I have a series of ongoing writing projects, but here are the three major research areas that occupy much of my working time, and for which I sometimes have funding to support research assistants.
- Toleration and Representation in the Medieval City. Building on earlier conceptual work and contributing a longstanding book project, the scholarly aim of this research is data collection and consolidation to explore the correlates and dynamics of toleration and political accountability, as legal and civic principles, in medieval European towns and cities. The broader context of this research is to better understand how liberal-democratic political values and legal principles evolved out of specific spatial and civic forms in Europe.
These are well-studied topics, but over the past decade a great many archives and academic collections of medieval documents have been digitized and made available to researchers, and economic historians and others (e.g. Sheilagh Ogilvie, David Stasavage, Gregory Clark) have advanced our understanding of town and city life in medieval Europe by assembling data on population and boundary changes over time, degree and character of urban autonomy, credit and finance, price levels for commodities, and other social and political factors.
Our interest here is the changing character of toleration and representation in medieval cities: how these principles were understood, and how those understandings informed legal statutes, judgements, and civic practices. We are looking at a wealth of existing documentation, much now available electronically, to construct measures of legal judgements relating to outsiders (typically through commercial relations); changing density of trading networks (measured through number of recorded transactions); and the changes over time and across region (northern versus southern) in membership rules for craft and merchant guilds, on the one hand, and town and patrician councils, on the other.
- 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 2000 US Community Benchmark Survey, but in other settings as well, researchers find that racial diversity in particular is correlated 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.
Distinct from the extant literatures on diversity, trust, and civic engagement, we are asking whether certain local features, especially neighbourhood 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, integrating existing data on Canadian public opinion and political behaviour with geographic information about neighbourhood features to allow more fine-grained spatial resolution in examining relationships between trust, civic engagement, and residential diversity. 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.
- Democratizing Knowledge: Virtues of Science and Citizenship. Working with colleagues James Wong and Brandon Morgan-Olsen, we have an ongoing collaboration bringing a variety of debates in social epistemology and the philosophy science into fruitful exchanges with democratic theory and political philosophy. We have argued about deliberative democracy and democratic impulses in the sciences, as well as the institutional virtues appropriate to both science and citizenship in plural democratic societies. Central to these and our continuing collaborations are questions about (i) the logical characteristics and public implementations of theories of justification, and (ii) the epistemic and justificatory character of dissent in complex scientific and policy debates, such as those surrounding climate change.