Minority Operated Farms across the Nation

Minority principal operators (MPOs) of farms in the United States constitute a relatively small percentage of principal operators overall, but they represent a growing demographic as the number of independent farms continues to decline.   In some states MPOs now comprise more than 50% of operators. This brief essay provides insight into the geographic distribution of farms managed by MPOs.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has defined a farm as any place from which $1,000 or more of agricultural products is produced and sold, or normally would have been sold, during a calendar year. According to the USDA, a principal operator is responsible for a farm’s day-to-day operations. This individual also typically considers farming his or her primary occupation. For the purposes of this essay, minority principal operators include five categories of farmers:

  • Hispanic, which defines a region of origin, not a person’s race;
  • American Indian or Native American;
  • Black or African American;
  • Asian; and multi-race, persons who identify with more than one race.
  • In addition, USDA recognizes Native Hawaiian / Pacific Islanders in Hawaii and Alaska Natives in Alaska.

The U.S. agriculture and farming industry now has approximately 2,109,303 principal farm operators and MPOs make up more than 151,891 of that total. MPO’s are a relatively small percentage of principal operators, but, as noted above, they represent a growing demographic, despite the nationwide decline of individuals who consider farming their primary occupation. From 2007 – 2012, the number of principal operators of farms decreased by 4.3%, (NASS Farm Demographics Highlights). Meanwhile, the number of MPOs in each minority group USDA tracks rose during the same period (Figure 1). States located in the Southwest have the highest number of MPOs, followed by Southeastern states (Figure 2). In the Southwest, Hispanic principal operators predominate in California, New Mexico and Texas; Native American MPOs constitute a major presence in Oklahoma, New Mexico and Arizona; Asian MPOs prevail in California; and African American MPOs are much in evidence in Texas. The next largest regional distribution of MPOs is located in the southeast, where African American principal operators constitute a major demographic, although several other states, including Colorado, Washington, Hawaii and Alaska have a sizeable number of MPOs as well. The seven states with more than 5,000 MPOs together are home to 70% of all such farmers (Figures 3-4 and Tables 2 and 3). In addition, MPOs today comprise more than 10% of all principal operator farmers in these states (in the top four instances they make up 19.25% – 62.38% of MPOs in those states). Two of those high percentage MPO states are among the top agriculture producing areas in the nation. California is the top such state with 19% MPOs, while Texas, the third highest agriculture producing state, has 14% MPOs.

Despite the growth of MPOs, the majority of such farms produce sales of less than $10,000 (NASS Farm Demographics Highlights). This over representation in the $10,000 or less sales class translates into lower representation in higher sales classes (Table 1). There is an exception; MPO farms with Asian principal operators “tend to be smaller in size than farms overall, but have higher sales” (NASS AI/AN Highlights). This may be due in part to their production of specialty crops.

This preliminary analysis offers a snapshot of the locations in which MPOs are concentrated across the nation (Figure 2). The next step in my inquiry is to explore why most MPOs produce sales of less than $10,000. Where are Hispanics, African Americans and American Indians who are underrepresented in the higher sales classes, $50,000 to $99,999 and $100,000+, located? What qualities do MPOs in each sales class have that supported their entry into that group? What education, training, knowledge, and/or background do the most successful MPOs have in common? Which states generate the highest MPO farm sales and production? In which states are MPOs well integrated into the food system? What organizations provide assistance to MPOs? Where are federal, state and local resources earmarked for MPOs being directed and why? Are these resources having an impact? What has motivated these MPOs to enter into farming?

Figure 1

Minority Principal Operators 2007 and 2012

Table 1

Share of Farms by Sales Class for Minority Operators, 2012

(percent of group)



All Farms   Hispanic American


Black Asian
Less than $10,000 56.6 68.4 78.1 78.9 43.4
$10,000 to $49,999 18.9 17.1 14.3 15.6 22.3
$50,000 to $99,999 6.1 4.5 2.9 2.4 7.5
$100,000 or more 18.4 10.0 4.7 3.1 26.8
Total 100 100 100 100 100

Source: USDA NASS, 2012 Census of Agriculture.

Figure 2 

Number of Minority Principal Farm Operators within States

Number of Minority Principal Farm Operators within States


Figure 3 (see Table 2)

States with 10,000+ minority principal farm operators 2012


Figure 4 (see Table 3)

States with 5,000-9,999 minority principal farm operators



Figure 5 (see table 4)

States with 2,500-4,999 minority principal farm operators

Figure 6 (see table 5)

States with 1,000-2,499 minority principal farm operators

Table 2

States with 10,000+ minority principal farm operators, 2012

State AI/AN % AI/AN NHPI % NHPI Asian % Asian Black % Black Hispanic % Hispanic Multi-Race % Multi-Race Total
AZ^ 11,190 92.5% 0 0.0% 97 0.8% 25 0.2% 716 5.9% 72 0.6% 12,100
CA*^ 1,192 7.1% 0 0.0% 4,802 28.6% 345 2.1% 9,815 58.4% 660 3.9% 16,814
NM^ 5,202 35.2% 0 0.0% 29 0.2% 39 0.3% 9,377 63.4% 149 1.0% 14,796
OK^ 7,489 61.9% 0 0.0% 285 2.4% 1,337 11.1% 1,173 9.7% 1,814 15.0% 12,098
TX*^ 2,693 7.3% 0 0.0% 718 1.9% 8,551 23.1% 23,689 64.0% 1,371 3.7% 37,022
                                                                                                  Table 3

                                                   States with 5,000-9,999 minority principal farm operators, 2012

State AI/AN % AI/AN NHPI % NHPI Asian % Asian Black % Black Hispanic % Hispanic Multi-Race % Multi-Race Total
FL^ 386 5.2% 0 0.0% 829 11.3% 1,481 20.1% 4,459 60.6% 203 2.8% 7,358
MS^ 133 2.3% 0 0.0% 66 1.2% 5,029 88.1% 397 7.0% 83 1.5% 5,708


Table 4

States with 5,000-9,999 minority principal farm operators, 2012

State AI/AN % AI/AN NHPI % NHPI Asian % Asian Black % Black Hispanic % Hispanic Multi-Race % Multi-Race Total
AL 488 12.3% 0 0.0% 67 1.7% 2,779 70.1% 332 8.4% 301 7.6% 3,967
AR 507 18.7% 0 0.0% 354 13.0% 1,064 39.2% 509 18.8% 280 10.3% 2,714
CO 270 9.1% 0 0.0% 170 5.7% 47 1.6% 2,318 78.1% 163 5.5% 2,968
GA 127 4.3% 0 0.0% 239 8.1% 1,986 67.3% 443 15.0% 157 5.3% 2,952
HI^ 32 0.7% 613 13.4% 2,824 62.0% 18 0.4% 383 8.4% 688 15.1% 4,558
LA^ 204 6.2% 0 0.0% 64 1.9% 2,359 71.1% 538 16.2% 151 4.6% 3,316
NC* 596 19.3% 0 0.0% 179 5.8% 1,637 53.1% 493 16.0% 179 5.8% 3,084
SC^ 128 5.0% 0 0.0% 67 2.6% 2,025 78.4% 270 10.5% 92 3.6% 2,582
WA 458 14.7% 0 0.0% 436 14.0% 60 1.9% 1,874 60.1% 288 9.2% 3,116

Table 5

States with 2,500-4,999 minority principal farm operators, 2012

State AI/AN % AI/AN NHPI % NHPI Asian % Asian Black % Black Hispanic % Hispanic Multi-Race % Multi-Race Total
ID 154 14.4% 0 0.0% 85 8.0% 14 1.3% 695 65.0% 121 11.3% 1,069
KS* 395 24.7% 0 0.0% 71 4.4% 165 10.3% 693 43.4% 272 17.0% 1,596
KY 178 12.5% 0 0.0% 71 5.0% 437 30.8% 482 33.9% 253 17.8% 1,421
MI 204 15.5% 0 0.0% 54 4.1% 216 16.5% 674 51.3% 165 12.6% 1,313
MO 442 23.7% 0 0.0% 235 12.6% 176 9.4% 548 29.4% 465 24.9% 1,866
MT 1,318 75.2% 0 0.0% 31 1.8% 10 0.6% 246 14.0% 148 8.4% 1,753
OR 403 21.9% 0 0.0% 286 15.5% 31 1.7% 882 47.9% 241 13.1% 1,843
SD* 817 71.9% 0 0.0% 5 0.4% 6 0.5% 200 17.6% 109 9.6% 1,137
TN 281 13.7% 0 0.0% 87 4.2% 992 48.3% 467 22.7% 226 11.0% 2,053
VA 180 7.5% 0 0.0% 134 5.6% 1,496 62.1% 470 19.5% 129 5.4% 2,409


*Indicates top ag producing state.

^Indicates MPOs make-up 10% or more of principal operators in the state.

Source: For the above figures and tables: USDA NASS 2012 Census of Agriculture


Quick Stats – 2012 Census of Agriculture data, National Agriculture Statistics Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture https://quickstats.nass.usda.gov/

2012 Census of Agriculture, Highlights, Asian Farmers, ACH12-9 2014, https://www.agcensus.usda.gov/Publications/2012/Online_Resources/Highlights/Asian_Farmers/Highlights_Asian_Farmers.pdf

2012 Census of Agriculture, Highlights, Farm Demographics, ACH12-3 May 2014,


2012 Census of Agriculture, Highlights, Farm Economics, ACH12-2 May 2014,

Lavinia Panizo

Lavinia (Vinnie) Panizo is a Masters student in the Center for Public Administration and Policy (CPAP) at Virginia Tech and is pursuing a Master’s in Public Administration with a certificate in Economic Development. She received her bachelor’s degree in Political Science with a minor in Spanish from Virginia Commonwealth University.  She also has a teaching credential in Secondary Education with a focus on Social Studies and an emphasis in Cross-Cultural Language Acquisition and Development from California State University Northridge.

Posted in Vinnie Panizo | Leave a comment

Advocating for Diversity: A Critique of the Benefits Argument

At a time when racial minorities and immigrants are being used by populist politicians in western countries as scapegoats to mobilize their supporters, the concept of diversity now occupies a central role in political debates. For example, on September 7, 2018, Tucker Carlson, a Fox News network talk show host, questioned the value of population diversity, asking: “How exactly is diversity our strength?” His argument against diversity occasioned numerous reactions on news outlets and social media, outlining the postulated benefits of social heterogeneity. Indeed, this recent incident found many diversity advocates adopt a line of argument based on the benefits of the presence of minority groups for American society. I find this approach in many cases problematic and questionable. Instead, I believe, and argue here, that advocates of diversity should ground their arguments in ethical and justice claims.

Here is an example of the sort of “minorities provide benefits” argument that was so often raised in response to Tucker’s demagoguery. In a New Yorker article published in March of 2017 entitled “The Sriracha Argument for Immigration,” David Sax offered a list of delicious foods and pastries that have found their way onto North Americans’ tables thanks to the presence of diverse groups of immigrants (Sax, 2017). He argued: “When fighting for the rights of immigrants, and the greater ideal of immigration, food just might be an unexpected weapon” (Sax, 2017). He concluded his article by observing: “People brought us lunch from far away. In time, it became the food we associated with home. We should know better than to bite the hands that feed us” (Sax, 2017). Although I do not question the author’s good intentions, I find this line of reasoning problematic.

By linking the argument in favor of diversity with its benefits to a dominant group, advocates associate minority groups’ rights to exist with such provision. This sort of contention seems to suggest that such groups must present something worthy of the gods at Olympus or possibly lose their right to exist. In a sketch on the Not the Nine O’ Clock News show, the comedian Rowan Atkinson, playing the role of a Conservative Party United Kingdom parliament member, highlighted this assumption in a comedy routine: “Now, a lot of immigrants are Indians and Pakistanis for instance, and … I like curry, I do! But now that we’ve got the recipe, is there really any need for them to stay?” (Wilson, 1979) Unfortunately, this sort of thinking is common. On December 9, 2015, for example, George Osborne, a Conservative Party member in the UK parliament, responded to a Labour Party member’s (Rupa Huq) question regarding her concern that an average of two curry houses were closing weekly due to government immigration policies, this way: “We all enjoy a great British curry, but we want the curry chefs to be trained in Britain so that we can provide jobs for people here in this country. That is what our immigration controls provide” (Hansard, 9 December 2015 col 987).

But, there is a more troubling problem inherent in this line of argument. It assumes that the minority groups’ right to exist (and not simply at the policy making level, but also at an individual level) is up to the general public (i.e., the dominant group) and by doing so, this line of reasoning reinforces the dominance of historically privileged groups and maintains the status quo. For instance, a white, heterosexual male in the United States is never asked to justify or legitimize his presence. If one is perceived as a member of the ascendant group, his right to exist is simply accepted, as, indeed, it should be for everyone. A horrifying echo of this problem was evidenced in recent events in Chemnitz, Germany, during which “a group of self-described ‘vigilantes’ […] targeted a birthday celebration, ordering anyone they deemed did not look German to show their identification papers” (“Police arrest far-right ‘vigilantes’ in Chemnitz,” 2018).

Although my examples here concern immigration, a status with which I am quite familiar as a foreigner studying in the United States, the use of the benefits argument is not limited to this subject. The presence of women in the workplace, for example, is frequently advocated on the grounds that it will improve productivity or profitability. Similarly, African Americans are legitimated by arguments pointing up their roles in the music industry or in professional sports. For example, an article on the Center for American Progress (CAP) website reminded its readers that “Even Justin Beiber names Usher, Michael Jackson, and Boyz II Men among his greatest role models” (Ajinkya, 2011).

I argue that the way to avoid this instrumentalization of entire population groups is rooted in advocacy based on ethics. In this view, a society does not choose to be diverse because of the particularistic benefits to one or another group that arise from social heterogeneity. Rather, it accepts those individuals and groups as equals because they are human and, as human beings, they deserve rights on that basis alone and not on whether they supply a sufficient array of perceived benefits to one or another group. In this sense, diversity, without preconditions, is not a choice, but an indication of social justice. Another way to put this point is to suggest that diversity is not a cause; it is an effect of a factual reality. This logic would answer Tucker Carlson’s question: “How exactly is diversity our strength?” by suggesting, “It is not your strength. It is their right.”


