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Mark Whipple, allacademic research (2004)

The Dewey-Lippmann Debate Today: Negotiating the Divide Between Participatory and Elitist Models of Democracy


This paper reconstructs the Dewey-Lippmann debate of the 1920s, an exchange that centered on their contrasting normative ideals of democracy. While the debate holds historical significance in itself, this paper uses it as a historical point of departure toward the broader sociological objective of understanding the current direction of democratic scholarship. In particular, this paper focuses on the descendants of Lippmann and Dewey – the democratic elitists and the participatory democrats. While the elitist model tends to hold a dominant position in academic and popular discourse, I argue that the divide between elites and citizens can be bridged if the habits surrounding knowledge and expertise are fundamentally transformed – that is, if citizens as well as elites engage in intelligent and critical reflective agency. I conclude the paper by outlining three empirical social problems – the expansion of intellectual property rights, media conglomerates, and reliance on standardized tests – that work to delimit the capabilities of public citizens to engage in critical and reflective agency, and thus to bridge the gap between themselves and elites. I suggest that radical and participatory democrats must struggle with these empirical issues in order to understand and ultimately transform the tense relationship between expert knowledge and democracy.

Three major intellectual biographies of John Dewey were written in the 1990s. Based on the overlapping emphases of these three biographies, the resurgent appeal of Dewey can be attributed in large part to an increased interest in the social concerns that marked Dewey’s scholarly agenda – in particular, his overriding concern with democracy. For example, Westbrook (1991) relies on the public debate between Dewey and the journalist Walter Lippmann, an exchange that centered on their contrasting normative ideals of democracy, to help fulfill his objective of positioning Dewey in the radical wing of liberalism.

However, as a historian Westbrook is interested in the Dewey-Lippmann debate primarily as an over-and-done-with event; he largely refrains from engaging in a systematic reformulation of the current Dewey-Lippmann debate as it plays out in contemporary democratic discourse within the social sciences. This paper attempts to use the Dewey-Lippmann debate as a historical point of departure toward the broader sociological objective of understanding the current direction of the study of democratic discourse by social scientists.

The paper proceeds in three sections. First, I will reconstruct the Dewey-Lippmann debate, detailing in relational terms the assumptions and perspectives that lay beneath it. Then, in the second section I will discuss the direction the debate has taken since Lippmann and Dewey’s time, focusing on their respective descendants – the democratic elitists and the radical participatory democrats. In the final section, I will attempt to negotiate the divide between the elitist and the radical models of democracy.

To successfully negotiate this divide, I argue that participatory democrats must meet head-on, in a way that Dewey himself did not, the problematic relationship between the great concentration of expert knowledge in a society structured around large-scale organizations and its concomitant constraint on participatory democratic principles. In a society built on expert knowledge, the divide between elites and citizens can be bridged only if the habits surrounding knowledge and expertise are fundamentally transformed – that is, if citizens and elites engage in Dewey’s pragmatist theory of agency, intelligent and critical reflective thought.

Therefore, I conclude the third section by outlining three empirical social problems that work to delimit the capabilities of public citizens to engage in critical and reflective agency, and thus to bridge the gap between themselves and elites. These social problems are the expansion of intellectual property rights, the rise of media conglomerates, and widespread reliance on standardized tests. Deweyan scholars and radical democrats must struggle with these empirical issues in order to understand and ultimately transform the tense relationship between expert knowledge and democracy.


The Dewey-Lippmann debate began with the 1922 release of Lippmann’s Public Opinion and Dewey’s (1976) subsequent review of that work in the New Republic later that same year. At this point I wish to briefly sketch the important differences of Lippmann’s and Dewey’s respective democratic ideals. Throughout Public Opinion, Lippmann conceives of democratic communication primarily through the medium of vision. By emphasizing vision, the democratic process for Lippmann becomes something in which citizens do not actively participate, but passively watch – they become spectators rather than participants. Who, then, are democracy’s participants? Lippmann ends the first chapter with the thesis that democracy will inevitably fail without the creation of a centralized body of experts to act as society’s intelligence. This body will function to distill the complex social problems of a given time into an intelligible form so that political decision-makers can make informed, rational decisions.

