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The CLASroom: Expert perspective on the history of democracy

October 5, 2017

Professors in ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences share opinions on a range of topics in video series

Do you ever wonder about the origins of democracy? 

The CLASroom, a new video series from Arizona State University’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, uncovers the origins of democracy with roots in Ancient Greece. 

Professor Mike Tueller in the School of International Letters and Cultures discusses the history of democracy as well as other common political terms that originate from Greek language. He delves into certain etymologies — the study of the origin of words — to shed more light on the historical development of the meaning behind these words.


“I’m interested in the etymology of words — taking them apart, seeing where they come from and how they’ve evolved,” Tueller said. “It’s important to track the path we’ve followed in those words because words really are the basics by which we understand our political system.” 

The journey to understanding democracy starts with the word “polites,” which means someone who inhabits a “polis,” also known as a city or city-state. Everyone in a “polis” works as a unit to organize a political agenda. If someone is a “polites,” they’re a citizen.

“Now, you’ve probably seen the word citizen used in a lot of ways,” said Tueller. “My favorite bad example is the way it’s used on high school report cards. If you get a high school report card and it says good citizenship, you’re doing exactly what people in authority want you to do, but that’s not what the word citizen or ‘polites’ originally meant. It meant you are the one who is in authority.”

The “politai” are the ones in power. They have the authority to operate the state, whether directly through voting on an actual measure or indirectly through electing representatives. Therefore, good citizenship was not a matter of being silent, but a matter of speaking out responsibly.

“When the ancient Greeks talked about the thing we call democracy, nowadays, they used a few different words for it,” Tueller said. “One of the words is ‘isonomia,’ which essentially means equality under the law.”

The word “demokratia,” where the word democracy originates from, was not used very often to talk about democracy in Ancient Greece.

“Democracy essentially means people power, but the resonance of it in antiquity was a little bit more like mob rule,” Tueller said. “The people who best supported and explained democracy explained it in just those ways: that everybody gets the same benefits and you can ensure that everybody gets the same benefits if they are all deciding what those should be together.”

However, many people started to notice not all people in an “isonomia,” or in a democracy, were equal under the law. For example, women and children were not equal. Not everyone was given the opportunity to participate or benefit from the system of “isonomia.” So, there were flaws in ancient democracy. 

“Nevertheless, the principle is still one we can really learn from,” Tueller said. “In a democracy, everyone who counted would be treated equally under the law. The fact that you had more money or better connections shouldn’t matter. You would still be subject to the same laws, the same enforcement and possibly the same penalties as everyone else.”

In the city of Athens during the classical period of Ancient Greece, magistrates would be chosen by lot to represent the people. Everyone had an equal chance. No one would campaign or try to buy the influence of anyone else. If appointed, they would be subject to accountability at the hands of the people.

portrait of ASU professor
Mike Tueller

“If an Athenian were to come visit us today, he would be very surprised that we’re calling our system a democracy,” Tueller said. “Our system, even when it operates at its best, is a representative democracy and the Athenians would not have anything to do with that kind of system. They looked at a representative democracy as just another way in which elites always ended up getting into the top spot.”

Athenians believed all the important decisions needed to be made by everyone in order to have a real democracy. The U.S. political system is more of a hybrid system with campaigns, wealth and power influencing voting decisions, Tueller said. Oftentimes, elites are the ones who are elected to the top positions.

“For Athenians, that wouldn’t be satisfactory,” Tueller said. “Whether it is for us is a matter we can debate among ourselves, just as the ancients would debate whether they wanted a democracy or an oligarchy or any other kind of system.”

Athenians managed to resist “tyranny,” when people are ruled by one person with absolute power. However, they couldn’t escape “demagoguery,” when a person persuades the masses to make poor decisions. Athenians noticed the issue with “demagoguery” and tried to control it, but it’s a problem to which democracies are always going to be subject, Tueller said

“If you’re going to live in a democracy, you may have avoided the problems of tyranny or dictatorship but demagoguery is something you always have to be on the lookout for,” Tueller said. “Only by operating as a citizen, can you resist the possibility of all citizens being marshalled together to do something that is going to turn out badly in the end. That’s why citizens need to constantly stay informed and be decision makers on their own rather than being led by individual leaders.”

