Social and Cultural Factors: Constraining and Enabling
Abstract and Keywords
This article discusses the social and cultural factors of public policy. It first looks at the intellectual history of these two factors, before discussing variety in public policy. One section shows how to come to terms with variety in public policy, while another section shows how to find variety in public policy.
When a pickpocket looks at a king all he sees is pockets.
understanding how it is that men’s notions, however implicit, of the “really real” and the dispositions these notions induce in them, color their sense of the reasonable, the practical, the humane, and the moral.
(Clifford Geertz 1973, 124)
Public policy never begins with a blank slate whether we are talking about how and why it is made or whether it plays out in terms of wanted or unwanted consequences. (p. 920)
Policy makers, implementers, target populations, and their audiences already hold and use a complex of “notions” to arrive at choices and evaluations (as Geertz suggests). Those “notions” affect what is treated as more or less relevant, important, and desirable—from information to material assets to institutions to skills to normative judgements. They “load the dice” with regard to public policy indicators, focal situations, issue categories, cause and effect judgements, strategic repertoires, and success criteria. They even define what is for people, public policy and politics (Hudson 1997; Thompson, Grendstad, and Selle 1999). Notions in use amount to constraints on and enablers for public policy.1
How well we explain the occurrence and consequences of one or another policy or policy problem depends significantly on how well we understand the notions used by actors involved with it. How effectively we shape policy seldom will be greater than our understanding of the notions used by those who matter for policy adoption and implementation (Elmore 1985). For example, law enforcement attempts to curtail gang-related crime in Chicago ghettos would benefit from recognizing that for the residents, both gangs and the police are sources of protection and exploitation (Akerlof and Yellen 1994). How accurately we predict the effects of chosen policies depends on understanding of the notions used by those populations the policies seek to influence. Such understandings often amount to awareness of what is “local knowledge” for the various parties to public policy and policy processes, be they White House staffs or impoverished female heads of households.
Meeting those challenges encounters at least two major complications. One is that of variety: “what men believe is as various as what they are—a proposition that holds with equal force when it is inverted” (Geertz 1973, 124).2 In the Senegalese saying, what is for some a ruler is for others a set of professional opportunities. A statement or act or material object is then subject to alternative interpretations and thus diverse implications for action and evaluation. The second is a less than total overlap between what people alone and in groups say, what they do, and what they believe (assume, know, or think). There often may be a very substantial difference between what they say to “insiders” (persons they classify as ongoing members of their identity or membership group) and to outsiders. What people actually do can vary as they think their actions are or are not observed by insiders or outsiders. The outsider is faced with the task of seeing behind “veils” and “masks” whether those are worn because of conscious deception or just acceptance of cultural notions—and often less well prepared to do so accurately than are insiders. (p. 921)
Later sections will briefly discuss these complications, and note some ways to cope with them. Those ways feature approaches central in social science fields other than political science—ethnography, sociology, social psychology, cognitive linguistics, and organizational behavior. Yet, as the next section reports, the concepts and methods involved have a substantial history of use by eminent political scientists concerned with public policy. This chapter does not call for doing what is unprecedented in understanding cultural and social constraints and enablers on public policy.3 It does call for greater attention to the pursuit and application of such understandings, and making such activities as standard a part of the analysis and design of public policies as applied micro- or macroeconomics or law.4
2 Some Intellectual History
The sort of political science concerned with public policy in light of cultural and social factors was a feature of the Chicago school which emerged between the First and Second World Wars (Almond 2002, 23–108), and exemplified in the work of Harold Lasswell (e.g. Lasswell 1971, 1951; Lasswell and Fox 1979; Lasswell and Leites 1949). That prominence reflected strong professional relationships with notable sociologists, social psychologists, anthropologists, and linguists. The appeals of policy alternatives and their consequences were shaped by belief systems encoded in symbols. Symbol manipulation was a major part of politics. Political capital included intangible assets such as social status and rectitude as well as material assets such as instruments of coercion and wealth. Indeed the legitimacy and influence of the material was partly a function of the non-material assets accorded by association with and propagation of symbols.
