- Bounded mirroring: joint action and group membership in political theory and cognitive neuroscience
- Book title
- Thinking about the Body Politic: Essays on Neuroscience and Political Theory
- Pages (from-to)
- London: Routledge
- Document type
- Faculty of Science (FNWI)
- Institute of Interdisciplinary Studies (ISS)
A crucial socio-political challenge for our age is how to redefine or extend group membership in such a way that it adequately responds to phenomena related to globalization like the prevalence of migration, the transformation of family and social networks, and changes in the position of the nation state. Two centuries ago Immanuel Kant assumed that international connectedness between humans would inevitably lead to the realization of world citizen rights (Kant, 1968). Nonetheless,
globalization does not just foster cosmopolitanism but simultaneously yields the development of new group boundaries (Castells, 1997). Group membership is indeed a fundamental issue in political processes, for: "the primary good that we distribute to one another is membership in some human community" (Walzer, 1983, p. 31) - it is within the political community that power is being shared and, if possible, held back from non-members. In sum, it is appropriate to consider group membership a
fundamental ingredient of politics and political theory (Latham, 1952). Specifications of group boundaries appear to be of only secondary importance. Indeed, Schmitt famously declared that: "[e]very religious, moral, economic, ethical, or other antithesis transforms into a political one if it is sufficiently strong to group human beings effectively according to friend and enemy" (Schmitt, 1996, p. 37). Even though Schmitt’s idea of politics as being constituted by such antithetical groupings is debatable, it is plausible to consider politics among others as a way of handling inter-group differences. Obviously, some of the group-constituting factors are more easily discernable from one’s appearance than others, like race, ethnicity or gender. As a result, factors like skin color or sexual orientation sometimes carry much political weight even though individuals would rather confine these to their private lives and individual identity (Appiah, 1992). Given the potential tension between the political reality of particular group membership definitions and the - individual and political - struggles against those definitions and corresponding attitudes, citizenship and civic behavior becomes a complex issue. As Kymlicka points out, it implies for citizens an additional obligation
to non-discrimination regarding those groups: "[t]his extension of non-discrimination from government to civil society is not just a shift in the scale of liberal norms, it also involves a radical extension in the obligations of liberal citizenship" (Kymlicka, 2001, pp. 298-299). Unfortunately, empirical research suggests that political intolerance towards other groups: "may be the more natural and ‘easy’ position to hold" (Marcus, Sullivan, Theiss-Morse, & Wood, 1995, p. 224). Indeed, since development of a virtue of civility or decency regarding other groups is not easy, as it often runs against deeply engrained stereotypes and prejudices, political care for matters like education is
justified. Separate schools, for example, may erode children’s motivation to act as citizens, erode their capacity for it and finally diminish their opportunities to experience transcending their particular group membership and behave as decent citizens (Kymlicka & Norman, 2000). This chapter outlines a possible explanation for these observations. In doing so, it will not focus on collective action, which is a usual focus for political studies. Results demonstrate that the relation between attitudes and overt
voting behavior or political participation is not as direct and strong as was hoped for. Several conditions, including the individual’s experiences, self-interest, and relevant social norms, turned out to affect the link between his attitude and behavior (Marcus, et al., 1995). This chapter will discuss to what extent and how group membership does as well affect direct interaction - in particular joint action. Although politics does include many forms of action that require no such physical interaction, such physical interaction between individuals remains fundamental to politics - reason why separate schooling may undermine the citizenship of its isolated pupils (Kymlicka & Norman, 2000). This chapter will focus on joint action, defined as: "any form of social interaction whereby two or more individuals coordinate their actions in space and time to bring about a change in the environment" (Sebanz, Bekkering, & Koblich, 2006, p. 70). Cognitive neuroscientific evidence demonstrates that for such joint action to succeed, the agents have to integrate the actions and expected actions of the other person in their own action plans at several levels of specificity. Although neuroscientific research is necessarily limited to simple forms of action, this concurs with a philosophical analysis of joint action, which I’ll discuss more below. Given this correspondence, the neuroscientific study of joint action may still deliver us insights into relevant properties of more comprehensive, political action.1 I will employ the example of joint action mentioned by Sebanz and colleagues of two persons carrying a table, being required to coordinate goals and means at several levels. Both persons can face the table and each other, partly imitating each other’s behavior and partly complementing it, for instance by walking forwards and backwards respectively (Sebanz, et al., 2006). Furthermore, the scenario’s for joint action can become more complicated if the table has to be carried upstairs, with
persons of different sizes, or without a previously agreed direction or goal for carrying the table. Joint actions with a clearer political resonance, like writing and carrying a banner, building dikes or operating a cannon are not dissimilar in their relying on individuals coordinating their actions in order to obtain a goal in their environment.
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