Three years later in The Phantom Public, Lippmann (1925) builds upon this thesis by articulating more explicitly the limited role of citizens within a democracy. Repeating the mantra from Public Opinion, Lippman argues that the “random collections of bystanders who constitute a public could not, even if they had a mind to, intervene in all the problems of the day [and thus should] leave their proxies to a kind of professional public consisting of more or less eminent persons” (125).

Lippmann does not entirely reject a role in the political process for the masses. In times of relative discord between political parties (and here he assumes a simple two-party state with, moreover, relatively little difference between them) Lippmann accepts that it is the role of the masses to break the tie. “To support the Ins when things are going well; to support the Outs when they seem to be going badly, this, in spite of all that has been said about tweedledum and tweedledee, is the essence of popular government” (126).

Most important, though, a democracy should redistribute intelligence and the means of political decision-making up – away from the masses and toward a centralized body of intelligent elites. Dewey’s Ideal Differing from Lippmann, Dewey identified two social functions of democracy. First, Dewey held that democracy is wholly capable of creating a unified, stable political order. This is its “means.” But more importantly, Dewey saw in democracy the opportunity for all citizens to achieve both “self-realization” and positive fraternal association. Democracy is not merely a means to an end, but an end in itself – “a form of moral and spiritual association” (1967: 240).

To Dewey, the participatory model of democracy creates the conditions for the greatest realization of broad individual and collective capacities. To a large degree, Dewey’s emphasis on democracy as an “end” results from his heavily social-psychological perspective. Indeed, we can elucidate Dewey’s democratic ideal through consideration of two of his key social-psychological principles: the experiential act of participation; and, most important for our purposes, his bi-level view of human agency, including habitual and reflective intelligence, and the social origin of each.

The Act of Participation. Lippmann, we remember, accentuated the metaphor of vision when expounding the role of the public in a democracy. In contrast, Dewey emphasized the mediums of speaking and hearing, thus arguing that the act of communication is just that – activity. The difference between watching and speaking is the difference between being a spectator and a participant. According to Dewey, language does not magically represent the truth, or even approximate it; rather, he argued, the function of communication is to involve humans in the act of constructing the truth.

Thus, Dewey contended that Lippmann’s conception of representative democracy as based in the passivity of human nature was inherently flawed, for no more important reason than human beings are naturally active participants, not passive spectators. Habitual and Reflective Human Agency. Habitual activity constitutes the first level of Dewey’s pragmatic theory of agency. He defines habit as “that kind of human activity which is influenced by prior activity and in that sense acquired . . . is projective, dynamic in quality, ready for overt manifestation; and which is operative in some subdued subordinate form even when not obviously dominating activity” (Dewey 2002: 40).

Habits have two fundamentally important qualities – they are (a) acquired socially and thus (b) wholly alterable. The social, rather than biological, origin of habits allowed Dewey to place the responsibility for the fragmented public not on the public citizens themselves, but on the habits and customs that grew out of the social structural institutions that had come to dominate American culture and society in his time. Foremost, Dewey was critical of the way in which the values and habits of science were being appropriated for the purposes of industrial capitalism. For Dewey, science was an ideal model of his second level of human agency – reflective intelligence.

Dewey praised the tendency of science to promote the bedrocks of reflective agency: critical curiosity, thoughtfulness, and tolerance to new ideas. Thus, Dewey sought to democratize the ability to think scientifically (or, critically), for this tendency and ability to think critically and thoughtfully was a potentially transformative habit, “capable of exercising the most revolutionary influence on other customs” (2002: 78). Though Dewey saw habit and reflectivity as two levels of human agency, he did not seek to separate them completely. Reflectivity, Dewey wrote, is “the painful effort of disturbed habits to readjust themselves. . . . [Moreover], the real opposition is not between reason and habit but between routine, unintelligent habit, and intelligent habit, or art” (76-77).

Indeed, habit and reflectivity share at least one major fundamental attribute – namely, they each grow out of experience, and arise through the social process. The social mind’s two levels become clear: intelligence is not only shaped by the social context from which it arises (habit), but maintains the ability to use thought and critical intelligence to shape the very social conditions within which it arose (reflectivity).

