptly named Keith Michael Hearit, “‘Mistakes Were Made’: Organizations, Apologia, and Crises of Social Legitimacy” (Communication Studies, 46:1-17).

With a high school senior in the house and the Facebook everywhere, there’s no way I could resist this great little piece from the Social Media Collective. Bonus points for layering in two of my current favorite sociological concepts: diversity and homophily. Give it a read and let me know what you think—especially you high school seniors and college freshmen out there.

(Thanks to Karl Bakeman @wwnsoc for the heads-up on this one !)

Growing up too fast and growing up too slowly have long since been questioned. Tom Hanks in "Big."
Growing up too fast and growing up too slowly have long since been questioned. Tom Hanks in “Big.”

It used to be that almost no one worried about the transition from adolescence to adulthood; as the teenage years wrapped up, it was assumed by scholars, policy makers, parents, pundits, and  young folks themselves that they’d finish their schooling and get a job, find a mate, buy a home, and have kids. Once all of these milestones were passed, they’d fairly quickly settle into the regular, routinized world of adult life. Whatever the other limits of this halcyon and harmonious view, one thing is now clear: a swift, smooth transition to adulthood can’t be taken for granted.

Beginning in the last quarter of the 20th century and now into the new millennium, social scientists from a wide range of fields have documented that the transition to adulthood has become more complicated, multifaceted, and extended. Scholars now see coming-of-age and transitioning into adulthood as a new, distinctive phase in the lifecourse. Indeed, we academics have coined new terms for the period—“emerging adulthood” in the psychological parlance, or “young adulthood” or “early adulthood” for those more sociologically inclined.

How should we understand this new, more extended, and uncertain transition period? What are the forces driving these changes? And what can we or should we do about the fact that it is taking young people longer and longer to make the transitions and assume the role we have so long associated with adulthood?

One of the most recent areas of research and inquiry has begun to look at how young adults understand their own experiences and pathways. I’ve been part of a research group originally convened by Frank Furstenberg and supported by the MacArthur Foundation, and we’ve conducted a series of interviews with a diverse group of young Americans in all across the U.S. with this goal. The group has released a number of papers and several different books in the past few years. Over the past couple of weeks, in fact, I’ve been struggling to cobble together a conclusion a forthcoming book in the series, this one on how young people understand particular domains and aspects of life (marriage and family, work, politics, and education, recreation, and leisure) that I’m editing with Teresa Swartz and Ruben Rumbaut.

Actually talking to young people about their lives and their transitions into adulthood has the potential to make a number of contributions to our understanding of the transition to adulthood. It helps make this transition more real and bring to light the challenges and opportunities it presents. It can help us better understand the complexity of the issues and challenges emerging adulthood presents as well as the concerns and interests of young adults—where they want and need help. Yet I have to admit that summarizing all of our insights and findings into a single document has been more difficult than I anticipated. It’s hard to draw out big, general conclusions from so many interviews that seem to suggest so many different things about an already complex social phenomenon.

So it is with all of this in mind that I discovered, with equal parts admiration and frustration, jealously and awe, Nathan Heller’s provocative review of a spate of recent popular press or “trade” books on twentysomethings—including one by Samantha Henig, a veteran science reporter, and her daughter Robin Marantz, a blogger, web editor, and the author of a widely discussed 2010 TIME magazine article called “What is it about twenty-somethings?“—in a recent New Yorker piece. I’ve blogged a couple of times recently on the virtues of engaging with sociologically-inclined policy-makers, pundits, activists, and critics as a way to advance sociological knowledge and insight. Heller’s review strikes me in just this fashion, reminding me both of the tremendous benefits of engaging with this side of public sociology as well as what it is academic scholars have to contribute.

Heller, who writes with a clarity, confidence, and panache rarely seen in academic circles, helps illuminate the experiences, understandings, and challenges of young people in this phase of life. In offering up his own insights and experiences, he helps us understand who these young people are, how they think, and the opportunities and obstacles they face. Heller is particularly adept at capturing the complexity, uncertainty, and variation of the period. “Twentysomethings spend their days rearing children, living hand to mouth in Asia, and working 60-hour weeks on Wall Street. They are moved by dreams of adult happiness, but the form of those dreams is as serendipitous as ripples in a dune of sand. Maybe your life gained its focus by college. Maybe a Wisconsin factory is where the route took shape. Or maybe your idea of adulthood got its polish on a feckless trip to Ireland. Where you start out—rich or poor, rustic or urbane—won’t determine where you end up, perhaps, but it will determine how you get there.” “The twenties,” he concludes at one point, “are when we turn what Frank O’Hara calls ‘sharp corners.'” Heller also understands the all anxieties and questions this poses for the rest of us, for society as a whole. “One morning, you open the newspaper and read that today’s young people are an assiduous, Web-savvy master race trying to steal your job and drive up the price of your housing stock. The next day, they’re reported to be living in your basement, eating all your shredded wheat, and failing to be marginally employed, even at Wendy’s.”

