$2.4 million grant to fund Pitt research on overcoming social polarization
Social studies'Governing Deep Difference'

$2.4 million grant to fund Pitt research on overcoming social polarization

Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili co-leads team researching the way societies manage and overcome polarization and social cleavages.

Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili (Photo by Aimee Obidzinski/University of Pittsburgh)
Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili (Photo by Aimee Obidzinski/University of Pittsburgh)

Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili sees a world fragmented and polarized and wants to do something about it.

Now, the associate professor of public and international affairs at the University of Pittsburgh has a little help.

A team led by Pitt’s Center for Governance and Markets (CGM) at Pitt’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs will examine the way societies manage and overcome polarization and social cleavages, thanks to a $2.4 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation.

The project, “Governing Deep Difference: Modus Vivendi, Polycentrism, and Institutional Diversity,” is co-led by Murtazashvili and Paul Dragos Aligică, KPMG professor of Governance at the University of Bucharest and a senior fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.

“We observe that there is a big disconnect between the ability of communities to overcome deep difference and work together on certain issues and national level rhetoric that is increasingly divisive,” said Murtazashvili, who lives in Squirrel Hill and is a member of Congregation Beth Shalom. “Societies are more diverse than they have ever been yet, despite this, we are increasingly polarized. This project explores the conditions under which communities are able (or not able) to overcome deep divides.”

The three-year research project — which will study groups in Uzbekistan, Romania, Ukraine and Rust Belt communities in and around Pittsburgh — confronts what Pitt calls governance issues: how increasing social diversity, pluralism of values, worldviews and ways of life created by contemporary social and technological changes are redefining societies and communities, often fostering conflict.

“This work is so important in our context of ever-increasing interconnectedness of systems and people across the globe, coupled with deepening divides across so many facets of our society,” said Carissa Slotterback, dean of Pitt’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, in a prepared statement.

Rather than simply identifying sources of polarization, the project will explore the tools communities develop to overcome deep differences under conditions of growing heterogeneity. To do this, it will develop and test a range of intellectual traditions investigating and articulating tolerance-based solutions to these challenges.

Uzbekistan was selected because it “has religious pluralism, including a long history of Jews living peacefully alongside Muslims,” Murtazashvili said. Ukraine, she added, “is one of the most religiously diverse countries in the world with large Muslim, Christian and Jewish populations.”
The CGM will work with a range of global research partners including those at the Kyiv School of Economics (Ukraine), the University of Bucharest (Romania) and Ergo Analytics (Uzbekistan).

“We’re pleased to support this project, which will explore some of the most fundamental challenges to free societies,” said Amy Proulx, director of Individual Freedom & Free Markets at the John Templeton Foundation. “Understanding how diverse communities are able to successfully navigate their deep differences is a critical step in promoting human flourishing. The project also has important implications for our work related to pluralism, human rights, political freedoms such as religious liberty and free expression, and the institutions that protect those freedoms.”

The project “will bring together philosophers and political theorists who write and think about pluralism and diversity,” Murtazashvili said. “It will also bring together sociologists, economists and political scientists who will analyze public opinion data to understand sources of differences and attitudes. We suspect sources of polarization are different in each context. … In the U.S., we suspect that the sources of polarization are based on political identity rather than on racial or ethnic divides. This is a new phenomenon.”

“We will explore sources of deep division and polarization in each country, trying to understand the conditions under which communities can work together,” she added. “Under some conditions, it may simply not be possible to bridge divides, yet still live in peace. Sometimes differences are simply too deep. How can policymakers create governance arrangements that account for this?” PJC

Justin Vellucci is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh.

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