defining civic engagement, democracy, civic renewal, and related terms

My post entitled “What is the definition of civic engagement?” gets lots of traffic. It does not actually present my definition but a compendium of alternative versions. I have volunteered to draft some new definitions for a particular purpose. This is what I am thinking:

Active citizenship: Working to improve a nation or other community, independent of whether you have legal status as a member of that community. (“You were an excellent active citizen in Massachusetts while you visited here from South Africa.”)

Civil society: The array of nongovernmental organizations and networks that address public issues. Sometimes the definition introduces a qualitative dimension, so that civil society is an array of associations and networks marked by peacefulness, mutual respect, trust, and other virtues. Civil society may include for-profit enterprises as well as nonprofits. (“The government worked with civil society groups to help victims of the storm.”)

Civic education: Any process that strengthens people’s capacity for civic engagement and political participation, at any age and in any setting. (“Newspapers traditionally provided some of the best civic education in America.”)

Civic engagement: Any act intended to improve or influence a community. Often, the phrase has positive connotations, so that engagement is viewed as “civic” to the extent that it meets such criteria as responsibility, thoughtfulness, respect for evidence, and concern for other people and the environment. (“Informed voting is an example of civic engagement.”)

Civic health: The degree to which a whole community involves its people and organizations in addressing its problems. (“Minneapolis/St Paul has the best civic health of large American cities, thanks to a long tradition of strong civic organizations and responsive local government.”)

Civic institutions: The organizations and associated norms and rules that people use for civic engagement. (“Political parties and volunteer groups are two examples of civic institutions.”)

Civic life: For an individual, a life in which civic engagement has an important place. For a community, all the acts of civic engagement and associated norms and values of its members. (“A service experience prepared her for civic life.” “The civic life of Somerville, MA is vibrant.”)

Civic renewal: Efforts to increase the prevalence, equity, quality, and impact of civic engagement. (“Attending a public meeting is civic engagement, but making such meetings work better for the whole community is civic renewal.”)

Democracy: Any system for making decisions in which all the members of the community or group have roughly equal influence, whether they exercise it directly or through representatives. Voting is common in democracies but is not definitive of it. Other means–such as reaching consensus or choosing representatives by lot–can also be democratic; and voting requires other elements to be satisfactory, such as free expression and civil peace. (“An elementary school is not a democracy, but it helps prepare students for democratic participation.”)

Democratic participation: Civic engagement that involves democratic political institutions. (“Petitioning Congress is a form of democratic participation.”)

Politics: Broadly, the means and processes by which people govern themselves and others, using power and influence. One important setting of politics is government, but politics also occurs in other institutions. Politics is not necessarily contentious or zero-sum. (“The Marshall Plan was politics at its finest.”)

Political engagement or political participation: Civic engagement that emphasizes governmental institutions and/or power. (“Voting is a touchstone of political participation in the United States.”)

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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  • Thomas R. Flanagan

    Yes, evocative if not provocative, I do suspect.
    Peter, the fly in the ointment for me is the overly generous definition of “civic engagement” — and for the reason that when such a task is written into law, its implementation becomes defined at the level of institutional cultures … leaving (wait for it) “pathetic efforts” to be applied with clear conscious.
    While the spirit of the term “civic engagement” can be illustrated with specific example, unless that example is further clarified in terms of the process with which the example came into being, the term becomes more poetic than pragmatic.
    In the example that you offer, what then constitutes “informed” with respect to voting, and how does this subordinate idea become implemented in a reliable fashion?
    If we don’t think we know how to operationalize our practices, we won’t be able to test our ignorance and learn.
    I am not an advocate of strong process statements as a means of imprisoning us all, but rather as clear lines on a playing field so that we can all agree that we are playing by rules and we can all decide when rules need to be improved.
    Let’s gather a community of concerned civic practitioners and work toward a consensus statement for an operational definition of effective Civic Engagement.
    This would be a balm for the wound I feel.