Things to know about the National Institute for Civil Discourse at UA:
- Initiated after the Jan. 8 shootings in Tucson.
- Institute's creation led by UA Provost Meredith Hay and Arizona Board of Regents Chair Fred DuVal.
- The donor-supported institute's priority is to promote civic engagement and civility.
- Its national board of advisors includes former U.S. Presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton.
The National Institute for Civil Discourse is now funding four University of Arizona researchers working on two independent projects aimed at investigating civility in the public domain.
The funding represents the first grants provided by the UA institute, known as NICD, which was created to establish the groundwork for a nationwide center focused on the study and promotion of civility.
The awardees are: "Patterns and Determinants of Civility in Online Discussions" led by UA communication faculty members Kate Kenski, Kevin Coe and Steve Rains; and "Citizen Rage: Representative-Constituent Face Threatening Interactions in Town Hall Meetings" by UA linguistic anthropologist Norma Mendoza-Denton.
"Both of these research projects are proposing foundational research in the sense that currently there is no agreement about what constitutes civil or uncivil discourse among either the public or among researchers," said Robin Stryker, a UA sociology professor and the institute's research director. She also chaired the reviewing committee.
"If we are going to research these issues and offer any kind of informed solutions to problems of incivility, we have to have systematic research that provides a standard for assessing what is civil and uncivil," said Stryker, who also is affiliated with the UA James E. Rogers College of Law.
NICD, founded at the UA in response to the Jan. 8 shootings in Tucson, received funding from the Finley Family Foundation to support the two projects at $7,500 each, Milward noted.
"We hope funding will continue into the future," Milward said. "We will continue to aggressively fundraise for it as we
consider it central to the institute's mission."
In its call for proposals, NICD sought projects that promoted research on "the nature, causes and consequences of civility or incivility in public discourse."
Having received the seed grants, the faculty involved are expected to have a progress report completed by mid-November with preliminary findings available by January. The recipients will present their research during the institute's inaugural conference, which will be held next year.
Kenski, Coe and Rains will be studying discussions in online comment forums connected to newspaper articles on agency websites.
"Researchers have studied incivility primarily among political elites, but little research has focused on how civility or incivility is embodied in citizen conversations about politics," said Kenski, an assistant professor of communication.
The team intends to develop a way to code for civility and incivility in political discourse, which would enable the tracking of incivility across time in multiple venues.
The research trio also will attempt to determine what types of factors appear to trigger incivility. In particular, the team will investigate story types and placement, perceptions of bias and other factors, in articles that are politically-based and centered on government.
"Our coding scheme will eventually allow us to see how incivility in our culture plays out among political elites and the citizenry and determine whether political elites take their cues from the citizenry about what is acceptable or whether citizens are guided by the actions of elites," Kenski added.
Mendoza-Denton, a linguistic anthropologist and associate professor, is focusing on "conflict talk" during town hall meetings hosted by former Arizona Congressman Jim Kolbe, former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Rep. Gabrielle Giffords during the 2000's.
For their research, Mendoza-Denton and her collaborators collected video and audio recordings of several public meetings attended or hosted by the government officials.
"The town hall meeting is a cornerstone of American democracy. The idealization is that citizens can have equal say in the political process in the public sphere, and that these deliberations influence how decisions are made in the large scale political process," Mendoza-Denton said.
With the funding, she will analyze the ways in which elected officials engaged with agitated audience members, paying close attention to verbal and physical interactions, tone and terms representatives used to deal with conflict with members of the public.
"I am very honored to be participating. For me, it is absolutely important to be able to show this work to political scientists, sociologists and the public," Mendoza-Denton said, adding that she intends to pursue a book proposal based on her findings.
Ultimately, she wants to develop a better understanding of the micro-dynamics of conflict, particularly in town hall meetings.
"This issue is of interest to people who study political deliberation and political participation. But I want to be able to compare situations to draw generalizations so that we may have a wider corpus for understanding," Mendoza-Denton said.
"If we can better understand the microdynamics of conflict, we might be able to draw classifications of the different types of conflict and the different types of interactional management techniques that can be used if conflict gets out of hand," she added.
In the case of both UA projects, the expectation is that the NICD funding would lay the foundation for seeking external funding for further research.
In effect, both are designed as pilot projects.
"We are very enthused about the upshot of these two proposals since both of them provide foundational knowledge and both can lead to substantial external research grants to continue this line of research," Stryker said. "That is very exciting."