Friday, April 06, 2018

Review -- Divining Desire: Focus Groups and the Culture of Consultation

[Liza Featherstone. Divining Desire: Focus Groups and the Culture of Consultation. New York: OR Books, 2017.]

This is a fascinating history of the focus group and related technologies of consultation written by journalist Liza Featherstone.

Since its inception, the form of listening made possible by the focus group has been about allowing elites to understand the experiences and desires of ordinary people, and therefore to respond to them in limited ways while keeping actual power in elite hands. From its origins in social democratic political milieus before the middle of the 20th century to its increasingly avid use by the advertising industry starting in the 1950s and by political campaigns starting especially in the 1980s, the details of that listening and the use to which it has been put have shifted. Especially towards the end of the 20th century, the focus group and the broader culture of consultation of which it is a part have been central to the neoliberal project of making changes in law, policy, and society that are consistently harmful to ordinary people, through a combination of giving elites the information they need to better figure out how to use image and spectacle to sell their agenda (often portraying themselves as the exact opposite of what they are actually doing) and of providing a platform to perform the act of listening which makes people feel heard even as they are increasingly shut out of any actual collective power over what happens in their lives. Though the book is almost exclusively about the US context, I repeatedly thought about the antics of Justin Trudeau and his government, particularly their dedicated performance of listening and sympathy when it comes to things like climate change and the environment, even as they approve the pipelines and other extraction projects that industry wants and that will contribute so much to frying the earth.

At the same time, there has always been an elite disdain for focus groups and for consultation that has grown in the early 21st century and has increasingly manifested in the authoritarian masculinist rejection of listening to anybody about anything seen in figures like George W. Bush and Donald Trump. Yet even as they do this, and as it meets with the approval of a certain segment of the public, their campaigns and regimes are no less dependent on listening to figure out how to sell their agenda (sometimes still via focus group, sometimes using other methods) than those that listen performatively, like Barack Obama, Hilary Clinton, or Justin Trudeau. Part of why this elite rejection of focus groups and consultation can work as a brand is because there is also a popular suspicion and even disdain for it, and not just on the right or among white men angry at having to occasionally listen to everyone else for once. Featherstone argues that this represents a broadly misdirected anger – on some level, we recognize focus groups and consultation as part of a project of elite deception, yet so often that comes out as popular disdain for other ordinary people and for listening to them, rather than recognizing that the problem is elite maniuplation and the growing inequality that makes focus groups and performative listening so crucial to the maintenance of elite power.

Today, social media provides elites with more data than ever before to allow them to listen to the rest of us when it comes to certain details while keeping politics firmly non-threatening to elite interest, while focus groups persist because of the power of face-to-face interaction within small groups in illuminating not just opinions but the feelings and rationales underlying them. In some ways, the current scare about foreign interference in Western elections through strategic social media interventions based on prior mining of social media data is just a refinement of what our own elites have been doing to us for decades.

Featherstone argues that much of the culture of consultation that dominates politics and the commercial world today was appropriated from the movements of the New Left, significantly including the women's movement, but that in movements today there is also a way in which the legacy of New Left culture mimics its corporate up-take in the excessive emphasis on "giving voice" and "being heard" and the relatively little attention that many movements today pay to building and exerting power. She argues that we need to learn from the power that focus groups and other approaches to listening hold, but we must re-orient away from an emphasis on voice and consultation towards actual organizing. Which is a reasonable point in a lot of ways, though at least as it is made in this book it paints with too broad a brush, both in terms of its characterization of actually existing movements and in terms of its advocacy for how to do things differently. In fact, in some ways I thought this was the weakest part of the book because it smuggled in assumptions from the author without making them explicit or defending them. My sense is that she holds particular democratic socialist understandings of how we should relate to the state and to power, and that we should "take power" in that sense. And certainly that analysis needs to be part of the conversation, and certainly seems to be one useful element of a broader response to the decades of defeat under neoliberalism. But there are also other ways to think about organizing and about building power that don't necessarily fit within the newly re-forming democratic socialist tradition but that don't belong under the somewhat caricatured picture of movements seduced into liberal ineffectualness that the book paints. Frankly, I think this section of the book would have been significantly strengthened if it had itself been based on a lot more consulting and listening – to the many conversations about related issues already happening in many different movements, and informed by a range of radical traditions and perspectives. So: Some good ideas, but needs a much longer and more nuanced discussion, and inclusion of other radical perspectives as well.

Overall, though, I thought the book was really good. Its examination of the how of an important piece of late-capitalist governance is very important and I learned a lot. And as I've alluded to before on this blog and on social media, the recent re-orientation of one of my own major writing projects involves paying much closer attention to the politics of listening, and this book has definitely been helpful to me as I develop my thinking about at least some aspects of that work. Definitely worth a read.

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