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  • What Should You and I Do?Lessons for Civic Studies from Deliberative Politics in the New Deal
  • Timothy J. Shaffer (bio)

Civic Studies as a Conceptual Framework

In an essay focusing on the contribution of the late Elinor Ostrom's scholarship to the developing field of civic studies, Peter Levine suggested that civic studies is "one possible name for intellectual work that seriously addresses the question, 'What should you and I do?'"1 Its strength, Levine argues, comes from the acknowledgment of three important and interrelated matters: facts, values, and strategies. As Levine further explained, "We citizens need to know facts because we should not try to do something that is impossible, or redundant, or that has harmful but intended consequences. . . . We also need values because otherwise we cannot distinguish between good and bad collective action. . . . Finally, civic studies should offer strategies. It is insufficient to wish for better outcomes and determine that those outcomes are possible. We need a path to the desirable results."2

There are, obviously, many disciplines and fields of study and practice that engage these questions. However, traditional disciplines have often been limited by the epistemologies and methodologies that define them. What is acceptable within professional associations and what the institutional expectations of scholarship are define the acceptable from that which is unacceptable. Because of these challenges, attempts to draw from different disciplinary wells have been limited in part because of the different languages, approaches, and expectations. As Levine notes, "Social science is separated from philosophy and theology; strategic analysis is separated [End Page 137] from empirical research. Scholars are much more likely to investigate why large-scale trends occur or how powerful institutions work than to identify promising opportunities for ordinary people to influence the world."3

In my own academic training in diverse fields such as theology, public administration, and education, I have experienced the difficulty of bridging these divides and recognize the promise that civic studies offers: an explicit attempt to "produce knowledge, insights, and strategies that citizens need—if 'citizens' are defined as co-producers of a good or just society."4 For too long, higher education has been more interested in rigorous research methods rather than attempting to change the world we live in. A picture recently posted online expressed our current fixation well: "What do we want? Evidence-based change. When do we want it? After peer review."

Foundational to civic studies is its Framing Statement—an articulation from the founders of this emerging field of study and practice that highlights the gaps that civic studies fills in the current scholarly landscape.5 The Framing Statement begins this way:

We see before us an emerging civic politics, along with an emerging intellectual community, a field, and a discipline. Its work is to understand and strengthen civic politics, civic initiatives, civic capacity, civic society and civic culture. It is emerging in many disciplines and fields of human endeavor.6

This field is emerging, drawing from numerous and varied sources for thinking about citizenship as a distinctive civic ideal and set of practices that cultivates agency. The authors of the Framing Statement built their notion of this civic ideal on two elements: first, public spiritedness and a commitment to the public good, and second, the idea that the citizen is a creative agent. In short, the citizen is a political actor with his or her own efficacy. As Harry Boyte, one of the contributors to the Framing Statement has long argued, we do well to think of such agency as "public work."7

Using civic studies as a conceptual framework helps cultivate a space within the Academy where scholars can draw upon diverse disciplines for thinking about the question: "What should you and I do?" and offer responses that fill the gaps left by the fact that there is "much less scholarship than we need that combines facts, strategy, and values that deals with the human scale of politics."8 But while civic studies draws from fields as diverse as the social and applied sciences, humanities, law, education, and others, it has drawn principally from recent scholarship. This has been done [End Page 138] to the exclusion of historical examples that...


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