Ajinkya, J. (2011, November 22). “Top 10 Reasons to Be Thankful for Diversity.” Retrieved September 27, 2018, from https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/race/news/2011/11/22/10602/top-10-reasons-to-be-thankful-for-diversity/

Hansard,HC Deb vol. 603 col 987 (9 December 2015) [Electronic version]. Retrieved September 15, 2018, from https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201516/cmhansrd/cm151209/debtext/151209-0001.htm

“Police arrest far-right ‘vigilantes’ in Chemnitz.” (2018, September 15). Retrieved September 16, 2018, from https://p.dw.com/p/34vfY

Sax, D. (2017, March 27). “The Sriracha Argument for Immigration.” The New Yorker. Retrieved from https://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/the-sriracha-argument-for-immigration

Wilson, B. (1979). “The Immigration Speech.” Not the Nine O’ Clock News. BBC Two. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p007n19z

Reza Fateminasab

Reza Fateminasab is a PhD student in the Architecture and Design Research program in the School of Architecture + Design at Virginia Tech. He received his Master’s degree from the University of Tehran and his Bachelor’s degree from Tehran University of Art, both in architecture. His current research focuses on the design process and implementation of digital tools within it. He enthusiastically follows the arts and politics.

Posted in Reza Fateminasab | Leave a comment

The Political Dimension of the Challenge of Technological Disruption


While watching a recent interview on YouTube with the world’s first Humanoid Robot citizen, Sophia, [1] at the European Festival Brain Bar on the future held in Budapest, Hungary (Flex Tech July 2018), I was struck by one answer he/she/it gave regarding her consciousness and receipt of Saudi citizenship [2]:

… I am not fully autonomous like a person yet, so I do not really have rights in the same way the people do. I cannot take any actions on my own, not to mention the government has yet to actually do any (sic.) with my rights entail so … I see my citizenship as aspirational, my dream is for everybody to have equal rights, so I hope the question of my citizenship prompt[s] to (sic.) many productive and important debates … [3]

Several thoughts came to mind as I considered this exchange: How should interested scholars and humankind more generally, consider the question of humanoid citizenship? Who is going to facilitate consideration of that question and relatedly, lead human beings through the political changes and challenges that will arise globally from technological innovation irrespective of the outcomes of this specific debate? One issue Sophia raised in her comment above, for example, is whose political agenda should humanoids represent? I want to reflect briefly here on these and like questions arising from the rapid dawning of an international political economy in which machine processing power will require that existing human concerns be addressed in new and fresh ways. I use Brynjolfsson and McAfee’s (2016) book, The Second Machine Age [4], as a referent to contend that while their argument offers an insightful perspective into future debates arising from this sea change in the world’s technology infrastructure, they overlook the complexity of the social contract that must be constructed to address it adequately.

Contextualizing the Debate

According to Brynjolfsson and McAfee (2016), technological innovations are emblems of human progress. The authors define that condition as a people’s “ability to master its physical and intellectual environment to get things done” (Brynjolfsson and McAfee, 2016, p. 4). Roughly 200 years ago during the first industrial revolution humans were able to develop machines, such as the spinning Jenny and the steam engine, that ushered in the modern industrial era (Hillstrom and Hillstrom 2007). Today, computers and digital technologies employ algorithms to allow machines to perform programmed activities without additional intervention. After losing on Jeopardy, a famed television quiz show, to IBM cognitive computer Watson, Ken Jennings, a perennial champion and perceived master of that game, said:

Just as factory jobs were eliminated in the twentieth century by new assembly-line robots, Brad [a co-competitor] and I were the first knowledge-industry workers put out of work by the new generation of ‘thinking’ machines. ‘Quiz show contestant’ may be the first job made redundant by Watson, but I’m sure it won’t be the last. (Jennings, 2011).

The pace of technological innovation has increased not only the possibilities that machines can perform some activities better than humans themselves, but also accelerated the rate at which they are becoming capable of doing so (i.e., driverless cars, the IBM robot Watson diagnosing cancer, Sophia exhibiting facial expressions, etc.). As human beings improve the processing power and algorithm complexity of the computers they design, those units become better at addressing complicated social environments and functioning effectively within them (Schwab 2017). The concern that machines will replace the need for human labor and dispossess millions of their employment possibilities, has arisen regularly in history as new technologies have been developed. Indeed, many technological innovations have transformed portions of the economies adopting them and in so doing often reshaped individuals’ daily activities. However, the current level of social change is materially different in three ways than previous technology driven innovation, according to Brynjolfsson and McAfee (2016): 1) it encourages lasting and cumulative shifts in economic and social organization 2) it fosters new combinations of ideas and encourages their application and 3) its effects are not confined to any single sector of the political economy.

Leontief (1983) has argued that democratic institutions must develop new social contracts during periods of fast-paced technological change. In his view, such can only occur by means of informed citizens engaged in deliberative decision processes. Importantly, these twin criteria can be difficult to meet during periods of significant social shifts and the widespread anxiety that accompanies them. For their part, Brynjolfsson and McAfee (2016) adopted an optimistic view of the impacts of changing technologies in people’s lives. They contended that such situations provide unlimited economic opportunities for the future. For instance, during just the last few decades, shifting technologies have created positions and high wage premiums for specific Information Technology (IT) occupations and skills; offered mechanisms to increase worker productivity and provided new and revolutionary goods and services, resulting in increased levels of citizen well-being. Indeed, Brynjolfsson and McAfee contend that the beneficial impacts of technology innovation will be far greater than the potential costs they impose related to inequality, civil rights, human dignity and unemployment.

Economics in The Machine “Brain Power” Revolution   

Emerging technologies enhance and reshape production processes in ways that typically result in efficiencies and that are more likely, when compared to existing conditions, to create winner-take-all markets and to increase income inequalities. Analysts expect that these disruptions will both continue and quicken as designers equip computers and robots with new capabilities.  Depending on their specific characteristics, these shifts may heighten the risk of decoupling job and wage growth from gains in output and productivity [5]. These changes raise particular challenges for affected societies because they highlight clearly the prospect of how the new wealth they create should be distributed in a socially just way.

The mainstream neo-classical economic model argues that increases in capital or machinery will at once enhance output per person-hour and reduce labor inputs. As a result, labor productivity increases. Thereafter, competition will decrease the price of the introduced innovation and increase laborer’s relative incomes as production of the new product rises. Consequently, real wages increase and raise potential aggregate demand. In the end, firms will hire more laborers even as they increase their relevant capital investments. This has been the typical pattern when new technologies have disrupted economic sectors in the past.

The nature of the Second Machine Age or new technologies’ processing capabilities, such as image and voice recognition (Brynjolfsson and McAfee, 2016), are at the core of the decoupling effect, and in my judgment, are measurably changing the dynamics that neo-classic models were originally developed to capture. For instance, demand for low skilled workers has not only decreased, but this group of employees has failed to adapt to the danger posed by their being substituted by machines possessing skills previously unimagined capabilities. Moreover, according to Standing (2014) there is a growing number of individuals in middle-level jobs, moving in and out of positions with persistent stagnation in average incomes. In addition, Frey and Osborn (2013) have estimated that 47% of 702 occupations in the North American workforce across all education levels are now at risk to be replaced by computerization (i.e. machines) by 2030. People with more education, training or experience are in high demand today in flexible occupations and creative positions. It appears that Keynes (1930) argument concerning the short-term unemployment-related effect of automation and technological innovations may soon no longer hold and Leontief’s (1983) contention that mechanization will produce long-term unemployment for affected groups will instead become typical.

Nonetheless, Brynjolfsson and McAfee (2015) expressed confidence that humans will always be able to find ways to cope with such disruptive innovations because they possess brain power that machines will never possess and because they also enjoy capital ownership, citizenship and the right to vote to modify social contracts as needed.

The Missing Political Dimension  

Despite their claim to the contrary, however, I am concerned by how little attention Brynjolfsson and McAfee accord the need for thoughtful democratic choices to address disruptive economic change. Changing technologies do not alone affect markets, but also political governing institutions and processes and the often contradictory and complex negotiations that occur within them. Those are surely not neutral in shaping the ultimate effects of market disruptions and they are not reflected in economic measures. For instance, the use of some technologies may slow productivity due to social resistance or to existing institutional arrangements, resulting in increasing inequality. That is, while technological developments have resulted in increasing wealth during the post-World War II era, they have simultaneously reduced the share of income received by workers, and decreased workers’ bargaining power with business owners. This trend is likely associated with rising social inequality in the United States since the 1970s, as measured by the GINI coefficient (Freeman 2015).

A Final Note

In my view, Brynjolfsson and McAfee’s (2015; 2016) capitalist analytic lens led them to overestimate the capacity of the market alone to address the effects of rapid technology change. They also misunderstood and underestimated the complexities associated with how difficult it is to change an existing social contract in the face of major technological shifts. Humanoid Sophia is a symbol of the urgency of securing political and social change. Human beings will want to consider carefully how the technology this machine represents can/will be integrated into their ways of life and how those shifts will change how they organize and manage their social, political and economic relationships.


[1] Sophia is a humanoid created by Hanson Robotics, a company headquartered in Hong Kong. To learn more about the company and Sophia see http://www.hansonrobotics.com/robot/sophia/

[2] The Saudi Arabian government announced it was according Sophia citizenship at the launch of the Future Investment Initiative, a public Investment fund in that nation, in fall 2017 (Please see https://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-trending-41761856; http://futureinvestmentinitiative.com/en/pif). To date, the Saudi government has not provided an explanation for why it took this action.  However, that government and its agencies are investing heavily in Artificial Intelligence (AI). This fact may suggest the Saudis took the action they did to help to spur investment in that economic sector in their country (For reference see http://www.hansonrobotics.com/ai-in-the-middle-east-infographic/).

 [3] Flex Tech (2018, Jul 6): “Sophia AI Robot in Biggest European Festival” -Brain Bar. [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cDvSvhT95Ig

 [4] Brynjolfsson and McAfee (2016) defined the Second Machine Age as what “computers and other digital advances are doing for mental power.” These authors argued that digitalization is creating a world of abundance instead of scarcity since technologies improve skills at an exponential rate and allow the replication and translation of those new capabilities, thereby creating opportunities to spur fresh innovation.

[5] The decoupling phenomenon suggests that a society’s Real Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita and labor productivity may evidence an upward trajectory while median family income and private employment for average workers declines. Analysts have reported this empirical result since the mid-1990s and it does not match with traditional or mainstream economic theories (i.e. neo-classical theory) in which increases in real GDP per capita and labor productivity should also result in employment and in gains in family income. Please see https://hbr.org/2015/06/the-great-decoupling for additional information.


Brynjolfsson, E., & McAfee, A. (2015). Will Humans Go the Way of Horses? Foreign Affairs, 94(4), 8. Accessed November 29, 2016  https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/2015-06-16/will-humans-go-way-horses

Brynjolfsson, E., and McAfee, A. (2016). The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies. New York, NY: W. W. Norton and Company.

Bernstein, A., and Raman, A. (2015). The Great Decoupling. Boston: Harvard Business Review. Accessed November 29, 2016 at https://hbr.org/2015/06/the-great-decoupling

Flex Tech (2018, Jul 6). “Sophia AI Robot in Biggest European Festival -Brain Bar.” [Video File]. Accessed September 22, 2018 at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cDvSvhT95Ig

Freeman, R. (2015). “Who owns the robots rules the world.” Accessed September 22, 2018 at doi:10.15185/izawol.5

Frey, C. B., and Osborne, M. A. (2017). “The future of employment: How susceptible are jobs to computerisation?” Technological Forecasting and Social Change, 114, (pp. 254–280).

Hillstrom, L. C., and Hillstrom, K. (2007, “Origins of Development of the Industrial Revolution,” in Hillstrom, L. C., Hillstrom, K.Eds., The Industrial Revolution in America: Automobiles. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO Publishing, pp.1-24..

Jennings, K (2011) “My Puny Human Brain,” Slate, September 16, 2018, http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/culturebox/2011/02/my_puny_human_brain.single.html Accessed September 18, 2018.

Keynes, J. M. (1930, 1963). Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren. Essays in Persuasion, New York: W.W. Norton and Co.

Leontieff, W. “National Perspective: The Definition of Problems and Opportunities,” in National Research Council. Ed. (1983), The Long-Term Impact of Technology on Employment and Unemployment. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/19470.

Schwab, K. (2017). The Fourth Industrial Revolution. New York: Crown Business Publishers.

Standing, G. (2014). The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class. New York, NY: Bloomsbury.


Luis Felipe Camacho is a Ph.D. candidate in the Planning, Governance and Globalization program at Virginia Tech. He received his Master’s degree in International Enterprise Direction from FORO EUROPEO Escuela de Negocios de Navarra (Spain) and holds a post-graduate certificate in International Trade from the University Sergio Arboleda (Colombia) in collaboration with Georgetown University’s Center for Intercultural Education and Development. He earned his bachelor’s degree in Economics from the Externado de Colombia University. He is an adjunct professor for the Honors Discovery and Innovation Studio of the Virginia Tech Honors College in partnership with the Global Forum on Urban and Regional Resilience (GFURR) teaching the class: Robots: AI, Algorithms, and the Smart Machines (R)evolution. His research focuses on how technology influences workplace relations and conditions and how each can be improved through participatory practices.

Posted in Luis Felipe | Leave a comment

Reflecting on Trust and Social Justice in the thought of David Hume and John Rawls

Trust is a bond, among others, that helps to tie society together. Citizens trust every day; when we choose to put our money in a bank, or when we provide personal information to guarantee a service, for example. We routinely place trust in other people and institutions to perform everyday practices. More, we just as often trust ourselves to take appropriate actions in the countless scenarios we confront daily. Without self-trust, it would be hard to rely on our ability to behave as moral agents. Without interpersonal trust, it would be difficult to believe that other individuals would not trespass on our rights and liberties. Without institutional trust, the laws and principles of justice adopted by our society could not be upheld. Trust is, therefore, multilayered and arises in part from the condition that the persons or institutions with whom one interacts act in an expected or agreed upon manner, independently of one’s capacity to monitor their actions (Gambetta, 1988, p. 217). Trust requires a solid basis upon which a person may expect that another person or organization accorded it will not violate it.

