civically engaged research in political science #APSA2019

(Washington, DC) Rogers Smith concluded his presidential address at the American Political Science Association’s annual meeting with a call for more engaged scholarship, which I would define as co-producing knowledge with people who belong to the communities being studied. Smith said that if political scientists had conducted more civically engaged research with such communities as African Americans after the Civil Rights era, gay Americans after Stonewall, industrial workers after deindustrialization, or rural whites since 2000, the discipline would have been better prepared to understand important political developments that have ensued–and those constituencies would trust political science more.*

Strengthening engaged scholarship in political science is a personal commitment of mine. Thanks to Smith’s leadership, colleagues and I offer the APSA Institute for Civically Engaged Research (ICER) through Tufts’ Tisch College. The first ICER was held last June, and the next one will be in 2020.

I believe that there are few fully documented, peer-reviewed examples of civically engaged projects in political science–especially compared to the large body of such studies in fields like public health. Many political scientists actually conduct civically engaged research, and they do it well. But peer-reviewed publications generally report only the findings of such studies, with hypotheses, data, and conclusions. It’s very rare to document the partnership that produced the research. The best examples that I have found are not peer-reviewed but are put online by institutes committed to the process of partnerships, such as MIT’s GovLab, or by the nonprofit organizations that collaborate with political scientists. There is also some important writing about collaboration, but without much detail about specific projects.

The shortage of fully-documented, peer-reviewed examples means that civically engaged research is not sufficiently valued in the discipline. The work involved in building and maintaining relationships only pays off to the extent that it results in generalizable findings that can be presented as if they came without a partnership.

Another result is that it’s hard to teach engaged scholarship. Appropriate reading assignments are scarce. Many of our readings for ICER did not come from political science. Relatedly, it is hard to discuss some of the serious issues that arise for engaged research in political science, because there is a scarcity of texts that explicitly address such issues.

A third consequence is that the partners who influence political science go unrepresented. One of my great heroes is Elinor Ostrom, whose work richly deserved the Nobel Prize that she won. She was an exemplary partner of many grassroots groups, from Indianapolis to Nepal, and learned a great deal from them. But they are not visible in her published work.

I suspect that one cause is the relatively strong grip of a certain form of positivism in political science, compared to fields like public health, education, and anthropology. The peer-review process focuses on findings and evidence, not process.

Another reason is that civically engaged research in political science presents special challenges. The discipline is not defined by a single methodological toolkit. Political scientists use methods that overlap with those employed in other fields, from the interpretation of classical texts to ethnography to econometrics. What defines the discipline is an explicit focus on power, authority, and governance.

When nonprofit organizations or social movements and networks focus explicitly on power, authority, and governance, we think of them as “political” entities. We readily assign partisan and ideological labels to them. For an academic, it can be tricky to work with groups that are political, let alone partisan. One solution is to downplay the partnership and simply report the findings. (Get-out-the-vote works, for example.)

The problem in a field like public health is that issues of power tend to be overlooked or concealed. But the problem for political science is that those issues are front-and-center.

Engaged research requires such values as loyalty, reciprocity, and trust. A scholar who forms a partnership with a non-academic group must commit (to some extent) to the needs and agendas of that group. If its agenda is political, such a commitment poses at least a potential challenge to the academic’s need to be nonpartisan, intellectually honest, and independent. We witnessed this tension during ICER when an excellent local elected official visited and basically told the political scientists that unless their work advances her agenda, it is part of the problem.

My conclusion is that Smith’s call for more engaged research in political science is an ambitious one. We do have the asset of plenty of political scientists who are quietly involved in exemplary partnerships. We do not–yet–have a sufficient body of explicit examples that help to build knowledge of how to do partnerships well.

*This is my paraphrase based on memory; some of the details may be wrong. See also: The American Political Science Association Institute for Civically Engaged Research (ICER) at Tisch College this summer; engaged political science; scholarship on engaged scholarship; Participatory Action Research as Civic Studies; and conservative engaged scholarship

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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.