Participatory Action Research as Civic Studies

Thanks to the fabulous Tisch College postdoc Margaret McGladrey, we are holding a symposium on “Participatory Action Research as Civic Studies” today at Tufts, with 15 speakers.

I’m planning to make a few remarks revolving around three “ideal types” or imaginary characters.

I won’t try to explain the whole chart here, but a few explanations might be useful.

The community actor could be a nonprofit leader, activist, or government official. The social scientist could be qualitative or quantitative, teaching in a university or working for an agency or even a research firm. And the “philosopher” need not be a professor of that academic discipline. She might be a scholar from a different field (e.g., theology, normative political theory, law, education) or someone working outside academia, for instance, as a writer or a clergyperson.

When I say that the social scientist “often studies categories,” I mean that her topic is often a set of examples that meet the same criteria: Dominican women, prenatal care programs, kids who are existing foster care. In contrast, a community actor is often concerned with a heterogeneous, multifaceted object like a school or a neighborhood.

When I say that the social scientist “acknowledges [her] own values but sees them as perhaps problematic,” I am thinking about the disclosures of bias and social position that are increasingly common in scholarly articles. Traditional conceptions of science understand it as a quest to understand the world independent of the observer. Social scientists know that observers have values, bias, and assumptions. That is because we are all human. But they regard those attributes of themselves as potential obstacles to understanding their objects of study. So they use techniques for reducing bias, and they disclose or acknowledge their values for the sake of the reader. In contrast, a civic actor typically asserts values as a matter of right, as things that she has. Often those assertions are tied to identities: “As a Pentecostal, I believe …” Finally, a philosopher is trained (if we are trained in anything), to ask whether any claim about values is the best one. We view values not as biases to disclose but as claims that require testing.

In the middle are some “citizens,” using that term in its moral (not legal) sense. They are people who feel responsible for their world: for changing it or preserving what is good about it. They need what each of the three ideal types offer, and they can’t distinguish sharply among these offerings. They need particular and general knowledge, information and good values.

I take it that movements like Participatory Action Research and Community Based Participatory Research attempt to bring together the Community Actor with the Social Scientist, either by reducing differences among these people or by making them into partners. Civic Studies, as we actually practice it so far, tends to combine the Social Scientist and the Philosopher, but really it should bring all three together.

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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