Political appraisals and policy assessments then needed to be informed by three types of inventories of markers for intangibles, and methods to take those inventories. One was of symbol usage and the associations thus invoked. The relevant symbols might be words, but they also might be physical icons and sites used in public rituals. A second was of social memberships and origins (life histories) of policy elites. The premiss was that shares of representation in policy processes served to constrain and enable in one or both of two ways. A predominant share might make some particular set of “notions” prevalent in policy processes. It also might indicate that a broader population viewed those thought to hold certain “notions” as particularly relevant, capable, and normatively sound players of central roles in public policy. A third inventory focused on symbols and complexes of “notions” in and about primary (p. 922) social membership groups. That required identifying primary membership groups for actors in the aspect of public policy under consideration.
For Lasswell and his associates, new sorts of knowledge were needed to cope with stunning failures in domestic public policy, and with grave challenges from foreign “others” to favored conceptions about and even the existence of a just and humane world. The inventories would show variety from place to place and time to time. They would be useful for monitoring and countering politically malign actors, and designing strategies to improve and protect a valued political order.
Unsurprisingly, the landmark The Policy Sciences (Lerner and Lasswell 1951) included chapters by anthropologists (Kluckhohn on culture and Mead on national character), a sociologist (Shils on primary groups), and a social psychologist (Stouffer on how to discern what is really going on in large organizations). After the Second World War, work by Lasswell’s students and their students evolved in several directions with a common intent of arriving at more systematic policy and political system implications. Those efforts sought to organize notions used in official speech by policy elites into operational codes (e.g. Leites 1951; George 1969) and notions expressed by mass populations into profiles of national civic cultures (e.g. Almond and Verba 1963). Subsequent work presented alternative models of political cultures about major policy matters such as budgets and risk management (e.g. Wildavsky 1987, 1988; Thompson, Ellis, and Wildavsky 1990; Douglas and Wildavsky 1982); sweeping characterizations of particular national and regional political systems (e.g. Pye 1988; Pye and Pye 1985); thematic inventories of the notions and related actions of politicians in for them important situations (e.g. Fenno 1990 on US legislators); and reconstructions of the strategic rationales and related actions of ordinary (or even marginal) populations in encounters with public sector policies and institutions (e.g. Scott 1985, 1990 on Malaysian peasants).
It is important to note the scope of this legacy. The actors have ranged from elites to marginal populations, in the USA and abroad. The units have ranged from whole nations to small groups. The methods have ranged from at-a-distance analysis of public documents and interviews with émigrés to large-scale opinion surveys and direct observation (with more or less participation), and sometimes gone further to construct typologies and models. Both quantitative and qualitative tools have been used. To say that policy analysis needs to consider cultural and social factors as constraints and enablers is not to commit to a single methodology or type of data. It is, however, to commit to empirical enquiry, i.e. to beginning if not ending with “thick description” of what people say and do. For those an analyst holds to be of political and public policy interest, “If something is important to them, it becomes important to you. Their view of the world is as important as your view of that world” (Fenno 1990, 113–14).
Work in the Lasswellian tradition does not focus mostly on the texts of a few intellectuals. It does not assume that populations marginal to prevailing systems of power and wealth are especially worthy (or unworthy) of study or of public policy “voice.” Priorities should depend on what are crucial roles in the policy process and in its consequences, matters which differ across policy issues, options, and salient events.
(p. 923) Deciding whose notions most call for understanding should not be confounded with moral judgements about who holds meritorious notions. Finally, the Lasswellian tradition recognizes that the cultural and social information it would have us gather can be used for “emancipatory” or oppressive purposes.
3 Coming to Terms With Variety
General laws of political behavior have obvious appeals. Yet public policy in application is less a general than a specific matter in terms of its when and where, who to whom, the options considered, and the consequences of options chosen. Accordingly, most general laws, be they of rational choice utilitarianism, prospect theory anchoring and loss aversion (Levy 1997), or social affiliation and identity (Sen 1977), provide only containers lacking situationally relevant operational content.5 Applying the containers of utility, costs, and benefits involves imputing what the relevant actors treat as having more or less utility, cost, or benefit. Similar imputations, filling in, are required to get at what anchors are used and losses focused on, or what social affiliations are given great weight.