Amanda Stoneman

Science Writer , Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering


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Venting about an unfair boss could be trouble all around, study finds

Complaining at the water cooler can lead to anger, loss of hope, ASU study finds
October 5, 2017

Complaining can increase anger, but ASU professor finds that co-workers' responses can help calm the situation

Like many research projects, Michael Baer’s latest study was inspired by personal experience.

Baer, an assistant professor of management at the W. P. Carey School of Business, and a former colleague were unhappy about an unfair supervisor at their workplace — which was not Arizona State University, he adds.

“It was, objectively, an unfair situation,” he said. “But we realized that we kept talking about it and kept revisiting it, and one day we said, ‘This is not helping. This is making things worse.’

“The more we talked about it, the more we disliked the supervisor and the less we were able to get over it.”

Michael Baer

So that inspired Baer’s new study with several co-authorsHis co-authors were Rashpal K. Dhensa-Kahlon of the University of Surrey; Ryan Outlaw of Indiana University, and Jessica B. Rodell, Jason A. Colquitt, Kate P. Zipay and Rachel Burgess, all of the University of Georgia., based on a cleverly designed experiment that found that complaining about an unfair supervisor to co-workers can end up hurting an employee’s performance.

“This is one of my favorite studies because the general intuition is that when something bad happens, your natural inclination is to talk to other people about it, to make sense of it and get some clarity and emotional support,” he said.

Their study cited research showing that people who had talked about their anger would do it again because they perceived it as helpful.

But Baer’s study found that complaining decreases forgiveness for the unfair event, and it can decrease a person’s performance by hindering “citizenship,” or the desire to help the supervisor.

And what about the co-worker you’re complaining to?

“The inclination is to go to people who agree when you complain and who will say, ‘Wow you really got the short end of the stick,’ ” he said.

“But we looked at if you have a co-worker who reframes the situation, saying, ‘Maybe there was a reason for that,’ ‘Maybe things aren’t so bad’ or ‘What was your part in it?’ ”

Listeners who are passive don’t help the situation, but if complainers talk to someone who “reframes” the situation — looking at it from a different perspective — that can nullify all the negative effects of talking about unfairness, the study found.

The team of researchers did two studies, one using surveys and one in a lab. The first study surveyed 170 bus driversThe journal article quotes one bus driver: “We are treated with contempt. … The customer is not always right. We have several managerial staff who can’t even drive a car, let alone a bus, try and tell us how to do our jobs.” and 25 supervisors in London. The drivers were asked to rate their perceptions of unfairness on the job, their anger and hope, how they talked about that with co-workers, how the co-workers responded and whether they forgave their supervisors. The supervisors were asked how much the workers helped them.

The results found that talking about a supervisor’s unfairness “can be detrimental in terms of increased anger and decreased hope — which hinder employees’ ability to ‘move on’ from the experience,” according to the study, which is set to appear in the Academy of Management Journal. And listeners can mitigate the bad effects by reframing.

The researchers then wanted to replicate the results in a laboratory, so they recruited 105 college students who were asked to bring a friend to the experiment, which was set up this way:

The students were assigned to be the “talkers,” and their friends were assigned to be “listeners.”

The “talkers” were given a task and told that their performance would determine how much class credit they received. Before the task time was up, the experimenter rudely interrupted them and then marked some of their correct answers as incorrect — creating an “unfair” situation.

At the same time the listeners were getting briefed in how to respond. The pairs were reunited and the listener either just listened, saying little, or reframed the situation by saying, “Maybe there’s a way to deal with this,” or “Maybe she was having a bad day.”

The “talkers” also were asked to rate their forgiveness levels.

At the end, the experimenters who created the unfair scenario asked the talkers to clean up the room.

“The ones who didn’t forgive did very little cleanup, while the ones who did forgive actually cleaned up. That’s how we tested willingness to help,” Baer said.

The lab study reinforced the results of the first study: Talking about unfairness increases anger, decreases hope, hinders the complainer from “moving on,” makes it difficult to forgive the supervisor and decreases the complainer’s helpfulness to the supervisor. But co-workers who respond by reframing the situation can lessen these effects.

The article says that “reframing” by a co-worker does not mean a dismissive “get over it,” but rather it includes expressing concern and suggestions for coping.

“I don’t think any of these people were conscious of the fact that they were pulling back and exhibiting their anger,” Baer said of the study subjects.

“So yes, talk about it, but be careful who you talk to, and at some point you have to cut it off.”

Mary Beth Faller

reporter , ASU Now