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Avoiding Politics: How Americans Produce Apathy in Everyday Life

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Nina Eliasoph's vivid portrait of American civic life reveals an intriguing culture of political avoidance. Open-ended political conversation among ordinary citizens is said to be the fount of democracy, but many Americans try hard to avoid appearing to care about politics. To discover how, where, and why Americans create this culture of avoidance, the author accompanied Nina Eliasoph's vivid portrait of American civic life reveals an intriguing culture of political avoidance. Open-ended political conversation among ordinary citizens is said to be the fount of democracy, but many Americans try hard to avoid appearing to care about politics. To discover how, where, and why Americans create this culture of avoidance, the author accompanied suburban volunteers, activists, and recreation club members for two and a half years, listening to them talk - and avoid talking - about the wider world, both within their groups and in their encounters with government, the media, and corporate authorities. This is a unique book which challenges received ideas about culture, power, and democracy, while exposing the hard work of producing apathy. Its clear exposition of the qualitative methods used also makes it exceptionally useful for students of political and cultural sociology, communications, and politics.


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Nina Eliasoph's vivid portrait of American civic life reveals an intriguing culture of political avoidance. Open-ended political conversation among ordinary citizens is said to be the fount of democracy, but many Americans try hard to avoid appearing to care about politics. To discover how, where, and why Americans create this culture of avoidance, the author accompanied Nina Eliasoph's vivid portrait of American civic life reveals an intriguing culture of political avoidance. Open-ended political conversation among ordinary citizens is said to be the fount of democracy, but many Americans try hard to avoid appearing to care about politics. To discover how, where, and why Americans create this culture of avoidance, the author accompanied suburban volunteers, activists, and recreation club members for two and a half years, listening to them talk - and avoid talking - about the wider world, both within their groups and in their encounters with government, the media, and corporate authorities. This is a unique book which challenges received ideas about culture, power, and democracy, while exposing the hard work of producing apathy. Its clear exposition of the qualitative methods used also makes it exceptionally useful for students of political and cultural sociology, communications, and politics.