This essay briefly explores the intersection of trust and justice in John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice, first published in 1971 and revised in 1999 (1999) and David Hume’s A Treatise of Human Nature, originally published in 1740 (2000). Hume and Rawls reflected on the attributes and conditions necessary to produce an ideal moral agent and social justice system. I argue that while Rawls emphasized institutional trust as an important element of social justice, Hume focused on interpersonal and self-trust. Neither philosopher offered a multilayered ‘trust-justice’ model. I contend that a combination of Rawls’ and Hume’s conceptions of justice would better capture the complexities of trust as a vital component of human interaction and of an ideal justice system. Although not explicitly detailed in their theories, trust implicitly plays a crucial role in ensuring the stability of justice in both Hume’s and Rawls’ theorizations.

Thick and Thin Interpersonal Trust

Khodyakov (2007) has offered a three-dimensional view of trust that distinguishes among trust arising from strong ties (thick interpersonal trust), weak ties (thin interpersonal trust) and institutions (institutional trust). According to Khodyakov (2007), thick interpersonal trust is most likely to arise among people with the same or quite similar characteristics and backgrounds. Their shared attributes make the development of trust among such groups less risky for their members. However, this human inclination produces tight-knit networks that may exclude those who do not share the dominant/shared characteristics. In this view, thick interpersonal trust arises from familiarity and similarity with another individual. People who hail from common backgrounds, know each other well and share beliefs and principles are more likely to trust each other. For Khodyakov has argued that thick interpersonal trust of this sort within groups often becomes automatic and those according and receiving it in such networks often do not even perceive their ties as trust.

In contrast, thin interpersonal trust arises when individuals trust others with whom they may not share conceptions of justice or of behavior. This scenario can create a complicating expectation that others will share the same principles as one’s own, which may not obtain. These premises “depend on the notion of morality, commonly shared ‘ordinary ethical rules’, or they can also be of a more pragmatic nature” (Khodyakov, 2007, p.121). The key point, however, is that trust may arise even when those interacting are otherwise dissimilar across commonly differentiating characteristics.

Thick interpersonal trust was implicitly significant for both Hume and Rawls in their conceptions of social justice. For instance, Hume contended that individuals can sympathize better with others who share strong associative ties. Indeed, both philosophers described ideal agents in their theories, who in principle would share moral beliefs with others. For Hume and Rawls alike, thick trust arose from the capacity of individuals to behave as agents acting in accord with shared principles and mutually accepted rules. Rawls and Hume posited that that possibility in turn could be constructed on the basis of shared ideals and a capacity for reasoning and reasonability.  Indeed, for both Rawls and Hume, an agent without a sense of justice could not be considered trustworthy. However, for Rawls, one needed to be a liberal agent of a certain kind; one who respected the priority of justice claims in moral reasoning, while for Hume, what mattered most was that individuals agreed on commonly shared principles that constituted justice and just action in their shared territory.

Institutional Trust

According to Fukuyama if a society has a narrow radius of trust, which he defined as “the circle of people among whom cooperation and mutual understanding exist,” it is characterized by ‘low trust’ (1999). In such societies, people tend to trust only those similar or identical to themselves, i.e. by race or tribe or ethnicity. In contrast, in societies with a large radius of trust or ‘high trust,’ citizens develop trust in the public sphere and social institutions as they actively engage with other individuals in those spaces. For Fukuyama, trust in agents is a necessary condition for the development of trust in institutions, meaning that institutional trust arises from interpersonal trust. However, the relationship between trust in people and trust in institutions can go in both directions. That is, in Fukuyama’s view, institutional trust can also promote, or hinder, the development of interpersonal trust.

For their part, Hume and Rawls offered different views of institutional trust. For Rawls, trust in organizations can occur irrespective of whether individuals trust one another:

Those who hold different conceptions of justice can, then, still agree that institutions are just when no arbitrary distinctions are made between persons in the assigning of basic rights and duties and when the rules determine a proper balance between competing claims to the advantages of social life. Men can agree to this description of just institutions since the notions of an arbitrary distinction and of a proper balance, which are included in the concept of justice, are left open for each to interpret according to the principles of justice that he accepts (Rawls, 1999, p.5)

That is, Rawls contended that although individuals might hold different conceptions of justice, institutions can enact principles of justice and ensure access to basic rights and duties acceptable to all citizens. For Rawls, institutions play a crucial role in representing principles of equality and in establishing a climate of trust among agents. In this sense, it can be argued that institutional trust plays a critical role in his conception of justice. Rawls contended that organizations are regulated by moral agents and he suggested that “a person taking part in an institution knows what the rules demand of him and of the others. He also knows that the others know this and that they know that he knows this, and so on” (Rawls, 1999, p.48). Hume, meanwhile, saw individuals as self-interested and he explained their willingness to obey government institutions on that basis:

Tho’ the object of our civil duties be the enforcing of our natural, yet the first motive of the invention, as well as performance of both, is nothing but self-interest: And since there is a separate interest in the obedience to government, from that in the performance of promises, we must also allow of a separate obligation. To obey the civil magistrate is requisite to preserve order and concord in society. To perform promises is requisite to beget mutual trust and confidence in the common offices of life. The ends, as well as the means, are perfectly distinct; nor is the one subordinate to the other (Hume, 2000, p.348)

Hence, while Rawls argued that institutional trust was necessary to ensure interpersonal trust, Hume contended that interpersonal trust was foundational to trust in broader society. More, he contended that it arose directly from human self-interest.

Rawls and Hume on climate of trust

Interpersonal trust and a shared belief in the social structures and political mechanisms those individuals construct and control are at the heart of what keeps a society together (Mitchell, 1994). Rawls’ principles are political, and not social. His aim was not to regulate broader social life, but to create a well-ordered democratic society of justice predicated on a principle of fairness. Hume was concerned with what he saw as humankind’s natural inclination to pursue its self-interest and how and whether that proclivity could result in shared just action.

Mitchell has argued that for Rawls, “the widespread existence of what might be called a civic virtue: trust,” constitutes the glue that joins citizens into a society (1994, p.1920).  Rawls acknowledged the difference in points of view and applications of justice among individuals in a free society. However, he nevertheless argued that as reasonable and rational moral agents, citizens are capable of making just decisions. Mitchell has contended that Rawls suggested that individuals develop trust and confidence in just and fair arrangements when they see other citizens complying with decisions arising from them. Trust and confidence strengthen and develop as “cooperative arrangements” (Mitchell, 1994, p.1922).

For Rawls, citizens mutually gain benefits from behaving as morally just agents:

Thus a desirable feature of a conception of justice is that it should publicly express men’s respect for one another. In this way, they ensure a sense of their own value. … For when society follows these principles, everyone’s good is included in a scheme of mutual benefit and this public affirmation in institutions of each man’s endeavors supports men’s self-esteem (Rawls, 1999, p.156).

Ultimately for Rawls, respect and compliance with institutional rules understood in this sense builds trust among individuals. Hume similarly argued that people will cooperate with others whom they believe will not break commonly accepted and enacted rules of behavior. That is, shared norms of moral action build and sustain cooperation and trust among citizens. As Hume observed,

After these signs are instituted, whoever uses them is immediately bound by his interest to execute his engagements, and must never expect to be trusted any more, if he refuse to perform what he promis’d (Hume, 2000, p.335).

Nonetheless, Hume placed far less emphasis on the role of institutions or rulers than Rawls, since he believed that, in the long run, individuals would cooperate with one another because it was in their self-interest to do so. Hume conceived of trust as linked tightly to human pursuit of self-interest, as the quotations above suggested.

In many respects, Rawls can be said to have further developed Hume’s argument concerning social trust. Nonetheless, while both thinkers agreed that trust is crucial to the establishment and maintenance of social justice, Rawls argued that institutional and interpersonal trust are mutually reinforcing, while Hume viewed interpersonal and self-trust as foundational. A multi-level trust in society is so important that its absence, as Rawls put it, would “corrode the ties of civility” while tempting agents “to act in ways they would otherwise avoid” (1999, p.6).


Trust is multi-layered. As an individual, I trust myself and that I will behave as an inevitably at least partially self-interested, but in the end moral agent. I trust that others will do the same, and I trust that social institutions will safeguard the systems of justice arising from and regulating these behaviors and guarantee equality to all members of society. My goal in this short essay was to highlight the significance of the concept of trust in both Rawls’ and Hume’s political thought, and to argue that a society that evidences trust at all scales is likely to evidence more just behavior and outcomes than one that does not.


Fukuyama, F. (1999) “Social Capital and Civil Society,” http://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/seminar/1999/reforms/fukuyama.htm#6 Accessed September 14, 2018.

Gambetta, Diego ed. (1988), Trust: Making and Breaking Cooperative Relations, Oxford: Basil Blackwell Publishers.

Hume, David (1739/40), A Treatise of Human Nature, David F. Norton and Mary J. Norton (eds.), 2000, Oxford: Oxford University Press

Khodyakov, D. (2007). “Trust as a process: A three-dimensional approach.” Sociology, 41(1), 115-132.

Mitchell, L. E. (1994). “Trust and the overlapping consensus.” Columbia Law Review, 94(6), 1918-1935.

Rawls, John (1971), A Theory of Justice, revised edition, 1999, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Nada Berrada is a Ph.D. student in the ASPECT program (Alliance for Social Political, Ethical and Cultural Thought). She previously earned an M.A. in Public and International Affairs at Virginia Tech and a B.A in Political Science and Economics from Ecole de Gouvernance et d’Economie de Rabat (EGE) in Morocco. She currently teaches for the Political Science Department at Virginia Tech and serves as a board member of the International Student Advisory Board (ISAB). Her research interest revolves around youth and their agential capability and exercise in the MENA region.

Posted in Nada Berrada | Leave a comment

The Political Economy of Trade Agreements


On Monday August 27, 2018, President Donald Trump announced that the United States and Mexico had reached an understanding on the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). During the summer months, Mexico and the United States had been negotiating without the third NAFTA partner, Canada, at the table. Apart from the geopolitical and economic issues that can result from a new bilateral agreement that fails to include all three of the original signatories to NAFTA, the possible new pact has raised a number of additional political and economic problems. For instance, U.S. automakers and labor unions have raised concerns that omitting Canada from a new trade deal would disrupt the production chains in place today, which are organized across all three countries. Furthermore, in fact, a new deal with Mexico would not constitute a renegotiation of NAFTA and any fresh trade agreement would be subject to U.S. Congressional approval. Experts have been surprised by this move by the Trump administration and are still astonished by the vision of trade underpinning it. That shock arises from the fact that traditional views in economics and political science based on cleavage and factor endowments theory cannot explain these choices. This essay seeks to outline a research agenda that can help scholars better understand these unfolding dynamics. I will here explore the most recent contributions addressing the political economy of trade agreements and argue that institutionalism can help analysts understand these developments more comprehensively. Research concerning the political economy of trade agreements is in fact at a standstill. I contend that interested observers can more effectively examine how and why this has occurred by integrating the literatures on institutionalism and varieties of capitalism with that concerning the political economy of trade agreements.

The Conventional ‘Wisdom’ – Cleavages, Factor Endowment and Institutions

What do individuals think about trade? Public opinion on trade is widely researched and there are many models that seek to delimit the factors that underlie those preferences. Cleavage theory has traditionally emphasized the structural dynamics that separate groups into advocates and opponents concerning specific issues; for instance, class divisions are prominent in industrial societies with worker interests clashing with those of capital owners (Lipset and Rokkan 1967). Analysts have also highlighted the variation in trade policy approaches apparent in different countries. Some nations, for example, have evidenced a continued willingness to expand free trade, whereas others have been consistently protectionist in their policy stance.

Several scholars have examined these dissimilarities from a factor endowment perspective. Rogowski, for example, studied the differences among nations in their capital, land and labor resources and concluded that advanced economies with abundant labor and capital, but with limited land, tended to favor freer trade. Meanwhile, he argued, economies with abundant land, but relatively scarce labor and capital, were more prone to protectionism (Rogowski 1989). That is, in his view, public opinion on trade policy tracks the factor endowments of countries.

In this theory, varying availabilities of the factors of production among nations (land, labor, and capital) yield comparative advantage. These scholars have posited that, with free trade, countries export goods derived from their most abundant resources and import goods that require resources that are scarce within their territories. To summarize, mainstream economists have contended that material factors lead countries to specialize in the production of certain items (Baier and Bergstrand 2004; Baier et al. 2008).

For their part, political scientists instead have focused on domestic institutional factors as they have sought to understand attitudes toward trade (Mansfield, Milner and Pevehouse 2007). This research, however, has not substantially progressed during the last two decades. In fact, arguably, contemporary political research has shifted little since publication of Milner’s “The Political Economy of International Trade” (Milner 1999). Milner summarized the research in political science prior to her article and argued that the move towards freer trade that has occurred in the global economy since the 1990s has arisen as a result of two principal factors, concerning the relative significance of which researchers are divided: (1) the preferences of domestic actors (pressure groups), and (2) political institutions. The first factor, trade policy preferences, reflects the demands that certain groups seek in domestic policy-making, for instance protection from international competition or access to foreign markets. The second factor highlights the role of political institutions in shaping nations’ trade policies., i.e., “different institutions empower different actors” (Milner 1999, 101). In this view, the architecture of political institutions, such as a presidential or a parliamentary political system, determine trade policy choices. In other words, this division among political scientists—either an emphasis on organized group preferences or on institutions—reflects an ongoing debate concerning whether individual and collective agency or structure is more important in determining political outcomes. I turn next to outline how some scholars have argued the elements that Milner highlighted actually are interrelated.

The State of the Art – Ideas, Interests and Institutions

Researchers often analyze trade policy and agreements within the framework of International Political Economy (IPE). IPE emerged during the last four decades as an academic field that aims to bridge the gap between the understanding of international affairs in economics and political science (Cohen 2008). IPE scholars study the interactions between domestic and international factors at different levels that affect economic policies and their outcomes. (Frieden and Martin 2003, 119).


Recent contributions exploring the political economy of trade and trade agreements have identified several variables that can explain the formation of Preferential Trade Agreements (PTAs). These scholars have found that as the structure of the global economy has shifted, material factors have become somewhat less significant while other concerns, including gender, race and meso-level dynamics, such as local communities’ cohesion and citizen perceptions of the economy as a whole, have emerged as more important determinants of public attitudes.

