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Civically-Engaged Research

Civic Engagement is understood as “individual and collective actions designed to identify and address issues of public concern." The process of Civic Engagement is simply that of bringing the voice of a particular set of stakeholders to policymaking tables.

Civically-Engaged Research is the use of social science in service of strengthening the community’s capacity to articulate its voice and insert it into the public dialogue.


There are two very important truisms that highlight the importance of Civic Engagement:

  1. “Where you stand depends on where you sit."*
  2. How you define the problem dictates the solution.


*​Nelson Mandela's quotation speaks directly to the issue of perspective. The fact that there may be a common problem in a community does not mean everyone will see the problem or that those who do will see it the same way. The second truism highlights the critical importance of defining a problem. Journalist Walter Lippman makes the point that “we define first, then we see,” and that “the way the world is imagined determines at any particular moment what men will do." Once we name the problem, we create a solution to the problem as defined. The wisdom of Mandela is that we must acknowledge that what we imagine and the way we define what is important to a community is shaped by people’s perspective, and a community is home to many perspectives.

Civically-Engaged Research is done in the service of a community or set of stakeholders, and it must be driven by those stakeholders. Universities working alone cannot generate Civic Engagement. They must work in partnership with entities that are rooted in the community and independent of the university. Being rooted means driven by and accountable to that community. 

Figure A

 Three forces drive our forward motion over time: 
  • Science and Technology
  • Community Knowledge
  • Politics

Science and technology help us understand our environment, often inventing better ways to interact with it. Community knowledge is encapsulated in the stories that describe people’s lived experience. Civically Engaged Research taps into those experiences and draws that knowledge out. Whereas knowledge generated by science and technology is based on facts collected in specific and prescribed ways, experiential knowledge of the community gives those facts meaning. Politics are defined here as “the art of translating the ideal into the real,” which raises the question of power. Who determines what the ideal is, what the real should look like, and what the process for moving from ideal to real should be? Politics, i.e., power, determine how an issue is defined, what issues are priorities, and what should and can be done to address the issue. Within our political system, most important decisions about the quality of neighborhoods are made by government bodies. Many nongovernmental groups, however, use their resources to exert influence. Understanding the distribution of power provides insight and understanding into what resources and assets the community has and who has access to them. It also indicates how the community works and who must be involved to make things happen within that community.

Having the community at the policymaking tables does not just happen. It requires intentionality. It requires organizing and investment. First the community must be brought together to discuss any issue, and that discussion must be informed with the latest knowledge, requiring an investment in the education and training of community members. It is organizing and education that allows for community knowledge to be gathered, synthesized and applied to the issues of concern.

Figure B

If community knowledge and facilitating its inclusion into the public dialogue that Civically Engaged Research is helpful. It is also work that must be done outside the university and with trusted community partners.

The darker circle in Figure B represents the work of the Bioregional Center’s community partner, Global action Research Center. They help organize and implement the education, training and Civically Engaged Research necessary to articulate and insert the community voice into public dialogue. They also facilitate the bidirectional learning that occurs when science and technology enter into meaningful dialogue with community knowledge.

Links to the Bioregional Center Videos