Broadly speaking, I am in a field in which many are trying to address the political division that appears to be increasingly engulfing our nation.
One way to make sense of all these efforts is to explore what appear to be the assumptions underlying their approaches. What do the designers of an initiative think will happen if their work succeeds? Why will it do so? Some might call this their theory of change.
There appear to be three main such theories:
- If more people interacted with one another more, they would be less likely to engage in extremely divisive rhetoric and behavior. This appears to be the thinking behind a number of initiatives that aim to “bring people together.” Sometimes these initiatives are focused on making space for interactions that do not currently have such space. Often, attention is given to unlikely pairings and diversity of thought among these groups. (Examples: World Cafe, National Conversation Project.)
- People need interventions in order to break out of their in-group tribalism and see people from other groups as fully human. The idea here is that people are divided, in conflict, due to psychological reasons or habits of thought that can be overcome. Initiatives that operate on this assumption tend to rely on highly trained moderators and specialized interaction mechanisms. (Examples: Living Room Conversations, Better Angels.)
- If people could face and work through the inherent trade offs and tensions between different ways of looking at difficult public issues, some common ground for action might emerge. In this view, it is the issues themselves — and how they are presented — that divide people. If they are reframed people can address them with less rancor. Such initiatives put a lot of care and thought into how they present the issues to be discussed. (Examples: National Issues Forums, Everyday Democracy.)
The divisions between these ways sets of assumptions are not rigid. But in looking at the field, for the most part there appears to be a dominant assumption at work.
What other assumptions are missing from this list?