Journalists and popular writers sometimes falter when it comes to putting new social phenomenon in broader social and historical context. Not so for Heller. A film and television critic for Vogue, Heller highlights how important innovations in technology and communication have been in the lives of twentysomethings, creating a daily lifeworld and imaginary “dreamscape” that would have been unimaginable just a few years ago: the Occupy movement; lives dominated by smartphones, Facebook, and Twitter; and the literature, television, and culture of the moment. All this means “the voice of early mastery without mature constraint, self-discovery as a moment when each revelation seems unique.”

Driven less by economics and dynamics (as we sociologists tend to have it) and more by shifting cultural priorities and desires that trace back to the 1960s, “…today’s young people aren’t so much living a new kind of life as reaping the returns on ideas conceived years ago,” their online culture and daily lives, he writes, are dominated by “an inherited dreamscape.” “All of this reinforces the suspicion that today’s twentysomethings aren’t formed of special clay but represent a reshaped version of that old material.” Heller also speculates about how the transition to adulthood may not be a new historical phenomenon—that all transitions produce their share of opportunities and angst, and “emerging adulthood” may just be a longer period of transition and ambivalence that has been with us a long time. Unbound by the methods and conventions of standard social science, Heller speculates provocatively on the broader significance of easing into adulthood: “Twentysomething culture is intimate and exclusive, on the one hand, and eternal on the other. We tout this stage of life, in retrospect, as free, although we ogle the far shores of adulthood while we’re there. The shock of the twenties is how narrow that window of experience really is, and how inevitable it seems both at the time and afterward.”

Initially reading Heller’s review left me feeling somewhat depressed—not about twentysomethings and their transitions, but about my own inadequacies and shortcomings as a scholar and a writer. I mean, here I’ve spent years on a project interviewing twentysomething young adults and I’m still struggling to figure out exactly what we learned and how to write it up; this movie critic can jot off several thousand words that not only grasp much of what I’ve been trying to say, and he does it better and more economically than I could ever hope!

As I reread, I began to realize more clearly how the scholarly research I’ve been involved with has helped to produce and shape this kind of journalism, and how journalists have helped us think about what we hope to contribute. For one thing, though Heller and the authors he reviews allude to social scientific research only occasionally (and cite it even less frequently), it is clear that research really shaped what “we” know and how we think about this population and their place in the life course. Heller’s review and all of the new books on young adulthood both depend upon the last decade or so of research—the basis for these writings isn’t just anecdotal, but holds broadly, is pervasive, and is widely distributed.

Heller’s review also reminds me that the general public and popular press are not nearly as attentive to the difference, diversity, inequality and unevenness of the transition to adulthood as those of us actually doing research in the area. To his credit, Heller points out that “much of what we know” about twentysomethings is basically about able-bodied, white, middle-class Americans. But still, in the absence of systematic research and inquiry into the experiences and understandings of other groups, that’s as far as he can go. This makes it hard to appreciate why this transition can be experienced differently depending upon one’s cultural background or upbringing.  To give one example: our interviews with young adults from racial minority backgrounds, especially those from immigrant families, seem to understand the transition to adulthood less as striving for independence and autonomy (as stressed in the dominant culture) and more about assuming roles and responsibilities of interdependence.

Scholars’ systematic, cultural analysis has other contributions as well. Heller, following Henig and her daughter, puts a great deal of emphasis on choice in this period in the life course. Quoting the Henig and Marantz: “Choice overload… makes people worry about later regretting the choice they make (if there are twelve things I could do tonight, any one of them might end up being more fun than the one I choose); sets them up for higher expectations (If I choose this party out of those twelve things, it damn well better be fun); makes them think about the road not taken (Every party not attended could contain someone I wish I’d met); and leads to self-blame if the outcome is bad.” This is a very provocative formulation of an important modern dynamic. However, ruminating on choice can gloss over several crucial of a broader, more global view of young adulthood. For one, while it makes a lot more sense to talk about options and choices in some domains (marriage and relationships and child bearing, for example) than in others.

