USC College Sociologist Paul Lichterman explores American civic life
By Kaitlin Solimine
The widespread belief that increased participation in civic groups will lead to a more democratic and engaged society doesn’t always hold true, in Paul Lichterman’s view.
Lichterman, a USC College sociologist, is passionate about his studies of American civic life—and equally passionate that his recent appointment as an associate professor will enhance his research.
“There is this idea that if only people go out and get active, a broader community develops automatically,” says Lichterman. “It isn’t automatic at all. The process really depends on what people assume makes a good group, or a good citizen.”
The cultural diversity and social inequality present in Los Angeles was a strong factor in his choice of USC, he says. “L.A. is a great living laboratory for understanding relationships between civic groups.”
“I see the College in an exciting time of building on its strengths and expanding liberal arts. I hear people all over the country saying that, too. I want to be part of the excitement,” says Lichterman, who was recruited to USC College along with his wife, Associate Professor of Sociology Nina Eliasoph, as part of the College’s senior hiring initiative.
Relationships among those active in the community are at the heart of Lichterman’s inquiry into why civic groups often have trouble working together to achieve a greater public good. While many sociologists have assumed that more civic participation leads to more bridges between diverse groups, Lichterman goes to civic groups and watches and listens carefully. In doing so, he finds that assumption often is wrong.
So instead, he says, his work focuses on discovering what people think “community” is, and how they try to build it. He looks at how and when “bridge-building” occurs between civic groups and between the groups and the community, as well as what hinders that connection.
In Search of Community
Lichterman’s sociological quest to understand “the greater civic good” has been based largely on his interest in “thinking about big social questions and then exploring how they play out in everyday life.”
His ethnographic “public sociologist” research approach of observing civic groups in group meetings and at public events allows Lichterman to, as he says, “offer active citizens a mirror, a set of reflections they can use to talk about their own goals and frustrations.”
And these frustrations, says Lichterman, arise because different groups share different customary beliefs about the role of a civic group in society.
In a study of faith-based civic organizations for his forthcoming book, Elusive Togetherness (Princeton University Press, 2005), Lichterman found that even members who shared the same religious beliefs could have different ideas about what it meant to be a civic organization, and what the organization’s role in the community should be.
“I found that the same religious beliefs turned different people in very different directions,” he says. “Some of the liberal, mainline Protestants I studied assumed a good church group is a gathering of charitable volunteers or ‘helpers.’ Other mainline Protestants thought a good church group should act like a ‘partner,’ creating new ‘public’ goods. The difference here was not a matter of differing religious beliefs, or even differing political beliefs, but different customary ideas about what a good group is and what the role of a religious group in public life should be—it’s different customs, different ways of doing things together.”
To understand these customs as well as how people learn to be better citizens and exercise social responsibility, Lichterman has found that it’s best to start small.
“A lot of the most powerful parts of culture are subtle, taken-for-granted understandings that many people share but few discuss,” he says, referring to his observations of civic group interactions. “This subtle level of culture is powerful precisely because people don’t often call it into question. But it is just these little everyday misunderstandings that create miscommunication and trip up the most sincere efforts to talk together and build community across racial and class barriers.”
And ultimately, Lichterman hopes, studies that lead to a better understanding of these subtleties in the culture of civic life will result in a strengthened social fabric—one in which individuals dare to make mistakes and in the end, create a more just society that includes and bridges cultural differences.
Life in Los Angeles
Lichterman is finding that his academic and personal pursuits are prospering from his recent relocation to USC.
“Both L.A. and USC are great places to study how community and democracy can thrive in an incredibly diverse, painfully unequal city,” says Lichterman. “I like seeing six different languages on the signs along the seven-mile bus ride from USC to my stop. In my own life, I hope to become a participant in L.A.’s diversity and not just a spectator.”