Policy-relevant applications of such laws involve accurately recognizing what participants pull from their containers to assess cause and effect relations between alternative courses of action in a situation and likely consequences. Excessively general, ahistorical labeling does little to illuminate why some population behaves as it does or what would lead it to act differently. Consider the variety of significations attached in different countries to visits by their heads of state and ordinary citizens to war casualty memorial sites, and even more distinctions between indigenous and foreign interpretations of such commemorative activities (as with domestic and international controversy about Japan’s Yasukuni Shinto Shrine; Nelson 2003).
A similar need to specify content in use applies to make informative such broad “classical” cultural and social categories as class, race, ethnicity, religion, nationality, age, or generation. Doing that will often reveal that the category may be a useful summary of aggregate outcomes, but not of much which bears on achieving changes in outcomes. Thus, Thompson and Wildavsky (1986) called for a shift “from economic homogeneity to cultural heterogeneity in the classification of poor people.” Suppose the category is being used to anticipate how those placed in it will respond to different policy treatments or interventions. Suppose further that the members of the category have more than one behavioral choice open to them during the time period during which a policy is supposed to accomplish its desired consequences. For example, in the context of US election-related quarantine policies toward Castro’s Cuba, it matters (p. 924) if relevant voters in Florida think of themselves as primarily Hispanic Americans or as Cuban Americans, and give more weight to ties with relatives in Cuba or to a vision of regime change there.
Realizing the policy maker’s anticipations (Cuban-American votes) depends then on the “notions” of the targets with respect to: (a) their giving membership or identity primacy to the general category over subdivisions of it and over other categories; and (b) their “notions” as they lead them to recognize and evaluate alternatives open to them as category members. The targets are not clay but intentional actors from whom passive compliance and uniform reactions are not givens. Differences in (interpreted) experience with particular public institutions can lead to different general notions of effectiveness in dealing with public institutions and participating in politics more generally (as Soss 1999 found for recipients of two cash-providing US social safety net programs administered in contrasting ways). Specific content will still be needed even if claims are true that we are in an era of new, post-industrial broad categories replacing the “classical” ones (e.g. Clark and Hoffman-Martinot 1998; Inglehart 1990).
Suppose that the use of familiar categories follows less from an intent to shape the ostensible target population and more from judgements about how third parties (e.g. majority populations, taxpayers, allied governments) will react to invocations of a category label—e.g. “welfare cheats” or “the deserving poor,” “terrorists” or “liberation fighters.” Third-party reactions will depend on their “notions” about the members of the target category in relation to the salient situation. Other policy elites, bureaucrats, or populations which can reward or punish the invoker can use notions far different from those of the ostensible target population. When they do, public policies can produce desired behaviors and interpretations by almost everyone but it. The post 9/11 USA Patriot Act arguably has impacted less on those who would commit terrorist actions than on the general population and a host of government agencies. That bears some resemblance to what Edelman (1977) had in mind when he evaluated American anti-poverty programs as “words that succeed and policies that fail.”
Talk about cultures or subcultures in relation to public policy usually follows from an image of a set of people whose relevant notions and actions differ from some historical, existing, or imaginable set of people. Differences get our attention when we think they constrain or enable some relative to other policies and policy processes. What contribution such talk will make to the analysis and conduct of public policy depends on awareness of the multiple dimensions of difference the world offers, and on the breadth and depth of efforts to understand how particular differences get applied to specific situations.
Cultures and subcultures and their members can differ in the dimensions of difference their notions identify. They can differ in the number of distinctions made on a given dimension and the distance between points on a dimension, e.g. about what religious or ethnic differences make a marriage mixed. They can differ in the value they place on being different or even unique. They can differ in how situations determine the importance of some aspect of difference. They can differ in what are (p. 925) key markers (signifiers) of any of these facets of difference. They can differ in what are held to be the correlates of commonly identified aspects of difference in terms of behavior, capability, intent, and normative worth. And, of course, they can differ in the degree to which their beliefs about how they are different from others and others different from them are shared by those others.
Whatever the cultural or subcultural content in these respects, it is not completely fixed if the experience of members is itself changing. Yet, in a context of pre-existing variety of notions and salient material context, populations can view that change as amounting to a very different sort of experience. Thus, the turn in US social policy from “welfare” to “workfare” may for those not participating in such programs appear as a well-intentioned offer of an avenue to a better life. At the same time, some participants view it as an ill-intentioned move to “cram down their throat” harsh choices between child rearing and work, or education and income (as with part-time fast-food jobs for Oakland teenagers of color; Stack 2001).