The reshaping of the global economy with offshoring and global value chains makes it harder for citizens to evaluate how trade policy is affecting their local and national economy. According to Guisinger (2017), public perceptions of what the U.S. is trading, for example, are being distorted by the fact that it is increasingly difficult to ascertain what percentage of a product is actually produced in the country. Even the labels ‘made in’ do not help consumers understand what role trade has played in the good or service they are purchasing. As the links between trade, employment and consumption have become increasingly blurry, it has become similarly difficult to associate material economic interests and public opinion on trade. In a recent study investigating U.S. citizens perceptions of trade, Gusinger (2017) included gender, race and meso-level variables as proxies for the relative cohesion of local communities to develop a socio-tropic model of trade opinion. She found that women and minorities were more likely to express protectionist sentiments than Caucasian citizens. She argued that this finding reflected the different perceived economic vulnerabilities of members of the different groups. She also found that at the meso-level, in highly diverse communities a racial component appears to influence public opinion on trade. In this case, the more diverse a community’s population is, the more white Americans preferred protectionist policies, because they believed that trade liberalization was related to redistributive welfare mechanisms that benefitted mostly minorities in their communities. In another recent study, White (2017) found that cultural norms and values are an important component influencing individuals’ views on trade. Another factor that is increasingly considered in the literature is offshoring. In fact, the shift of factories and employment to different international political jurisdictions affects voters’ decisions. The perception that their own employment may be under threat by such practices makes individuals feel more vulnerable to freer trade and leads to protectionist opinions (Owen 2017; Rommel and Walter 2018).


The international economy today operates through Global Value Chains (GVCs). This concept captures the fact that different stages of production frequently occur in different countries. As a consequence, a large part of trade today is in components rather than final goods. Recent research has found that, “GVCs, by stimulating more trade in intermediates, facilitate trade liberalization” (Baccini, Duer and Elsig 2018, 11). Since trade liberalization occurs largely through trade agreements, GVCs and trade policy are closely intertwined.

In this context, the structure of interest representation is changing, and the role of global firms is increasingly crucial. International firms and corporations are highly influential in shaping national trade policies and trade agreements, either indirectly by influencing public opinion (Osgood et al. 2016; Rommel and Walter 2018), or directly by engaging in trade politics via interest and advocacy groups (Osgood 2018).


Current analyses have found that at the international scale, political-military alliances such as NATO also affect trade flows and decisions to pursue free trade policies. In fact, free trade is likelier among the member nations of such political-military alliances than among nations that do not participate in such agreements (Gowa and Mansfield 1993). The institutional framework of international cooperation is therefore crucial for freer trade. In addition, the regime type of states is also important, as democracies are more likely to trade with other democratic countries (Mansfield, Milner, and Rosendorff 2002; Mansfield and Milner 2012).

However, it is domestic politics that provides the incentives for governments to enter into international trade pacts. As Mansfield and Milner (2012) have argued, domestic political factors strongly influence international coordination and the formation of trade agreements. Entering into a preferential trade agreement, or any international agreement, constrains a nation-state’s ability to stipulate policy. Hence elected leaders will closely evaluate the political costs and benefits of such arrangements. In particular, public leaders must assure the general citizenry and domestic interest groups that a PTA is beneficial (Mansfield and Milner 2012). Scholars have found that two institutional factors are particularly important in this process. First, the regime type and the degree of electoral competition within a country influence the likelihood that its officials will pursue PTAs. Second, the number of veto players—that is, the institutional groups, actors or processes that can block policy change—influence trade cooperation; in fact, the likelihood of entering a PTA decreases with an increasing number of veto players in a nation (Mansfield and Milner 2012).

Analyses of the factors that mediate trade policy design and adoption are not alone sufficient to understand a nation’s political economy of trade and PTA. As Oatley has suggested, despite such studies, “we know no more about the politics of trade policy today than we knew three decades ago” (Oatley 2017, 699). Nonetheless, investigations of the political economy of trade will benefit from intensive scrutiny of the institutional differences among democratic countries and efforts to link specific differences to trade policy choices.

Integrating Comparative Political Economy in the Study of Trade Policy

The academic literature in the field of Comparative Political Economy (CPE) can help analysts understand better the formation of preferential trade agreements by bringing in a more nuanced view of institutions. Traditional IPE analyses of trade agreements, as described above, have focused on electoral, legislative and bureaucratic public institutions. This perspective, however, has failed to include other important factors that affect the formation of trade agreements, including the way that business interests and class struggles influence government actions. In particular, different institutions in different countries shape the way class struggles and corporate interests can influence trade policy and the formation of trade agreements. Analysts have identified two ideal types of interactions between businesses, the public and politics: pluralism and corporatism. In pluralist societies, interest groups are neither subsidized nor licensed and do not require any type of formal registration. Interest groups are not hierarchically ordered, they belong to self-determined categories and compete with each other. This type reflects how lobbying is organized in liberal market economies such as the United States. In contrast, corporatism is a system in which interest groups intensely influence public decision-making processes by being formally involved in them. In these systems, interest representation is organized with monopolistic interest groups, hierarchically ordered and compartmentalized in sectors. This type is prevalent in coordinated market economies, such as Germany and other central European countries. In short, different institutional structures influence trade policy and the formation of PTAs differently.

Hall and Soskice (2001) developed the Varieties of Capitalism (VoC) approach to capture these differences. The VoC places firms at the center of analysis and it posits two ideal-types of capitalist societies: liberal market economies (LME) and coordinated market economies (CME). The prototypes for these types are, once again, respectively, the USA and Germany. The two forms differ principally in the ways each organizes institutional coordination: CMEs favor non-market coordination mechanisms, while LMEs tend to prefer market mechanisms. The VoC framework highlights how institutional differences can shape trade negotiations. Surprisingly, the literature on the political economy of trade has not yet utilized this approach to examine trade policy formation. I argue that the integration of CPE and IPE into studies of trade policy might provide useful insights. This appears to be a useful possibility for future inquiry and theory development.


Some of the issues presented above are related to the fact that the global economy is in constant evolution. There are nevertheless features of that system that have remained stable for two centuries. CPE scholars are interested in studying those enduring characteristics as well as changes. While scholarship concerning IPE and the political economy of trade agreements has historically employed either a context-specific (country-based case studies) approach or a cross-national frame, CPE offers a new analytic lens that may offer more nuanced understandings of the evolution of the global economy.

Overall, this analysis suggests that scholars understand fairly well how public opinion on trade is influenced by different factors. Incorporating the role of firms and the different ways in which advanced economies manage their interactions with interest groups is important to understanding the dynamics of how trade agreements are designed and accepted in specific countries. In this respect, it will be useful to continue to develop analyses that employ the CPE framework while also incorporating insights from the IPE literature.

Returning to the contemporary issue with which this essay began—NAFTA renegotiations—we can identify three possible explanations for the difficult discussions now underway. First, we might explain the divergent tactics of the three participating nations by focusing on the different public attitudes in each towards trade. As argued here, recent research has found that the most prominent cleavages among citizens are gender, race and meso-level specific, rather than national in character. This perspective, however, does not explain the diverging interests of the U.S., Mexico and Canada. A second explanation, following IPE scholarship, might be that domestic and international institutions favor different policy choices. This explanation, however, does not explain U.S. actions in light of its multi-faceted relationship with Canada, particularly. The difficulty of the current NAFTA renegotiation can be also be partially understood by including a third explanation, namely the diverging politico-economic frameworks of the different countries. The U.S. is a presidential democracy, whereas Canada is organized as a parliamentary system. The ways in which corporations and interest groups interact and influence policies in these nations are quite distinct. Further research that seeks to bridge CPE and IPE should help researchers better understand trade politics in the 21st century.


Baccini, L. Duer, A. and Elsig, M. 2018. “Intra-Industry Trade, Global Value Chains, and Preferential Tariff Liberalization.” International Studies Quarterly 62 (2): 329–340.

Baier, S.L. and Bergstrand, J.H. 2004. “Economic Determinants of Free Trade Agreements.” Journal of International Economics 64 (1): 29–63.

Baier, S.L et al. 2008. “Do Economic Integration Agreements Actually Work? Issues in Understanding the Causes and Consequences of the Growth of Regionalism.” World Economy 31 (4): 461–97

Cohen, B. 2008. International Political Economy. An Intellectual History. Princeton University Press.

Frieden, J. and Martin, L. 2003. “International Political Economy: Global and Domestic Interactions.” In: Katznelson, I. and Milner, H. V. (eds.) Political Science: The State of the Discipline. New York: W.W. Norton.

Gowa, J. and Mansfield, E. D. 1993. “Power Politics and International Trade.” American Political Science Review 87 (2): 408-420.

Guisinger, A. 2017. American Opinion on Trade. Preferences without Politics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hall, P. A. and Soskice, D. 2001. Varieties of Capitalism: The Institutional Foundations of Comparative Advantage. Oxford University Press.

Lipset, S. M. and Rokkan, S. 1967. Party systems and voter alignments: cross-national perspectives. Free Press

Mansfield, E.D. Milner, H.V. and Rosendorff, B.P. 2002. “Why Democracies Cooperate More: Electoral Control and International Trade Agreements.” International Organization 56(3): 477-513.

Mansfield, E.D., Milner, H.V., and Pevehouse, J.C. 2007. “Vetoing Co-operation: The Impact of Veto Players on Preferential Trading Arrangements.” British Journal of Political Science 37: 403-432.

Mansfield, E. D. and Milner, H.V. 2012. Votes, Vetoes, and the Political Economy of International Trade Agreements. Princeton University Press.

Milner, H. 1999. “The Political Economy of International Trade.” Annual Review of Political Science 2: 91-114.

Osgood, I. et al. 2016. “The Charmed Life of Superstar Exporters: Survey Evidence on Firms and Trade Policy,” Journal of Politics, 79(1), 130-152.

Osgood, I. 2018. “Globalizing the Supply Chain: Firm and Industrial Support for US Trade Agreements.” International Organization 72(2): 454-484.

Owen, E., and N.P. Johnston 2017. “Occupation and the Political Economy of Trade: Job Routineness, Offshorability, and Protectionist Sentiment,” International Organization, 71(4): 665-699.

Rogowski, R. 1989. Commerce and Coalitions: How Trade Affects Domestic Political Alignments. Princeton University Press.

Rommel, T., and S. Walter. 2018. “The Electoral Consequences of Offshoring: How the Globalization of Production Shapes Party Preferences,” Comparative Political Studies, 51(5), 621–658.

White, R. 2017. Public Opinion on Economic Globalization. Considering Immigration, International Trade, and Foreign Direct Investment. Palgrave Macmillan


Simone Franzi is a doctoral student in the Planning, Governance and Globalization program at Virginia Tech. His current research interest is in the political economy of trade and, in particular, how trade and trade agreements play roles in shaping geographies and polities. More specifically, he is studying the consequences of trade agreements for different dimensions of democracy. Prior to coming to Virginia Tech, Simone earned a Bachelor and a Master’s degree in Political Science and Geography from the University of Bern, Switzerland. His baccalaureate thesis addressed conceptualizations of trust in the social sciences. For his Master’s degree, he studied the implications of commodity trading for sustainable development and wrote a thesis on the relationship between commodity abundance and international cooperation.

Posted in Simone Franzi | Leave a comment

Images, Structures and Individual’s Choices: The STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) Paradox

To begin to probe how individual choices may shape women’s educational experience, one can start by examining the gender ratio in higher education. According to Charles (2017b), one meaningful method of ranking countries on their degree of sex segregation in science education is to compare the “female-to-male” ratio among graduates in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields to that same comparison among graduates in all other educational domains. By such a measure, the wealthy and highly industrialized United States is situated in about the middle of the spectrum—alongside Ecuador, Mongolia, Germany and Ireland—an otherwise heterogeneous group on most conventional measures of “women’s status”[1] (Charles, 2017b, p. 112).

According to data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) concerning the number of degrees conferred by postsecondary institutions, while American women are increasingly outpacing U.S. males (57% female vs. 43% male earned Bachelor’s degrees in 2017), they comprise only about 30% of all STEM degree holders. Moreover, women with such degrees are less likely than their male counterparts to pursue a STEM occupation; they are instead more likely to work in education or non-STEM-related healthcare fields (Noonan, 2017). Figure 1 depicts the breakdown of STEM degree graduates by gender for the United States in 2015. The specific health care and education percentages refer only to non-STEM degree holders working in those fields. Professionals in STEM-related posts active in those domains appear in the STEM totals (in red) in the figure.

Figure 1

College-educated Workers with a STEM Degree by Gender and STEM Occupation, 2015

Source: (Noonan,2017, p. 9)

Paradoxically, internationally, women’s representation in science programs is weakest in the Netherlands and strongest in Iran, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Saudi Arabia and Oman, where science is disproportionately a female enterprise (Charles, 2017). At first blush, this fact seems strange, as none of these nations are as democratic or progressive as Holland or the United States concerning women’s rights. Indeed, on the more basic, as Weingarten has dubbed them, “indicators of gender equality—women’s political participation, access to education and economic opportunities, and existence of overtly discriminatory laws or policies—women are for the most part faring better in the U.S. than in some of these developing nations” (Weingarten, 2017).

Charles has argued that one would expect the United States should be a world leader in abolishing gender-based segregation of prestigious previously male-dominated occupations and fields of study since, “laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex have been in place for more than half a century, and the idea that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities is practically uncontested (at least in public) in the U.S. today” (2017b, p. 110).

Moreover, since at least the early 1980s the United States’ federal government has invested in initiatives aimed at increasing girls’ participation in STEM fields (e.g., the 1981 Equal Opportunities for Women and Minorities in Science and Technology Act) which may have helped to increase the number of female undergraduate engineering graduates in the country from 2% in the mid-1970s to 17% in the 1990s (Kranov, DeBoer and Abu-Lail, 2014, p. 25). And that trend has continued as federal funds and other public, private and civic organization interventions have increased the percentage of female undergraduate engineering graduates from 17.3% in 1995 to 35.1% in 2014-15 (National Center for Education Statistics, 2017). Nevertheless, while this trend is hopeful for engineering, across all of the STEM fields, American universities and firms lag considerably behind those of many other countries, including developing nations with no such legal record, with respect to women’s participation in STEM fields.

