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Individual Frames and Community Imaginaries: Plus ça Change?



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I recently came across a pithy quotation from the Anglo-American poet W. H. Auden concerning human capacity for change that quite struck me: “We would rather be ruined than changed.” The writer captured in a nutshell how difficult it is for individuals to modify their mental frames or dominant epistemic understanding or way of knowing their environment. Once developed, such perspectives, the bedrock of cultural dispositions and a mix of values, beliefs, rationalization and acculturated perceptions, prove extremely durable. Nonetheless, many of the central questions and challenges we investigate here at the Institute concern efforts to encourage change at this scale.

Consider, for example, the Institute’s Partners for Self Sufficiency (PSS) program. That effort works with area government agencies to assist some of our region’s most difficult to place unemployed people in finding work. Such requires that these individuals develop not only a range of specific capacities that allow them to engage in the job market, but more importantly and more deeply, and very often, to change how they regard themselves and their life chances. Such habits of mind are extremely “sticky” and our professional staff members involved with this effort work hard to assist clients to articulate and then to change those perceptions appropriately. But our staff members cannot learn technical capacities or change basic understandings of self vis-á-vis society for those with whom they work. Instead, their clients’ own attitudes, beliefs and values play vital roles in determining how they will fare in changing their life narratives. They must choose to undertake this difficult work themselves.

Our Institute’s work in international development provides another example of the hardiness of human epistemic assumptions. What most who intervene to work with populations in developing nations wish to do is to offer opportunities for citizens of those countries to enjoy conditions that will improve their lives. This often involves providing those individuals with options and services they may never have experienced, such as hand pumps that might ensure access to clean water or immunization programs that can prevent diseases. But without previously employing these possibilities and their accompanying technologies, those asked to consider them must recast shared basic assumptions and behaviors and to adopt them. And this process is extremely difficult in psychological terms to undertake and accomplish. Residents may not trust those intervening, may not understand why or how the alternative or new possibility offered will assist them, or may simply want to continue to prefer the known as against an unknown or unfamiliar options, a well-known human disposition.

If securing individual scale change in an effort to develop the possibility for community-level shifts is difficult in poverty amelioration and international development, it is equally challenging in early childhood education, another Institute focus area. In this instance, parents need to come to understand why and how timely interventions to provide reading and learning opportunities for their children can make a profound difference in their youngsters’ life course, and in a holistic way. This often requires that they rethink their assumptions about the character and role of education in their children’s future and to adopt views that differ markedly from their own experience. But doing so is critical if they are to take the steps and indeed, make the sacrifices sometimes necessary, to offer rich opportunities to their children to succeed and to become well- adjusted and successful individuals. These parents must adopt a perspective on education predicated in faith that it will ultimately redound to their youngster’s advantage for them to do so. Stating the matter this way highlights just how difficult such changes can be to accomplish for the individuals involved.

Likewise, VTIPG’s Community Voices program has specifically focused comprehensively on leadership and community change. As with our international development and poverty-related research and projects, our efforts in this initiative have taught us that to galvanize a community’s members to consider shifting their basic shared assumptions about how to go about living their collective lives is complex and difficult. Most group participants will resist challenges to their narrative or epistemic frames, and some will do so violently when these are challenged. Countless cases of sectarian and ethnic or racial violence around the world bear witness to just how difficult it can be for human beings to accept others who have been declared “different” or “outside” of their epistemic community, on whatever basis. The difficulties implicit in changing those values valences should never be underestimated.

At a speech in Belfast just prior to a G8 summit meeting held recently at a resort near that city, President Barack Obama celebrated Northern Ireland’s relative peacefulness since the 1998 Good Friday agreement, even in the face of continuing division and dissensus among Loyalists and Republicans in that province. The President suggested the relative social calm since that watershed accord provides an example of what is possible among free people of good will. While that is surely true, our research on peacebuilding in Northern Ireland suggests that the province’s relative lack of violence has been purchased in part by means of a profoundly segregated society whose population continues to disagree deeply on the appropriate character of their political and social community. From one perspective, which the President highlighted, Northern Ireland’s citizenry’s accomplishment is more than notable as the murder and mayhem that plagued the country for three decades during “The Troubles” is now history. From another point-of-view, however, the province’s population has not achieved a breakthrough epistemic agreement concerning how to regard their rightful inheritance and futures, nor anything like consensus concerning how they as individuals fit within such a frame. They have agreed, at least for the most part, to support efforts to resolve their continuing conflicts concerning how to live together without recurring to violence once more.

All of these examples illustrate that significant democratic change cannot occur without individuals revisiting and recasting their values and questioning their assumptions and tempering or disciplining those to permit space for the consideration of alternate choices, even if they do not immediately shift their existing understandings. Free individuals will always mediate such decisions, and such processes are neither automatic nor linear in their character. Indeed, the American experience with socially dominant views of poverty, race and ethnicity suggests that it may take generations to change prevailing community beliefs and values. The same may be said of the experience of the residents of Northern Ireland concerning their class and sectarian divide.

Surely, policy (legal) claims can encourage such shifts, but they alone cannot secure them. This reality is suggested by the distinction often drawn in American society between de jure and de facto discrimination against African Americans, for example. Many argue the United States has made great strides in eliminating the former, but still struggles with changing the attitudes and values that underpin the latter for many citizens. Instead, large numbers of Americans will need to adopt alternate ways of knowing if new forms and sinews of civic bonds and new community imaginaries are to obtain across what for many remains a broad racial divide. Put more generally, conflicts in societies may be reduced and a measure of coexistence may be attained without changing fundamental social values among many, but it is those basic beliefs that must be modified for durable changes in fundamental political and civic relationships to occur. Such processes may take generations to bear fruit and, notably, they can be stalled by would-be democratic leaders’ efforts to use social fissures to mobilize specific groups to the polls. Leaders’ use of fear and endemic “othering” on real or imagined bases is often the enemy of meaningful and peaceful community change.

These observations suggest that abiding political change requires social learning, and the deeper the divide separating population groups, the longer it may take them to attain agreement even to agree to coexist amidst heterogeneity, let alone contemplate development of a new shared values consensus or social imaginary. Given that free societies allow individuals to make these choices, it will ever be the responsibility of democratic leaders in such nations to encourage such social learning, rather than to foment conflict for electoral gain. That lesson is plain across our research experience here at the Institute. It is a warning perhaps too easily and too often ignored by those seeking office, but the costs they impose to human freedom are real when they do not heed it and one may hope their sense of duty to their regime will dissuade them from doing so. Heterogeneity and genuine community change represent key persisting challenges to self- governance and offer just as long-lived a temptation to would be leaders to exploit difference for short-term electoral gain. As Alexander Hamilton noted in The Federalist Papers, only normative claims to duty, fame and honor bind leaders to the furtherance of peaceful democratic change in the face of epistemic inertia among citizens. This choice for leaders is real and vital for the maintenance of healthy democratic communities.

Special Note: This column’s publication marks the fifth anniversary of Tidings. Thanks to all who have written and otherwise shared their comments, suggestions and reactions to these commentaries with me during these years. I am indebted to all of you for your interest and consideration and I have learned much from each of you. Our dialogue has often shaped my thinking and these reflections.

Publication Date

June 30, 2013