What is Civic Studies?

Tisch College is at the forefront of building the new academic discipline of civic studies. Like any vibrant intellectual community, civic studies encourages debate and disagreement, but it assumes some premises:

  1. Civic studies is the intellectual component of civic renewal, which is the movement to improve societies by engaging their citizens.
  2. The goal of civic studies is to develop ideas and ways of thinking helpful to citizens, understood as co-creators of their worlds. We do not define “citizens” as official members of nation-states or other political jurisdictions. One can be a co-creator in many settings, ranging from loose social networks and religious congregations to the globe.
  3. Civic studies asks “What should we do?” It is thus inevitably about ethics (what is right and good?), about facts (what is actually going on?), about strategies (what would work?), and about the institutions that we co-create. Good strategies may take many forms and use many instruments, but if a strategy addresses the question “What should we do?”, then it must guide our own actions–it cannot simply be about how other people ought to act.
  4. Civic Studies emphasizes agency, which is defined “as effective and intentional action that is conducted in diverse and open settings in order to shape the world around us” (Boyte and Scarnati).

The phrase “civic studies” was coined in 2007 in a joint statement by Harry Boyte, University of Minnesota; Stephen Elkin, University of Maryland; Peter Levine, Tufts University; Jane Mansbridge, Harvard University; Elinor Ostrom, Indiana University; Karol Sołtan, University of Maryland; and Rogers Smith, University of Pennsylvania.

Civic studies is not civic education. Nor is it the study of civic education. However, once it is fully developed, it will influence how citizenship is taught in schools and colleges.

Civic Studies Courses

A two week intensive seminar, Tisch College’s Summer Institute of Civic Studies brings together doctoral students and advanced practitioners for intensive discussions focusing heavily on theory. To date, over 100 graduate students, professors, and community leaders from around the world and from a range of disciplines have participated in the Summer Institute.

Annual Frontiers of Democracy Conference

The annual Frontiers of Democracy conference, hosted by Tisch College at Tufts University, explores questions of public engagement, deliberative and participatory democracy, educating for democracy and civic learning, and strengthening democracy. Frontiers of Democracy is sponsored by Tisch College, the Democracy Imperative, and the Deliberative Democracy Consortium.

Tisch Civic Engagement Research Prize

Every year, Tisch College awards the Tisch Research Prize, recognizing a career of academic research on issues related to active citizenship. Previous winners have been the late Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom (Indiana), MacArthur Fellow John Gaventa (Coady Institute), and distinguished professors Robert Wuthnow (Princeton), Doug McAdam (Stanford), Constance Flanagan (Wisconsin), and Meredith Minkler (Berkeley). They have represented the disciplines of political science, sociology, psychology, and public health, but we would claim all of them for civic studies. (Ostrom was one of the co-authors of the framing statement.)

Publications on Civic Studies

Civic Studies volume

Civic Studies: Approaches to the Emerging Field is a volume co-edited by Peter Levine and Karol Edward Sołtan and published by Bringing Theory to Practice and the American Association of Colleges and Universities as the third in its Civic Series. It is available for free download (pdf) or for purchase at $10 for the volume. Contents:

The Good Society Journal and its Symposium on Civic Studies

The Good Society, published by Penn State University Press, is a journal of civic studies. It is edited by two Summer Institute of Civic Studies alumni, Joshua A. Miller and Matt Chick.

Vol. 22, No. 2, 2013 of The Good Society includes a symposium on the Summer Institute of Civic Studies. With one exception, all of the authors of the symposium articles are either teachers or alumni of the Summer Institute:

Another article that also briefly summarizes Civic Studies is
  • Peter Levine, “Civic Studies,” Philosophy and Public Policy Quarterly, Vol 32, No 1 (2014)

We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For

Written by Peter Levine, the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship & Public Affairs at Tisch College, We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For: The Promise of Civic Renewal in America (Oxford University Press, 2013) applies civic studies to strengthening democracy in the United States. Chapter 2, “How to Think About Politics: Facts, Values, and Strategies,” argues for considering political issues from a civic studies perspective. Former Sen. Bob Graham writes, “As America has wallowed through an unprecedented decline in civic engagement, Peter Levine has been a lighthouse warning of the dangers of civic alienation. Now, he makes the encouraging case that although we will live for a while with the consequences of past mistakes, the worst of the storm is over. Professor Levine concludes with ten common sense strategies that can energize the people and their governmental institutions while preparing a new generation of Americans with the values and competencies to sustain our reinvigorated democracy.”

Allied Programs and Departments at Tufts

The following departments and programs within Tufts share premises and values with civic studies. None is subsumed under civic studies; each embodies a unique perspective and stands at the center of its own network. But they collaborate on shared concerns:

Tufts Community Research Center

Within civic studies, some strong voices argue that research should be, in the words of Sanford Schram, “Bottom Up, Problem Driven, Mixed Methods, Interdisciplinary.” That suggests an overlap with Community Based Participatory Research (CBPR). At Tufts, CBPR is sustained by the Tufts Community Research Center (TCRC). Run by a Steering Committee of community members and Tufts Faculty and supported by Tisch College, TCRC emphasizes Tufts’ host communities of Somerville, Medford and Boston’s Chinatown.

Water Diplomacy

The Water Diplomacy program at Tufts begins with the premise that the “Origins of most water problems may be understood as intricate coupling among natural, societal, and political domains where people and problems interact to shape the framing of the problem. … The Water Diplomacy program at Tufts University is producing interdisciplinary water professionals who think across boundaries, emphasize integration of explicit and tacit knowledge, link knowledge and action from multiple perspectives to help resolve water issues through mutual gains negotiations.”


CIRCLE (The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement) at Tisch College focuses on young people in the U.S., with an emphasis on those who are marginalized or disadvantaged in political life. CIRCLE’s scholarly research informs policy and practice for healthier youth development and a better democracy. CIRCLE is primarily an empirical research center, but its scholarship is informed by values and strategies as well.

Peace & Justice Studies

The Peace & Justice Studies Program at Tufts was founded to provide students with an academic means to understand global crises and to explore the means for achieving a just peace and sustainability. To this end, PJS has created an interdisciplinary course structure which examines the obstacles, conditions, and paths to addressing these challenges. It also explores the ways that governmental and nongovernmental organizations, social movements, and individuals have confronted such problems and worked to resolve them. This structure is also designed to develop students’ critical, analytical, and experiential skills as well as competencies in fields that contribute towards peace and social transformation.

Department of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning

The mission of the Tufts Department of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning is the education of a new generation of leaders, “practical visionaries,” who will contribute to the development of inclusive and sustainable communities. A key step toward this is making our institutions more responsive to child, adult, and ultimately community well-being by helping them understand, empathize with, and respond to the social, economic, and environmental needs of individuals and communities.