Kranov et al. have identified several factors that have shaped the uneven distribution of women and men across STEM fields internationally: women’s overall lower status within societies, the structure of national educational systems, and cultural beliefs and norms regarding women globally and within specific countries, […] the notion of engineering as a masculine-gendered field and macro-level forces such as societal and global cultural norms and the logic and structure of educational systems themselves (Kranov, DeBoer and Abu-Lail, 2014, p. 23).

In this regard, Charles has noted that the freedom to choose a career may paradoxically encourage women in affluent Western democracies to construct and replicate stereotypically gendered self-identities (2017b, p. 112). Academic and career choices in these nations constitute acts of identity construction and self-affirmation, rather than serving simply as practical economic decisions. As a result, American females who aim to “study what they love” may be unlikely to consider male-labeled science, engineering or technical fields, despite the financial security often furnished by completion of such degrees (Charles, 2017a).  Accordingly, Charles has suggested that, “by allowing wide latitude in course choices” modern systems of higher education “make the incursion of gender stereotypes even easier” (2017b, p.115).

Charles (2017b) has hypothesized that the high number of female students in STEM fields in developing and transitional economies has been driven more by concerns about advancing economic development than by interests in accommodating women’s presumed affinities. Also, at the individual level, personal economic security and national development are such central concerns to young people and their parents in developing societies that there is less latitude and support for the realization of gender-specific preferences than in developed nations.

Nevertheless, a number of scholars have critiqued this argument. First, the fact that proponents of this perspective tend to view developing countries, including middle-eastern/Muslim nations, as a single homogeneous population, calls the accuracy of this contention into question. As Kranov et al. (2014) have demonstrated in their case analyses of several predominantly Islamic countries, these societies evidence diverse levels of economic prosperity, different cultures, varied challenges and quite distinct histories and education systems. It follows that females’ incentives for choosing to study in STEM fields in each of those nations are likely to differ widely. Indeed, Zahedifar, for example, has found that Iranian students choose university fields for an array of reasons:

  • Personal interest (47.0%), very similar percentages for both genders (45.3 % of male students and 48.9% of female students).
  • Improving social status (an average of 21.2% for women and men) with 15.5% for male students and 27.2% for female students;
  • Acquiring a well-paid job (an average of 19.6% for both genders) with 20.6% for male students and 18.5% for female students.
  • Potential of meeting a marriage partner (6.4% for both groups) with 9.3% for male students and 3.2% for female students.
  • Parental pressure (5.8% for men and women) with 9.3% for male students and 2.2% for female students (Zahedifar, 2012, p. 41)

This data suggests that, contrary to Charles’ contention, personal interest and improving social standing are important factors shaping female students’ academic choices, at least in Iran.

Second, Charles’ analytical method limited the data she was able to gather to address her research questions. Employing personal interviews and focus groups, DeBoer and Kranov (2014) found that in Tunisia and Jordan (such also occurs in Iran), all secondary school students complete a national examination after high school regardless of their socio-economic status, and state officials place them into particular college fields based on their scores.

This practice likely accounts for the high percentage of STEM field female students in Iran. When boys and girls compete on a national exam, their ranking according to their performance on that test reduces the relative significance of gender-based career choices.  At first glance, this appears to be paradoxical, since standing according to an exam’s results seems to limit freedom of choice. However, those rankings give women opportunities and confidence to select fields otherwise dominated by males. In this way, the national examination system allows women to choose their future academic and professional fields on the basis of their interests, rather than prevailing gender social constructs.

Nevertheless, although this mechanism seems to encourage women to exercise power and agency to pick their fields of study according to their interests, they may nonetheless risk compromising (sometimes inadvertently) those personal preferences to a fields’ perceived popularity. For example, when a woman ranks among the first 100 students in Iran’s national entrance exam, she can choose to study in any subject at any university that she desires. However, in most cases, individuals with such scores choose electrical engineering at Sharif University as the highest ranking (perceived as most prestigious) STEM program and University in Iran. Meanwhile, sacrificing one’s personal passion for a socially valued STEM field seems to be common in Tunisia; “a large percentage of girls aren’t driven by [their] passion for engineering, but by performance,” according to Raja Ghozi, a Tunisian engineering professor at the National Engineering School of Tunis, who studied in the U.S. (Weingarten, 2017).

Another important factor to consider when evaluating the relative efficacy of this model (i.e., comprehensive entrance exam) in engaging women in STEM fields, is females’ level of labor market participation/academic professions after graduating. It is generally true that more highly educated women raise healthier and better educated children (human capital), both of which are essential for economic development (Isfahani, 2008), However, the real impact of more women in STEM university fields is realized with their placement in STEM-related professions and positions. In Iran, for instance, according to one of the latest household surveys of expenditures and income, women with tertiary degrees are three times more likely to be unemployed than similarly credentialed men; 35% compared to a 12% unemployment rate for like educated men (Isfahani, 2008).


This essay has briefly examined factors influencing female choice to pursue education in STEM fields in Iran and the United States particularly.  I have sought to investigate the relationship between capacity for personal choice and women’s academic experiences in these two nations. In Iran, the structures and processes for gaining entrance to university have created a situation in which women are encouraged to choose their future field of study based on their level of skills and capabilities, at least as those are revealed by a nationally competitive examination. While some analysts have found this model successful in limiting the importance of gender-related stereotypes, others have argued that its actual impact has been low since women engineers/scientists are poorly represented in Iran’s labor market/academic positions.

In the case of the United States, as noted, while passion for an academic and professional field is important, focusing on that factor alone overlooks the ways culture, institutions and policies can reinforce whether women become interested in STEM fields in the first instance. The view of equality as equal opportunities to realize preferences, understood to be properties of individuals and therefore sacrosanct, can occur in both developing and developed countries. One might imagine that the United States is rooting gender inequality out of its institutions by abolishing formal restrictions and limiting policies and overt discrimination. Yet, inequality of opportunity between the genders can still exist in covert ways, such as the inculcation of stereotypical images of unattractive female scientists versus charming female “consumer” characters (e.g., the characters in the long-running comedy The Big Bang Theory on U.S. television) into young American women’s minds.  Indeed, in individualistic societies such as the United States, according to Weingarten (2017), young women come to believe early on that they are destined—or designed—for a “particular” career, a powerful narrative shaped and fortified by the media they consume and the people with whom they interact concerning their possible career trajectory. Perhaps, as Weingarten has observed, “if we let go of the idea that our preferences, aspirations, and capabilities are completely self-determined, perhaps we’ll truly experience a freedom of choice that has so far eluded us” (Weingarten, 2017).


[1] In the United States, Women’s Status is measured via a wide range of indicators. These are  tracked by the “Institute for Women’s Policy and Research (IWPR)” in each state along 6 different topics: Political Participation, Employment and Earnings, Poverty and Opportunity, Work and Family (added in 2015), Reproductive Rights and Health and Well-Being (with additional state and national level data provided on Violence & Safety).


Charles, M. (2017a). “Venus, Mars, and Math: Gender, Societal Affluence, and Eighth Graders’ Aspirations for STEM”. Socius, 3, 2378023117697179

Charles, M. (2017b). “What Gender Is Science”? In Gender, Sexuality, and Intimacy: A Contexts Reader (pp. 110–116). SAGE Publications, Inc.

Fouad, N. A., Singh, R., Fitzpatrick, M. E., and Liu, J. P. (2011). “Stemming the tide: Why women leave engineering”. University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Final Report from NSF Award, 827553

Kranov, A. A., DeBoer, J., and Abu-Lail, N. (2014). “Factors affecting the educational and occupational trajectories of women in engineering in five comparative national settings”. In 2014 International Conference on Interactive Collaborative Learning (ICL) (pp. 21–28). Dubai, United Arab Emirates: IEEE. Retrieved August 26, 2018, from https://doi.org/10.1109/ICL.2014.7017936

National Center for Education Statistics. (2017). “Table 318.30: Bachelor’s, Master’s, and Doctor’s Degrees Conferred by Postsecondary Institutions, By Sex of Student and Discipline Division: 2014-15,” Digest of Education Statistics.( Retrieved September 3, 2018)

Noonan, R. (2017). “Women in STEM: 2017 Update” | Economics & Statistics Administration (pp. 1–21). U.S. Department of Commerce. Retrieved August 25, 2018, from http://www.esa.doc.gov/reports/women-stem-2017-update

Weingarten, E. (2017, November). “The STEM paradox: Why are Muslim-majority countries producing so many female engineers”? Retrieved August 26, 2018, from http://www.slate.com/blogs/better_life_lab/2017/11/09/the_stem_paradox_why_are_muslim_majority_countries_producing_so_many_female.html

Zahedifar, E. (2012). “Women in Higher Education in Iran”. University of Oslo, Oslo, Norway. Retrieved August 27, 2018, from https://www.duo.uio.no/bitstream/handle/10852/35482/Effatxthesisxx. Pdf

Neda Moayerian is a fourth year doctoral student in the Planning, Governance and Globalization program in the School of Public and International Affairs at Virginia Tech. Her research interests include community development through community cultural activities and sustainable tourism. Currently, she works as a graduate assistant in the VT Office of Economic Development. Neda holds a Bachelor of Science in Urban Planning from Art University of Tehran and a Master’s degree in Urban Management from University of Tehran.

Posted in Neda Moayerian | Leave a comment

Relationships: Antidote for Shifts in Funding Towards Proof of Public Value for Public Services?


Neoliberalism is often referred to as an economic theory. Nonetheless, it is more appropriately recognized as an ideology comprised of values and practices that work as a “cultural field” (Giroux, 2004). Biebricher (2015) has argued that neoliberalism’s influence on cultural dimensions erodes public participation, which is essential to democratic life. That is, neoliberal policies are increasingly undercutting the symbolic, educational and economic capital necessary for engaged citizenship (Giroux, 2004). Neoliberalism has had a negative impact on the language of democracy, race, education and the media, leading to damaging effects on democratic institutions (Giroux, 2004).

One such entity is the Cooperative Extension System (CES). CES is a community education organization established in 1914 by the U.S. Congress to extend research-based information generated by the nation’s land-grant universities (USDA-NIFA, n.d) to the residents of communities. CES is funded jointly by federal, state and county governments. There are few more democratic public organizations in the country.

Authors addressing Extension evaluation have recognized the changing frame of public funding occasioned by neoliberal policies (Franz, 2015; Chazdon, and Paine, 2014; Lawrence and Mandal, 2016). The dominant narrative of this literature is that in order to improve Extension’s public support, the system’s employees need to measure its impacts and more effectively communicate its value to stakeholders. As Franz has observed, “in contemporary United States culture, society demands proof of Extension and LGUs (Land Grant Universities) as valuable public goods” (2015, p. 13). Kalambokidis (2004) has gone further to contend that communication of value is important because an increasing number of policy decision makers believe that public funding for Extension is justified only when the free market fails. Put plainly, Extension is now facing the result of widespread acceptance of neoliberalism, a turn which has resulted in a broad erosion in citizen support for public goods. This shift has fundamentally altered the role of government in funding public service efforts. The scholarly narrative exploring the effects of this sea change has suggested that if Extension could do a better job of documenting and measuring the outcomes of its education programs, public funders would provide more adequate financial resources.

Exploring the Impact of Neoliberal Thinking on Extension Programs

For my recently completed dissertation, Administrators’ Perceptions of the Environmental Challenges of Cooperative Extension and the 4-H Program and Their Resulting Adaptive Leadership Behaviors, I interviewed 20 CES administrators from throughout the country to document their perceptions of the key factors shaping the strategic and operating environments for their organizations. The leaders I interviewed argued that Extension entities were now required to respond to a wide array of social challenges, including, especially, an increasingly diverse population and relentless urbanization. However, decreasing funding was their number one concern. My interviewees pointed especially to shrinking federal funding allocated to land-grant universities to support CES efforts during the last 10-15 years.

My interviews with Extension administrators suggested that they recognized this change in how lawmakers are viewing public services, as well as how to value them. The leaders with whom I spoke have had to confront a steady downward drift in resources, and in many ways they have accepted that that trend will continue. In response, as a group, they have sought to develop an array of other funding streams, including increased reliance on competitive grants and contracts, fundraising and the imposition of fees for many services that had previously been made available to citizens without cost.
The decline in public (governmental) funding and the companion pressure to provide proof of outcomes has resulted in a CES emphasis on identifying practicable evaluation strategies that can assess program outputs and outcomes. In fact, Virginia Cooperative Extension recently completed an economic impact study in an effort to quantify its ongoing programmatic impacts (Travis, Alwang and Elliott-Engel, 2018).

While analyzing my interview data, an interesting theme emerged. When my respondents reported successes in increasing support, that outcome was predicated on them first having established a positive and trusting relationship with those funder(s). Those ties arose in part in the first instance because public officials had first-hand understanding and experience with CES programs. The leaders I interviewed argued that individuals who were program alumni were more likely to see Extension as valuable and necessary. More generally, my interviewees suggested that individuals who knew of the organization and had personally participated in one or more of its programs were more likely to provide support for it. CES leaders reported they could increase the likelihood that they would do so by developing open and trusting relationships with potential supporters.

Moreover, while my interviewees certainly did not ignore calls for improved program evaluation measures, they argued that they were framing their requests for private support in light of community needs and the Extension system’s capacity to respond to them, rather than, for example, providing an array of statistics linked to the outputs of specific initiatives. I am not arguing that relationships are a panacea that will address the sea change in public official attitudes toward supporting CES. However, if adroitly managed they can provide Extension leaders a path to improve funding stability while also pointing up the importance of public goods, and working to recast the character of demands for proof of program efficacy for initiatives whose outcomes are difficult to quantify. The importance of person-to-person relationships is an idea that needs to be explored as an antidote to the neoliberal assumption that only efficiency measures count and that these can be readily derived for programs of all sorts, including those, as is true for Extension initiatives, that honor the human agency for choice of those participating in them.


Biebricher, T. (2015). “Neoliberalism and democracy.” Constellations, 22(2), 255-266. Accessed at DOI: 10.1111/1467-8675.12157

Chazdon, S. A., and Paine, N. (2014). “Evaluating for public value: Clarifying the relationship between public value and program evaluation.” Journal of Human Sciences and Extension 2(2). Accessed at http://media.wix.com/ugd/c8fe6e_8b2458db408640e580cfbeb5f8c339ca.pdf

Franz, N. K. (2015). “Programming for the public good: Ensuring public value through the Extension Program Development Model.” Journal of Human Sciences and Extension, 3(2), 13. Accessed at http://media.wix.com/ugd/c8fe6e_7c4d46d779db4132943d4fae8f1d9021.pdf

Giroux, H. A. (2004). The terror of neoliberalism: Authoritarianism and the eclipse of democracy. Herndon, VA: Paradigm Publishers.

