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Wilfrid Laurier University Faculty of Arts
April 24, 2014
Canadian Excellence


I am presently completing a longstanding project on democracy and city life, which examines the ideals and practices of liberal democracy through the lens of the city: first, the towns and cities of medieval Europe, and then the more familiar sprawling urban regions of the present day. A book has grown out of this project, which is the culmination of a decade of publications and research, some conducted by very talented WLU undergraduates under a SSHRC research grant (2007-2010). Several of those very talented research assistants are now pursuing their own graduate research in geography, politics, law, and urban planning.

As this project nears completion, I am beginning work on two new research projects, for which undergraduate research positions may eventually be available, dependent on external funding. The first is largely empirical, the second almost entirely philosophical.

I. Diversity and the Micropolitics of Democratic Engagement

A growing body of research finds tradeoffs between cultural and ethnic diversity, on the one hand, and a range of apparent civic virtues on the other. Most notably in Robert Putnam's remarkable Community Benchmark Survey but in other settings as well, researchers find that racial diversity in particular is associated with declines in civic and political participation and engagement with others. Citizens in diverse settings read less, talk less with others, report trusting each other less and are sceptical of government and elected officials; they vote less, have fewer friends, and read less news and watch more television.

An obvious inference is that diversity undermines democracy, at least insofar as democratic politics seems as if it ought to work better when citizens care about politics, trust one another, have some faith in elected officials and government agencies, become informed, and participate in public life. To the extent that these virtues are undercut by diversity, democracy suffers.

Or so the argument goes. There are a range of responses to this line of reasoning that challenge the premise: does democracy really need trust and engagement? There are also empirical caveats: are these effects really very pronounced? are they in fact widespread? are they largely a short- to medium-term phenomenon?

Our interest here is distinct from these responses. We ask whether certain local features of populations -- especially local institutions that encourage and mediate citizen engagement -- are of critical importance to the findings that Putnam and others report. It is no surprise that most of the diverse communities that turn up in these studies are in urban regions. To this end we are reexamining US and Canadian survey evidence that speaks to this suspicion, and we hope eventually to implement a variation of Putnam's survey instrument in Canadian cities using matched samples, selecting pairs of demographically similar neighbourhoods that differ with respect to particular forms of local associations that mediate citizen participation. We are especially interested in neighbourhoods that have remained diverse for long periods of time.

II. What is the "Theory" in Political Theory?

A great many of us in academia would be utterly lost if, through some bizarre linguistic happenstance, the word "theory" disappeared from our lexicon.  We use "theory" so often, almost without thinking, and we use it to mean many distinct and not always compatible things.

Sometimes we talk loosely of theory to mean something like "approach" or "framework", in other settings to mean "model", and in still others to refer to a logically coherent collection of concepts and models. We often use "theory" to unite a series of related explanations according to some deep principle or mechanism. But in political theory the meaning is rarely explanatory, far more often critical and prescriptive: a theory is some unified set of critical claims and morally attractive prescriptions.

Some of us debate the connection between explanatory efforts and these critical and prescriptive ambitions: do the latter depend on the former? can the latter inform or guide the former? This project explores these questions by asking what makes for an attractive normative theory about politics. What are the relevant moral and epistemic criteria for an attractive normative theory? What, for that matter, is a normative theory? What are the relationships between epistemic and moral criteria with respect to theory evaluation and comparison?