If you are a frequent reader of this blog, you will know that we in CommGAP are interested in learning how to change social norms for better governance and accountability. In a forthcoming paper, I will take a closer look at the journey of norms in development; how they emerge, become global norms and diffuse to local contexts. In reviewing global advocacy campaigns that led to transformational and normative change, it’s hard to ignore one of the most successful and important reform movements of the 19th century, namely the UK’s Anti-Slavery Campaign. How did the campaign manage to change such deeply entrenched norms as slave trade and slavery throughout the British Empire in some 50 years? Clearly, it’s a unique case that involved many institutional and environmental factors, and it would be impossible to cover all of them in a single blog post. However, the campaign would not have succeeded if it wasn’t for a number of critical components that are of great interest to what we are learning about social norms and successful reforms.
If you look around you today, lots of activists and experts want to change the world. They have all manner of pet schemes for the improvement of the world in one regard or the other. Usually, they mean well and they are often right. They have done the analysis, crunched the numbers, written the books, papers and blog posts. They know they are right. All that remains is for the morons to get it.
These activists and experts - - take the climate change/green movement/planetary emergence activists as an example -- are often in the clamorous grip of a holy impatience. This epic impatience manifests in a number of ways:
We have often moaned about opinion polls and their limited value on this blog. You know, those things where people get asked about their favorite toothpaste and that gets sold as public opinion? The question, of course, is how to do it better. Public opinion is an intricate phenomenon. We don't really know how to define the public to begin with, let alone how to figure out their opinion.
There's been a great model around since the mid 90s: Deliberative Polling. Introduced by James Fishkin, Deliberative Polls are designed to "show what the public would think about the issues, if it thought more earnestly and had more information about them,” to provide a “glimpse of the hypothetical public” (Luskin, Fishkin, and Jowell, 2002). It works like this:
"The more strictly we are watched, the better we behave."
unpublished, from the manuscripts of Jeremy Bentham in the Library of University College London
The landmark piece of legislation that President Obama signed into law yesterday - The Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, 2010 - was a massive lift for all concerned. Students of governance always say that a crisis is one of the best opportunities for reform, yet the fact of the global financial crisis has not made the reform of financial services an easy lift in any country. And we all know why: banks are rich and they can hire the best lobbyists either to block or water down the reform. So, the reform process has been tough, but now we have the historic legislation.
Last Thursday night, Charlie Rose interviewed Barney Frank, the Chair of the Financial Services Committee of the US House of Representatives. Frank, together with Senator Dodd, his opposite number in the Senate, shepherded the new law through Congress over many tough months. Towards the end of the interview, Rose asked him to reflect on the lessons of the reform process itself. What had he learned? You might be surprised by one of the things he said; but, then, if you have been reading this blog, you might not be.
Here is what he said:
On Saturday, June 26th, nearly 4,000 Americans from all walks of life participated in an all-day country-wide deliberation on the nation's fiscal future. Town hall meetings held in 19 sites occupied the main stage for the day, with smaller scale discussions in more than 40 additional communities across the country and online venues for participatory input as well. The event, organized by AmericaSpeaks had all the markers of political deliberation, American-style: electronic keypads and networked computers that lent a technologically updated verisimilitude to George Gallup's idea of palpating the "pulse of democracy" and, of course, lots of political contestation (more on this below).
You will have heard that the Government of Israel has agreed to ease its 3-year-old land blockade of the Gaza strip, clearly in response to the international outcry that ensued when a raid on a flotilla of aid ships bound for Gaza turned deadly on May 31. On that day Israeli commandos had killed nine pro-Palestinian activists. In the ensuing dispute both sides claimed they acted only to protect their own lives.
Naturally, I am not getting into the rights and wrongs of one of the most contentious disputes in international affairs, and the interminable 'peace process'. I am interested only in adding a coda to an earlier post: The Power of Propaganda by the Deed. In that post, I drew attention to a technique available to the underdogs of the world when confronting the powerful. It works as follows:
Communication is something of an ugly duckling in the social sciences – not many people take it seriously and not many people see the immediate relevance of the research. However, the study of public opinion is a good example to outline the immediate relevance of the field – and its future relevance.
- Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere
- Social Sciences
- Public Sphere
- Public Opinion Tribunal
- Public Opinion
- Political Science
- Political Philosophy
- mass media
- James Mill
- Information Processing
- Information Dissemination
- Fourth Estate
- Communication Studies
- Communication Science
- Communication Research
- Charles Cooley
During a recent discussion on the issue of diplomacy in the information age, hosted by the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University, I got to mulling over the idea of the transnational public sphere. An interesting recent paper out of Europe by Jens Steffek focuses on the emergence of this transnational public sphere and its ability to successfully pressure public institutions for greater accountability and better governance. I believe new communication technologies have amplified this sphere's scope and scale.
But the question that then arises is this: does the very force that enables and empowers the transnational public sphere also degrade the quality of deliberation upon which it depends to function effectively? In a globally networked information environment, public opinion can coalesce in the blink of an eye, fed by multiple information sources both credible and non-credible. Can a transnational public sphere truly be an effective force for better governance if it is not backed by genuinely informed debate and deliberation? What separates a transnational public sphere from a transnational mob?
The underdogs of the world, all the outgunned of the world, have a technique they can deploy that the powerful consistently underestimate. They can deliberately provoke the powerful, and the powerful take the bait and unleash their mighty forces. The key to the technique is that the underdogs make sure that the depredations of the powerful are caught on camera...and mass communicated.