As an Associate Dean, I am responsible for a cluster of research programs that includes CIRCLE (the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement); the National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement; and the Tisch College Community Research Center. These outfits are diverse, but they all supply applied empirical research (rather than theoretical or philosophical research or direct programming or advocacy) on questions related to civic life in America. If asked why this kind of work makes a valuable contribution, this is what I would say:
People who are in a position to affect civic life face questions for which answers are unavailable but would be useful. These questions range from concrete and practical (e.g., What is a good assignment for 7th graders during a presidential primary?) to very broad (e.g., What causes good civic practices to become widespread?)
Our first job is to select questions that are truly relevant to good practice, currently unanswered, and empirically tractable. It is very rare to “answer” a question with a single study, so a question should be chosen to contribute knowledge and move toward a more complete resolution.
It is preferable if practitioners pose or at least influence the choice of questions. They have good ideas because of their experience, and the likelihood that they will use research results is higher if they were involved at the beginning. However, I also believe there is a role for independent researchers to notice and pose questions that practitioners haven’t seen.
Once the question is posed, our role is to address it rigorously, to get the results into the hands of people who can use them, and to receive their feedback as well as ideas for new questions. Completing that whole cycle should contribute to the improvement of civic life, although whether, when, and to what degree it contributes are also empirical questions.
This kind of work also has some ancillary benefits. Conducting cumulative, applied, empirical research on one important topic, such as civic engagement in the United States, can illuminate issues about the sociology of knowledge (How is knowledge defined, supported, used, and constrained?) and about larger social systems. To the extent that I have any insights about such questions, they come from my nearly two decades of work in organized applied research on a cluster of specific issues. Such work also occasionally yields new empirical methods that would be useful in other domains. It provides advanced educational experiences for the researchers and sometimes for their partners in practical organizations. And it can create new working relationships among organizations and agencies that remain useful after a research project concludes. But the primary purpose of the whole enterprise remains to pose and address tractable questions that are genuinely unanswered and relevant to practitioners, and then to share the results.