Henig and Marantz, for example, talk a lot about fickleness in the job market, but professional uncertainty and change is clearly not a matter of choice for many–perhaps not even most (consider internships, which are so often unpaid and even requisite for many fields). Choices about careers, housing, healthcare, and even education are available to only certain groups of privileged young people. Some may have the luxury of obsessing about job to apply for, while others worry over which bill to try to pay. And others may have few real choices at all. Further, focusing so much on forgets all of the constraints that affect even for the most privileged and well-positioned. Twentysomething young Americans may be adapting well to the longer, more uncertain transitions in front of them these days, but ultimately they have little choice in the matter. Elongated, uncertain pathways are the result of broad, pervasive demographic shifts, economic forces, and cultural trends.

I found Heller’s speculations on the kind of timeless and eternal nature of the current twentysomething transitional period quite provocative and compelling—how change is always difficult, how many of us went through this earlier in our lives. Yet recognizing such continuity and commonality cannot blind us to the truly unique nature of this historical moment The persistent challenge is to recognize what is both familiar and distinctive about these situations and experiences.

None of this is to dismiss the contributions of a writer and thinker like Heller. Quite the contrary, it is to remind myself to be generous (not jealous) in engaging writers from other fields and to be clear-headed about what my (and my colleagues’ best and most important contributions to public understanding might be.

Abortion, sex, and marriage. Not my topics of choice, at least not professionally or publicly. Yet with the anniversary of Roe v. Wade upon us, there’s a lot of interesting talk about them lately, especially the former. One of the most thought-provoking pieces I’ve seen was published recently on Slate. It says the rise of single motherhood–40% of children are now born to women who are not married–is a byproduct of the antiabortion movement.

The argument, which comes from law professors Naomi Cahn and June Carbone, is a bit more complicated than you might think, because it doesn’t hold for everyone all across the board. For example, it doesn’t apply for richer, older, and more educated women whose willingness to “accept abortion” has actually helped “create more stable families,” because these women delay childbearing until the right man comes along or they get comfortable with going it alone. Rather, it is focused mainly on younger, less privileged women. Basically, the argument is that the hardening of anti-abortion attitudes has led adult parents, especially Christian conservatives, to become more accepting of their daughters having children, even out of wedlock. Indeed, many of these families apparently reference their Christianity explicitly. This is what Cahn and Carbone call the “Bristol Palin Effect,” and it grabs headlines. The implication seems to be that these young women and their parents are “choosing” a principled anti-abortion stance over traditional family values.

I don’t know how good Cahn and Carbone’s numbers are (they do cite several sociologists), or even if their analysis is really borne out by the empirical data on all of the other factors that obviously contribute to the rise of the “non-marital birth rate” (the welfare state, moral decay, increasing independence of women, etc.). The implied ironies, though, are delicious: not only has the anti-abortion movement made conservatives more accepting of single motherhood, it has made liberals more likely to embrace the more traditional, two-parent family model. Cahn and Carbone, who have a book coming out from Oxford University Press, talk about it as the difference between “red” families and “blue families” (that’s the title of their forthcoming book, actually). Only in America.

This brings me back to changing attitudes about sex, sexuality, and premarital sex–are our views of sexuality more open? Is premarital sex more accepted or simply more taken for granted now? I also think of the curious new coalitions that seem to be emerging with the push for gay marriage recognition and legalization (on this score, see: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/30/us/in-shift-blankenhorn-forges-a-pro-marriage-coalition-for-all.html?hp&_r=0). And how does gender play into the picture? I guess it seems to me that this new “approach” lets the fathers of these soon-to-be-born babies, pretty much off the hook, and I’m not sure that’s such a good thing. I’m not really pushing for shotgun weddings, but at least they were based in a recognition of the complicity of a partner and didn’t just leave young moms on their own. Perhaps that’s a little strong, though to be honest, I’m not sure if it is because I’m being too much of a liberal or too much of a conservative in thinking such thoughts.

A photo from Wing Young Huie’s University Avenue Project.

Bringing sociology to broader public visibility and influence is perhaps our biggest and most basic goal here at TSP, reflecting our overarching belief that sociological research and insight is crucial to making and maintaining a good society… and that it’s often missing from media coverage and commentary, political discourse, and public awareness. To that end, one of our chief tasks is to identify, sometimes repackage, and do everything we can to disseminate the scholarly social science that is of most interest, import, and relevance to the public. We also do our best—through our Citings & Sightings—to highlight sociologists and sociology when they appear in the mainstream media.