30 review for Avoiding Politics: How Americans Produce Apathy in Everyday Life

  1. 5 out of 5

    Andrea McDowell

    Nina Eliasoph somehow managed to write a biography of my adult life when I was still in high school and university. I'll back up: I started high school in 1990 (around the time Nina was starting her research); I graduated from University in 1999 (about a year after the book was published). During and since, I've volunteered with the Big Sisters, with Girl Guides, helped start my high school's environmental club and served as secretary treasurer, and so on (Chapter 2: Volunteers trying to make Nina Eliasoph somehow managed to write a biography of my adult life when I was still in high school and university. I'll back up: I started high school in 1990 (around the time Nina was starting her research); I graduated from University in 1999 (about a year after the book was published). During and since, I've volunteered with the Big Sisters, with Girl Guides, helped start my high school's environmental club and served as secretary treasurer, and so on (Chapter 2: Volunteers trying to make sense of the world and Chapter 3: 'Close to home' and 'for the children': trying really hard not to care). I've always loved dancing, and in the past several years have become part of several local social dance groups (Chapter 4: Humor, nostalgia, and commercial culture in the postmodern public sphere (largely about her research in country-western dance socials)). And I've joined and worked with activist organizations to try to shift policy and regulation on things like climate change (Chapter 7: Activists carving out a place in the public sphere for discussion), while navigating the media landscape both as an activist trying to gain some publicity to build support and as a freelancer publishing the occasional article (Chapter 8: Newspapers in the cycle of political evaporation). As a Mom, I've often found myself relying on my care for my child to justify and explain my care for larger issues (Eliasoph's "Mandatory Momism") and have discussed many times with friends the reflexive societal and personal sexism in doing so. And I've had too many conversations with too many people in too many contexts to count, with people who knew all the distressing facts, and not only refused to acknowledge any personal investment in the issue at hand, but reacted to any suggestion that they take some action to change the situation as if it were a hostile act (Chapter 6: Strenuous disengagement and cynical chic solidarity). All of this made for the uncomfortable feeling of reading about my own life, set thousands of miles away in another country about thirty years ago. Because you could basically swap out some terms and issues and have a fairly accurate depiction of my own experiences in the same or similar spaces now. Avoiding Politics is essentially anthropological research undertaken in the US on the sociological issue of why Americans aren't publicly engaged in politics: why they don't talk about it, why they profess not to care, what this alarming apathy is all about. Nina chose a coastal American city and joined as many groups as she could: volunteer, activist, social, whatever. She recorded as many of the conversations there as she could, and also conducted joint and individual interviews with other members asking them about their political knowledge and participation. And then she analyzed all of this. This may sound as exciting as dry toast, but I had a hard time putting it down. The conversations and her analyses were fascinating. I would love to see an update that accounts for the explosion of the internet in the years since, because while there were obvious overlaps with cynical chic solidarity and activism, our experience of political speech in our actual lived lives hasn't changed much despite the explosion of FB and blogging and Twitter. If anything, it's just made it all worse. Anyway: her hypothesis is that we are dealing with a culture of political etiquette that makes speaking in public in non-self-interested ways about issues of social concern "rude." Everyone in her book struggles against this: the social dangers and recreation groups feel that public dialogue requires expertise, and they don't have it so they're not allowed to speak, but also that activists don't have it so their public speech is grandstanding and attention-seeking. The volunteers feel that "getting things done" is what's important and speech doesn't change anything, so public speech needs to be relentlessly positive about the positive impacts volunteers can make and totally avoid any questions of broader impact or powerlessness so as to protect fragile senses of empowerment and effectiveness. The "cynical chic" group would describe in relentless, obsessive detail the many issues they "don't care about" because it "doesn't affect them personally"--even when the issue in question was the safety record of a nuclear generating facility a few kilometres from their home. All three had such deep and unquestioning assumptions that everyone is selfish and motivated by self-interest that even the volunteers, who devoted countless hours a week to improving the lives of others in their communities, spoke about their efforts in terms of what they themselves got out of it: getting out of the house, meeting people, etc. And the activists, deeply wanting to make broader impacts and with substantial global concerns, so struggled with finding ways to articulate this in public that they often reflexively fell back into self-interested speech (and when they didn't were completely ignored by the press). While the issues these groups struggled with--nuclear war and energy, toxics incinerators and waste production, arms manufacturing and shipments--are rooted in a different time and place, and are less prevalent in the work I'm trying to do, I found parallels with modern issues in every instance: "You can only talk about an issue in public if you are a technical expert on that issue!" --> Munchin attacking Greta for her climate activisim because of her lack of economics degree "You can only talk about an issue in public if you have a concrete proposal for exactly how to solve it!" --> Critisisms of BLM protestors whose message of "stop killing us" isn't enough unless it's back up by a ten-point action plan for how police should stop killing black people "Activists are just grandstanding and looking for attention!" --> All of them, really, but it's all over coverage of Greta and the school strikers "We shouldn't be looking at broader issues because this is really a matter of family values/individual choice." --> Fossil fuel companies running ads telling people to solve climate change by putting in better insulation; people attacking climate activists if their own lifestyle choices aren't 100% perfect "You have to do your own research and make up your own mind" --> anti-vaxxers, climate denialists You get the idea. Ultimately, Eliasoph found that EVERYBODY cared, everybody was concerned about broader political issues and connections (even if they needed some time with a listening ear to be able to articulate it), but NO ONE felt entitled or allowed to articulate that in public. Which is certainly my experience. Now, if you're anything like me, your response, "Holy shit! What do we do about this?" Eliasoph's suggestions are on the thin side, and really consist only of "creating public contexts and spaces where people can talk about political issues for the sake of talking about political issues." That broad public speech and debate about politics is how power is created in democracies, so we should create those spaces. But, in the spirit of embracing her argument that apathy is a creation of self- and society-imposed limitations on the value of speech for its own sake, I will not criticize the lack of specificity. I will however point to the an initiative started by a friend of mine in Toronto called Why Should I Care? which is a monthly salon in a Toronto bar where people come to hear information and talk about various political issues with total strangers. This is something I'd love to start up in my own town, but of course with a mountain of "it's not appropriate to talk about politics in public" to contend with, it's not easy to find people who want to create that space. I live in hope. If you are in or near Toronto, you should go--my experience there was very positive. ~~~~ This is the third of the trio of "apathy and democracy in decline" books I've read so far this year, so let's connect it to Teardown and The Return of History to wrap it up: All three books and authors are deeply concerned with the state of global affairs and politics; all three point to serious and worsening issues, and the almost complete lack of public engagement on those issues, and what certainly looks like apathy. Welsh describes the issues in some detail, and concludes that citizens in liberal democracies have to stop shopping and start engaging with politics. Meslin describes the many ways such citizens are prevented from doing so by institutional structures; he argues that in private people do care, but they don't engage because they can't. Eliasoph would argue, I believe, that Meslin's experiences with private conversations showing care while public actions show apathy is a prime example of exactly what she finds in her research, and it's not just that institutional structures are frustrating and opaque (though they can be), but that public debate and discussion on political matters is considered by most people to be rude--that it is against political etiquette, and that we need to create the spaces for people to experience building their voice and their analysis before we can expect them to go to meetings or talk to politicians. After all, without that experience, and without having built their analysis, what on earth would they say? How could they participate, except on the solely-technical grounds that the meetings are created for, that presuppose the entire point being the self-interest of the community? They were all good books with something valuable to add to the conversation, but I found Eliasoph's most satisfying. Certainly it's the most challenging, without Welsh's simple advice to vote more, or Meslin's directives for governments to make better public meeting notices. There is no easy way to shift political etiquette to make it not-rude for non-experts with no technical knowledge and no concrete idea of specific action outcomes to talk in public as if their words have value for their own sake, but this is what she is advocating, and I think she is bang-on.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Luke