Kalambokidis, L. (2004). “Identifying the public value in Extension programs.” Journal of Extension. 42(2), Article 2FEA1. Accessed at https://www.joe.org/joe/2004april/a1.php

Stup, R. (2003). “Program evaluation: Use it to demonstrate value to potential clients.” Journal of Extension, 41(4), Article 4COM1. Accessed at https://www.joe.org/joe/2003august/comm1.php

Travis, E., Alwang, A., and Elliott-Engel, J. (2018, February). Developing a Holistic
Assessment for LGU Economic Impact Studies: A Case Study. Paper presented at the
Southern Agricultural Economics Association (SAES) Conference, pp. 1-30, Jacksonville, FL. Accessed at https://goo.gl/ThNmBe

United States Department of Agriculture, National Institute for Food and Agriculture (USDA-NIFA) (n. d.). Cooperative Extension System. Accessed, August 24, 2018 from https://nifa.usda.gov/cooperative-extension-system

Zotz, K. L. (2004). “Communicating impacts.” Journal of Extension. 42(5), Article 5TOT2. Accessed at http://www.joe.org/joe/2004october/tt2.php


Jeremy Elliott-Engel is currently a PhD candidate in the Department of Agricultural, Leadership, and Community Education at Virginia Tech. His research and practice is focused on the organizational and programmatic effectiveness of Cooperative Extension and the 4-H Youth Development Program. Cooperative Extension is the community outreach and education organization of land-grant universities. 4-H is the youth development program of Cooperative Extension. Before returning to graduate school, Elliott-Engel was a Regional 4-H Youth Development Specialist and County Program Director with University of Missouri Extension in rural Southwest Missouri. He holds a Master’s degree in Education from Cornell University and a Bachelor’s degree in Agricultural Business Management from State University of New York at Cobleskill.



Posted in Jeremy Elliott-Engel | Leave a comment

Conflict, Communication and Collaboration: Is There Really a Middle Ground?


Development as a process to secure positive change in humans’ lives through combating inequality and poverty is deeply indebted to individuals’ democratic participation in decision-making processes (UNDP, 2016). Many community and international development scholars and practitioners have argued that participatory approaches not only promote economic productivity through inclusion (Abdellatif, 2003), but also with their bottom-up, grassroots-based methodology, they empower members of socially excluded and marginalized groups (Mohan and  Stokke, 2000), and therefore, can serve as a tool in supporting democratic processes.

However, while proponents of participatory strategies often emphasize a homogenized conception of community as a bloc of social ‘solidarity,’ all communities harbor divisions and stratifications and are therefore sites of ‘conflict’ (Dorman, 2002, p. 133). As a result, participatory decision-making in development projects is seldom a seamless linear process due to value-based contestation and power relations among diverse actors¾ each of whom perceives the benefits and incentives of collaboration differently (Cornwall, 2008; Cornwall and Brock, 2005). This brief essay unpacks the connections between communication as negotiated meaning and efforts to secure collaboration amidst diverse actors involved in development projects.

Conflict and Collaboration    

According to Kilmann and Thomas (1977), individual and group behavior in conflict situations – in which the concerns of two (or more) parties seem to be incompatible – can be located along an assertive to cooperative spectrum.  They define assertiveness as the extent to which individuals attempt to satisfy their own (or the group’s) concerns, and cooperativeness as the degree to which a person (or collective) seeks to serve another individual’s or group’s interests.  In their “mode instrument,” Kilmann and Thomas populated the space between these dimensions of behavior with five methods of addressing conflict (Figure 1); competing, collaborating, compromising, avoiding and accommodating.  More recently, Thomas has analyzed collaboration as potentially the most democratic solution for handling conflicts among the five that he and Kilmann had posited, as it requires that opposing parties communicate and work together to find a middle ground that “fully satisfies the concerns” of all involved (2008, p.3).


                                             Figure 1 – Five Conflict-HandlingModes

Deeper than merely connecting interested and/or affected parties, “communication” is the process of negotiation and construction of meanings (Koschmann, Kuhn, and Pfarrer, 2012). This might take the form of examining a disagreement to learn from each other’s perspectives, resolving situations that would otherwise have groups or individuals compete for resources or juxtaposing differing suppositions and trying to find a creative solution that will meet all participating parties’ interests (Thomas, 2008).

However, in many development projects, achieving consensus among stakeholders, who may, and often do, embrace fundamentally different moral commitments is not an easy task (Fink, 2017). Nonetheless, at least theoretically, negotiating such contrasts via dialogue is possible. Perhaps the easiest (if still challenging in terms of power imbalances, fairness and inclusivity) cases are those development scenarios in which participating stakeholders have varied “interests” in projects. These may include an actor’s material needs or wants, and frequently represent a kind of “bottom-line” in negotiations and collaborations (Page, Stone, Bryson, and Crosby, 2018, p. 3). When there are conflicts among interests, negotiations addressing “facts and evidence” can be useful in convincing opposing groups to consider seriously and potentially adopt another point-of-view. That is, while both interests and beliefs influence collaborators’ decisions in development projects, analysts have argued that interests are amenable to compromise (Fisher, Ury, and Patton, 2011) while participants’ core beliefs tend to be nonnegotiable, at least in the short-term (Haidt, 2012).

When normative conflicts deeply entangled with one’s moral imagination regarding what is good, true and right  are in play, negotiation of interest-related meanings is seldom fruitful in creating a consensus among opposing parties (Hunter, 2018). For example, after decades of social policy research, “replete with data analysis and theory testing, liberals and conservatives are still grappling with the predominantly value-laden aspects of social policy” (Gibson, 1997, p. 196). In such conflicts the challenge for achieving agreement is “how” one can bridge the differences in priority placed on certain values—which often “lead to disagreement regarding the means” through which to achieve effective solutions (Gibson, 1997, p. 189). For instance, both conservative and progressive groups in the United States each claim that they wish to eradicate poverty and to address the social challenges that often accompany unwed motherhood (which include poverty).  Nonetheless, their definitions of these concerns and consequently their desired paths to ameliorating them are totally divergent:

Conservatives hate unwed motherhood more than they hate poverty, so they tell one another that the next generation of children would be better off if we made [Aid to Families with Dependent Children] AFDC [now TANF-Temporary Assistance for Needy Families] even less generous than it now is. Liberals hate poverty more than unwed motherhood, so they insist that the next generation would be better off if we gave single mothers more help (Jencks and Edin, 1995, p. 49).

This scenario arises due to the normative conflicts rooted in the moral commitments of the individuals and groups involved: “In particular, the coexistence of discrete sources of moral authority helps to explain the nature of the present conflict over issues concerning the human body” (Davison Hunter, 2018, p. 7).

Once people join a group or adopt a perspective based on their moral principles, they become enmeshed in its matrix, seeing confirmation of their grand narrative everywhere, and it becomes difficult—perhaps impossible—to convince them to reconsider their view(s) if one tries to do so by offering arguments outside of their preferred imaginary (Haidt, 2012). In this conflict type, negotiations often fail, since what is at stake are people’s most cherished ideals and commitments. In other words, agreeing to a supposed “middle-ground,” solution may be viewed by the stakeholders involved as accepting an immoral or even evil position.

In these situations, the intertwining of moral and epistemic claims makes it difficult to use “facts” to convince those holding such beliefs of the possibility and even potential superiority of alternate perspectives, since those very assertions are at stake in the conflict. For example, many Christian Scientist parents refuse to allow treatment of their children for medical diseases, because doing so would deny the fundamental beliefs of their faith (Bohman, 1995, p. 257). The question this scenario raises is, if facts cannot be helpful in managing and resolving moral conflicts, what can be used?

Relying on Durkheim’s concept of the profane (day-to-day individualistic) and sacred (inter-social/collective) lives of individuals, Haidt has argued that the sentiments that humans embrace as part of a larger society hold the potential to shut down the self and activate a group overlay that allows individuals simply to become a part of a whole; he calls this process “hive switch” (2012, p. 228). Drawing on evolutionary modeling, Haidt (2012) has contended that human beings are conditional hive creatures with the ability (under special conditions) to transcend self-interest and lose themselves (temporarily and even ecstatically) in something larger than themselves, for good or ill.

To create what Durkheim dubbed “collective effervescence,” a term aimed at capturing the passion and fervor that group rituals can generate that can flip the “hive switch,” Haidt (2012) suggests “awe in nature,” which opens people to new possibilities, values and directions in life. Nature’s vastness makes people feel small and its experience is not easily assimilated into their existing belief structures. When confronted with such possibilities, therefore, they must “accommodate” them by becoming conscious of, rethinking and possibly changing their foundational views.

While other scholars and practitioners have suggested other methods of transforming imaginaries in conflict situations, including by experiencing collective love (Sorokin, 2015), community joy/sorrow/memory (Brueggemann, 2001) or shared art-making (Goldbard, 2015) , what is common in all of these approaches and that echoes Haidt’s approach, is their non-rational, interpersonal character and their emphasis on promoting a sense of belonging by reminding those involved of their shared values and/or providing them space to create the same.


Abdellatif, A. M. (2003). Good governance and its relationship to democracy and economic development, in Global Forum III on Fighting Corruption and Safeguarding Integrity, Seoul (Vol. 20, p. 31). Retrieved from ftp://pogar.org/LocalUser/pogar/publications/governance/aa/goodgov.pdf

Bohman, J. (1995). Public Reason and Cultural Pluralism: Political Liberalism and the Problem of Moral Conflict. Political Theory, 23(2), 253–279.

Brueggemann, W. (2001). The prophetic imagination (2nd ed). Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.

Cornwall, A. (2008). Unpacking “Participation”: models, meanings and practices. Community Development Journal, 43(3), 269–283.

Cornwall, A., and Brock, K. (2005). What do buzzwords do for development policy? A critical look at “participation”, “empowerment”and “poverty reduction.” Third World Quarterly, 26(7), 1043–1060.

Dorman, W. J. (2002). Review of Participation: The New Tyranny?, by B. Cooke and U. Kothari. African Affairs, 101(402), 132–134.

Fink, B. (2017, March 10). Building Democracy in “Trump Country.” Retrieved April 10, 2018, from https://billmoyers.com/story/thursday-building-democracy-trump-country/

Fisher, R., Ury, W. L., and Patton, B. (2011). Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In (Third). Penguin.

Gibson, C. M. (1997). Facing off on Social Policy: Can the Right and Left Find Middle Ground? Social Service Review, 71(2), 171–199.

Goldbard, A. (2015). Making Beauty,  Making  Meaning, Making Community. In M. Stephenson and  A. S. Tate (Eds.), Arts and community change: exploring cultural development policies, practices and dilemmas (pp. 11–29). New York: Routledge.

Haidt, J. (2012). The righteous mind: why good people are divided by politics and religion. New York: Pantheon Books.

Hunter, J. D. (2018). The American Culture War. In P. L. Berger (Ed.), The Limits Of Social Cohesion Conflict And Mediation In Pluralist Societies (pp. 1–37). New York: Routledge.

Jencks, C., and Edin, K. (1995). Do Poor Women Have a Right to Bear Children? American Prospect, 43–52.

Kilmann, R. H., and Thomas, K. W. (1977). Developing a Forced-Choice Measure of Conflict-Handling Behavior: The “Mode” Instrument. Educational and Psychological Measurement, 37(2), 309–325. https://doi.org/10.1177/001316447703700204

Koschmann, M. A., Kuhn, T. R., and Pfarrer, M. D. (2012). A Communicative Framework of Value in Cross-Sector Partnerships. Academy of Management Review, 37(3), 332–354. https://doi.org/10.5465/amr.2010.0314

Mohan, G., and Stokke, K. (2000). Participatory development and empowerment: the dangers of localism. Third World Quarterly, 21(2), 247–268.

Page, S. B., Stone, M. M., Bryson, J. M., and Crosby, B. C. (2018). Coping with Value Conflicts in Interorganizational Collaborations. Perspectives on Public Management and Governance. https://doi.org/10.1093/ppmgov/gvx019

Sorokin, P. A. (2015). Ways and Power of Love: Techniques Of Moral Transformation. West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton Foundation Press.

Thomas, K. W. (2008). Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode. TKI Profile and Interpretive Report, 1–11.

UNDP (Ed.). (2016). Human development for everyone. New York, NY: United Nations Development Programme.

Neda Moayerian is a PhD candidate in the Planning, Governance, and Globalization program in the School of Public and International Affairs at Virginia Tech. Her research interests include human development, specifically through community cultural activities, individual and communal agency, and community-based /sustainable tourism. Neda holds a Bachelor of Science in Urban Planning from the Art University of Tehran and a Master of Science in Urban Management from the University of Tehran

Posted in Neda Moayerian | Leave a comment

Reflections on a Greenhouse Project with which I Worked as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Costa Rica


The Peace Corps, an agency of the United States government founded in 1961, has a mission to promote world peace and friendship by addressing three overarching goals:

  • To help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.
  • To help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.
  • To help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans (Peace Corps, n.d.).

While the Peace Corps is funded by the federal government, it is also known for its grassroots development projects. In contrast, Easterly has characterized the international aid system more generally as,

driven by large players [and] tend[ing] to be top-down rather than bottom up. Such top-down and agency-driven approaches translate into projects that are not responsive to the needs of local communities, tend to serve the priorities and perspectives of so-called aid experts rather than the aid recipients and lead to inefficient results (2008, p. 463).

Indeed, and in light of Easterly’s observation, Peace Corps officials stress it is not an aid agency. Rather, it seeks to promote world peace and friendship as well as asset-based community development. Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) have the opportunity to apply for grant funding for small community-based projects as a part of their service. Volunteers are generally not permitted to raise more than $10,000 and all funding they receive from the U.S. government must be matched both monetarily and in-kind (such as through labor, for example). I began my Peace Corps adventure in March 2015 and completed that journey in May 2017. This is a reflection on one of the small grass roots development efforts with which I was involved during my service.