But we are also interested in expanding sociological knowledge and understanding wherever and whenever we find it, even if its authors don’t even call what they are doing “sociology.” This is what you might call “found” sociology.

My own exchanges and collaborations with the award-winning, Twin Cities-based documentary photographer Wing Young Huie are an example. When we first got together, I told Wing I saw him as a real, practicing sociologist. He wasn’t entirely sure what that meant, and he definitely wasn’t enamored with my intended compliment. Over the years, however, he has come to better understand what I meant (and that it was, indeed, meant as a compliment), just as I have understood why he wasn’t so excited by the description initially. But the important point is that each of us was recognizing our mutual interests in people and society and social life, the ideas and exchanges that different perspectives inspire and enable. Whether we call it sociology or something else is, at this point, irrelevant.

I was reminded of this in our commentary and exchange with Tim McCormick this past week and then again over the weekend, when I saw a couple of items the new issue of The New Yorker.

One came in a profile of a young documentary film-maker named Eugene Jarecki who was working on a film about inmates serving life in prison for various drug offenses. It was a quote from Jarecki himself that caught my eye: “And yet making a movie about human stories is a trap. The audience walks out thinking not about the larger issues—the system—but about the person they liked.” Wow. Wonderful. So well-put. The quote just jumped off the page. Rarely have I heard a better, more concise, more poignant description of the problem of a sociological perspective.

The other story was short, but offered a complicated set of ideas and points from the estimable Jeffrey Toobin. In the article, Toobin wrote of voter ID laws and the Supreme Court’s decision to revisit the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act (“the most effective law of its kind in the history of the United States”). To begin with, some great sociological background and orientation sits in the background of the piece. One is historical: according to Toobin, The Roberts Court thinks things have changed in the South since the 1960s. As the Chief Justice asked at one point: “Is it your position that today Southerners are more likely to discriminate than Northerners?”

Whatever your answer to that question, Toobin makes clear that the real issues have, as he puts it, “moved on and mutated.”  He calmly points out that “a new form of discrimination” has emerged: increasing residential segregation concentrates African American voters in a handful of districts, meaning that Black candidates can readily win local office, but when it comes to building the cross-racial coalitions necessary for real statewide power, influence, and positions, their hopes are slim to none. Here, the sociology rests partly in the demographic facts, but Toobin extends even further: “The motives today are more political than strictly racial… but the result is similar: the political ghettoization of African-Americans.” Whatever you think about the politics and Toobin’s conclusions, the racial impacts are obvious.

One more thing: I’ve made a resolution this year to try to read more broadly, especially among less traditional and more conservative news and opinion outlets. I’ve got enough family friends, relatives, and high school facebook friends who are conservatives or Republicans (or both) to know that The New Yorker is seen as a bastion of the liberal media—and no feature moreso than their regular, front of the book “Talk of the Town” department. Interestingly, there does seem to be a connection between liberal perspectives and a sociological/systemic orientation. But these two are not the same. Indeed, it is definitely possible to separate the political agenda from the more basic sociological orientation that often comes through, and we do well when we try.

Parking was the ostensible focus of a fascinating, revealing exchange on our Community Page Cyborgology last week. In it, Tim McCormick—a research consultant (at Stanford Media X) who works in scholarly communication, new media, and publishing—took one of our most regular and prolific TSP bloggers, Nate Jurgenson, to task for his critique of “smart parking.”

In his original post, Jurgenson suggests that, in stark contrast to its laudable intentions, smarter parking could actually create more parking problems by encouraging people to drive around even more, since the annoyance of parking won’t be quite the disincentive it is currently. Jurgenson bases his critique on what he calls the “Robert Moses Mistake”—the unintended consequences of creating more and better freeways. McCormick, in turn, argues that Jurgenson doesn’t really know much about the impetus and ideas behind smart parking, its realities as a social policy innovation, or the actual research on parking and driving among urban planners and policy makers.

We love Jurgenson’s sociologically-inspired, counter-intuitive critique of smart parking, as well as McCormick’s careful point-by-point, empirical rejoinder. Without taking sides or giving away the details, let’s just say it was a great exchange, typical of the best of sociological research and thought.