    Depressing and funny, this sociological exploration of "the evaporation of politics from the public sphere" is a biting look into how Americans explain and engage with each other on political topics (and how they mostly do not). Through observation, participation, and interviews Eliasoph presents individual and group interactions in community volunteer groups, country western dance bars, and local activist groups, and shows how ideas and expectations of "self-interest" in particular stop public Depressing and funny, this sociological exploration of "the evaporation of politics from the public sphere" is a biting look into how Americans explain and engage with each other on political topics (and how they mostly do not). Through observation, participation, and interviews Eliasoph presents individual and group interactions in community volunteer groups, country western dance bars, and local activist groups, and shows how ideas and expectations of "self-interest" in particular stop public debate from even getting started, even in settings that . Self-interest in the sense that: concern for personal (or your children's) health or property value is the only reason to question a proposed hazardous waste incinerator; actively seeking to publicize an issue must be for self-aggrandizement alone; helping other individuals is the only useful effort that a person can make towards addressing social problems. Eliasoph makes it clear that though these were the acceptable public faces people put on issues, in private they were more willing to express broader concerns or expectations. She also explores how officials (city, state, industry) and local media discount the possibility of public debate producing information - discussion as unnecessary as all goals are presumed and all information is from experts. An enjoyable read, and highly non-cynical: the author actively points to alternatives as she finds aspects of each group's behavior self-defeating and unwittingly designed to avoid engagement - the most depressing aspect was recognizing parts of these traits in myself.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Caitlin

    I found this book from a keywords search while looking for resources for an english paper. In thumbing through it to find passages relevant to my paper, I kept getting distracted by interesting but irrelevant passages (which was bad, since I was on a deadline). Though I didn't read it in it's entirety, I got enough of it to know it's an excellent book. A really neat study in how Americans react and respond to politics. There are lots of fascinating (and humorous) personal interviews and I found this book from a keywords search while looking for resources for an english paper. In thumbing through it to find passages relevant to my paper, I kept getting distracted by interesting but irrelevant passages (which was bad, since I was on a deadline). Though I didn't read it in it's entirety, I got enough of it to know it's an excellent book. A really neat study in how Americans react and respond to politics. There are lots of fascinating (and humorous) personal interviews and conversations, and Eliasoph's conclusions are interesting and intelligent. Not at all the boring, dry, book-length research paper I was expecting.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Ben O'loughlin

    Acute analysis of why the US public sphere is the way it is, through years of fieldwork and listening to daily conversations, attending volunteer groups, activist groups and country-western clubs in a small coastal community. A bit stretched in length - most of the key points are within the first few chapters. Also evaluates the discussions she listens to in terms of her own ideal of public speech (as Michael Warner has critiqued). But an extremely vivid portrayal of political unhappiness and Acute analysis of why the US public sphere is the way it is, through years of fieldwork and listening to daily conversations, attending volunteer groups, activist groups and country-western clubs in a small coastal community. A bit stretched in length - most of the key points are within the first few chapters. Also evaluates the discussions she listens to in terms of her own ideal of public speech (as Michael Warner has critiqued). But an extremely vivid portrayal of political unhappiness and frustration.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Melissa

    This book provides a nice weaving together of traditional sociological thought (for instance drawing from Durkheim, to Goffman, and many others) and ethnographic data on political engagement and disengagement. Eliasoph's point about the production of apathy in everyday politics is multifaceted and provides a window for better understanding what tends to come across as a disconnect between Democracy and dwindling civic engagement and a thin public sphere.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Jonathan

    None

  7. 4 out of 5

    Eli Lesser

  8. 4 out of 5

    MichelleQ

  9. 4 out of 5

    Lina Myritz

  10. 4 out of 5

    Jo

  11. 5 out of 5

    E.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Vince Kueter

  13. 4 out of 5

    E

  14. 4 out of 5

    Tiffany

  15. 5 out of 5

    Melanie

  16. 4 out of 5

    Will

  17. 5 out of 5

    Nicki

  18. 5 out of 5

    Alex Mawdo

  19. 5 out of 5

    Liz

  20. 5 out of 5

    Andrewhorvitz

  21. 5 out of 5

    Magenta Loera

  22. 5 out of 5

    Melissa

  23. 4 out of 5

    Jonathan.hussain

  24. 5 out of 5

    Jonathan

  25. 5 out of 5

    Stephen

  26. 5 out of 5

    Michelle

  27. 4 out of 5

    Morgan Turnage

  28. 5 out of 5

    Hibah Kamal-Grayson

  29. 4 out of 5

    Nickie Wild

  30. 4 out of 5

    Megan

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