What do we mean by ‘Civic Engagement’?

As a research group that investigates social change, grasping the multifaceted, evolving definition of “civic engagement” is vital to more deeply understand the inner workings of communities. Civic engagement, which at its most basic level has been defined in recent literature as “the ways in which citizens participate in the life of a community in order to improve conditions for others or to help shape the community’s future” (Adler and Goggin, 2005), is as varied as the participating people and communities. While civic engagement will manifest differently depending on the social, economic, cultural, and political contexts of the localities, a common thread of public participation in different decision-making mechanisms is spun throughout existing literature.

Further inquiry on civic engagement is hindered by the lack of a cohesive outline of it’s many variations in communities around the world. Addressing this knowledge gap, TASCHA’s Maria Garrido and Daniel Kapellmann Zafra have started to collect and analyze disparate articles of information to construct two knowledge maps of libraries and civic engagement: one on civic engagement definitions and theories, the other concerning civic engagement and libraries. This work will give more clarity to the scope and boundaries of terms and concepts relating to civic engagement, and illuminate the intertwining contextual factors that nuance this activity across the globe.

One of the current frameworks for conceptualizing civic engagement can be separated into three components (Adler and Goggin 2005):

  • Community service: voluntary service to one’s local community either as individuals or in a group. Some examples provided by the authors are the active obligation as citizens to participate in volunteer service activities for the community well-being.
  • Collective action: Action taken in groups to improve society such as protests or initiatives to influence the larger civil society.
  • Political involvement: actions that involve government involvement and directs individual efforts to collective action for solving problems through political mechanisms.

Yet communities are expressing these elements in very different ways. The civic engagement landscape is shaped by contextual factors such as social trust, education, demographics, socioeconomic disparities, and the independence of news and media. For instance, in the U.S. civic engagement includes a broad range of activities that fit within the political and communitarian realms. Both government-related actions and collective activities performed by groups or associations -within or outside their community- equally fit into civic engagement. (Adler and Goggin, 2005). Simultaneously, In Latin America it is focused on social mobilization and political participation. For example, some authors argue that participating in the decision-making process of the community is by itself related to the political rights of citizens. (Ferrero and Hoehn, 2014). Finally, in Ghana, civic engagement goes beyond politics and is related to educating and training the population to understand their civil rights and participate voluntarily in enhancing the community and making decisions. (Opoku-Agyeman, 2013).

Further investigation by TASCHA researchers will lend several hands to untangle and investigate the many facets of civic engagement, and illuminate new relationships among contextual factors. Answering questions such as “What does it mean to be a civic citizen in today’s world?” and “What are the different social and technological spaces that can be appropriated to promote engagement?” will help construct a more informed research agenda moving forward. Driven by the motivation to better understand civic engagement, TASCHA hosted an event last week “Public Libraries as a Platform for Civic Engagement” to bring together researchers, practitioners, and thought leaders to share ideas and experiences around the topic. Attendees shared the many unimaginable ways communities are engaging with their libraries to enhance civic activism and pointed to new opportunities for the role of public libraries. We look forward to sharing more about this event through a series of upcoming civic engagement posts.