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  • A Civic Science
  • Karol Edward Sołtan (bio)

My goal in this article is to sketch a civic science as the intellectual context for the work of Elinor Ostrom and the Bloomington School, which we are celebrating in this special issue of The Good Society. They have provided us with a distinctive model of research and theory development, but also a distinctive formulation of the nature of this discipline still struggling to be born, despite its very old roots. The more self-conscious development of this civic science is, as I see it, the next step also for the projects this journal has been associated with: the ideas of a political economy of a good society and of new constitutionalism. 1

Civic science, of course, has its roots in Aristotle (what discipline doesn't?). But efforts to create it have intensified in the last 200 years. Tocqueville saw a need for a new science of politics that would develop the art and science of association. And as Filippo Sabetti rightly reminds us, Tocqueville was not alone. Carlo Cattaneo in Italy also called for a "public science" along the same lines. 2 Others have made similar calls over the years, as they contributed to a civic science. But despite all this work, there is still no civic science.

Again and again these efforts have been marginalized, or channeled in a different, distinctly non-civic direction. So contemporary political science and sociology, understood in a more positivist way, are now well established, but a civic science committed to a civic form of unity of theory and practice can be found only in individual works or in schools of thought like the Bloomington School, isolated from each other. So it is easier to see [End Page 102] the Bloomington School as part of political economy and public choice, or as a contribution to new institutionalism. It is more difficult to see it as a more original and challenging effort to build a civic science inspired by the precedent of de Tocqueville and the American founders, among others. But I believe this is the School's most important contribution. It is this larger project that I want to discuss in this essay, a project shared by the Bloomington School and many others, including myself.

Our project is to create a new discipline with deep historical roots, a civic science. Because of the narrow associations of the word "science" in English, we propose to call it civic studies. But in languages where the word "science" has a broader meaning, a civic science it should be. So it is "nauki obywatelskie" in Polish, where the project is also under way.

The project will succeed—if it succeeds at all—if it grows incrementally, in stages, with many individuals and groups serving as its co-creators. But in September 2007, we did give it a small initial push by bringing together a group of scholars (Harry Boyte, Steve Elkin, Peter Levine, Jane Mansbridge, Elinor Ostrom, Rogers Smith and myself) to think how best to proceed. What emerged was a "framing statement" for the project, 3 and a plan for a Summer Institute of Civic Studies (a very intense seminar, perhaps eventually evolving into something more like a summer school), to be coupled each summer with a Civic Studies Conference. The first Institute was held in 2009.

A discipline is nothing more than an institutionalized intellectual community, and this is what we aim to create. The institutionalization will require its journals, associations, conferences, university departments and so on. But the intellectual community can be created more simply and directly. It already exists in the works of many scholars, some long dead.

The claim is that this discipline, this intellectual community is already in the making, the people who would make it up, are already out there. But they need to be brought together. The second claim is that there would be a great intellectual payoff: we can learn from each other. This I know to be true because we have already created this community in our discussions, and in our heads, during the Summer Institute at Tufts. And the third claim is that there could also be a...