The Journey of My (Still Unpublished, But Finally Written) Paper

Almost a quarter of the way into the year and it’s my first post of 2021. A few things have perhaps happened since my last rather bitter post.

But this isn’t a post about any of those things. This is a post about my paper, which I’ve talked about before.

The very idea of what the paper would be evolved many times. The framework came first, based on some spitballing I’d been doing almost entirely in blog form, rooted in many years of obsession with hermeneutics, communitarianism, speech acts/pragmatics, and institutional analysis, obsessions to which I subjected many innocent friends, and obsessions which my whole project is largely aimed at bringing to the ground, and giving bones, blood, and flesh.

The original conceit was to focus on various types of actors and the actions available to them, and the ways these actions reverberate in the social environment the actors are acting in. I was stunned when I read David Mayhew’s book, America’s Congress: Actions in the Public Sphere because it displayed a worldview very similar to my own, in which institutions provide actors with stage of action, indeed make certain categories of action possible that otherwise would not be. Josh Chafetz’s Congress’s Constitution took a very similar approach as well. Actual adoption of a framework like this was relatively rare among what I read but much of the analytical and empirical work I have encountered in my project is comfortably compatible with it.

I walked through the various iterations of the basic formula in an earlier post. Naturally, since it has been three months, that formula has changed again. Actually, it changed in just the last week, but I will get to that.

Back in August or September, I thought I had the basic formula licked. In fact, I thought I had the whole theory section nailed down, and all I needed to do was get through the application. My first plan was to apply it to a detailed institutional analysis of Congress, as that was a topic I had spent the most time on so far. This quickly proved too intractable and nonspecific an object. I can’t say what exactly put me on the course I eventually followed, but I think it was watching the Baldwin/Buckley debate. Early on Baldwin notes:

We have a civil rights bill now. We had the 15th Amendment nearly 100 years ago. If it was not honored then, I have no reason to believe that the civil rights bill will be honored now.

When I watched, I thought he was referring to the Voting Rights Act, but the timing of the debate was such that he must have been referring to the Civil Rights Act of 1964; the VRA would be passed later in 1965 than the debate occurred. The VRA did make a difference, where the 15th Amendment did not. This framing hooked me; so much of my research has centered around this exact sort of question. Why did this law have an effect but this one did not? Why did a statute make such a difference when an amendment did not?

I decided that would be the application. By the end of September I had written a very rough draft, based on what I knew of the VRA’s history. On Adam Rust’s recommendation, I then read Ari Berman’s Give Us the Ballot which traced that history in tremendously granular detail. I finished the book in October, but progress on my paper was halting and a struggle. Part of that was simply, well, life. Work, Liberal Currents, the pandemic, two small children; I have felt stretched much more thinly these past couple of months than I somehow did for the bulk of 2020, for reasons I could not explain purely by pointing at objective events which occurred during that time. Anyway, we’ve all been there this past year, we all are there still, some much more so than me.

But beyond these difficulties was a more prosaic problem; I was not sure how to turn the ingredients that Berman offered into the dish I wished to cook. My framework demanded a lot, and he supplied it, but that didn’t mean that I had the skill to use those materials. It was a much bigger challenge than anything I had previously attempted.

I decided to take a page from the way I laid the groundwork for my essay on the media’s early coverage of the pandemic, and construct a timeline. I began, sporadically, in January, and managed to get it done in February. The morbidly curious may see the mess of a thing if you so wish. It helped me get (somewhat) structured and get me going again; I began the second draft in earnest in mid-February.

Looking at things through the lens of why some specific action by some specific actor was more effective than others can get you searching for information at a level more granular than even Berman or others go. At one point I became somewhat obsessed with the question of why federal agents being able to directly add names to voting rolls would make such a difference. Aren’t they just names in a list? Wouldn’t it have been trivially easy for southern officials to smile and nod when federal officials handed them the lists, and then simply thrown them in the trash, or marked them in some way to indicate to poll workers not to let those people vote when they showed up on election day?

I could not find the details about this hand off, or any real particulars of how federal agents taking down names translated into official recognition on election day. So I speculated a little. Here’s an excerpt from the current version of the paper:

To understand the power of voting rolls, consider the scenario of businesses who wish to underreport their revenue. Superficially, simply lying about revenue seems like an easy task. But correct knowledge of income and costs is crucial for businesses to operate at all, so in practice this deception requires keeping one set of closely guarded documents for the people running the business to see, and one set of documents for tax purposes. The existence of the secret documents is a vulnerability; their discovery would constitute proof of noncompliance.

Voting rolls are similar; county officials can keep two sets of voting rolls but need to give a list of names to poll workers on election day. Federal examiners are authorized by the VRA to check that list and compare it to a list of who federal agents had registered in that county. Blatant noncompliance, so long as examiners were watching, was therefore much more difficult. And once examiners have registered a large number of voters in a jurisdiction and overseen an election, the newly registered voters will, so the theory goes, have exerted their influence at the polls and changed the electoral calculus, at least a little.