Human beings are not merely and passively slaves to their habits and customs, but active agents able to reflect back on their past experiences and shape their future ones. In this paper I seek to politicize the notion of reflective agency. In terms of political sociology, truly critical reflective agency must be seen as more than a descriptive theoretical category, but as a democratic ideal undemocratically distributed. Like habits, reflective intelligence is contingent upon the social structural processes in which it arises (or stays dormant). To emphasize its contingent nature, in this paper I will speak of reflectivity in terms of habit – that is, the habitual tendency for citizens for critical and reflective intelligence. I speak of reflectivity in terms of habit not to equate them, but to emphasize the politically contingent nature of reflective agency.

The Growth of Large-Scale Organizations: A Critique of Dewey In relation to Lippmann, Dewey persuasively argues that human beings themselves can and ought to be actively engaged in their own self-governance. But in terms of the organization of society, however, Dewey failed to place his theoretical democratic ideal within the problematic context of the growth of large-scale organizations (Sjoberg et al 1997). Since the time of Weber (1946) and Michels (1964), these organizations, and the concomitant bureaucratization of society, have been understood to hold grave implications for the possibility of a truly democratic social and political order.

Drawing from social-psychological research that has documented the direct relationship between social structure, value-formation, and attitude change (Schuman 1995), as well as Blumer’s (1969) theoretical argument that public opinion is more than the sum of its parts, we can argue that large-scale bureaucratic organizations tend to centralize the means of intelligence while seeking to shape and manipulate public values into obedience for the system of authority. These organizations, then, are clearly at odds with Dewey’s ideal – i.e., the distribution of critical thoughtfulness by which citizens arrive at their values and attitudes through active participation within and among a political public. The growth of both corporate and governmental organizations and the centralization of knowledge within these hierarchies have only increased since Dewey’s time; thus any reformulation of the contemporary Dewey-Lippmann debate must engage with the question: Are participatory models of democracy viable in a late-modern society characterized by highly centralized organizations?


The literature on democracy since the time of Dewey and Lippmann is vast; only a slight exaggeration is Giddens’ recent observation that “everyone has discovered democracy” (1994: 104). In this section I explore the contemporary debate between the democratic elitists and the participatory democrats. Consideration of the different ways in which these two perspectives struggle with the problem of expert knowledge in democratic modern society will serve as the framework of the discussion. Contemporary Democratic Elitists Among all democratic theories, the elitists are least troubled by the question of expert knowledge.

While Lippmann and others had been voicing the elitist position for decades earlier, it was not until Schumpeter (1950) in the 1940s that the elitist definition came to dominate democratic scholarship. Writing in opposition to the classical liberal account of democracy – bypassing any direct mention of Deweyan radicalism – Schumpeter sought to detach studies of democracy from any semblance of normative idealism. He wished to redefine democracy down to a mere “method that can be discussed rationally like a steam engine or a disinfectant” (266). He argued that human individuals are rational, but not uniformly so; different human beings for different but still rational reasons are bound to come to different conclusions. He thus rejected the notion of the “common good” that was to result from the classical, utilitarian definition of democracy. It is significant that Schumpeter positioned himself against the utilitarians – ignoring Dewey – by claiming empirical legitimacy.

But by ignoring Dewey and any alternative normative models, and restricting himself to the empirical reality, Schumpeter’s study itself turns into a normative project in which American democracy became Schumpeter’s ideal. Placing himself in opposition to the classicists before presenting his “new” theory allows him to make the impression that his definition is a reformulation, when in reality it corresponds quite neatly to the practical fact of United States political organization. “To put it differently,” he wrote, “. . . the democratic method is that institutional arrangement for arriving at political decisions in which individuals acquire the power to decide by means of a competitive struggle for the people’s vote” (269).

Since Schumpeter’s time, this definition has served as the hallmark for United States political practice and theory. Following Schumpeter’s direction, one of the most important contributors to the elitist perspective has been Lipset (1963; 1994). Lipset (1963) set out early in his career to explore the social conditions that make democracy possible. He argued that studies of democracy must focus on both consensus and conflict. But he restricted these two conditions to elite-driven parties, who must adequately struggle over power (conflict) but also recognize the rights of the other (consensus).

Without political parties engaging in these behaviors, there is no basis for democracy. However, the way in which Lipset positions his notions of consensus and conflict make one wonder if the very social system that Lipset seeks to describe is democratic at all. Indeed, when Lipset speaks of consensus, or “cohesion,” it works out to be suspiciously like he means control. Lipset states that the relative degree of social cohesion in any given society can be studied empirically by analyzing the degree to which electoral trends change in the same direction evenly across different social strata (16). But this focus on consensus reveals a theoretical hole in his argument.

