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The Good Society 12.1 (2003) 67-69

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Collaboration, Conflict and Social Learning

Mark R. Warren

"If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightening. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will."
Frederick Douglass, 1857

In Civic Innovation in America Carmen Sirianni and Lewis Friedland challenge Douglass's claim. They argue that real change can happen, is happening, without organized power, without a demand asserted through confrontation. They offer a model of social change based upon social learning, a relatively conflict free process where people pursue their higher interests and nobler purposes in a joint effort to do good together. The authors call this phenomenon the civic renewal movement in America.

I found the authors' argument, and the book that supports it, novel, refreshing, well-documented and compelling, even if I am not entirely persuaded. Sirianni and Friedland make the provocative claim that social change activity across four fields—community organizing and development, public journalism, civic environmentalism, and community health—constitutes a coherent movement for civic renewal. In this movement, ordinary citizens and public-spirited elites collaborate to bring community participation into policy development. Progressive and responsive policy, from job training programs like Project Quest in San Antonio to watershed restoration in Narragansett Bay, comes through the development of deliberative forms of engagement. Communities demand a say, but also take responsibility for public life. Meanwhile public journalism and other forms of civic education provide the foundation for informed action by nonprofessionals.

Sirianni and Friedland persuaded me that there is a broad resurgence of what can be seen as communitarian activism across many fields in America. They trace its development in a convincing and detailed fashion within each field. But whether these phenomena cohere into a unified movement is debatable. The authors at one point admit 'this movement is still in its formative stage. In fact, following a model of engaged scholarship which itself is part of this new public-spirited and activist paradigm, the authors' book can be seen as an effort to give greater coherence to the movement.

The core of the book is the detailed tracing of the development of the civic renewal movement within each of the four arenas, presented as social learning. The stories are richly detailed, with a tremendous amount of research material (the authors interviewed 738 people!) synthesized into coherent narratives. The master frame offered by social learning is one of good people learning to do better from each other. It is a story of protagonists, with hardly an adversary in the picture.

Now I happen to believe that good people, people interested in pursuing public purposes and the common good, do exist across the institutional spectrum of American life. Sometimes they can move their institutions forward without significant external pressure, and a whole field can enter a virtuous cycle of social learning. Though I lack expertise in the area, the authors' account of public journalism struck me as an excellent case of social learning. Moral purposes trumped narrow self-interest for these media outlets, or better yet, transformed the institutions' conceptions of their self-interest. Driven by a crisis in newspaper readership, public journalism became good for business.

Civic Innovation shows us that structuralist accounts of power and change are too deterministic. Rather, we need more subtle power analyses. For example, a structuralist account could argue that the media is a pawn of corporate power, that the corporate elite have an interest in keeping people ignorant of the real issues of power and politics in America. This argument may, in fact, contain a strong germ of truth. Corporate power may constrain the media from printing anti-capitalist diatribe on their mastheads, or more subtly, bias coverage towards Bush and away from Clinton, for example. But the demands of civic journalism are for better information, community relations, and more deliberative forums for public debate, not...


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pp. 67-69
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