USC Price School of Public Policy

USC Price Lecture Examines Cooperation

USC Price Lecture Examines Cooperation

By Cristy Lytal

Richard Sennett Richard Sennett, professor of sociology and history at New York University, lectures at Lewis Hall.
Photo by John Roberson
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Can people cooperate with those who are different from them — in belief, appearance or situation? Richard Sennett, professor of sociology and history at New York University, answered this question with a resounding “yes” at the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy Distinguished Research Lecture Series on Jan. 18.

As the author of the recently published book Together: The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Cooperation, Sennett considers cooperation an “elemental human capacity” without which “no baby could survive for very long.”

“It’s the activity that we engage in, the work we do with others, to do things we can’t do for ourselves,” he said.

As children get older, their emerging sense of autonomy and self-identity complicates the work of cooperation, transforming it from a pure win-win situation into a zero-sum game. Their growing awareness of group differences – between blacks and whites, migrants and natives, and working- and middle-class citizens – and the demands of competition add other layers of complexity.

In the face of these challenges, Sennett identified three problems that hinder the practice of skilled cooperation in society.

The first is tribalism, which interferes with attempts to relate to people who are different. The second is the emergence in the workplace of what Sennett described as “very superficial ideas of teamwork, where essentially you’re showing off to your superiors just how cooperative you are, but in fact you don’t take it seriously.” The third is the Web, which Sennett has found sometimes can promote too much unanimity, coherence and singularity to enable complex cooperation on projects.

Sennett also proposed potential solutions to these roadblocks in the form of three skills necessary for the craft of complex cooperation.

He emphasized the importance of dialogics, which have to do with listening skills, as opposed to dialectics, which have to do with argumentation.

“What dialogics enable is people to be able to remain in the same room with people they don’t understand or with people they disagree with because they’re not looking for a resolution,” he explained. “Dialogics don’t push aside lateral views.”

He also favored informal over formal relationships, and subjunctive over declarative language.

“When we speak in the subjunctive, what we’re doing is leaving a space open for informal relationships,” he explained.

Lastly, he underlined the importance of practicing empathy as opposed to sympathy, or feeling other people’s pain.

“Empathy is a recognition that somebody else is experiencing something that matters to them that you don’t understand,” Sennett said. “It isn’t necessarily an emotional state. You’re able to recognize the other as experiencing something that requires your attention or that makes you curious.”

While this vision of cooperation might sound like pie in the sky, Sennett concluded his talk with an anecdote of its real-world existence. He witnessed these three essential skills in action during the Occupy Wall Street protests, which he called “experiences of informal cooperation.”

“If you really believe in grassroots politics, this is the kind of cooperation you need to practice,” he concluded. “It’s dialogic, it’s informal and it’s empathic. And might I say, if you’re not politically attuned, it’s also the thing that, for urbanists, makes a city street work.”