Media, Society, and Political Identity
This course explores the broad outlines of society, politics, and identity with a focus on the media as agencies for representing our desires and ours identities. Branding and image making become the methods for delivering both politics and products tailored to the emotions of individuals. We leave dense personal data trails in the online world and become part of the process of marketing and branding to our selves and to our friends.
Meanwhile, we live with the larger political imperative of economic growth achieved through producing and consuming huge volumes of new stuff. The bi-partisan goal of growing the economy has run into global economic and environmental problems. The US is still struggling to restart an economy burdened with under-employment, growing inequality, heavy personal credit loads, and carbon energy dependency. The European Union has its own version of the debt and growth crises, challenging the future of the EU itself. Chinese growth has slowed and the environmental quality for hundreds of millions of citizens has deteriorated to the point of becoming dangerous to their health. However, cleaning up the environment and finding better ways to run the economy are often dismissed as costly threats to economic growth. Few politicians seem able to embrace or promote new ideas about what to do. We will explore the reasons for these political problems and look at alternatives.
As young citizens enter societies that no longer seem to work for majorities of people, growing numbers have less faith in parties and government to secure the future. Americans are waking up to soaring costs of education and threats to the American Dream. How did all this happen? Why is it so hard to deal with? What happened to the capacity of government to deal with big problems? Where do we go from here? This course aims to help you think about these questions.
The current global economic order creates many challenges for human well being, from food shortages, poor wages and living conditions, to growing crises with the environment, energy and other resources. Despite these limits to growth, calls for more economic growth continue to be issued by politicians and economists across the political spectrum. Even if continued growth is possible, it is likely to create more sustainability issues and climate change, along with economic and social instability. This class explores these dilemmas facing our civilization and considers alternative models for economics and politics that may lead to new ways of thinking about prosperity in a low growth but happier future.
The Political Economy of Ideas
This course examines key processes that affect the origin, diffusion and influence of new political ideas. How do ideas enter public spheres and policy circles? Which ones gain attention, and which ones remain marginal, and why? Are there local incubators for new ideas, and under what circumstances do those agents and sites enter networks that help ideas spread? What factors increase or limit the scale reached by various ideas? What accounts for state and institutional resistance to progressive ideas about economics, democracy, justice, or nature, even when they gain popularity and seem right for the times? When new ideas are pressed upon those in power by movements or influential groups, how are they filtered and altered on their way to public understanding and policy adoption? What processes legitimate ideas (whether they are workable or dysfunctional) and how do we determine the degree to which ideas work for what groups? What happens when publics reject ideas offered by rulers or representatives as legitimate? What ideas are most compatible with which political arrangements? How do we evaluate the qualities of ideas in terms of whom they serve, how well they work, and how well democratic representation systems serve the adoption of just and useful ideas.
In addressing these and other questions it helps to gain enough distance from ideas that we already believe personally in order to analyze the supporting and countervailing discourses that establish, advance or undermine them. This will help explain how different discourses compete in the ecology of the multiple truths and multiple realities in play in society. The competition among discourses brings us to the role of politics and governance in sorting different schemes out.
In short, the class explores ways of thinking about ideas, truth and power in scientific, societal and global contexts. Some of the analytical skills that will help in thinking about the above questions include: understanding the properties of scientific paradigms; understanding the properties of social discourses; recognizing parallels and differences between paradigms and social discourses; learning to use frameworks for understanding and comparing discourses; applying models of how markets and institutions shape ideas and their entry into social and political processes; knowing how social movements and other mechanisms figure in the publicity and diffusion of ideas; understanding how communication processes make a difference at each step of the way (e.g., journalism, PR, framing); learning how discourses reveal preferred definitions of and solutions to problems; identifying political processes that are best suited to: generating workable discourses, resolving discourse conflicts, and promoting social understanding and adoption.
Many of the examples that provide a substantive focus for the course are drawn from two of the key issues (and related discourses) facing nations and peoples on the planet today: climate change discourses (along with related attacks on science); and ideas about more people-worker-and-environment-friendly economic systems (along with dominant discourses claiming the necessity of economic growth and related sacrifices of environmental values). We will explore the origins and paths of the prominent growth oriented economic and conservationist environmental discourses and analyze the reasons why these economic and environmental solutions are typically polarized in policy circles, news, and public debate. The challenges of promoting alternative and more compatible economic and environmental discourses are important to understand. We will examine how new ideas are advanced by social movements, think tanks, NGOs, parties, and epistemic networks. The development of analytical frameworks concludes with a series of normative arguments about representational systems and contemporary democratic arrangements. In particular, we consider the growing concern that neoliberal economics is incompatible with core conceptions of democracy and thus presents both discursive and structural political obstacles to the rise of more compatible economic and environmental policy discourses.