The APSA Institute for Civically Engaged Research: Facilitating and encouraging rigorous, publicly relevant political science scholarship

Scholars in many disciplines are grappling with how to produce rigorous scholarship that addresses significant social challenges in collaboration with communities, organizations, and agencies outside of academia.

In June 2019, the American Political Science Association launched the new Institute for Civically Engaged Research (ICER) as a way to facilitate and encourage such research within our discipline by providing needed training and developing cohorts of scholars who can help define the discipline’s path forward.

The Institute is an initiative of the APSA Task Force on New Partnerships and was approved by the APSA Council.  On the first day, former APSA President Rogers Smith (2018-2019) helped to launch ICER saying, “I believe if political scientists are working actively and collaboratively with a wide variety of groups in defining and exploring the issues we address, we are less likely to miss big developments that are occurring outside the academy but not within it.” He added that Americans “may come to see us as partners in helping them to understand and deal constructively with the difficulties they face,” which will benefit the profession.

“I believe if political scientists are working actively and collaboratively with a wide variety of groups in defining and exploring the issues we address, we are less likely to miss big developments that are occurring outside the academy but not within it.”
— former APSA President Rogers Smith (2018-2019)

The first institute took place at Tufts University’s Tisch College of Civic Life was led by a team of directors:  Peter Levine (Tufts University), Amy Cabrera Rasmussen (California State University Long Beach) and Valeria Sinclair-Chapman (Purdue University), with extensive support from and coordination with Amanda Grigg (of APSA’s Centennial Center).

17 participants were admitted and enrolled from a range of career stages, institutions, research interests, geographical locations, and backgrounds.

Over the four-day institute, participants learned and interacted with one another, the institute directors, and visiting scholars.  Formats varied from formal presentations, facilitated discussions of assigned readings and case studies, to small groups, writing time, and informal visits with leading scholars.

Themes of discussion included: Why might we undertake engaged scholarship?

The group worked to define civically- and community-engaged research and what might be the unique attributes of doing such work within political science as compared to other disciplines.  Participants also discussed some practicalities of being an engaged researcher, looking at both opportunities and challenges, from Institutional Review Board processes and well beyond. The group also considered the professional aspects of doing such work and established mechanisms to work with one another beyond the institute.

ICER’s directors and participants were joined by a range of visiting experts and scholars. Alisa Zomer and Varja Lipovsek presented the model for engaged scholarship that has been developed at MIT’s GOV/LAB. Jarvis Hall from North Carolina Central University discussed the interplay between scholarship and activism. Tufts University political scientist Pearl Robinson described her long-standing work with a network of Sufi women leaders in the Sahel.  The group gained the perspective of Cornell Professor Jamila Michener who spoke about her experience being an engaged researcher. Celeste Montoya from the University of Colorado and Jennet Kirkpatrick from Arizona State University separately discussed various ethical and methodological considerations, including one’s positionality as a researcher and engaging with marginalized and/or at-risk communities. Lydia Edwards, a Boston City Councilor and former activist for domestic workers discussed the value–and limitations–of academic work from her perspective. Johns Hopkins Professor and APSA Task Force on New Partnerships chair Robert Lieberman, along with Harvard Professor Archon Fung discussed the status of engaged scholarship in the profession.

ICER participants also had the opportunity to continue their learning and engagement by attending the Frontiers of Democracy conference.  Also held at Tisch College, immediately after the Institute, Frontiers drew about 120 other scholars and activists from a dozen countries.

Jordie Davies, PhD candidate at the University of Chicago and former APSA Minority Fellow

The first Institute was well-received by participants, who have stayed in contact with one another in ways both formal and informal.  The cohort is building a true scholarly community that is poised to create a broader disciplinary shift.

Jordie Davies, PhD candidate from the University of Chicago and APSA MFP Alum, says:

“The experience was truly encouraging and enlightening thanks to the range of scholars present who are both invested in this work and interested in answering big questions about how to do this kind of research rigorously. I definitely feel like I came away with a supportive community.”

The cohort has a series of organized efforts underway including establishing a writing accountability group, working on a collective research symposium, and locating grant funding to support their collaborations. According to Adriano Udani, associate professor at the University of Missouri-St.Louis, the cohort is committed to doing so as a way to further the disciplinary discussion and build the necessary supportive institutional contexts to establish a constituency for civically engaged research within political science.

Plans are underway for the second year of ICER.  If you are interested in attending ICER or sharing this new opportunity with those in your network, a call for applications can be found at below.