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Breakthrough Award for Levi Affirms Collaborative Efforts

Margaret Levi, director of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (CASBS) at Stanford University, is winner of the 2020 “Breakthrough of the Year” in the social sciences and humanities for advancing and articulating the concept of an “expanded community of fate,” as selected by the Falling Walls Foundation, a nonprofit organization based in Berlin.

The recognition honors Levi individually. Perhaps more importantly, it also affirms ideas and work that extend to Levi’s collaborative efforts – one ongoing at CASBS – where the concept is integral, even motivating.

“This recognition is particularly meaningful to me because it acknowledges the work we have been doing at CASBS to create a new moral political economy that builds on and then sustains an expanded, inclusive and robust community of fate,” said Levi.

The Breakthrough

The Falling Walls Foundation is “a vessel for the world-changing spirit of 1989 in and beyond Berlin,” and has held an annual conference, starting in 2009, that coincides with the anniversary of the peaceful fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.[1] The Falling Walls Conference has developed into a forum where some of the world’s most important thinkers and researchers interact with leaders in science, politics, business, and the media in a “shared commitment to create breakthrough solutions to challenges across borders and disciplines.” In a digital format this year due to the COVID pandemic, the Falling Walls Conference converges with the events of Berlin Science Week, a prestigious annual international festival with complementary aims, for a joint ‘World Science Summit.’

The summit partnership creates a hub of interdisciplinary dialogue and, in 2020, a much more accessible online showcase for global audiences, conferring greater visibility to the Falling Walls Conference core question: “What are the next walls to fall in science and society?”

As part of this enduring pursuit, in June Falling Walls put out an international call for nominations for its 2020 “Breakthroughs of the Year” in ten categories – one of which is the social sciences and humanities. Initially, Levi was a nominee among 940 other individuals from 111 countries. Advancing to the next stage, she was among 600 invited to record and submit a five-minute video in which she presents her breakthrough idea – a significant advance, development, or increase in knowledge that is innovative, ground-breaking, or even paradigm-shifting. The idea, furthermore, should have the potential to impact society worldwide and contribute toward solving one of our biggest challenges. In the social sciences and humanities category, the idea may enhance our understanding “about the institutions and functioning of human society and the interpersonal relationships of individuals as members of society.”

In her video – accessible for viewing here – Levi begins to outline a framework to understand how institutions help individuals recognize how their destinies are intertwined with strangers and how, together, they can build or rebuild community in a way that is inclusive and robust: an expanded community of fate.

As Levi notes in the video, her work demonstrates that “we can design institutional arrangements and governance that evoke from people actions – often costly actions – in the interest of others…distant others, perhaps, and strangers who can never reciprocate and from whom we do not expect reciprocity. In other words, we can build institutional arrangements that recognize that we are social beings with ethical commitments and other concerns.” If we do this, she explains, we may be able to renovate democracy, save the environment, correct many of the flaws of contemporary capitalist economies, and promote a more equitable and just society.

On November 2, by jury selection, Levi was listed among 100 individuals in all 10 categories, and among 10 in the social sciences and humanities category who, on November 5, discussed their breakthrough work and responded to questions.

Finally, on November 9, Falling Walls announced Levi’s expanded community of fate as the Breakthrough of the Year in the social sciences and humanities category. The Breakthroughs of the Year in all 10 categories were revealed and celebrated in a Falling Walls Grand Finale that streamed online.

In the announcement, Social Sciences and Humanities jury chair Shalini Randeria[2] cited the merits of “breaking the wall to an expanded community of fate”:

Margaret Levi’s brilliant project develops a framework to understand how innovative institutions could help individuals to recognize how their destinies are inextricably entangled with distant strangers. She shows us how to create a new political economy model, that promotes planetary well-being without losing sight of economic productivity and innovation. The jury is highly impressed by Levi’s project, which tears down the narrow walls of national solidarity and sovereignty, whilst advocating for a bold conception of Justice.