People come to any particular policy situation with a stock of notions about the degree and nature of relevant variety based on their prior actual or virtual experiences (including socialization, accepted history, academic learning). Thus Grammig (2002, 56) reports that a development assistance project was for experts of different nationalities “an empty shell that each participant filled with his own meaning.” What is learned about whom usually results from prior judgements about the importance of a culture or subculture and sufficient curiosity to enquire about it. We are more likely to have elaborated profiles of others we have dealt with before and previously treated as important, and less likely to have such about those rarely encountered or thought lacking in wealth, coercive power, status, or rectitude. Of course players in policy systems and policy issues are a heterogeneous lot in terms of who they have encountered and treated as important. In sum, which and how many differences get recognized (or denied) are political and cultural matters. Public policies shape and are shaped by those recognitions, especially with regard to the processing of actual experiences into notion-related interpretative precedents, maxims, fables, and warnings.
Unfortunately, a number of often thought to be general tendencies for public policy get in the way of facing up to variety, and favor downplaying it. Consider three rather common assumptions: (1) ceteris paribus public policy tries to keep things simple to avoid overload; (2) politicians try to stay in good standing with their selectorates; and (3) bureaucratic agents try to look good to those who can affect their careers and agency resources.
Keeping things simple works against attending to a plethora of differences which would cast doubt on “one size fits all” policies. It favors attributing to apparently similar verbal or physical acts a standard meaning, and similar intent and affect. It is far easier to treat all welfare recipients as having similar views of work, or all Muslims as having similar notions of what being a “good Muslim” entails. It is far easier to interpret the reasons for poor grades by African-American males as following from factors which would account for poor grades by Caucasian or Asian males. It is far easier to interpret an audible “yes,” smile, or even calls by admirals in different (p. 926) countries for a “strong Navy” (Booth 1979, 80–1) as meaning what they mean for us when we engage in such acts. A determined effort to think and act otherwise would compound the work involved in public policy formation, implementation, and evaluation.
Since public policy seldom is a “unitary actor” phenomenon, it usually involves achieving (or at least assuming) somewhat cooperative and communicative relationships between people and groups with less than identical notions. If it cannot be avoided, it can seemingly be made easier by an emphasis on dealing with persons and groups who seem less different from one’s own culture or subculture. For example, a retired director of the CIA profiled for me a desirable replacement leader in an Islamic country as someone who “wears Western clothes, drinks whiskey, speaks English.” Political legitimacy with indigenous constituencies can be slighted.
Of course, some stark claims of difference can enable policies which the prevailing notions in the adopting policy culture would otherwise deem morally illegitimate or pragmatically counter-productive. If others are inherently different in ways which threaten our culture and its preferred policies and policy processes, anything (or at least almost anything) goes, e.g. American treatment of some Iraqi and Afghan detainees. In such cases, what becomes constrained are policies which treat members of counter-cultures or clashing “civilizations” as our proclaimed notions would have us treat fellow culture members.6 In its less culturally stressful and physically harsh versions, this makes for policies which deny existence through constructed invisibility (the Israeli tour leader who said, “the population of Israel is three million Jews”). In its often more culturally stressful and physically brutal versions, it can enable policies of genocide, ethnic cleansing, and state and non-state terrorism (e.g. Sluka 2000).
Selectorate-sensitive politicians (i.e. those particularly likely to gain and hold power) are constrained and enabled by the notions used by their selectorates. They tend to more or less proactively accommodate to them either reflexively when they too hold those notions or by consciously opportunistic acts of symbol manipulation (labeling, exemplification, and association). Policy issues and stances, salient events, political parties/movements/factions, and prominent personalities are then subjects for framing and counter-framing in light of judgements about the selec-torate’s notions. Informative examples are the testimony of expert witnesses for the prosecution and defense in the Rodney King police brutality trial (Goodwin 1994), and the politics of public school “reform” in Nashville (Pride 1995).