I couldn’t find anyone who walked through the particulars, so I posited a model that I think is pretty plausible. No idea if this kind of thing will pass muster at a peer reviewed journal, but I think it’s a pretty good model, and I hadn’t seen any attempt to try to explain things at this level.

Obsessions and struggles aside, I finished the second draft the first week of March, and felt pretty good about. But I knew I was way too close to it. I didn’t just need someone to help me edit it, I needed someone who would tear it apart and find the weaknesses I wasn’t capable of seeing any more. So I asked my friend Andrew, who has a skill for finding such weaknesses. And he absolutely obliterated my paper.

Honestly, I was so in awe of how completely he tore it apart that I wasn’t even bothered by watching all those months of work fall apart before my eyes. More encouragingly, he saw very clearly what it was I was trying to do, and his feedback was often in the spirit of “stop giving us all this irrelevant history unless you can actually tie it back to your framework and describe it in those terms.” After obsessing at the level of voting rolls, it did smart to see several passages he called out for being too abstracted from particulars!

Somehow his demolition was actually inspiring rather than disheartening, because I turned around an almost complete rewrite of the paper in under a week. Andrew looked it over again and had only minor feedback.

That timeline that I built up over months? Ended up being almost completely irrelevant to the final product. But the work was not wasted, exactly. The reason I could knock this draft out so quickly this time, even though very little of the second draft’s text was preserved, is that I’d become very familiar with all the particulars. Even though I had to throw out a lot, it was trivially easy for me to draw on what I did need very quickly, and assemble it into the shape I needed it to be.

The last crucial ingredient was an old paper—ironically, from 1965. I wanted to get at what people talk about when they talk about norms, but it seemed to me that the term was fairly underspecified. Jack P. Gibbs’ “Norms: The Problem of Definition” was an excellent reference point.

I didn’t want to use this gigantic taxonomy, though it helped me to clarify my thinking and I of course cited this paper in mine. But what I actually ended up using, in modified form, were his notions of “collective expectation” and “collective evaluation.”

So the (final, I swear) formula I use involves:

  • Groups that are formed by
  • Collective Perceptions held by individuals in the group, who may become
  • Actors by taking some
  • Action, which, if successful, influences the collective perceptions of the group and therefore the relations among its members.

And I elaborate in another part:

  • Groups are individuals bound together by collective perceptions. This necessarily means that some groups involve more people than are in a particular physical location, but some physical locations become venues in which collective perceptions form a particular group; the courtroom and the comedy club are two such examples. 
  • Collective perceptions are what individuals in the group perceive that other individuals in the group perceive. Collective expectations and collective evaluations are a subset of collective perceptions. Collective expectations are expectations that individuals in the group perceive that other individuals in the group have. Collective evaluations are beliefs about what an actor ought or ought not to do, or what action ought or ought not to be done, that individuals in the group perceive other individuals in the group to have. The exact proportion of individuals who must hold this perception, and how widely they must believe the perceptions, expectations, or evaluations are held, in order for it to shape the character of a group, is a difficult empirical matter that is outside the scope of this paper.
  • Actions come in many types but the basic distinction drawn in this paper is between those that cause an immediate change in institutional status and those that do not.
  • Actors are simply anyone in a group who is taking action. The actions available to them are determined by a number of factors, including the particular collective perceptions of the particular group, but also technology. Crucially for this paper, some actors are collectively perceived to fill a role in some group which gives them authority, or the collective evaluation that some specific other actors ought to show deference to them and their actions within some specific domain of action.

This is, I think, a far superior formulation to the one I had landed on back in September (which you can see here, as well as its precursors). Wrestling with collective perception and its aspects made the crucial difference, for which I owe the Gibbs paper.

The application part of the paper actually applies this to a much greater extent than the formula in the second draft was applied in its application section. There’s very little about the 15th Amendment or the VRA that I describe without putting it into these terms and illustrating what the framework sheds light on. I added a particularly involved discussion of why actors in Congress and the rest of the federal government who thought the situation in the south was unconstitutional and unjust nevertheless had their hands tied by the nature of the collective perceptions that formed the very groups which provided them with the possibility of taking action on that matter.

Long story short (too late) I am very pleased with how this has turned out. I’m going to have one or two more people take a look at it before I start reaching out to some friends I have in the academic world, to ask for advice on how I should go about seeking to get this published. No guarantee it will be published, but for now, I am relishing the accomplishment of having cleared the struggle of writing it. It will make it out into the world, one way or another. But I hope that it does so in a peer-reviewed journal.

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Adam Gurri

Adam Gurri works in digital advertising and writes for pleasure on his spare time.