Coffee-shop research probes understanding of politics

01/15/04

MADISON - When Katherine Cramer Walsh picked up a coffeepot and started pouring java for the regulars in a Michigan coffee shop one morning, she began three years of intimate research that revealed how ordinary people make sense of politics through casual conversation.

Although political behavior and understanding is often measured by survey data, Walsh went to the Main Street level, spending from 1997 through 2000 analyzing the conversations, dynamics - and even body language - of a group of retired, white, middle- to upper-middle-class men called the "Old Timers."

Although people talk about politics routinely, political scientists know little about how these conversations work. Walsh, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, concludes that political beliefs are inextricably linked to social identity.

"Researchers generally believe that when people make sense of politics, they do it with party identification and political tools," Walsh says. "What I found was that they make sense of politics with social tools. People aren't political animals first. They are more social animals, and they are relating to each other and making sense of the world along with each other."

The group - which numbered up to 90 men, but encompassed about 35 regular members - gathered daily in an Ann Arbor coffee shop and convenience store to discuss sports, politics, their families and the weather.

Walsh, then a doctoral candidate at the University of Michigan, began by observing the men from afar. But one morning, she picked up a coffeepot and started pouring refills. Soon after, she won the consent of the group to join them and conduct her study.

"I find it so inspiring, spending time with actual people and listening to what they actually think is important in the world, instead of trying to interpret that from survey data," says Walsh, whose study was the basis of her new book, "Talking About Politics: Informal Groups and Social Identity in American Life."

The Old Timers had an abundance of issues to hash out, including Monica Lewinsky, the 2000 race for the White House and its legal aftermath, and they often made sense of the issues by talking them through together.

For example, Walsh says when former Sen. Bill Bradley joined the Democratic presidential race, many of the Old Timers were impressed with him and assumed he was a native of the western United States. When they discovered he was from New Jersey, their support evaporated.

"We judge their civic capacity on the information they have, but people make sense of politics in ways that are meaningful to them. Once they found out that Bill Bradley was from New Jersey, it completely changed the way they viewed him," Walsh says.

Their segues between talk about everyday life and politics were often seamless, Walsh found. She tracked one conversation that began about the coffee shop's new ashtrays that quickly transitioned into a discussion about how the local congresswoman would vote on whether to hold impeachment hearings on President Clinton.

Although this sort of communal discussion can build trust among members of the group, Walsh says it also has social consequences because it can exclude people from other backgrounds and racial groups. Her study tends to challenge widely held beliefs that more political discussion, by definition, enriches the quality of civic life.

In the same coffee shop, another group of people - a racially mixed, blue-collar group - gathered on a regular basis, but there was no interaction between the groups, Walsh says.

"It was very exclusive. The Old Timers weren't considering a wide range of views. They were alike and it was a safe place to be expressing opinions," she says. "But 10 steps away were people who felt very differently about Monica Lewinsky and Al Gore, but they didn't interact. They were perpetuating boundaries that are very much a part of our society today, especially race."

In a letter to the Old Timers following her study, Walsh told them she disagrees with political scientists who believe that conversation is the soul of democracy.

"When most people talk informally about politics, they aren't doing it to solve the world's problems," she wrote. "Their intent is not to improve democracy or foster brotherly love. Instead, their conversations are a way of sharing time, figuring out the world together and feeling like part of a community. Some people who have read my work think this is a pessimistic conclusion. I tend to agree."

In one of the Old Timers' conversations, a participant named Dave noted that, "Government is us." Walsh says that her study shows that it is the responsibility of citizens to develop community by interacting with groups while knowing enough about others to respect differences.

"If we're going to govern each other, we have to understand one another," she says. "It takes a lot of courage to do that, and perhaps it takes some help from our institutions."

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