When the selectorate is quite uniform in its notions, the constraints and enablers are rather obvious. Politicians and activists compete to seem to fit best with predominant notions, and “expose” rivals as deviating from them. Given widely held notions of a USA under terrorist attack and of government employees as slackers, it was predictable that politicians would compete for authorship of a Department of Homeland Security. It was also hardly surprising that those of them trying (p. 927) to make establishment contingent on provision of established civil service protections to its employees would come under partisan attack and for the most part fold.
A selectorate rather evenly divided between clashing sets of notions calls for different strategies and tactics to relax the constraint of dissensus. Imagine a US selectorate split between holders of very different notions about the proper role of government derived from equally different notions about the good family (Lakoff 1996). Public policy practitioners may then seek to couch policies in ways which bundle together seemingly incompatible symbols and labels to appeal simultaneously to several sets of notions (e.g. “compassionate conservative”). They may engage in policy turn taking with respect to serial use of different symbolic packages catering to one or another of the competing sets of notions. They may even seek to create a replacement set of notions based on credible constructions of recent experience which promise to replace notions in mutual tension with a “Third Way” (as did President Clinton and Prime Minister Blair in the 1990s). Politicians, and not just ones in democratic societies, have reasons to be practicing ethnographers, or at least to have staff members who are.
Further complications arise when politicians have to appeal to domestic selec-torates with one set of notions and also secure favorable treatment from elites and selectorates embedded in different cultures. That dual agenda may motivate policy elites to develop a repertoire with more than one set of culturally appropriate content. They may metaphorically (and sometimes quite literally) don different wardrobes (or dialects) for dealings with local, domestic, or foreign parties. Cosmopolitan US Southern senators have been known to shift into the regional dialect of their constituency when talking with its members. Flights from non-Arab countries to Saudi Arabia shortly before arrival often have returning citizens of considerable standing covering up modish Euro-American clothes.
In a multicultural polity and an internationalized world, politicians with more than a monocultural repertoire can be advantaged—at least if their practices avoid triggering conclusions that they are not really genuine, sincere members of any of the pertinent cultures. Manifesting some characteristics of another culture can lead its members to expect that actor to manifest others. Disappointment may follow, and accusations of “bad faith.”7 Of course, if selectorates in one policy culture have negative notions about another, there are risks of “guilt by association.”8
Most public policies and policy processes originate in some bureaucratic agency or professional epistemic community, and most depend for stamps of approval (p. 928) (certification) and implementation on one or more bureau or professional communities. Top policy makers and their policies are then enabled and constrained by what members of those groupings hold to be the notions used by their career gatekeepers, and by their convictions about the grounds (notions and situational triggers) which others rely on to determine collective or individual rewards or pun-ishments.9 When agency is given to a bureau or profession with a distinct set of notions, the chances are that set of notions is privileged de jure or de facto. Some policies and policy process routines are then more enabled and some more constrained.
To say that bureaux and professions have “world-views,” “standard operating procedures,” “folklore,” and pantheons of exemplary individuals and events is to say that they have a culture. The centrality of membership in that culture mounts when bureaux and professions have accepted and nearly deterministic cause-and-effect theories, normative criteria of merit, high barriers to entry and exit, and identities framed in terms of contrasts with other bureaux and professions. Consider, for example, the protective “code blue” of silence US policemen sometimes use when challenged by civilians and civilian authorities, or the claims to special turf rights made by “foreign area experts” to keep out international relations “generalists” (Samuels and Weiner 1992). A public health service (e.g. the Centers for Disease Control) is likely to treat the problem of bioterrorism differently from a domestic security service (e.g. the FBI). Economists are likely to treat pollution problems more with an eye to market mechanisms such as permit auctions while lawyers might emphasize regulatory mechanisms such as penalties for breaching emission ceilings.
Suppose an issue is assigned to two bureaux with different established notions, notions which include viewing each other as expansionist, untrustworthy, or less competent rivals. Policies which require generous cooperation are constrained, e.g. think of the FBI and CIA even if both are labeled as belonging to a common membership group (the US “Intelligence Community”). A more subtle form of constraint occurs when some key policy role is assigned to a “subculture” which exists in a low-status way (e.g. civil affairs units in the US military) in a larger organization whose culture centers on quite different missions (e.g. war fighting and deterrence). Unsurprisingly, the assignment is then often followed by resource and promotion starvation (e.g. the fate of enforcement agents in the US Immigration and Naturalization Service or INS; Weissinger 1996).