But what really caught our attention was how McCormick took the opportunity to launch into an extended consideration and commentary about the whole idea of public sociology and public intellectuals. Basically, he characterizes Jurgenson’s post as an example of everything that goes wrong when poorly informed, isolated, ivory tower intellectuals venture into social domains about which they have little empirical information and understanding. And his springboard for this commentary was a “deconstruction” of our own TSP mission statement. To quote the relevant passage:

For example, to apply a bit of the old deconstructionist close-reading, I note The Society Pages’ mission statement:  “The Society Pages’ mission is to bring measured social science to broader public visibility and influence.”

Seems straightforward enough. Yet note that it expresses a dissemination from discipline to public, rather than an engagement between them. Presumably, “measured social science” is not what public lag-abouts and workers in the coal-mines like me are up to our spare time, but what professional social scientists do. The truth, the work, the core, evidently happens inside the discipline, non-publicly, to then be brought to “visibility” outside, for “influence” over the public.

Much to his credit (in our humble view), McCormick develops his critique by drawing upon sociologist Michael Burawoy’s landmark definition and call for public sociology in the first part of this century. He takes Burawoy to be arguing for a closer engagement with and dialogue between professional or scholarly sociology and the sociological knowledge and understanding in the real world—what we might call organic knowledge.

We here at TSP have obviously been tremendously inspired and informed by Burawoy’s vision for public sociology and his insistence on the need for dialogue between scholars and practitioners. Indeed, it could be fair to say that there wouldn’t be a TSP without Burawoy’s call to arms. We’ve even tried to capture that in the next sentence of our mission statement, the one about “talking about society with society.”The Society Pages’ mission is to bring measured social science to broader public visibility and influence. That is to say, we’re talking about society with society.

At the same time, we remain convinced that there is such a thing as social science and expert knowledge, and that there is a real need for and public service in providing a clear-headed, publicly accessible reading of this body of work. Such knowledge and expertise, we think, can help avoid the traps of partisanship or extreme relativism (dueling experts) while also taking down some of the fallacies and misconceptions that too often appear in the mass media, public discourse, and everyday folk wisdom. Take my colleague and co-conspirator Chris Uggen’s recent piece on mass shootings as example: Uggen reviews real data and information on guns, crime, and violence and puts them into broader sociological context and perspective. Not surprisingly, his post found a wide audience, even beyond The Society Pages. This point about the need for and value of concrete, social scientific knowledge and information is one that Herbert Gans (also cited by McCormick) made in his own call for public sociology a decade or so before Buroway’s—albeit one that we and our colleagues sometimes forget when we get a bit too abstract, ambitious, idealistic, or simply disconnected from the social worlds in which we live.

None of this is to suggest that McCormick is wrong about the challenges of public intellectuals, civil reflection, or the value of real-world, organic knowledge. Nor is it to suggest that we disagree with his defense of smart parking. (Indeed, without really knowing much about parking of any variety, McCormick’s concrete, empirical knowledge about traffic, infrastructure, and parking seemed to carry the day against Jurgenson’s essentially theoretical/conceptual critique—an example of the importance of empirical information and real-world knowledge and experience over abstract sociological critique). In fact, the point is that there is real, empirical knowledge and insight in the world and that it can come from many different places. The trick is to find it and help it to circulate.

Last week, the news broke that the U.S. Census Bureau is projecting that whites will no longer be the majority by the year 2043. This is at least a year earlier than previous estimates and seven years earlier than the 2050 majority/minority prediction that first got everyone’s attention a few years back.

The Associated Press release that broke the story described the news as a “historic shift” that is “reshaping the nation’s schools, workforce, and electorate.”  It attributes the trend to “higher birth rates” among American minorities, especially Hispanics who entered at the height of the immigration boom in the 1990s and early 2000s. (The story also correctly notes that immigration rates from Mexico and elsewhere have slowed dramatically with the housing bust of the previous decade and the economic recession of recent years.) The story claims these demographic shifts are “redefining long-held notions of race” in the U.S.—“easing” residential segregation, increasing intermarriage for some, “blurring” racial and ethnic lines, and “lifting the numbers of people who identify as multiracial.”

