Context, Interests, and Unintended Consequences: Lenses for Seeing, Comprehending and Engaging with the World, pp. 4 of 5

Unintended Consequences

Let me now say something about a third set of lenses, a favorite of sociologists: unintended consequences. The notion of unintended consequences is meant to alert students to the fact that the many things we face in our everyday lives – rules, regulations, policies – shape us in multiple ways that go beyond the explicit intentions or goals of these rules, regulations and policies.

It is an important analytical tool: it compels us not to be too narrow and myopic in our analyses of any given policy document. We have to go beyond the goals that are explicitly laid out.

In addition, we can think in terms of unintended consequences on cultures. By cultures, I mean the norms, practices and values of various groups in a society. This lens helps us think more about how policies can help or harm the forging of collective membership in a society.

After the White Paper came out, I wrote an op-ed (2013), published in the newspaper Today. It was titled “Beware the unintended consequences.” I make several main points. First, policy makers and political leaders in Singapore speak often about “mindsets” and the need to change them before policies can follow. They speak often of existing “values” and “traditions” that policies must respect and speak to.  This, I argue, is an incomplete view of the relationship between policy and culture; it overlooks and under-examines the influence of policy on culture. 

I make the point that the White Paper on Population and the manner in which it was introduced does not adequately consider its own effects on culture. For example: the continual framing of population problems as resolvable only through aggressive immigration may inadvertently worsen divides between older and newer citizens and create cultures of division; prioritization of growth might lead people to feel greater insecurity and thereby compel cultures of self-centeredness; rolling out population plans that have not adequately addressed growing public discontent may create cultures of disempowerment wherein people feel it is futile for members of society to engage uncynically in public debate.

By looking at unintended consequences, and specifically unintended consequences on social norms and values, I am encouraging students to see that discussions of public policies are never about just what’s on the table. Instead, there are larger consequences for how we think about ourselves as a society, and how we can and should be members of it.

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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