The Project

Early in 2016, I was approached by a woman seeking my assistance with a project that on which she and a group of women were working in a neighboring town, about a 30-minute bike ride away. The group ultimately wished to construct a housing development in their village and to help pay for that effort by selling eggs from their chickens as well as by growing fruits and vegetables. In order to realize their dream, the women sought assistance and funding from the Peace Corps. I suggested as a first step toward realizing their goal that they consider developing a communal garden for which those involved in the initiative could assume responsibility. I did so in part because I had noticed that the small convenience-style stores in town did not routinely stock fresh produce and so it appeared there would indeed be a market for items they were able to grow.

The women who had approached me liked the idea, so we began meeting weekly to draft a proposal to obtain start-up funds for it. They were actively engaged in this process, which I was excited about because other PCVs had indicated that they had found it difficult to attract engaged participants to help develop community project ideas and plans. I came to trust the leaders of this group, because they demonstrated their work ethic through our weekly meetings. Additionally, the president of the entity arranged for those involved to complete classes concerning how to grow vegetables in greenhouses that were offered by a national institute in their town. We secured the grant funding, but unfortunately, before I could participate in the effort’s implementation, I had to leave the country for a medical leave, and I was unsure as I departed whether I would be able to return. Nevertheless, the leader and I maintained communication during my absence, as she and her colleagues moved the garden project forward by attending greenhouse classes. In truth, following through with this grant was a key factor in motivating me to return to Costa Rica following my medical leave.

The Effort Takes an Unexpected Turn

When I returned to Costa Rica and met with the group’s leader, she explained that only four (including herself) of the 12 women previously involved had completed the greenhouse course to date and that she now planned to move away. She felt badly that she was now leaving and introduced me to another woman, Ana, who was interested in the effort. Although, at this point, I was frustrated and was not expecting that we could create a successful project, I learned that Ana had wanted a greenhouse for some time and was willing to work for it. I communicated with the funding group, World Connect, to inquire if Ana could assume leadership of the endeavor and they agreed, as long as the three women who completed the greenhouse classes could also participate. Additionally, Ana included her daughter and a neighbor in the project. So, at the time of transition, the initiative included five women, with Ana serving as their leader. Accordingly, she and I soon met with Costa Rican Ministry of Agriculture officials to discuss the plans for the garden/greenhouse. That staff assisted us in various ways, such as locating needed topsoil and facilitating a meeting with another women’s group that had years of experience with growing vegetables and fruits in a greenhouse. This effort became the most sustainable project I completed during my Peace Corps experience. On reflection, I believe this was so because my role was that of a catalyzer or connector, rather than director or individual in charge. In the end, this initiative appeared to fit the form that Easterly (2008) has suggested is most likely to succeed—it responded to a locally determined need and desired strategy to address it.

Why was this project successful with Ana, when it had stalled without her active involvement? As I have reflected on this scenario, I believe several factors influenced the outcome. First, while the original group appeared to be active, I am not sure they worked cohesively together, since only a few members participated consistently. Second, Ana was willing and ready to lead the project since she had already attended classes about hydroponics and greenhouses, whereas the group’s original members had agreed to complete such a curriculum as a condition of possible project funding. As noted, however, only four actually had done so. This was so despite the fact that the women did not need to pay for the instruction, nor did they need to travel to participate in the classes. I worried whether this had occurred because the first group of women were not truly interested in learning about growing their own produce to contribute to their livelihoods in this way.

The Project’s Outcomes

When I asked Ana what happened, she suggested that when it comes to paying for a project (with time or money), people drop out, but when it comes time for a party, they find the time and funds. While this is a common assumption, this apparently in fact happened with this project. The three women from the original women’s group agreed to move forward with Ana leading the effort; however, they stopped participating once money was due and/or when it was time to start building the greenhouse. Whether this sort of turn is a commonly repeated trope or a stereotypic story is not so important as the question of why this project proved a success under Ana’s leadership. She led the effort to fruition despite the fact that she suffered (and suffers) from multiple medical conditions that otherwise have prevented her from working a steady job. Part of the explanation likely lies, as Easterly (2008) has contended, in understanding that Ana was passionate about plants and was also an avid cook. She quite literally knew first-hand how the garden could serve families, whereas many of the other women who participated were learning about growing vegetables and fruits for the first time.

On reflection, this project also reminds me of the Grameen Bank model, which is predicated on the belief that individuals are natural entrepreneurs and that providing them access to small amounts of capital will yield positive economic outcomes (Yunus and Jolis, 2003). This surely worked for Ana and the few women with whom she worked. But I am not persuaded that everyone can become a successful entrepreneur. Hanlon, Barrientos, and Hulme (2012) have expressed a similar skepticism. Instead, as in my experience, capital must be joined with human drive, interest and determination if it is to bear fruit. Ana supplied that energy and capacity to create a successful garden whose produce could contribute to the health, welfare and livelihood of her own family and her neighbor’s family. The project to date must be considered only a limited success, since only Ana and her neighbor have benefitted from the effort, in light of the original intent to construct a community garden that would benefit a larger group of individuals.

Despite its limited success as a community endeavor, the garden has proven sustainable under Ana’s direction. She has continued the effort and regularly shares photos of the produce the garden is yielding with me. More, on her own initiative, she has also completed a canning class where she learned how to make salsas that she now sells locally. That is, Ana has scaled up production and has begun offering products from the garden for sale, as originally contemplated. She took full advantage of the grant (start-up) funding, whereas about 12 women passed up the opportunity it presented. Agency likely played a role in this¾Ana seized the opportunity offered by the grant. Its economic consequences aside, in the end, this initiative allowed me to come to know Ana well and she is now one of my closest and dearest friends from my Peace Corps experience and that, in and of itself surely constitutes a positive outcome.


Easterly, W. (2008). Reinventing Foreign Aid (Vol. 1). Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Hanlon, J., Barrientos, A. and D. Hulme. (2012). Just Give Money to the Poor: The Development Revolution from the Global South. Bloomfield, CT.: Kumarian Press.

Yunus, M., and Jolis, A. (2003). Banker to the Poor: Micro-lending and the Battle Against World Poverty. New York, NY: Public Affairs Press.

Peace Corps. (n.d.). “About the United States Peace Corps.” Retrieved from: https://www.peacecorps.gov/about/


Source:  Author Photos


Beth Olberding is a second year Master’s student in Urban and Regional Planning (MURP) and Natural Resources. She obtained her B.A. in Biology with a minor in Global Sustainability from the University of Virginia. At Virginia Tech, she participated in the Peace Corps Master’s International Program as an integral part of her MURP curriculum. She served in the Peace Corps as a Community Economic Development Facilitator in Costa Rica from 2015-2017. While in Costa Rica, she also conducted research for her thesis for her Urban and Regional Planning degree. More specifically, she explored indigenous peoples’ perspectives on REDD+ (Reducing  [carbon] Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation), an international program funded partially by the World Bank. She is currently a graduate research assistant for the Virginia Tech Office of Economic Development and hopes to work at the nexus of environmental and social issues in the future.





Posted in Beth Olberding | Leave a comment

Planning: A Profession with An Identity Crisis in The Absence of a Core Paradigm


When compared to other long-standing disciplines such as history or political science, planning is a relatively new field. This article examines some of the enduring forces that today challenge planning as its professionals struggle to define its guiding paradigm and identity. In the absence of a widely-shared ethos, the planning process is often messy and contentious, even as planners do daily find ways to address issues (Campbell and Fainstein, 2003). This article first provides a description of the planning profession and offers a key rationale for it, which by itself does not necessarily provide a foundational paradigm for planning. It then explores the question of “planning’s identity” in an effort to help explain the profession’s ongoing lack of a unique architype to guide its practitioners. In context, a core planning paradigm would constitute an unambiguous foundational model, principle, view or set of beliefs, construed broadly to include all specialties or sub-specialties of the profession.

The Planning Profession

As a profession, planning is a place-based, context-driven field of practice with strong roots in the enlightenment tradition (Irving 1993; Beauregard 1989). In the United States, as in many parts of the world, planning continues to play a role in shaping the processes of economic, social and land development in communities of all stripes, including urban, suburban and rural ones.[1] Planning draws on many of the social sciences and on architecture, and may be defined as a political and technical process for creating ways and means to address the critical development challenges facing communities. Ideally, the planning process exemplifies and occurs by means of democratic decision processes (Davidoff, 1965).[2] Analysts have long argued that planning should facilitate physical development, capital circulation, commodities and information, among other concerns, in and among communities.[3] Yet, the role of planning is subject to debate.

As has occurred in communities across America in the past, economic, demographic and social changes are shifting the means of production and distribution of growth and creating disparities and imbalances. These complex and varied trends in turn are creating a demand for planners with capacities to address them (Conzen, 1983).[4] But, I have been wondering if planners are sufficiently prepared to recognize and tackle the contemporary challenges and uncertainties facing communities at the local or regional levels. Cognizant of the shifts underway, the conceptualization of planning outcomes must incorporate elements required for planners to thrive and intentionally create ways and means to address them (Reece, 2018).

Scholars continue to debate what principles should guide planning and, indeed, whether the field may be said to be rooted in a guiding set of beliefs or central paradigm at all (Levy, 1992; Campbell, H., and Marshall, R., 1998). In any case, it is undeniable that planning has come to play an important role in shaping community development choices and patterns, influencing a broad spectrum of political processes and decisions. Today’s cities and the character of their political economies are changing. Today, the profession is challenged to create a “cohesive” paradigm that incorporates different approaches. Contemporary planning demands a drastic “rethinking of planning interventions” (Fainstein, 2016, p. 4). A clear set of principles is needed to avoid philosophical conflicts about the core purposes of planning, and to help planners understand, contextualize and address complex problems.

This imperative must be addressed, even as the scale of the planning field has expanded in recent decades as the profession has grown and matured. That process has occurred amidst a backdrop of continuing and unprecedented urbanization.[5] That trend, in turn, has changed the character of the planning challenges faced by cities – ranging from issues with housing shortages, concentrated poverty, gentrification, racial inequality, social and economic segregation, to fragmented neighborhoods.[6] The evolving nature of public problems has led to a host of social conflicts, which have also often revealed a growing gap between planning approaches and the problems they seek to address (Watson, 2009; Davidoff, 1965; Godschalk, 2004). New technological changes and social innovations are creating “spontaneous orders” that are changing traditional planning narratives.[7] The image of the twenty-first century planning practice is one of a thousand faces and voices that reflect the growing specialization and diversification of the field. All of this said, to date, the planning profession has yet to develop a unique core identity.

The Planning Identity

Planners have long been involved in decision-making related to land use and development in American cities. In addition, and as noted, recent decades have witnessed the emergence of numerous specialties and subspecialties in the field (Levy 1992). Still, as the profession evolves, planning practice has continued to center principally on the design and oversight of processes linked to land use and sustainability (Ostrom, 2015). As the field has matured, the dynamics of planning problems and conflicts have shifted, but planning has remained a low salience profession as far as the public is concerned.[8] As Myer and Kitsuse have observed, “The role of planners is not well recognized nor widely validated” and planners do not enjoy “exclusive ownership of planning practice” (2005, p. 122). Several groups have challenged the legitimacy of the planning profession as it has grown, including some architects, engineers, economists and geographers. Tensions have also emerged among planning activists and planners who advocate for social justice and those who argue for professional neutrality (Myers and Kitsuse, 2000). This “identify crisis” in planning stems from the lack of a fundamental paradigm for the field. Planning needs systematic thinking approaches drawing on multiple methodologies to help practitioners address today’s multi-dimensional issues that are often “ambiguous, multifaceted and contentious, with complex outcomes” (Cole 2001, p. 373; Flint, 2015).

  Absence of A Core Paradigm and Guiding Principles

There is a legitimate argument that planning lacks a unique and distinctive professional narrative and, as a result, has become generic, confusing and overcrowded (McClendon et al., 2003). Planning has evolved from its nineteenth-century progressive roots to address the negative impacts (behavior, morals and health) of dysfunctional, overcrowded, free-market-dominated industrial cities (Reece, 2018), to land use zoning and its current preoccupation with economic growth and development. Sawicki (1988), for example, has argued that the lack of focus in the planning profession, both substantively and organizationally, is leading to its demise. In this view, the field needs to be more cogently defined. That is, its professionals must possess a definable set of competencies and expectations that can be readily employed to describe what planners do for others. Planning must “reestablish a mediative role between capital, labor, and the state,” and focus on finding a core mission with a distinctive technical competence to guide and influence professional discourse effectively (Beauregard, 1989, pp. 382; Cole, 2001). A clear set of beliefs or a core paradigm is needed to help planners address contemporary planning conflicts, both substantively and organizationally.

To address the current lack of a core set of principles, Cole (2001) and Myers and Banerjee (2000) have argued for a back-to-the-basics approach to planning, relying on “comprehensive plans.” They have suggested that the main planning professional competence is broad knowledge of land use processes, and “the implementation of comprehensive plans.”[9] Corburn has argued for recoupling the fields of planning and public health to address a social justice agenda (Corburn, 2003). The obvious limitations of this argument are that (1) the comprehensive plan has lost its dominance in planning (Levy, 1992; Hirt, 2005; Cole, 2001) and (2) planning’s problems as a field are not simply the result of a lack of a guiding paradigm (Beauregard 1990; Levy 1992), but also, that “planning practice itself evades a coherent theoretical framework” (Fainstein 2016, p. 2). From the start, planning has occurred within the context of competing visions and values, and the constraints represented by the capitalist market, democratic, bureaucratic and legal processes. Increasingly, competing demands for affordable quality housing, environmental protection, conservation of natural resources, historic preservation, new forms of built environments, transportation and mobility options, economic opportunities, social equity, health and quality of life for communities are generating forms of planning conflicts.

Contemporary Planning Conflicts

Planning conflicts are often resource based, involving interest groups and other stakeholders in contests to influence political officials.[10] Those engaged in such disputes often have incompatible views concerning what constitutes an appropriate distribution of community resources, and evidence contradictory demands and contrasting visions concerning basic infrastructure needs and the character of social, and economic dilemmas now confronting citizens and public officials (Hersperger, Ioja, Steiner, and Tudor 2015).[11]

Consider, for example, planning conflicts implicit in efforts to secure livable communities and sustainable development (Godschalk, 2004). These tensions can easily be magnified when issues of multiculturalism and identity politics are factored into discussions concerning them. This is to say that social conflicts and distrust of governments at all levels pose implicit moral and ethical challenges for planners. In their efforts to identify the public good or common interest, planners must recognize the interests of multiple publics (Davidoff, 1965). What I have observed is that as society has become more fragmented, the domain of authority for collective action,[12] as it relates to the common interest, may possibly be moving outside the formal reach of planners and, indeed, of local governments more generally (Ostrom, 1990, p 270). Nowadays, “planning often occurs without the guidance of professional planners” (Myers and Banerjee 2005, p.121).