Reached for comment, Social Sciences and Humanities jury member Jutta Allmendinger[3], a 1996-97 CASBS fellow, characterized Levi’s concept, and Levi herself, in terms that match the magnitude of the problems confronting societies worldwide in 2020:

Margaret Levi is a social scientist of outstanding merit. Her idea of the expanded community of fate is one that may carry us through difficult times. It restores a sense of togetherness and solidarity that to many of us seems to have gotten lost. Margaret, who spoke at the WZB Berlin Social Science Center exactly a year ago, is truly a powerful voice of and for the social sciences.

It is a voice that frequently amplifies the work of the wider scholarly community in which Levi participates. Especially in the case of the expanded community of fate, however, it is a voice amplified by critical joint work she undertook to establish the concept as well as joint work she currently undertakes to further develop and enshrine it as the cornerstone of a “new moral political economy.”


International jury recognition of the expanded community of fate as the social sciences and humanities breakthrough idea of the year focuses a spotlight on and, indeed, underscores the relevance and vital importance of preceding and ongoing work that embraces the concept. Levi’s collaborative work involving an expanded community of fate elaborates and elucidates what her Falling Walls video only begins to sketch.

Groundbreaking Book
Levi and coauthor John Ahlquist introduced the term “expanded community of fate” in chapter 2 of their 2013 book In the Interest of Others: Organizations and Social Activism (Princeton University Press). The groundbreaking book develops a new theory of organizational leadership and governance to explain why some organizations expand their range of action in ways that do not benefit their members directly. It brings forth evidence showing how activist organizations can transform the views of members about their political efficacy and the group actions they are willing to consider. Though they focus mainly on labor unions and the expanded community of fate they create, Ahlquist and Levi argue persuasively that the logic extends to other membership organizations, including the state itself.

“I am thrilled that Falling Walls is honoring my longtime mentor, collaborator, and friend Margaret Levi for this breakthrough of the year,” said Ahlquist, a professor in the School of Global Policy and Strategy at the University of California, San Diego and a CASBS fellow in 2017-18. “As Margaret and I defined it, my community of fate encompasses those others whose situations I perceive as representing distinct possibilities for me and whose fates I view as entwined with my own. A community of fate is more than simply ‘there, but for the grace of God, go I.’ It is a disposition, shared among some group, where I understand that the victories for those others are beneficial to me, while their challenges and defeats are mine as well.”

Ahlquist noted that the idea germinated in an early paper Levi wrote with the late David Olson, a renowned labor scholar at the University of Washington, and intersects with other important concepts across the social sciences, such as identity, “linked fate,” and collective action. While engaging this intellectual landscape, according to Ahlquist,

The idea really bloomed when we showed theoretically and empirically that a group's community of fate is not just a set of individual attitudes common in some population. It is a group attribute that can be measured and, more importantly, actively cultivated in ways that expand a group's community to transcend existing divisions of race or faith. We showed that group leaders can act and, in the context of appropriate institutions, produce collective actions that take account of far distant peoples, who may be unaware of us, and who may not yet reciprocate our concern. In order to make this case we had to relax the traditional social science assumption that individuals are isolated automata with stable and well-formed "preferences." We brought in considerations of moral agency, dense social networks, and the process of learning and evolving based on experience.

As we face crises of enormous societal consequence such as climate change, pandemics, mass migration and refugee dislocation, and widening economic disparities, In the Interest of Others provides a road map showing how expanding people’s communities of fate can be key to effective and timely action.

Flagship CASBS Program
Margaret Levi, in her 2019 speech accepting the Johan Skytte Prize, traced a decades-long intellectual journey, much of it collaborative and much of it providing key thinking and findings that serve as foundational building blocks for more recent work, including In the Interest of Others. The intellectual threads running through the speech reveal a pursuit of knowledge and expertise regarding the interaction between governments, citizens, and citizen groups; what it means for a government to be both trustworthy and legitimate; and when and why citizens and mediating organizations comply with governments.