In any event, for many members of most agencies and bureaux there are widely held views (“conventional wisdom”) of what policy-relevant behavior carries high risks. Those views may or may not be transparent to outsiders, especially if they clash with declared norms among members. Privileged bureaux and professions (and indeed “ordinary folks”) will go to considerable effort to get around policy emphases and directives which seem to them to pose such risks.
(p. 929) 4 Finding Variety
The arguments to this point are that: (1) cultural variety matters for public policy; (2) there are chronic tendencies to deny it the attention it ought to have; and (3) denial deprives some policy options and policy process alternatives of a level playing field. A superficial acknowledgement of variety will not help much unless acted on to improve the information provided for and actually used in public policy. Those changes are more likely with increased representation and standing in policy processes of those attentive to variety. What sort of repertoire of enquiry would then get greater emphasis?10
One priority would be analyzing two aspects of language used by members with each other. The first is that of metaphors which treat some matter as similar to another, and invoke from such similarities guidance about situational interpretations and warranted action (Lakoff and Johnson 1980). For American public policy, for example, one may note the frequent use of conflict metaphors such as the “war on” or the “fight against” (as with the Johnson administration on poverty, the Carter administration on energy dependence, and the Bush II administration on terrorism). For Americans and Japanese, the sheer volume of talk about sport suggests that it is seen as a source of relevant metaphors for much else (Boswell 1990; Whiting 1990). The more frequently similar metaphors and analogies occur in general writing and speech, the more likely they are to be drawn on with respect to public policies and policy processes.
A second focus would be on thorough elicitation of what members of a relevant population use by way of categories of actors and actions, cues to relevant categories, and expectations about the efficacy of particular actions in relation to actors in some category (e.g. Spradley 1970). Rather than imposing categories (as in closed response survey interviews), the emphasis would be on discovering the categories, cues, and expectations held by those whose behavior we are trying to understand and perhaps influence. Special attention would go to matters elaborated with numerous distinctions suggesting importance in the lives of those whose language is under examination.
Language is only one form of behavior open to observation. A variety-finding orientation calls for as much direct observation as possible of what people do in their natural situations, i.e. what for them are real situations involved with the aspect of public policy of interest, and then seeking their rationales for acting as they have done (e.g. DeWalt and DeWalt 2002). The observation should be conducted as unobtrusively as possible (e.g. along the lines of Webb et al. 1966) with the observer as blended into and neutral in the situation as possible. The observer would try to become a watcher and listener in situ whether the subject of interest is the campaign behavior of elected politicians in Hong Kong (Beatty 2003), the processing of issues by local office holders in New York state (Sady 1990), or the inferential process of (p. 930) arriving at US intelligence estimates (Johnston 2003). That may or may not involve participation either as part of blending in or as a way to discern notions used by culture members.
Whether the focus is on language or other behaviors, considerable attention should go to associations and evaluations in terms of cultural propriety and likely pragmatic consequences operating for those being observed. That involves eliciting and recognizing what for the members of the culture under examination are codes of conduct, key historical references and myths, understandings (images) of others who matter to them for dealings with public policy, and prototypically successful or unsuccessful courses of action by those held to be similar to themselves. Those may often be surprisingly elaborated and shared, as with homeless alcoholics in Seattle on dealing with the personnel and institutions of the “criminal justice” system (Spradley 1970).
When the behaviors in question involve physical actions and material objects, the discovery process needs to look contextually at when those actions are taken and the full range of uses made of those objects. If we wish to change practices in India about cows, we should engage in a “functional systems analysis” of how cows are used in and adapted to Hindu society and its economy and ecology (Harris 1966). If we wish to understand the extent to which educational administrators are concerned with student demonstrations and physical disruption, or diplomats with their embassies being attacked, we should examine features of newly constructed facilities (as in “riot renaissance” architecture). If we wish to understand and improve the availability of public recreational space for children in New York City, we should look to see where they play (the street) rather than assuming that only parks and playgrounds are sites for play (e.g. Yin 1972).
