Asking the Tough Questions: Bass Connections Team Works to Understand Political Polarization

March 29, 2018

Bass Connections team members discuss how to develop questions through which people can learn to engage thoughtfully and critically with different perspectives.

Originally published in the Spring 2018 issue of GIST by the Duke Social Science Research Institute (SSRI)

From debate over Confederate statues on public grounds to conversations about the NFL and the national anthem, public dialogue has become increasingly politically charged in typically apolitical spaces.

These tough conversations now feel almost commonplace, with people sharing their moral, political, and religious views in ways that seem to emphasize and entrench our differences rather than foster meaningful conversation.

But the ways we discuss our opinions and positions aren’t set in stone, and one Education & Human Development Bass Connections team has decided it’s time for a change.

Questioning How We Communicate

In an effort to increase constructive discourse and understand political polarization, the team will examine which questions increase humility and which raise barriers to communication when discussing politically charged topics.

For instance, asking why a person holds a certain position tends to increase their commitment to that belief. So these crucial conversations where people are trying to understand one another are sometimes doomed from the start just because of inadvertent wording.

By investigating which questions are the kind that open dialogue, the team hopes to develop questions that foster productive dialogue and identify the causes of defensiveness, rationalization, and polarization, so conversations can avoid these dangerous pitfalls.

Their hypothesis is straightforward, but profound. If students are trained in a culture that encourages people to regularly ask themselves and others the right kinds of questions, then they’ll become better at understanding different points of view. As a result, they’ll also be better at navigating an ideologically diverse world.

A Team of Diverse Perspectives

Team leads Jordan Carpenter, David Malone, Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, and Jesse Summers are working with four graduate students and four undergraduate students for the yearlong project.

The members of the Education and Human Development Bass Connections team represent a number of different disciplinary approaches. It’s true to their mission of engaging other points of view and strengthens the team dynamic.

“As with so many big topics, there are disciplinary ways of addressing it. But it’s not a disciplinary question,” said Jesse Summers, one of the team’s faculty leaders. Summers is also Assistant Academic Dean, Trinity College of Arts and Sciences, and a fellow at the Kenan Institute for Ethics.

“Political polarization, in some ways, is a political question,” he said. “But take gun control for example; there are so many other aspects to that polarization like psychological, social, cultural, etc. There’s so much going on beneath the topic that it really does go beyond one discipline.”

To tackle the problem of polarization from the best possible angle, it takes both disciplinary expertise and collaboration across the disciplines.

Involving members from Philosophy, Neuroscience, Bioethics and Science Policy, the Program in Education, and the Sanford School of Public Policy to name a few, the team offers a wide range of expertise.

Researchers are mapping different kinds of questions, drawing on philosophical work on argumentation, and developing surveys and questionnaires to measure people’s confidence and commitment to their views.

Their main focus is developing questions through which people can learn to engage thoughtfully and critically with different perspectives. They’re also exploring some related research areas like empathy and openness.

An Evolving Project

The project initially began as a conversation between Summers and postdoc Aaron Ancell, now a fellow at the University of Toronto’s Centre for Ethics, but still an active participant on the Bass Connections team.

“We both saw this call for proposals for research having to do with humility and polarization,” Summers said. “[Ancell] had this idea about questions and I had an idea about rationalization, so we started talking about how we could write up a proposal.”

Their idea quickly gained steam, evolving into a project with funding and multiple team members from across Duke’s campus. Applying to be a part of Bass Connections seemed like a natural progression.

While many projects in the Education and Human Development theme hosted by the Social Science Research Institute at Duke focus on childhood, their work reflects the theme’s goal of achieving positive life outcomes in an interconnected global society.

It’s this interconnectedness that demands better understanding of how we communicate our thoughts and positions with one another.

While it’s still early for results, the team is already making good headway. They’ve begun by mapping out the various kinds of questions that they plan to ask, drawing on philosophical work on argumentation, justification, reasoning, and rationalization.

Once the team’s developed different sets of questions, they’ll use surveys and questionnaires to examine how asking the different types of questions affect people’s confidence in and commitment to their own views as well as their attitudes toward others who disagree.

Finding a large group of respondents who can take the survey will require multiple approaches. They plan to use Amazon’s Mechanical Turk (also known as MTurk), an online marketplace where businesses and workers share and complete thousands of assignments that don’t require a larger, more permanent workforce.

It’s a service that’s ideal for finding a large group of survey respondents online.

They’ll also conduct in-person surveys on Duke’s campus as well as in the community. Plans are also in the works for visiting local schools.

Other outings will include the Right Question Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts and consulting with the SAGE Center for the Study of Mind.

Anticipated Outcomes

While they are still working toward their research goals at the moment, the team anticipates presenting their findings at the different Bass Connections events this year, including the Education & Human Development theme’s annual culminating event EHDx.

They also plan on authoring at least two academic papers reporting their findings and the issues those findings raise. The undergraduate team members will help coauthor the papers.

The student roles will continue to vary a lot over the project, Summers said, as a way of introducing them to as many sides of conducting research as time will allow. Students will provide insight as the team develops questions, conduct fieldwork, and help write up the findings.

This way, students will get to apply their classroom learning about research to the design and implementation of a project from start to finish.

“It’s a valuable experience that lets them put into practice classroom lessons on research methods,” Summers said. “Every time I’ve done a project like this with undergraduates, I think that’s one of the things that they get out of it the most.”

Learn More

  • Read about this year’s Bass Connections project team, How to Ask Questions.
  • Come to the Bass Connections Showcase on April 18.
  • Join us at EHDx on April 19, featuring talks and posters from the Education & Human Development theme of Bass Connections.

Photo: Team members discuss how to develop questions through which people can learn to engage thoughtfully and critically with different perspectives.