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Tribute to Luigi Bobbio

Tribute to Luigi Bobbio, January 12, 2017
(March 6, 1944 - October 9, 2017)

Luigi Bobbio in Cervinia on July 26, 2017


Stefania Ravazzi, associated professor in Political Science at the University of Turin


Three days after Luigi’s death, I had to start my lessons of Public policy analysis, which was his course before he retired in 2014. I started the first lesson telling my students that what I was going to teach was in great part the result of what I have studied, learned and researched with him. In Italy, the academy is often depicted as the world of clientelism and injustice, which are certainly present in some situations, like in many other public and private organizations. But the academy is also made of honest and deep relationships, as the ones that develop between Masters and scholars. Luigi has been a unique Master for me and it is an honor for me to tell you something about him today.

Jean-Michel asked me to trace his scientific activity over the last decades. I shall try to do it broadly and with some personal consideration on his personality.

A large part of Luigi’s intellectual and professional activity has been driven by a main feeling: a deep dissatisfaction with the ways in which public policies are usually formulated (and then implemented). He was convinced that most policy makers get into decision-making processes systematically with a counterproductive attitude: they usually think to know the problem thoroughly and to already have the right solution at their fingertips. In Luigi’s view, this diffused and mostly wrong perception induces two negative consequences. Firstly, policy makers tend to treat decision-making processes as zero-sum games and to prevail over the others through power relations instead of discussing and questioning the substance of the issues. Secondly, public institutions tend to impose top-down choices and the critics to oppose them rigidly, with the likely consequence of radicalizing the conflict (sometimes resulting in physical violence) and finally generating a stalemate or a political backdown.

His conviction had clear and visible empirical referents in Italy between the Eighties and Nineties. Many public policies with strong territorial (environmental or social) impact were generating explosive and dramatic conflicts, with somewhat new advocacy coalitions that divided political parties, interest groups and public institutions internally. Luigi focused his research activity on these conflictual issues, observing and analyzing tens of decisional processes, from locally unwanted land uses to ethical issues. In the slide you can see some publications of policy analyses on highly controvertial issues, which he authored, co-authored or edited.

If dissatisfaction with traditional policy making has been the main cause of his interest in decision making on highly controversial issues, the need for new concrete alternative strategies has been the goal of all his empirical research. From the nineties onwards, he got passionate about new strategies to overcome or avoid policy-making impasse and in general to transform conflicts into stable decisions. And, when Italian policy analysts were mostly working on bureaucracies, parties and institutions, Luigi approached the debate on deliberative democracy from his pragmatic perspective. Public deliberation represented for him not much an intriguing theoretical issue, but an unusual answer to the inadequacy of traditional decision-making processes. He looked at deliberative processes with a certain dose of optimism, but always with scientific rigour and genuine curiosity towards their pitfalls and problems.

His interest in concreteness was actually at the base of all his work, both in terms of research methodology and in terms of attitude within the scientific debate.

His research methodology has always been a hybrid between public action and experimental research. He wanted to observe real processes from the inside and behind the scenes, therefore he took part to several policy-making processes and contributed to organize and manage several deliberative experiments. Most of his scientific contributions derive from participant observation. He was well aware of the risks of participant observation in terms of subjectivity but, in his opinion, these risks were the necessary price to pay in order to see what could not be visible from an outside view and transparency and argumentation were his antidotes to these risks.

His attitude in the scientific debate was often characterized by a certain criticism towards oversimplified interpretations of social and political phenomena, which, in his opinion, lead to distorted explanations of reality. His most recent scientific contributions are actually among his most explicit critiques against oversimplifications in academic research, in particular those caused by the use of abstract categories to speculate on empirical phenomena. He criticized for example the oversimplifications produced by the application of concepts like neoliberalism, technocracy and de-politicization to public deliberation, not because he thought public deliberation is immune from slippages and is the panacea of all the democratic failures, but because the use of these multidimensional categories as monoliths does not allow to properly understand the real implications of public deliberation in policy making.

Two of his last publications addressing this issue appeared in the French Review ‘Participations’ and in the Italian journal ‘Partecipazione e conflitto’. These two recent publications also warn against another problem, which Luigi tried to oppose also in his personal experience: prejudices. Prejudices are widely diffused also in the academia and derive from the human resistance to question consolidated beliefs. According to Luigi, the problem is not much the wrongness of prejudices, but the effect they produce, which is more or less the same mechanism of the use of monolithic categories: they oversimplify reality distorting it.

Thinking also on these recent contributions, if I should finish this tribute telling you what I learnt from him, I would choose one main general lesson on how to be a good social scientist: don’t be afraid of questioning consolidated issues and others’ opinions, frankly and directly, and, at the same time, be open to get convinced by others’ arguments. I heard Luigi raise objections to consolidated issues many times and many times I heard him say honestly ‘you are right and I was wrong’, no matter whether his interlocutor was a prestigious scholar or a student.