Every July, an international group of about 20 faculty, advanced graduate students, and seasoned practitioners gather for two weeks to participate in the Tufts Summer Institute of Civic Studies, which I co-teach with University of Maryland political scientist Karol So?tan. Their intensive, seminar-style discussions conclude with an open public conference, co-sponsored by the Deliberative Democracy Consortium and the Democracy Imperative, that draws about 120 scholars, practitioners, and students.
This year, the public conference was called “Frontiers of Democracy II.” It revolved around a set of invited, 10-minute talks by New York City councilperson Brad Lander, UNESCO Human Rights Chair Amii Omara Otunnu, Everyday Democracy Executive Director Martha McCoy, and about a dozen other scholars and leaders.
“Civic Studies” is that nascent or potential discipline that rigorously studies how citizens can improve the world. Because it is about making a better world, it takes values seriously. Values are not just opinions; they are propositions that can be explained and defended. Thus Civic Studies draws on philosophy, political theory, and theology.
Because Civic Studies is about action, it poses strategic questions: What would work? Under what circumstances? It takes advantage of research on strategy and the experience of various practical efforts—from the Civil Rights Movement to Participatory Budgeting—that have confronted strategic challenges in their efforts to improve society by empowering citizens.
Because it is about the real world, Civic Studies takes data and empirical research seriously. And because it is about citizens, it investigates societies and institutions from the perspective of thoughtful and active individuals. For instance, whereas political science asks how Congress works and what effects Congress has on society, Civic Studies asks whether we (people like you and me) ought to try to change Congress. What changes would be beneficial? By what means could we reasonably expect to affect Congress? What strategies are ethical as well as effective? Is this the best use of our energies?
Mainstream scholarship is not well organized and conceived to produce the knowledge, insights, and strategies that citizens need—if “citizens” are defined as co-producers of a good or just society. Social science is separated from philosophy and theology; strategic analysis is separated from empirical research. Scholars are much more likely to investigate why large-scale trends occur or how powerful institutions work than to identify promising opportunities for ordinary people to influence the world.
Nevertheless, Civic Studies is emerging from the research programs of certain distinguished scholars, including the authors of the Summer Institute’s “Framing Statement.” One of that statement’s authors, Elinor Ostrom, won the Nobel Prize for her lifelong work on how citizens manage common resources. Her research was theoretically sophisticated, empirically rigorous, philosophically demanding, helpful to communities, and often conducted in partnership with laypeople. Ostrom was a friend to CIRCLE; her death in June was a serious loss.
Another author of the Framing Statement, Jane Mansbridge, is currently the President Elect of the American Political Science Association. She, too, has investigated how voluntary groups self-govern under various circumstances. In books like Why We Lost the ERA¸Mansbridge confronts strategic questions and—as the title suggests—places herself in the story as an active participant, not just an observer.
A third author, Harry Boyte of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship, has developed the theory of “public work” while helping to lead important practical experiments in civic empowerment, such as the civic education effort called Public Achievement.
These authors helped to frame the original idea of Civic Studies and exemplify the work discussed in the annual Summer Institute. Admission is competitive; and prospective participants should follow this page for information about the 2013 application process. Also, hold the dates of the concluding public conference, Thursday, July 18 to Saturday, July 20, 2013 in downtown Boston.