Those threads also reveal a deep concern about and understanding of the roots of our contemporary political crisis in which governments worldwide, to varying degrees, have failed to deliver on their promises (of, say, upward mobility, stable jobs, benefits, protection from the effects of globalization and climate change) and instead have diverged from the norms and values of much of their populations. Institutions that once worked, if they ever worked at all, need renewal in light of technological, environmental, and social changes. We are witnessing the fraying of a political-economic framework that guided action for decades and created at least some bases for social cohesion.

What circumstances demand, according to Levi, are new arrangements that serve the interests of society as a whole, institutionalize trustworthy and legitimate government, and embed and then build upon shared values, beliefs, and norms of justice and fairness that guide social relations among actors (people, governments, corporations), define what constitutes legitimate action, and guide policies to meet the concerns of people.

This is a call, in other words, for a new political-economic framework that explicitly requires, further reinforces, and thus renders more encompassing – as Levi suggested earlier – an expanded community of fate. The expanded community of fate is (as Levi referred to it in her 2019 speech) “the keystone.”

In 2018 Levi, in collaboration with a recruited network of academics, journalists, civil society activists, technologists, and policy practitioners, launched a major program on “Creating a New Moral Political Economy” with CASBS as network hub. The program emerged from intellectual and policy groundwork established by a predecessor CASBS project on “The Future of Work and Workers,” but more fundamentally from increasing recognition – and evidence – that the current political-economic system operates to the benefit of too few and thus requires a total rethink.[4]

Now in its third year, the moral political economy program has received funding from the Hewlett FoundationFord Foundation, and Berggruen Institute. In 2019, the program received funding from LinkedIn co-founder and entrepreneur Reid Hoffman, impressed by the program’s ability to generate innovative ideas and “untangle some very thorny problems and issues.”

This is the “brilliant project” that jury chair Shalini Randeria referred to in the Falling Walls announcement. And it is what excites not only program participants, but also close friends, followers, and champions of the Center who appreciate the link between Levi’s winning breakthrough idea and the Center’s efforts as embodied in the moral political economy program.

“Margaret Levi’s pathbreaking work on the political economy of institutions, ethics, and morality has long been admired but never been more timely,” said Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar, chair of CASBS’s board of directors and a Justice of the Supreme Court of California. “To see her work honored again is terrific not only for CASBS, but for everyone engaged in continuing efforts to understand the moral and institutional foundations of our economics and politics.”

It was Cuéllar, incidentally, who initially nominated Levi for the Falling Walls Breakthrough of the Year in the Social Sciences and Humanities category.

The network is organized in a number of working groups focusing on the institutions of the new framework; the values that those institutions should embed; the role of technology in shaping individual and group behavior, as well as a primary economic engine; the vision the program strives toward; and the pedagogical strategies needed to disseminate new ideas. In the next two years, the program will work to accelerate its traction in broad areas where change is most possible (technology, labor, corporations), with generative applications that are both academic and practical. It will share its findings and engage in outreach to different audiences through books, articles, online events, and website offerings.

Notably, though not as encompassing as the CASBS program itself, in early 2021 Cambridge University Press will publish Remaking the Political Economy, a short volume coauthored by Levi and Federica Carugati, a moral political economy program leader and former CASBS program director now based at King’s College London. As with the CASBS program, the expanded community of fate concept plays a central role in the book.

As the program’s various activities proceed apace, Margaret Levi has wasted no time in pushing her thinking on her breakthrough idea still further. In late March 2020, after much of the world had sheltered in lockdown due to the COVID pandemic but not yet adjusted to a new way of living under it, Levi, writing in Social Science Space, pointed to halting government responses mired in an outdated version of capitalism with presumptions that no longer apply. Though not what anyone would wish for, the pandemic presented an opportunity to recognize the limits of our current policies and rethink how to best protect workers and ensure more general well-being for all members of society.

