methods for engaged research

We are in the second day of the American Political Science Association’s Institute for Civically Engaged Research (ICER), hosted by Tisch College but held online this summer. Twenty excellent engaged political scientists are the participants, and they are interacting with the directors and visitors.

One issue for discussion is the relationship between methodology and civically engaged research. Is engaged research a method? Does it favor one or more methods over others? Or is it methodologically neutral?

I won’t try to characterize the other ICER participants’ views, except to note that they hold diverse and thoughtful opinions on questions like this. For myself, I’d want to resist a tendency (outside of ICER) to equate engaged research with qualitative methods.

I have a biographical reason not to endorse this distinction. My own background is in philosophy, and I succeeded Bill Galston (a political theorist) as the second director of CIRCLE until 2015. CIRCLE is well-known for quantitative research: its own surveys plus analysis of federal data and voting records. Yet CIRCLE has always employed full-time experienced professionals whose main focus is building partnerships and capacity in its partner organizations. I see CIRCLE as a deeply civically engaged research center, in the sense that Amy Cabrera Rasmussen, Robert Lieberman, Valeria Sinclair-Chapman, Rogers Smith, and I propose in a forthcoming article in PS:

Civically How people govern themselves. Engaged  research teams are self-governing  collaborative groups (composed of  community organizations, government  actors, social movements and others); their  research strengthens self-governance for  others.
engaged Collaborative, in partnership, with benefits  and substantive roles for both political  scientists and non-academics in the same  projects.
research Any organized, rigorous production of  knowledge, including empirical, interpretive,  historical, conceptual, normative, and other  forms of inquiry.
political science A pluralist discipline with a central focus on  questions of power, politics, and governance.

Given my background, I’ve always found it natural that engaged research can involve any method, from big-data analytics to randomized field experiments to philosophical inquiry. I would acknowledge a debt to the atmosphere at the University of Maryland in the 1990s, when people like Galston, Steve Elkin, Gar Alperovitz, Linda Williams, and others comfortably combined political theory with empirical research and civic engagement. I also found inspiring models in Elinor Ostrom and Jane Mansbridge.

Meanwhile, I observe that community partners of various kinds are drawn to the full range of methods. Some groups are very comfortable with robust and explicit debates about normative issues. They may connect more easily to the methods of philosophy, political theory, and theology than to qualitative social science. Other groups have big datasets and are already quite good at crunching numbers but would like to collaborate with people situated within universities. Some run interventions and are quite happy to randomize treatment and control groups. Certainly, some are not comfortable with any of those methods, but that doesn’t mean that interviews and focus groups will suit them best.

If anything, engaged research seems an invitation to mix methods and to develop methodological pluralism. Positivism may be an obstacle to engaged research, but “positivism” doesn’t mean quantitative research methods or the application of statistics. Positivism in the problematic sense is a philosophy that sharply distinguishes facts from values, scientists from subjects, and knowledge from power. Qualitative researches can be naive positivists, while number-crunchers can hold nuanced and productive ideas about epistemology.

See also civically engaged research in political science #APSA2019; we should be debating the big social and political paradigms; how to present mixed-methods research; what gives some research methods legitimacy? etc.

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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.