All good points, reminding me of the importance of empirical data alongside solid, sociologically informed reporting. Indeed, I had several colleagues tell me that the media coverage made many of the same points that they try to convey in their classes. Still, I couldn’t help but think about all of the other additions and complexities I’d love to see addressed. One is the uncertainty of what these demographic changes imply for American racial hierarchies. There is definitely progress and positivity on some fronts, but this doesn’t apply equally or to everyone. Obviously, one big question is how those who do not fit the historic black-white binary–Hispanics and Asian Americans–will fit in, how they will identify and how they will be identified in the future. I also continue to think about how race and racism is experienced for those at the bottom of the American racial hierarchy and status system–especially those who are poor and dark-skinned.

All of this attention to the growth of the non-white minority populations can mask other key things about race and racial privilege in the U.S. The fact that white Americans may not be the numerical majority for long should not distract us from reality that their power and position at the top of the American racial hierarchy isn’t likely to be challenged anytime soon—at least not within our lifetimes. (For an interesting look at how white Americans construct their own ideas of their race, check out Matt Hughey’s excellent white paper, published last week on TSP).

Numbers don’t lie but they are also more complicated than we often realize, and they certainly don’t speak for themselves. Such is the ongoing challenge of census data and sociology.

The following was written by our colleagues Kendra Dupuy, James Ron, and Aseem Prakash, and it was originally published on the site OpenDemocracy.net. It provides a provocative look at the local involvement of international NGOs in projects around the world. You’ll see below that Ron has written an addendum in response to insightful critiques and comments from his network, and I hope that you’ll add your own thoughts in the comments. 

The U.S. elections are now over, but crucial foreign policy decisions remain on the table. Foreign aid was hardly discussed in the U.S. presidential elections, and neither Romney nor Obama said whether American assistance should still be funnelled through non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

This neglect is unfortunate, given the current global backlash against externally supported NGOs. The time has come for western and international donors to reconsider the way in which they support human rights, democracy, gender equality, and other liberal causes in the developing and former Communist world. Supporting liberal NGOs can be useful, but it must be done carefully and modestly, lest it undermine the same agendas it seeks to promote.

Here’s the background.

For years, it was received wisdom in western and international donor circles that aid to local civil society in the developing and former Communist world would promote democracy and other liberal ideals. In some cases, that has been true. In others, however, foreign aid has provoked a real backlash.

Today, many governments and some citizens are enraged by foreign-funded NGOs, and they are mobilizing conservative ideas and policies to strike back. In these cases, international assistance to liberal NGOs has become part of the problem, rather than part of the solution.

Consider Russia, where new, anti-NGO legislation is ringing alarm bells at home and abroad. If NGOs want to engage in political activities, a broad category that includes any attempt to change state policy, they must now register with a special agency before receiving foreign money, declare themselves “foreign agents,” engage in onerous reporting, and prepare for unannounced audits. To drive the point home, Russia recently ordered official U.S. aid workers to leave the country and stop funding local NGOs.

In Israel, similarly, legislators have debated rules close to Russia’s, and may yet turn them into law. In Canada, a former bastion of liberal thinking, the government has bitterly protested foreign-funded environmental groups, claiming, as always, that they undermine national sovereignty.

Other examples include Ethiopia, a darling of the western aid community, and India, often hailed as the world’s largest democracy. In Africa, according to our research, over one-third of countries, since 1995, have passed new laws, or tightened old ones, restricting foreign aid to NGOs and/or limiting the work of international groups.

Why this backlash?

Both democratic and authoritarian governments are increasingly incensed at western donors’ attempts to reshape local politics and values through NGOs. In some cases, they have successfully mobilized conservative politicians, social movements, and organizations, many of whom are angered by the very same thing.

Governmental opposition matters, because the local NGO community is highly dependent on foreign money. States can easily twist the screws by blocking—or threatening to block—the aid pipeline.

Hold on, however. Aren’t developing and former Communist countries too poor to support a local NGO community? Isn’t external aid utterly necessary?

In some cases, yes. In other cases, however, the answer is no.

Israel, for example, is a relatively rich country, but over 90% of its local human rights activities, according to a scholarly survey, are funded from Europe and America. And according to our survey of 235 human rights workers from 61 countries, local experts’ median estimate of rights groups receiving substantial foreign aid is 75%. There is no statistical correlation, moreover, between these estimates and country wealth, as measured by per capita GDP.

Some countries, in other words, are sufficiently wealthy to support local NGOs. And most countries have a strong charitable tradition of some kind. The problem, however, is that the kinds of issues that liberal NGOs work on don’t attract many donations from local individuals, communities and businesses in the developing world. This makes local NGOs vulnerable to cut-offs in aid, and exposes them to governments arguing that local NGOs are agents of foreign forces.

