Context, Interests, and Unintended Consequences: Lenses for Seeing, Comprehending and Engaging with the World

The White Paper on Population created quite a firestorm when it was released in 2013. Many critiques were launched against it – ranging from big and obvious worries about the sheer number of people who are expected to live in this small city; to complaints about where these people would come from; to very nitty-gritty critiques about the details and tone of the White Paper – right down to how nurses are referred to as low-skilled workers in the footnotes.

When the White Paper came out, I was teaching a course about Power, Politics and the State. The White Paper and the controversy around it became something that students and I discussed in class. Based on such experiences in teaching, I highlight the sorts of questions that I think we ought to get our students to ask and answer when policies are introduced and when controversies arise. As a teacher, I think we should be invested not so much in convincing students about our points of view, but in giving them the tools and lenses to think through problems.

So how do we do provide students with lenses and tools? As a sociologist, three things are key: interests, contexts, and unintended consequences. Let me say a few words about each of these and give some examples of how they are useful in discussing population issues.


Used crudely, people think that “interests” is about how someone is trying to gain something, trying to maximize their interests. But the way I want my students to think about interests is to pay attention to two related things: when we say the word “interests,” we are first and foremost pointing out that there is no neutral position from which to speak. All positions involve a point of view, and more specifically, somebody or some group’s point of view. They may take their point of view because there may in fact be some sort of material benefit or disadvantage involved. But at least equally often, they take that point of view because it fits into the worldview of not just themselves as individuals, but also into the various social groupings to which they belong.


An Inspiring Quote

"[Open-mindedness] includes an active desire to listen to more sides than one; to give heed to facts from whatever source they come; to give full attention to alternative possibilities; to recognize the possibility of error even in the beliefs that are dearest to us."

~ John Dewey, How We Think

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