We are in a community of fate that COVID-19 has created. Our destinies are now clearly entwined as we join together to fight this virus and protect ourselves and our societies. The pandemic makes us aware of our reliance on and obligations to a wide network extending beyond family, friends, and neighbors to all those who contribute to our health care, supply chains, education of our children, etc. Even the invisible workers are becoming visible: the grocery clerks, the cleaners, the sanitation personnel who make it possible to survive and thrive. Such a community of fate can cut across polarization and become the basis of mobilization for the policies to promote flourishing.

In July 2020, writing in Noema, a magazine published by the Berggruen Institute, a funder of CASBS’s “Creating a New Moral Political Economy” program, Levi presented the most refined formulation to date of “An Expanded Community of Fate.” It advances a full-throated case for generating that “keystone” as “critical to the survival of humanity, extended human cooperation and the development of societies in which people flourish.” In the piece she invokes the shared ethos of recent and emerging social movements in capitalist democracies (including the Black Lives Matter and allied racial justice movements; the global, encompassing youth movement emphasizing a shared destiny relating to the existential threat of climate change; and the student movement advocating for “fossil-free” university endowments) as examples of community builders whose strength lies in creating networks of people across multiple boundaries to solve common problems.[5] They transcend promising efforts that promote technical, engineered approaches to governance (for example, Wikipedia, Urban Array, Democracy Earth, Code for America) but may strengthen and become more encompassing by forging common cause with them.

In the Noema essay Levi, importantly, points to important research and data collection that must be conducted to fully understand how, why, and when communities of fate expand and become more encompassing. What we need is greater understanding about how citizens change their beliefs about how the world works, and how they internalize norms of fairness and equity into their thinking and practices. Then there is the issue of scaling – how to mobilize enough people around shared norms and destinies to put an end to exclusive policies and practices in order to pave the way toward instituting new inclusive policies and practices.

“Critical questions remain,” said John Ahlquist, coauthor with Levi of In the Interest of Others and a moral political economy program participant. “Can we refine and improve measurement? How do the boundaries of the community come to get drawn? What are historical, contextual, and cognitive limits of any group's community? As with any useful discovery, the work is only beginning.”

One thing is certain: the critical questions that remain will demand collaborative efforts that achieve what no individual could accomplish independently.

Ongoing and future work on expanding communities of fate draw – and will continue to draw – on the best social scientific knowledge about humans and their behavior to better serve the needs of individuals, society, and the environment. The work must cross disciplinary barriers as well as professional networks in the service of discovery and real-world impact. In this perilous moment we find ourselves in, no institutions, behaviors, or beliefs should be exempt from reconsideration. Nothing less is required if we seek to design a better and more equitable society.

CASBS thanks the Falling Walls Foundation for permission to use the graphic. Copyright: Albrecht Gäbel, Falling Walls Foundation.

Photo of Margaret Levi from 2019 WZB Distinguished Lectures Symposium, by permission (credit: © WZB/David Ausserhofer).

Book cover image: Princeton University Press.

Written by Mike Gaetani

[1] The Falling Walls Foundation is supported by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research, the Helmholtz Association of German Research Centres, the Robert Bosch Stiftung Foundation, the Berlin Senate, and numerous national and international research institutions, foundations, and companies.

[2] Randeria is Rector of the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna, Professor of Social Anthropology and Sociology at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies (IHEID) in Geneva, and Director of the Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy at IHEID.

[3] Allmendinger is President of the Berlin Social Science Center (WZB), Professor of Sociology in Education and Labor Market Research at Humboldt Universität Berlin, and Honorary Professor of Sociology at Freie Universität Berlin.

[4] In 2018 Margaret Levi wrote a framing paper to help situate the program. Read it here. See a partial list of program participants and learn how the program has led to or inspired complementary initiatives in this 2019 article.

[5] One example of a nonprofit organization in the U.S. performing a similar role is Weave: The Social Fabric Project, based at The Aspen Institute. Weave served as a co-sponsor of a recent CASBS panel discussion on “Can We Rebuild Social Cohesion in the U.S.?” – episode 8 of CASBS’s webcast series Social Science for a World in Crisis. Weave’s founder and chair, David Brooks, served as moderator. View the event video on the series web page.

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