Fully understanding variety may not be possible, and faces numerous obstacles of access, evidence, and inference. Yet several “best practices” can at least increase understanding. One is to extend the language mapping and other observations across time and situations. For example, a longitudinal study of an “innovative school” found notions, processes, and roles far different from those stressed in the professional literature on school innovation (Smith et al. 1998). A one-time, few-day, and situationally unusual field trip or site visit may produce a “shock of recognition” that variety exists. It is unlikely to create substantial awareness of the notions used by others. Shortcomings are especially likely when the “visitor” deals primarily with stationed officials from his or her own culture rather than those of another. Deliberate steps to “get out of the bubble” need to be taken to avoid pitfalls of “spurious direct encounters” with other cultures at home and abroad.
It also can be helpful to focus on material practices and talk widespread in the population one wishes to understand. For example, insider jokes among them and what for them are popular mass media products should not be slighted in favor of “serious” talk and highbrow products. If we are interested in young Americans, MTV programs may be more informative than the New York Review of Books. If we are interested in US legislators and their staffs, their “neighborhood” newspaper (Roll Call) may merit as much attention as the American Political Science Review. (p. 931) If we are interested in the extent to which upper- and middle-class South Africans are preoccupied with crime, we might gain insight by noting the large amount of attention home design and accessory magazines for that market give to residential alarm systems and security barriers, and the consumer demand for “armed response team” services.
Finally, there is the selection and assessment of informants, individual and group sources thought by outsiders to be “insiders” to a culture of interest and relied on to illuminate it. Some use of informants is hard to avoid, but taking what they communicate at face value is not. It is advisable to rely more on informants with substantial recent experience in the culture of interest than on those who have been “in exile” for several decades. It is advisable to weigh what informants tell us in light of their own likely agendas, interests in our holding particular views of their cultures and taking or avoiding certain interventions in it. All of those cautions should enter into decisions about giving informants and their primary membership groups key roles in relationships between our culture and theirs. Prudential lessons might be drawn from the disappointments of US efforts at regime change which drew on unwarrantedly rosy émigré judgements (the Bay of Pigs in the Kennedy administration and the 2003 invasion of Iraq).
This repertoire deserves a far more prominent place than it usually has in programs to prepare future professionals to analyze and participate in public policy.
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(*) I am indebted to my two favorite anthropologists, Gail Benjamin and Riall Nolan, for their suggestions.
(1) The premiss is not that cultural notions matter instead of material and institutional factors (as discussed in Snyder 2002). Rather, it is that such notions lead to important, choice-mediating interpretations of those other sorts of factors, interpretations which provide conditions conducive to their continuity or change.
(2) What level of aggregation is useful or distorting is a recurrent concern, and has raised doubts about looking for and relying on a common characterization of large sets of people categorized by a particular nationality, religion, or even profession (for critical examples of the last, see Kier 1995; Zhang 1992). Charges of excessive aggregation have been leveled at modal personality, national character, and civic culture studies.
(3) The distinction between social and cultural factors is not useful as the level of modernization distinctions between the sets of people analyzed by sociologists and anthropologists has eroded.
(4) Positively, recent “behavioral economics” innovates by probing relevant populations to get at their “notions” and related actions rather than assuming fit with an assumed model.
(5) To recognize a dimension of possible difference is of course to recognize one of possible similarity. That still leaves a need for content to substantiate contentions about the predominance of similarity or difference (as argued in Johnston 1995).
(6) The fact of harsh treatment of some Americans in American prisons is handled by invisibility, at least among much of the white US population.
(7) “Governments like individuals, have great expectations of reasonable behaviour from those they think are like themselves. They will naturally expect them to see the world in the same way and to behave sensibly, which in political practice does not mean behaving with ‘good sense”, but rather means behaving ‘like me’ or ‘in accordance with my wishes’. … When a close associate fails to act in a desired manner, the disappointment is all the greater” (Booth 1979, 56).
(8) For example, that premiss may have underlain Republican attacks on the US Democratic presidential candidate in 2004, John Kerry, as being “too French.” The counter unsurprisingly was to display Kerry in association with symbols thought to be central to the selectorate’s notions of genuine membership in American culture such as driving a motorcycle and hunting.
(9) Policy systems vary in the extent to which and ways in which they have a common culture across key bureaux, levels of government, and specializations (e.g. as the French try to do with few entry paths into the elite higher civil service or the Chinese Communists used to try to do through party socialization).