Ask a Sociologist: What kept us from joining in?

By Carol Petty

Dear Sociologist,
I saw a Black Lives Matter protest at 14th and U Street the other day. A lot of people stopped to watch. I got the feeling we were mostly agreeing with the speakers, but none of us joined them despite their similarity in age to us. So, I am wondering why. What kept us from joining in?
Inexplicably Reluctant

Dear IR,
Many reasonable concerns can arise in this moment to prevent your participation. Perhaps you will not be received; maybe you don’t belong there. This just isn’t your issue; all manner of vulnerabilities surface.

The moment of decision passes, and courage fails you. Or, perhaps some priority pulls just a bit more forcefully: I’ve got somewhere to be; what if this takes a while? Practical matters and social fears permeate this kind of reluctance. But, at a broader level, social and cultural forces inform reluctance, shaping the content of our priorities and hesitations.

Image of a megaphone

Political Voice. Source:


Chief among these is the exercise of political voice and its complicated American backdrop. Attempts to study people’s political lives here have, historically, been met with suspicion and just a tinge of fear. In a 1991 study of political process, researchers Williams and Demerath got surveys back blank, save for terse comments: “the answers to these questions are private” or “my husband said there was no way I should answer this.” And, in popular culture, the lovably exaggerated libertarian Ron Swanson endears viewers with his passion for apathy, virtue in self-interest, and boundless concern for privacy.

Swanson’s worldview, definitions of politics as private, and suspicion regarding political inquiries may appear to the American audience as almost natural.

But, there is nothing timeless or “natural” about the contemporary state of political participation. Influenced by mundane organization, historical antecedent, technological change, the scandalous, the tragic forms of political participation and their contents vary across time and society.

Self-interest and apathy for what does not serve it, concern for privacy, and suspicion of breaching it in our current context shape the styles of political participation that are seen as worthwhile, and inform the contents of political priorities.

What, given this basic backdrop, steers you and your friends away from adding your voices to this political protest? A common place question comes to mind: What good would it do? What good would come of it? A strictly utilitarian, self-interested approach to political participation would say, nothing, and especially nothing if you’re not Black.

Being influenced by this perspective, consciously or unconsciously, doesn’t necessarily mean callousness of personal character. Rather, a utilitarian, practical self-interest permeates American models for political participation. Even early 19th century observations of life in America (Alexis De Tocqueville comes to mind), accentuated the dominance of practical concerns, and disdain for theory in the political consciousness of Americans.

Group of people--silhouettes--holding up signs and flags



From a more theoretical perspective, though, public settings punctuated by a motley of voices, where people deliberate and exercise judgement, especially with regard to difference, constitute democratic life. A society oriented toward a theorized ideal of democracy, for example, would confer priority onto a political protest over an appointment.

Working, instead, from practical and immediate maps, employing vocabularies of motive framed in self-interest, we’re inclined to sift this opportunity into a rubbish bin of frivolous, even risky affairs.

In recent years, the capacity to uncover the political leanings of the everyday person has rapidly expanded through new media. Yet, this form of expression retains a close semblance with privacy. A tweet happens alone. My Facebook Feed impedes the obnoxious. Intimacy and solitude persist.

Wherein lies resistance to making the political public? Nina Eliasoph, in Avoiding Politics, engaged with the peculiar cultural etiquette of political silence in public spaces.

Based on research with volunteers, activists, and community actors, she found that “what marks a context as clearly ‘public’ is often precisely the fact that the talk is so narrow, not at all public-minded. Civic etiquette made imaginative, open-minded, thoughtful conversation rare in public, frontstage settings. The more hidden the context, the more public-spirited conversation was possible. Politics evaporated from public circulation” (Eliasoph 1998:230).

The practice of reserving political, public-oriented discussion for backstage settings creates informal standards and expectations, to which, wittingly or unwittingly, we hold ourselves and others.

Young boy yells into microphone



So, given the narrowness of public talk, jumping in for an afternoon protest about ideas you believe in might just be terribly gauche. Cultural repertoires shepherd us to safe, predictable terrain; saving face outranks political voice, and the priority of practical self-interest works to discredit actions oriented toward the ideal.

De Tocqueville, Alexis. 1838 [2003]. Democracy in America. Penguin Classics.
Eliasoph, Nina. 1998. Avoiding politics: How Americans Produce Apathy in Everyday Life. Cambridge University Press.
Williams, Rhys H. and Nicholas J. Demerath III. 1991. “Religion and Political Process in an American City.” American Sociological Review: 417-431.

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