engaged theory and the construction of community

I’m at the 2022 version of ICER (the Institute for Civically Engaged Research) with 20 talented and dedicated political scientists, plus my co-directors Valeria Sinclair-Chapman and Amy Cabrera Rasmussen. Today, we learned from UCSD professor Fonna Forman about the Civic Innovation Lab and its projects in the “binational metropolis of San Diego, California and Tijuana, B.C., Mexico.”

The Lab collaborates on a set of ambitious, long-term projects that often take place in “UCSD Community Stations,” which are physical facilities located “across the border region” (on both sides of the wall) and “designed for engaged research and teaching on poverty and social equity.” Forman is also involved with the new Engaged Theory Community, which promotes “normative political theory that centers lived experiences.”

According to the Engaged Theory website: “Using a range of methods — interpretive, qualitative, and quantitative— practitioners of engaged theory seek to better align political philosophy with the questions, goals, and needs of communities seeking social justice.” In the case of UCSD’s Lab, the community is defined as the binational metro area in which the university is located. Thinking and working together with people across that region has revealed many empirical findings (such as the flow of pollutants north into San Diego County or the condition of housing immediately south of the border wall) and conceptual insights. For instance, collaborators in the project now see themselves as located along a global “Political Equator,” the 38th parallel, which is marked by conflict almost all the way around the globe.

Fundamental to the ideal of engaged research is accountability to a community: it is not research “on” or “for,” but “with.” If scholars happen to work for the University of California-San Diego, they could choose to define their community as the campus and its people, their discipline, the neighborhood near La Jolla, San Diego, CA, the state of California, the United States, or in other ways. Each of these communities would encompass diversity, yet each would have a different center of gravity. For example, the majority opinion about contested issues like immigration would differ depending on the definition of the community.

This project envisions the relevant political community as a concentration of 5 million people who are densely interconnected by water and air, animals and seeds, energy and waste, and their own migration, communication, and exchange–yet split by a wall. Defining the community this way gives the project a particular normative center. It makes the wall look problematic; migration looks natural. Meanwhile, the research also contributes (along with many other people’s work) to making San Diego/Tijuana into a political community–a “we” that can govern itself.

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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.