How did this happen?

During the 1990s, many countries experienced a dramatic upsurge in voluntary activism, and international donors understandably responded with enthusiasm. Donors’ goals, for the most part, were laudable. The money was meant to help local NGOs promote democratization, markets, gender equality, good governance, and respect for human rights.

In some cases, this support helped an already-vibrant civil society grow stronger. In other instances, however, money from the outside turned civil society into a vulnerable, externally oriented community.

Over time, many local NGOs became top-down groups nourished from abroad, rather than local products of a popular, grass-roots civic movement. Understandably, foreign-supported NGOs began to adopt the issues, language, and structures their foreign donors wanted, rather than those preferred by local people.

Few realize that while foreign aid gives NGOs the wherewithal to operate independently, it also undermines their incentives to generate local revenue. Like governments afflicted with the so-called resource curse, foreign aid to NGOs reduces the need to raise money locally. Why raise small sums at home when so much more is available abroad?

Tragically, plentiful foreign aid also promotes “briefcase NGOs,” fake groups that exist only on paper and provide few services. In one recent study, surveyors discovered that some 75% of registered NGOs in Uganda’s capital, Kampala, did not really exist. According to our research, there are reasons to suspect that a similar rate obtains in Ethiopia.

More worryingly, foreign aid inadvertently undermines NGOs ties to local populations, handing angry governments an opportunity for successful crackdowns. In 2010, for example, the Ethiopian government’s new anti NGO law, the Charities and Societies Proclamation, blocked foreign funded groups from working on Ethiopian human rights and democracy. Shortly thereafter, most briefcase and rights groups disappeared, while most surviving NGOs stopped working on human rights altogether.

The Ethiopian public, sadly, proved unable or unwilling to help. Closure of 90% of the country’s 125 local rights groups prompted few popular demonstrations, and not many ordinary citizens offered financial support.

Some Ethiopians didn’t demonstrate or contribute because they feared government retaliation; Ethiopia has become very repressive of late. Others, however, were unmoved by local NGOs’ plight. As one report argued, Ethiopians have come to view NGOs as entities who give them money, not as groups needing their help. Many Ethiopians will help family and strangers in need, and some will donate their time, money, and effort to charitable causes. Local NGOs working on liberal causes, however, are generally viewed as something for outsiders, rather than Ethiopians, to support.

Generous foreign funding of local NGOs is a classic example of good intentions causing perverse outcomes. International solidarity is a wonderful idea, and the notion of transferring resources from North to South for good causes is morally attractive. The mechanics of doing this properly, however, are far more complex. Creating or sustaining local NGOs from outside, with little local support, is bad public policy.

There are always exceptions, but civil society should, ideally, remain a bottom-up affair. Outsiders can help, but they should do so carefully and sparingly, lest their embrace prove lethal.

You can’t buy love, and you can’t buy a vibrant civil society either.


In response to “insightful critiques by pro-democracy colleagues in Israel,” one of the authors, James Ron added the following on 11/16/12, and Kendra Dupuy would like to endorse his additional statement:  

I am in no way endorsing the conservative crackdown on NGOs by the Russian, Ethiopian, Israeli, Indian, or other governments. On the contrary. I think those governments are behaving in an entirely illiberal manner, and should be condemned for so doing in the strongest possible terms. I have long been a supporter of Israeli human rights NGOs, both from inside and outside the country. I am also more than willing to acknowledge that in many cases, including Israel, conservative forces are generously funded from abroad. Any move to suddenly cut local liberal groups off from foreign funds is likely to prove disastrous for Israeli democracy and, more importantly, for Palestinian rights.

At the same time, I don’t think the only or best international response to the new conservative onslaught on local NGOs is to simply insist that the international aid pipeline must continue. Instead, international donors should start devoting money, effort and time to figuring out how to encourage, enable, and empower local NGOs to raise more money locally, either from small, individual contributions by members and/or supporters,or from larger sources, such as businesses, charitable associations, and wealthy individuals. According to many of the rights-based NGO activists I’ve interviewed for my Rights-Based Organization project (see www.jamesron.com),local human rights NGOs in the developing world often lack the capacity, skills, and incentive to raise money locally. This needs to change.