As Dahrendorf (1959) observed, norms and consensus are sometimes undemocratically maintained by and often can be explained in terms of the interests of the powerful. In Lipset’s formulation, consensus is the ability of elites to win support evenly across different social groups, but he largely glosses over any discussion of the means – authoritative, coercive, or manipulative – by which the elites gain this support. Lipset seems to point to a similar process in terms of conflict. Clearly, as Lipset’s own work suggests, the powerful have a vested interest in regulating or controlling the type and severity of, as well as the actors engaged in, conflict – in others words, the stability of the social order depends on the regulation of conflict. This fear of subversive conflict compels Lipset to argue that a high level of citizen participation in the democratic process can sometimes undermine the democratic ideal. Instead, Lipset proposes that scholars explore the level at which democratic participation is “sufficient” enough to maintain the system without undermining it through the production of excessive conflict (1963: 14).

According to Lipset, the only types of conflict that are legitimate are those which reinforce the social order, rather than challenge or subvert it. In 1973, an elite group of intellectuals, political figures, and corporate leaders of North America, Western Europe, and Japan formed the Trilateral Commission. They funded a study of the “crisis of democracy” afflicting these three regions and much of the world. For the commission, Crozier, Huntington, and Watanuki (1975) constructed a report of and prescription for the crisis. (Lipset acted as one of thirteen consultants to the study.) The problem of intelligence played an important role in their description of the problem, for contributing to the democratic “crisis” was the existence of a stratum of adversarial intellectuals who challenged the legitimacy of authority and made public their opposition to the subservient relation of government to corporations. The extent to which the elitist definition of democracy, from Schumpeter to Lipset, has gained institutional and academic ascendancy can best be measured by the fact that even many left-leaning or reformist scholars adhere to it. See, for example, Rorty’s (2003) review of Posner (2003), the latter’s recent book defending the elitist model of democracy. Rorty contends that Posner’s “realism and cynicism are healthy antidotes to leftist fantasies of an electorate modeled on a university seminar” (101).

For another example, Tilly (1995), though far from an elitist, presents an inhibited view of democracy, going to great lengths to define precisely what democracy is not, rather than explore what democracy could be. Indeed, the definition he offers is mired on the level of system and procedure; it links without too much of a stretch with Schumpeter’s conception of democracy as mere method. Contemporary Participatory Democrats while democratic elitists have a neat relationship with the problem of centralized knowledge, much of contemporary participatory theory either ignores or else becomes consumed by the problems that large-scale organizations and expert knowledge in modern society present to them.

Nonetheless, there exists a varied and growing amount of literature by theorists who seek to confront the practical constraints that large-scale organizations exert on democratic ideals. In recent decades there have emerged two branches of participatory democratic theory that have each sought to construct a citizen- level theory of participatory democracy. These two branches are agonistic and deliberative democracy, and together they comprise the two major wings of contemporary participatory democratic theory. Due to space, I will focus here on the deliberative democrats. Deliberative democrats emphasize consensus and agreement, and as Hauptman (1999) has pointed out, their overriding concern is finding a basis of legitimacy for collective decisions. This legitimacy, they argue, exists when citizens deliberate over political or moral issues and ultimately produce a consensus.

Deliberative democrats, who tend to count as their antecedents either Rawls or Habermas, begin with the assumption that citizen participation, at least in levels greater than today, can potentially flourish in late-modern society (Benhabib 1996). Warren (2001) seeks to build a democratic theory in which participatory democratic principles are held strong. He argues that the current realities of modern society might actually serve to further participatory democracy. He highlights two emerging trends as evidence: increased expectations of the public about their role in the decision-making process; and the growth of increasingly pluralist and autonomous nongovernmental organizations, which act as an alternative to the bureaucratic and undemocratic models of government and business.

These trends, according to Warren, portray “a new terrain for participatory democratic theory” (683). In some contrast, Bohman (1996) has argued that democratic theory can and must strike a balance between “facts” and “norms,” and by doing so only then will democratic theory “avoid the overly ideal and the overly accomodationalist horns of the [debate]” between elitist and participatory democrats (9). Without a descriptive component, he argues, normative democratic theories “become abstract and empty ideals rather then reconstructions of the rationality of actual practices” (13). Bohman praises Rawls and especially Habermas for offering theories of democracy that conform to the “social facts” rising from the complexity and pluralism of late-modern society.

