Too Much Knowledge, Too Little Power: An Assessment of Political Knowledge in Highly Policed Communities


Vesla Weaver, Gwen Prowse, and Spencer Piston

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Weaver, Vesla, Gwen Prowse, and Spencer Piston (2019), Too Much Knowledge, Too Little Power: An Assessment of Political Knowledge in Highly Policed Communities. Journal of Politics 81(3):1153-1166. DOI: 10.1086/703538
Studies regularly conclude that ordinary Americans lack the knowledge they need to form meaningful political preferences, leading to inefficient or counterproductive policy making. Our study of conversations about policing among black residents of highly policed neighborhoods challenges this prevailing account. We find that people possess dual, contradictory knowledge about how the state should operate based on written law and how it actually operates as a lived experience; that their knowledge is attained through involuntary encounters with the state rather than through civics education; and that this knowledge, rather than functioning to improve preferences to be communicated to an elected official, serves to help individuals distance themselves from the antidemocratic face of the state. Our findings point to a rethinking of political knowledge and its role in contemporary American democracy.
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This article is part of the Portals Criminal Justice Dialogues project (; co-PIs Tracey Meares of Yale Law School, Vesla Weaver, Gwen Prowse). Portals were made possible by the artist Amar Bakshi and Shared_Studios with generous funding from the Andrew Carnegie Foundation, MacArthur Foundation, the Justice Collaboratory at Yale Law School, and the Institution for Social and Policy Studies at Yale University.

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