Street Epistemology in Public Administration

Discussing difficult issues with compassion and reason

Many public administrators find themselves in a bad light from time to time either from actions directly associated with their agency, or completely removed. It is no secret that public administrators are sometimes seen as a faceless ineffective government worker stuck in the “iron cage” of bureaucracy as Max Weber described it. Public administrators, in general, know that it is important to address these concerns especially when it is a face to face or phone conflict that is increasing in intensity. In today’s heated and divided society, complaints can escalate quickly and it is important to know how to talk about these issues in a calm and respectful manner. Additionally, throwing facts at the complainant may not be as effective as it once was, if at all. If a conflict is heated enough, the parties involved may not want to listen to facts or the reality of the matter. Instead of denying their claims and reiterating one’s own point, it may be most effective to employ what is called “Street Epistemology”. 

Street Epistemology (SE) is a method of discussion that relies on friendly rapport and socratic questioning to help people reflect on why they believe something and discover what is actually true. Epistemology is the study of knowledge and derives from the Greek words episteme meaning knowledge and logos meaning reason – the street version of this method refers to the casual conversations one finds themselves which can be anywhere from a bus ride and at the market to at work or family dinners. I came across SE from Anthony Magnabosco’s youtube channel where he literally finds strangers in a public setting and asks to discuss a deeply held belief much like Socrates himself in many of Plato’s works. The topics of these discussions are wide-ranging and cover beliefs like ghosts, various superstitions, karma, gods, political issues, pseudoscience, conspiracy theories, and even fears or phobias. The fascinating way Mr. Magnabosco goes about speaking to people makes one feel hopeful for public discourse and could very well be used in dealing with a heated conflict in the public sector, from angry constituents, in agency meetings, and really an interaction where both sides are deeply entrenched in their views.

Streetepistemology.com has a lot of information and resources to investigate this method but the main flow of the method is to first build a rapport with the other person. Get to know them and understand who they are and where they come from. This involves honest inquiry into them and who they are as well as showing them that you really care – it also injects a bit of humanity into the conversation. Next, would be to identify the claim they are making. This helps you and them in that you show that you truly care about the issue at hand and are really trying to understand it and it allows them to articulate the issue and repeat it outloud which clears the way for a better conversation. Additionally, it helps you make sure you are understanding the problem. For example, one might want to repeat back to them “Just to make sure I am understanding you correctly, and correct me if I am wrong – the issue is an increase in property tax without any benefit in return?” From there, allow the other side to clarify or expand on the issue. It’s very important to hear them out to not only make them feel heard, but to strengthen your own understanding of the issue. The next step would be to clarify definitions, “so a good example of benefits for property taxes would be?” or “Can you give me your three best examples of what a benefit would be for you?” Again, you are giving them ways to talk and expand on the issue and getting down to exactly what they have a problem with. And finally, you will ask why they think that is the case. So, in the example here of property taxes, you could ask “and what makes you feel like you are not receiving any benefit?” or “what would be a good way to tell if you are receiving benefits from paying taxes?”. This way, you are setting the goal posts of what exactly it would take to change their minds. 

It is also important to be courteous the whole time. Thank them for their answers and for being honest and even praise them for coming forward with the concern and express how you want to resolve the issue. If we, as public administrators, want to resolve complex and often heated issues, we have to have these difficult conversations. In the public life and in private, the answer may very well be Street Epistemology. 

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