Bohman himself seeks to articulate his deliberative democratic ideal by facing head-on four social facts of modern society: the conflict that results from cultural pluralism; social inequalities that privilege some groups at the expense of others; social complexity; and community-wide ideological biases. According to Bohman, these social facts threaten “the possibility of successful deliberation and hence of deliberative democracy as a realizable ideal” (18). While Bohman rightly seeks to reconcile participatory democratic theory with the constraints of modern society, his label of these constraints as “social facts” remains problematic. The social facts which he outlines (listed above) are to him just that – facts, or immutable problems. For example, Bohman rejects the Weberian premise that democracy is at odds with social complexity, and argues instead that democracy and complexity are quite reconcilable.

Complexity furthers democracy, he argues, by permitting “a variety of deliberative roles as well as an epistemic division of labor within deliberation and decision making” (162). However theoretically solid his argument might be, by considering complexity to be an immutable “social fact” he blinds himself to the contingent nature of complexity as both a barrier to and a facilitator of democratic practices. Specifically, complexity is contingent upon the type of human agency – whether habitually unreflective or habitually reflective behavior – it promotes. Most important, because these distinctive types of agency are in part shaped by the laws, rules, and norms that govern formal and informal political relations, they are amenable to empirical investigation.

To understand the behaviors associated with large-scale organizations, democratic theorists can empirically investigate the habits and customs they promote. I have attempted here to argue that much of contemporary participatory democratic theory has yet to come to grips with the way that “social facts” of late-modern society are contingent upon the habits and customs that govern it. In the next section I will attempt to negotiate the divide between the participatory and elitist models of democracy by building upon a democratic theorist who grounds his study of social complexity in an investigation of the habits and customs associated with complexity.


Among contemporary democratic theorists, Warren (1999; 2002) in particular seeks to ground his theoretical ideals in the empirical realities of late-modern society, and proceeds to do so in a distinctly Deweyan fashion. As mentioned above, Warren (2002), sees the possibility for an improvement in democratic practice not despite, but because of the complexities of late-modern society. He bases his optimistic view of democracy on the human potential for deliberation and its ability to generate genuine trust between citizens and representatives. He argues that regarding most issues most of the time, nearly all citizens will have to engage in a sort of “democratic division of labor,” trusting others with similar interests “to attend to most issues that affect them” (693).

Basically, Warren (1999) argues that deliberation itself potentially bridges the divide between elites and the masses by producing a relationship of genuine trust between citizen and representative. In his attempt to theoretically construct the possibility of building trust in late- modern society, Warren pushes deliberative democrats in particular, and radical democratic theory in general, in an important direction. Specifically, he seeks to understand the institutional constraints against which personal habits in society – in his case, the habit of trust – struggle to emerge in modern society.

Warren confronts the empirical problem of expert knowledge not by ignoring it or compromising democratic principles, but by reconceptualizing the problem to be the habits and customs governing expert knowledge, not expert knowledge per se. While Warren emphasizes the habit of trust and its important role in breaking down the problematic divide between elite experts and dependent masses, my argument here is that the social habit most capable of successfully negotiating this divide is the habitual tendency for intelligent and critical thoughtfulness. Even Warren’s conception of trust presupposes the transformation and democratization of knowledge, as he submits that trust thrives when citizens have “access to information and institutions structured so as to provide the necessary transparency” (338).

As Warren is here arguing, the habitual tendency for critical inquiry opens up the possibility of transforming a subsequent habit – a distinctly Deweyan argument. How can critical intelligence successfully bridge the divide between elites and the masses, turning the latter into an engaged political public? The ability of citizens to cultivate intelligent reflectivity can transcend the constraint posed by expert knowledge by creating a public space whereby citizens democratically demand experts to reexamine their own assumptions and institutional biases, and thus engage in a public discourse in which citizen participation influences the very forms that knowledge takes.

