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The Good Society 12.1 (2003) 74-82

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Civic Innovation, Conflict, and Politics:
Response for The Good Society Symposium on Civic Innovation in America

Carmen Sirianni and Lewis A. Friedland

We welcome the opportunity to engage in discussion of some of the issues raised by our book, Civic Innovation in America, with Jean Cohen, Harry Boyte, Bill Gamson, Susan Ostrander and Mark R. Warren. Our analysis has already built upon important insights in their work and will no doubt continue to do so.

Social Learning

Our book examines civic innovation as a social learning process extending over the past several decades. It is here, however incompletely, that we find critical lessons for broadening and deepening civic democracy to grapple with the challenges of an increasingly complex society where ordinary citizens, as well as professionals and officials of many kinds, will be compelled to reimagine the public work they do. It is here also that we find an important source of insight about the capacity of Americans to reinvent democracy, one that is largely absent from more familiar tales of decline of aggregate levels of social capital (Putnam) and of multi-tiered civic associations (Skocpol), or in the repeatedly disappointed historical cycles of "the democratic wish" (Morone). 1 We find much wisdom in all these accounts, to be sure, but they miss much about how and why civic innovation in the current period proceeds, and the institutional and policy dynamics that enable it to do so.

Our account of four specific arenas of innovation and the emergence of a nascent civic renewal movement draws upon organizational and regulatory theory, policy learning, deliberative democratic and critical theory, social movement theory, and social capital theory. We delimit our study by focusing primarily upon a range of deliberative and collaborative models of public problem solving, rather than examining social capital broadly or the full array of public interest groups and social movements that arose in the wake of the 1960s; we view these resources and movements, however, as vital to contemporary American democracy and important to some of the innovations we examine. We never identify ourselves as "communitarians" or posit the "decline of community" as an abstract target, but focus on concrete public problem solving and policy design ("public policy for democracy") in various forms. We recognize, however, that there are still areas of this analysis that require greater analytic attention and clarification. Let us briefly address a few of them.

Conflict and Collaboration

Conflict is an important component of much social learning. We cannot understand the innovations in civic environmentalism as represented by watershed and other ecosystem restoration strategies, for instance, without recognizing conflictual local organizing in many places, as well as the power of an organized environmental movement to win rights to participation in the regulatory system. We cannot understand innovations in community organizing and development absent many contentious local battles over urban development and bank lending practices, as well as movement strategies to secure and protect such laws as the Community Reinvestment Act. Many of the organizations we analyze have contentious histories, and some—such as the very first two we profile—periodically return to contention when various forms of collaboration prove insufficient.

So the issue between us and Gamson and Warren is not whether civic learning can ever be completely conflict-free, but rather the role and relative weight of conflict across the full spectrum of civic strategies and whether "we/they" oppositional frames can represent a broad enough range of public work to anchor democratic renewal.

Let us take a city such as Portland, Oregon to illustrate just part of the spectrum of civic strategies. In Portland, there has certainly been conflict and an increase in advocacy organizations of many types over the past four decades, even as traditional civic organizations declined in the face of new challenges of citizen action. 2 There is also an IAF organization that operates according to principles similar to those that Warren analyzes in Texas. Yet there is much more. A citywide office...


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