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  • Civic Studies:Fundamental Questions, Interdisciplinary Methods
  • Alison K. Cohen (bio), J. Ruth Dawley-Carr (bio), Liza Pappas (bio), and Alison Staudinger (bio)


What is a good citizen? What does a good citizen do and what skills do we want civic actors to practice? Is citizenship, or should it be, tied to the nation-state? How does it change across non-state, local, and global contexts? What beliefs, practices, and skills ought a field of civic studies address? Should the field be geared toward involving people in the current system, particular electoral or formal politics, and/or the marketplace? Should it instead emphasize conflict with or critique of these systems?

Questions like these are not currently central to any particular academic discipline and require innovative interdisciplinary rethinking. The emerging field of civic studies, which is organically developing within several academic and political sectors, offers a particularly promising home. This paper illustrates how diverse disciplines can inform civic studies, and how, in turn, the burgeoning research and practice literature of civic studies can contribute to multiple fields.

Since 2008, scholars and practioners, activists and theorists have gathered at the Summer Institute of Civic Studies, hosted by the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service at Tufts University and CIRCLE (Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement), to explore building a field of civic studies and to consider central questions a field such as civic studies would have to address. During the Summer Institute's third seminar in 2010, in which all four authors participated, [End Page 122] we primarily focused on three central questions, which follow and are the focus of this paper.

  1. 1. What constitutes a good citizen? To what degree does being a good citizen mean taking part in existing institutions, be they governmental or associational? We looked at Robert Putnam's study of social capital, which takes such measures as voting rates, membership in social and political groups, volunteering, and political donations as possible positive correlations to the presence of certain types of social networks.1 For Putnam, and many political scientists, the good citizen is the one who participates in the system. Few "civic theorists" focused on bare minimum measures of participation like voting, although the "voter turnout" research agenda is alive and well in political science. We also examined competing notions such as the good citizen as one who participates in meaningful, locally-oriented politics,2 the one who advocates that public work become a daily part of Americans' lives, and that this (thick) type of participation is open to all.3 These theorists saw citizenship as supporting (although perhaps also modifying and maintaining) current regimes.

    Other theorists and seminar colleagues noted the limits of defining a good citizen by willful participation in the system. They saw the good citizen critiquing and challenging existing institutions with an eye towards reforming or even abolishing them. This critical orientation was sometimes aimed at the market, as in the early work of Jürgen Habermas and other political theorists in the Marxist or Frankfurt School traditions who question the normative and cultural role of commodity capitalism.4 It has also been aimed at democracy as currently practiced, as in the deliberative turn in Jürgen Habermas,5 James Fishkin,6 James Bohman,7 Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson,8 and many others. For these theorists, the good citizen participates in and helps facilitate a type of public discussion that serves as a check on the political power of the state and ensures that the outcome is truly democratic. Social justice oriented theorists and community organizers like Myles Horton and Paulo Freire,9 Saul Alinsky,10 and Mark R. Warren11 argued that the good citizen builds relationships with others to have the power to hold authority accountable, taking responsibility for solving problems on their own terms and outside of formal political arrangements.

  2. 2. To what extent is citizenship rooted in the nation-state, both locally and globally? How does the oscillation between citizenship as participation [End Page 123] in and dissent from the system complicate citizenship and nation-state relationships? For some of the "dissenters" in our deliberations, status citizenship tied to a nation...


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