As Dewey explained, the objectives, aims, and goals of scientific knowledge become transformed as the “processes of reflective inquiry play a part in shaping the objects – namely terms and propositions – which constitute the bodies of scientific knowledge” (1976: 338). The immediate objective of democratic scholars working within the participatory perspective, then, should be to supplement their theoretical projects with more empirical inquiries into expert knowledge and the means by which it currently serves to block the Deweyan ideal of widespread critical intelligence. The existence of elites per se is not antithetical to radical participatory democracy. But radical democrats must confront the structural distribution of habits and customs that prevent citizens from engaging in a discourse that holds elites accountable to the interests and demands of the public. While I support the deliberative democratic emphasis on communication and deliberation, we must empirically challenge its more or less shared assertion that despite all constraints, it is still very possible for the public to reason “from the standpoint of all” (Benhabib 1996: 72).

Public communication suffers from the political nature of knowledge itself – that is, the structural capacities of citizens for critical and thoughtful inquiry, and the hierarchy of legitimacy that arises from unequal institutional positions. These differences emerge through social processes. Indeed, the problem is not merely a procedural one; more fundamentally, the communicative barrier results from the undemocratic distribution of knowledge, critical intelligence, and institutional legitimacy – that is, reflective agency.


Habits, according to Dewey’s theoretical conception, are neither metaphysical nor biopsychological entities. The social nature and origin of habits is paramount, and radical democrats working in a Deweyan or deliberative tradition must come to understand the way in which the habits of discourse and public communication are shaped by system- level laws and norms. Thus I shall now conclude by outlining three empirical social problems that act as the “means” for the centralization of knowledge and intelligence, and which help diminish the possibility for a citizen-level, participatory democracy by reducing the habitual tendency of intelligent, deliberative communication within the public sphere.

The three empirical issues are (1) the extension of intellectual property rights, (2) the increased dependence on standardized testing for elementary and high school curricula, and (3) the escalation of media consolidation under the control of fewer and fewer media conglomerates. Intellectual Property Rights. In January, 2003, the United States Supreme Court upheld as constitutional a 1998 law that extended copyright terms to the life of the individual holding the copyright plus seventy years (ninety-five years for corporations).

With a few exceptions, sociologists and other social scientists have yet to grapple with the problem of intellectual property rights, which has been the domain primarily of legal scholars (Netanel 1996). In particular, social scientists have not explored the implications that the extension of intellectual property rights contains for democratic theory and practice. How do we construct an intellectual property rights law that both protects independent artists and serves the public interest, and what might that look like? How do we ensure that all citizens have equal access to engage in creative acts, to build upon the creative acts of others, and to live generally informed, intelligent lives? Or is “intelligence” valued insofar as it can be centralized, controlled, and commodified, and thus sold for a profit?

Standardized Testing. Pedagogical scholars are well aware of the recent trend in elementary and high school classrooms toward standardized testing, and the consequences the standardized tests hold for learning are being given serious attention (Smith and Rottenberg 1991). But attention given the relationship between these standardized tests and the democratic life of citizens has thus far been insufficient.

To what extent do standardized tests emphasize facts and decontextualized knowledge at the expense of the critical and creative modes of thinking necessary in a democracy?

By incessantly testing students on facts, do schools fail to provide students with the means to develop a critical stance toward the facts on the test?

Often critically analyzed in relation to race (Lomax et al 1995), the relation of standardized tests and class is pertinent as well. To what extent do elite elementary and high schools (i.e. private and suburban public schools) gain exemption from standardized testing due to their superior funding and ability?

Are these elite schools structurally positioned to provide a more critical and creative classroom to their students?

Scholars of democracy must grapple with the implications that standardized testing and the centralization of critical intelligence hold for democratic theory and practice.

Media Conglomerates. The consolidation of media ownership is a well-documented trend at the turn of the century (Bagdikian 2000).

Missing from the literature, however, are systematic empirical investigations of the consequences of media conglomeration for radical participatory democracy. Even in Lippmann’s terms, how can citizens choose the “Outs” over the “Ins” if the Outs are shut off from media representation and its institutional legitimacy?

In more Deweyan fashion, who are the participants in the creation of the images that represent human beings – citizens or private interests?


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Whipple, Mark. "The Dewey-Lippmann Debate Today: Negotiating the Divide Between Participatory and Elitist Models of Democracy" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, Hilton San Francisco & Renaissance Parc 55 Hotel, San Francisco, CA,, Aug 14, 2004 . 2009-05-26

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