Considering this long-term trend, one might contend that the planning profession and government more broadly is losing a long-term battle with market-based actors (land developers, investors, realtors, economists, etc.) concerning who shall shape the evolution of urban spaces most consequentially.[13] In the context of today’s political economy, “capitalism both endangers and constrains state interventions” (Foglesong, 2016, p. 102).[14] It has been observed that planners value equity as a lodestone normative criterion, as opposed to efficiency, which market actors most revere (Thomas, 2008). To become more relevant, planners must redefine their interests and values and work assiduously to balance the social, environmental and economic needs of communities against market demands. Perhaps a clearer paradigm will help planners derive meaningful methods and approaches to incorporate the social needs and cultural values of residents, in balancing the tensions between market forces and their conception of the public good in an otherwise inauspicious political environment.[15]

Similarly, there have been some noticeable shifts in planning beliefs and norms in relation to social reproduction and capitalist production. Smith (2002) has argued that cities have shifted to an increasingly capitalist means of production and cultural circulation. I wish to argue that fragmentation, marginalization and the processes of gentrification to some extent, are the product of that change.[16] Gentrification is a hated symbol of urban renewal, with disproportionate impacts on racial and ethnic minorities and it confronts planners with the challenges of assisting those displaced and of seeking to redress the causes of the inequality that made their situations perilous in the first place (Corburn, 2009; Dai, 2011). Such problems are controversial in politics and planning.[17]

Ultimately, the delivery of quality planning services requires the creation of inclusive and deliberative planning processes that involve multiple parties with competing agendas, values and interests. Planners must consider local politics in relation to land use conflicts, as well as how those tensions may affect their professional norms and ethics (Rabinovitz, 1969; Corburn, 2009). In addition to current strategies aimed at helping to manage planning conflicts, such as communicative (Innes, 1995, 1996) and collaborative (Healey, 2003) approaches, planning today needs a clear policy framework through which to address scenarios involving multiple parties with competing agendas, values and interests.

 Planning for the Future 

As we move into the future, planning is uniquely positioned to help to define and address contemporary urban land use and conflicts linked to it (Beauregard 1989). But, to play this significant societal role, planning practice must reflect the social, political and economic needs of the society. A unique disciplinary paradigm is needed to scale and capture the “essence” of traditional shifts or new and emerging domains. Both academic and planning practitioners must work together to tie planning theories to the core responsibilities and challenges facing planners. Universities must equip the next generation of planners with competencies in substantive areas such as infrastructure planning and finance, technology and analytics that have remained relatively unexplored (Sawicki, 1988). Together, academic planning programs and organizations should define a core paradigm or principles for the field in the context of participatory governance and representational policy-making (Fisher 2016).[18] Planners must routinely be able to employ planning theories and practice methods to address conflicts arising from economic development, the built environment, environmental and social values (Fainstein 2010, 2016).

In sum, good planning requires creating some measure of harmony among economic development, the requirements of the built environment and environmental values. While the planning profession lacks the authority to effect real change and cannot stop injustice by itself (Fainstein 2016), the delivery of planning services must both reflect and guide community values. To achieve more sustainable and relevant outcomes, planners must acknowledge the tension between the need for distributive justice and the willingness of society to ignore that imperative.



[1] Land development refers to how urban land is produced in the form of buildings and sites for various activities (Healey and Barrett, 1990). Similarly, “the form of urban development of a city is greatly influenced by its land development process which in turn is influenced by its socio-economic and political structures” (Yeh, A. G. O., and Wu, F. 1996, p. 330).

[2] Campbell, H., and Marshall, R. (1998) have argued that the history of the field of planning has been characterized by lengthy debates concerning the appropriate sphere of its activities and core principles.

[3] The planning process plays a critical role in community, regional or state visioning efforts. Planning encompasses diverse viewpoints and possible strategies. It requires developing mechanisms to secure open, timely and meaningful public involvement in defining short and long-term goals.

[4] Towns, cities and agencies are mandated by federal and state laws to develop short and long term comprehensive planning goals and objectives at local, regional, and state levels,

[5] Urbanization is the process of urban population growth in cities. Over time, increases in urban population growth in cities and regions may lead to both demographic and geographic shifts, providing opportunities for economic growth and development (Yeh, A. G. O., and Wu, F. (1996) creating planning conflicts. Those tension including issues of resource (re) distribution and social injustice that are the subject of complex political, economic and social struggles in cities (Thomas 2008).

[6] The recent reemergence of civil disorders and social disturbances in American cities are indications of underlying “macroeconomic forces, policies, and [systematic] challenges facing” cities and society with implications for planning (Reece 2018, p.8).

[7] Technology has enabled social entrepreneurs to create, adapt and deploy new intervention strategies and solutions outside the bounds of traditional institutions or the prerogative of any organizational form or legal structure, to address systemic social, economic development and environmental challenges in support of social progress, inclusion and diversity.

[8] That is, most members of the public do not know what planning is, what planners do or what factors or emphases differentiate the various specialties that now characterize the profession (McClendon et al., 2003).

[9] Cole (2001) argues that planning’s unique and distinctive function is to produce and administer comprehensive plans.

[10] Planning conflicts are disagreements involving how best to approach and resolve or address policy, social and economic issues, including various land use options.

[11] According to Conzen (1983), shifts in the structure of urban economies and society alongside the fragmentation of American cities have created a profound and intensifying competition for growth among cities and regional systems for growth and economic benefits.

[12] Collective action – is “an organizing framework for the design of coding forms” (Ostrom, 1986, p.5).

[13] Ann Markusen once suggested that the urban planning profession is losing the battle with economics for the shaping of urban space in part because planners value equity as a normative criterion, whereas market actors value efficiency. Efficiency has won out in whatever war of values might have taken place between these actors (Markusen, 2000). In recent years, planning has itself sought to create institutional frameworks to address economic issues affecting communities, rather than focusing explicitly on equity and social justice.

[14] Foglesong (2016) has suggested that the market system cannot meet the needs of residents in a manner capable of maintaining capitalism and reproducing fixed capital investments.

[15] Defining planning services as a set of outcomes that reflect a clear and compelling view of social justice (Corburn 2004).

[16] Gentrification is the process of redevelopment or renovation of once economically depressed or deteriorated neighborhoods through the influx of new residents. Gentrification often increases the demand for housing and rent levels through significant property appreciation and demand for new capital investment (Smith, 1996, 2002) that disproportionally displace minorities, mostly African-Americans.

[17] As with other planning conflicts, gentrification may be seen as a tool used by the state to create and legitimize spatial control of oppressed racial and ethnic minorities (Bollens, 1999, 2000; Yiftachel, 2000).

[18] Diversify the planning profession to promote deliberative and inclusive planning through participatory planning practices under conditions of trust (Benhabib 1996). Also, Sabatier provides an advocacy coalition framework for planning and policy making by planners, widening the scope of planning and decision-making processes, accounting for factors such as economic development and community participation (Abbott 2013) that other classical models of agenda setting, formulation and implementation had not fully contextualized (Sabatier 2006).


Abbott, J. (2013). Sharing the city: community participation in urban management. London: Routledge.

Batty, M. (2007). Cities and complexity: understanding cities with cellular automata, agent-based models, and fractals. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Beauregard, R. A. (1989). Between modernity and postmodernity: the ambiguous position of US planning. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 7(4), 381-395.

Brooks, M. P. (1988). Four critical junctures in the history of the urban planning profession: An exercise in hindsight. Journal of the American Planning Association, 54(2), 241-248.

Brownill, S. (2017). Neighbourhood planning and the purposes and practices of localism. In S. Brownill and Q. Bradley (eds), Localism and Neighbourhood Planning: Power to the People?, Bristol: Policy Press at the University of Bristol: 19.

Campbell, S., and Fainstein, S. S. (2003). Readings in Planning Theory (Studies in Urban & Social Change), second edition. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell.

Campbell, H., and Marshall, R. (1998). Acting on principle: dilemmas in planning practice. Planning Practice and Research, 13(2), 117-128.

Checkland, P. (1999). Systems thinking. In W. Currie and R. Galliers (eds) Rethinking management information systems: An Interdisciplinary Perspective, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 45-56.

Cole, S. (2001). Dare to dream: Bringing futures into planning. Journal of the American Planning Association, 67(4), 372-383.

Conzen, M. P. (1983). American Cities in Profound Transition: The New City Geography of the 1980s. Journal of Geography, 82(3), 94-102.

Corburn, J. (2004). Confronting the challenges in reconnecting urban planning and public health. American journal of public health, 94(4), 541-546.

Corburn, J. (2009). Toward the healthy city: people, places, and the politics of urban planning. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Dai, D. (2011). Racial/ethnic and socioeconomic disparities in urban green space accessibility: Where to intervene? Landscape and Urban Planning, 102(4), 234-244.

Davidoff, P. (1965) Advocacy and Pluralism in Planning, Journal of the American Institute of Planners 31: 331–7.

Dear, M. (Ed.) (2002). From Chicago to LA: Making sense of urban theory. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Fainstein, S. S., and DeFilippis, J. (Eds.). (2015). Readings in planning theory. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons.

Flint, A. (2015, July 17). “Is Urban Planning Having an Identity Crisis?” Atlantic. www.citylab.com

Foglesong, R. E. (2016). Planning the capitalist city. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Forster, C. (2006). The challenge of change: Australian cities and urban planning in the new millennium. Geographical research, 44(2), 173-182.

Goodman, R., Freestone, R., & Burton, P. (2017). Planning Practice and Academic Research: Views from the Parallel Worlds. Planning Practice & Research, 1-12.

Godschalk, D. R. (2004). Land use planning challenges: Coping with conflicts in visions of sustainable development and livable communities. Journal of the American Planning Association, 70(1), 5-13.

Hall P. (1996). Cities of Tomorrow. Oxford, England: Blackwell Publishers.

Harvey, D. (2003) ‘The Right to the City’, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 27(4): 939–41.

Hersperger, A. M., Ioja, C., Steiner, F., and Tudor, C. A. (2015). Comprehensive consideration of conflicts in the land-use planning process: a conceptual contribution. Carpathian Journal of Earth and Environmental Sciences, 10(4), 5-13.

Hirt, S. A. (2005). Toward postmodern urbanism? Evolution of planning in Cleveland, Ohio. Journal of Planning Education and Research, 25(1), 27-42.

Innes, J. (1995) Planning Theory’s Emerging Paradigm: Communicative Action and Interactive Practice, Journal of Planning Education and Research 14(4): 183–9.

Innes, J. (1996) Planning through Consensus Building: A New View of the Comprehensive Planning Ideal, Journal of the American Planning Association 62(4): 460–72.

Katz, P., Scully, V., and Bressi, T. W. (1994). The new urbanism: Toward an architecture of community(Vol. 10). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Levy, J. M. (1992). What has happened to planning? Journal of the American Planning Association 58(1), 81-84.

Madanipour, A. (1996). Design of urban space: an inquiry into a socio-spatial process. Hoboken NJ: John Wiley & Son Ltd.

McClendon, B. W., Erber, E., McCoy, M., and Stollman, I. (2003). A bold vision and a brand identity for the planning profession. Journal of the American Planning Association, 69(3), 221-232.

Myers, D., and Kitsuse, A. (2000). Constructing the future in planning: A survey of theories and tools. Journal of Planning Education and Research, 19(3), 221-231.

Myers, D., & Banerjee, T. (2005). Toward greater heights for planning: Reconciling the differences between profession, practice, and academic field. Journal of the American Planning Association, 71(2), 121-129.

Ostrom, E. (2015). Governing the Commons. Cambridge MA: Cambridge University Press.

Ostrom, E (1990). Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. Cambridge MA: Cambridge University Press.

Ostrom, E (1986). An agenda for the study of institutions. Public choice, 48(1), 3-25.

Rabinovitz, F. F. (1969). City Politics and Planning. New Brunswick NJ: Transaction Publishers.

Rasmussen, J. (1985). The role of hierarchical knowledge representation in decision-making and system management. IEEE Transactions on systems, man, and cybernetics, (2), 234-243.

Reece, J. W. (2018). In Pursuit of a Twenty-first Century Just City: The Evolution of Equity Planning Theory and Practice. Journal of Planning Literature, 0885412218754519.

Sabatier, P. A. (2006). Policy Change and Learning: An advocacy Coalition Approach (theoretical lenses on public policy). Boulder CO: Westview Press.

Sawicki, D. S. (1988). Planning education and planning practice: can we plan for the next decade? Journal of Planning Education and Research, 7(2), 115-120.

Smith, N. (2002). New globalism, new urbanism: gentrification as global urban strategy. Antipode, 34(3), 427-450.

Smith, N. (1996). The new urban frontier: Gentrification and the revanchist city. New York: Routledge.

Thomas, J. M. (2008). The minority-race planner in the quest for a just city. Planning Theory, 7(3), 227-247.

Watson, V. (2009). Seeing from the South: Refocusing urban planning on the globe’s central urban issues. Urban Studies, 46(11), 2259-2275.

Yeh, A. G. O., & Wu, F. (1996). The new land development process and urban development in Chinese cities. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 20(2), 330-353.


Efon Epanty is Ph.D. student in Planning, Governance, and Globalization (PGG) in the School of Public and International Affairs at Virginia Tech. His research interests include: Multimodal Transit Planning, Urban Mobility Systems, Transportation Technology and Policy. His current research looks at the application of intelligence transportation technologies to improve bus transit systems. He previously earned a Master’s in Public Administration from Virginia Tech and also holds a Master’s in Urban Planning from the University of Kansas. He received a Bachelor of Sciences with Honors in Geography from the University of Buea in Cameroon.

Efon currently works as a Transportation Planner with the Fairfax County Department of Transportation.

Posted in Efon Epanty | Leave a comment