I am also more than willing to acknowledge that some important social justice issues may never receive local funding. In Mumbai, for example, I met a few years ago with a local NGO working for the rights and welfare of local prostitutes—many of whom had been trafficked—and was convinced by one of its leaders, who explained that the sex trade was so locally condemned that Mumbai-based donors were unlikely to ever provide much financial support. Similarly, it may be that Israeli human rights groups will never be able to raise sufficient local money to protect Palestinian rights; Jewish Israeli society, especially in its current form, may be too unwilling to ever go there.

The decision as to whether a cause, issue, or agenda is wholly un-fundable from local sources, however, should not be made lightly, and without strong evidence. All too often, I believe, that argument is made without really trying another route.

So yes, there will always be cases where local NGOs are going to need foreign money. And yes, international aid should continue to the local NGO sector. However, this international aid money should be spent in such a way so that local NGOs are empowered and encouraged to eventually raise more money locally,  so that some form of self sufficiency can eventually be achieved, whenever possible.

Kendra Dupuy is in the political science program at the University of Washington and is a researcher with Norway’s International Peace Research Institute, James Ron is a political scientist at the University of Minnesota, and Aseem Prakash is a political scientist at the University of Washington.

Politics aren’t always scintillating, even if they are important. The AP famously caught even the Vice President dozing off at a public event.

I think I am. Part of the reason involves the usual, nearing-the-finish line fatigue of our once-every-four-years Presidential elections. Another reason for my weariness is that we’ve featured so much political content on the site in recent weeks that it seems like TSP has become the social scientific equivalent of Fox News or MSNBC! “All politics, all the time.” It’s all great stuff, mind you (see for yourself!), and in fact we are in the process of compiling the best of it into a special volume to be published with W.W. Norton, replete with website tie-ins and supplementary teaching and learning content. Nevertheless, I just don’t like to get pigeon-holed or hemmed in—and politics is still far from the only thing we do, or aspire to do.

Still, I think my ennui might go deeper. I guess I’m feeling kind of stuck, moored by a perverse culture of and attitudes about politics in the United States. On the one hand, I’ve got all of these intellectual colleagues, collaborators, and contributors—those I hang out with on campus, meet with at conferences, and work with as contributors  to TSP—who are so interested and passionate about politics. On the other, there are many other people in my life—from students and neighborhood friends to parents I see at youth sporting events, those I go to church with, family members, and even my own kids—who have no interest in politics. In this political season, they are kind of fed up with the topic and process altogether, and maybe they’re starting to take me with them!

In spite of all that would seem to be at stake in these elections, it is easy to feel down and disconnected when you see some of the ads, see so many ads, don’t see things going your way, or feel disappointed or betrayed by the performance of politicians, some of whom you worked for, contributed to, and voted for enthusiastically. But I think there is also something else, something deeper underlying the cynicism and malaise so many feel about politics in this country. It has to do with our strange, conflicted attitudes toward government or the State, as well as our deeper difficulties in really knowing how to live in community and work collectively toward a common good.

It’s beautiful and comprehensive… but still a bit daunting!

In trying to take a break recently, I found myself reading a review of Alan Ryan’s new, two-volume history of Western political philosophy On Politics. (Yup, this is a Norton book, and no, this wasn’t much of a break—more of an attempt for distance and perspective). Anyway, it sounds like there is a lot of a great food for thought in the book, but the line that caught my attention in the review (written by Adam Kirsch in the New Yorker) was that “Western political philosophy… exhibits a recurring tendency to imagine that a life without politics is the best life.”

This insight, I think, explains a lot about our ambivalent orientation toward politics in the U.S. It explains, for example, why we often put such high hopes on erstwhile political outsiders, on anti-institutional activism and organizing (be it of the Left or the Right), or single issue social movements or causes. That government is best which governs least. The problem is not just our political processes or institutional systems. Our individualism makes it so that we don’t really know how to organize around and commit to institutions and bodies in the first place. And a deep problem with collective commitment is only made worse by the fact that we also harbor such high hopes and unrealistic expectations for a moral world without the complexities, confusions, conflicts, and messiness of the real (political) world. We don’t really understand government or politics, but we deeply, fervently hope and expect a broader social good to emerge and organize itself.

This past Sunday was Reformation on the Protestant Church calendar. In recognition, the choir I sing in performed a Luther Cantata with a wonderful little line, both musical and rhetorical, expressing hope for “peace and good government.”  “That’s so partisan,” one of my fellow bass members scoffed at a break in rehearsal. “What do you mean?” I asked. “Come on,” he said, “good government? You are such a liberal.” As in, how can you really believe there can be good government. I think he was joking, but it spoke volumes.