Monday, April 7, 2008

What people know


It is interesting to consider what kinds of social knowledge people need in their everyday lives.

This is clearly a question of scale. At the proximate and local level, people need to know how to interact with local social practices and institutions. We need to know how to behave in the doctor's office, police station, and grocery store. We need to know whether the bus requires exact change. We need some way of understanding the provocative behavior of people we encounter -- panhandlers, teenagers, people asking for directions or a match, strangers in a cafe striking up a conversation. (Think about how challenging each of these situations can be in a foreign city -- and potentially how consequential.) And, of course, there is a wide range of organizational knowledge that we need in the workplace in order to function well within the organization.

So there are innumerable scripts we need to have in mind in order to navigate everyday life. Some of this knowledge has to do with the protocols of mundane institutions, and some of it involves an ability to interpret the intentions of other people as they seek to interact with us.

Now push back a level and consider another zone of important social knowledge -- knowledge of larger institutional practices that we need to take into account as we plan for the more distant future. What choices can I make today that will benefit me tomorrow, or shelter me from risks the day after? For example -- How does my retirement account work? What will the interest rate be on this variable rate mortgage in three years? How can my friends in the clubhouse or the statehouse help build my new consulting business? How secure is my job with this employer -- should I be looking for work in a more predictable industry? (This might be a question a mechanical engineer asks herself in the auto industry today.)

Now push the zoom-slide another notch and consider the knowledge of the larger social environment that the citizen needs to arrive at political judgments. What is the reality of public schools? How many high school students graduate from high school each year? What is happening in the labor market -- how much unemployment, how many new jobs are being created, what sectors and skills are in demand? How much hunger, poverty, and inequality is there in my region or state? What are the facts about the availability of health insurance within the general population? How much corruption and abuse of power is there within our government?

At roughly this level of abstraction are topics having to do with science and technology. How risky is nuclear power? How urgent a problem is global warming? What percentage of greenhouse gases stem from autos and what share from coal-fired electricity?

These last areas of knowledge are the most problematic. As we move up the scale from the face-to-face environment to knowledge of more distant social and environmental factors, it is almost certain that most people's beliefs become hazier, less accurate, and less comprehensive. Our stereotyped representations of things like poverty, opportunity, schooling, and employment levels are notoriously incomplete and inaccurate. And maybe this is entirely predictable from a cognitive "cost-benefit" point of view. It may be that the personal cost of being ignorant of the extent of global climate change, poverty, or urban health deficits is low. But from a collective point of view, this widespread ignorance is disastrous. It is hard to see how an electoral consensus can emerge in support of policies that are intelligently designed to solve major problems if the great majority of voters lack an understanding of those problems.

And here is a large and important question: to what extent is it realistic to expect that the general public can become knowledgeable, at some level of approximation, about how their society works? Is it inevitable that most citizens will have a clear knowledge of their neighborhoods but a very limited and often erroneous knowledge of the broader society? Or is there some hope that universities, news media, and the internet can do a better job of providing a reasonably accurate representation of some of the most pressing social realities and problems, in such a way that the broad population will come to be better informed about the workings of contemporary society?

(See "Folk Sociology" for more on this theme.)