Inspired by Mary Parker Follett
In the introduction to her work on Creative Experience, Mary Parker Follett(1924) describes a book she had read by a then-contemporary political theorist. In one sentence of this particular book she read, the author used the words power, purpose, freedom, and service in the space of three lines. Follett was struck by the realization that the author refrained from detailing what any of these words actually meant and consequently she didn’t know. She repeatedly observed this pattern as she witnessed other “political scientists talk about conferring power without analyzing power; [or] economists talk about representation in industry without analyzing representation”(ibid, p. ix). Such hesitance to define or analyze what one is speaking of seemed most prevalent in certain “magic word[s] par excellence”(ibid, p. 139). These words were considered unequivocally good things which all people of good conscience should aspire to. One such magic word in Follett’s time was science. Other magic and poorly-defined words of the time included social, power, function, and experience.
As Follett described there was a type of crowd mentality in these magic words. According to her, organizing such a crowd required the rhetorical skill of “tak[ing] all the different aspects of a situation, about which men might and do differ, and either combin[ing] them into something so vague that all can easily agree, or else get[ting] them under the roof of a single emotion.” Once a particular word moved into this realm of being vaguely agreeable enough or feeling good enough, people may start using it in a magical way where they believe they are talking about the same thing when in fact they are not.
In her estimation that’s exactly what was going on. People were using these words with highly disparate meanings. What then does one do?
One might think her goal at the time was to do away with this difference—come to some sense of surety on science, the social, or some other word. She disagreed. The purpose of any academic investigation, including her’s at the time is “not to do away with difference but to do away with muddle”(ibid, p. 6). We aren’t to do away with difference but rather find ways of giving difference fair play. In Follett’s opinion we could accomplish such a task by observing, in thousands of cases, the working of these words in the daily activities of our own, and others, lives.
I recount this story as an inspiration to me as I confront a “magic word” of our own time: engagement.
At it’s most vaguely agreeable, engagement, otherwise known as community engagement, public engagement, or civic engagement is a testament to the good idea of citizen participation in the work of our public institutions. As such, it’s also fair to say that engagement is the moral or ideological equivalent of “eating spinach: no one is against it in principle because it is good for you”(Arnstein, 1969, p. 216).
Given engagement’s magic status in our current era, we’d do well to look at it more seriously, observing the thousands of cases where that word crops up in our daily life. That observation of our similarly-named concrete actions is where we’ll find difference, and give difference fair play. That’s where we’ll learn to better integrate our meanings, values, and actions with one another while exorcising our demons. Starting that project is the purpose of the forthcoming paper. Stay tuned.