Beyond Formal Politics: Scholarship as Civic Engagement

Denise Meringolo is an associate professor of history and director of public history at UMBC.

Denise Meringolo, UMBCRecently I clicked on a link titled, “Civic Engagement in the Digital Age,” and found myself reading the latest in a series of reports produced by the Pew Research Center as part of its Internet and American Life Project. Project researchers have been tracking the expansion of what they term “civic engagement” in social media. The most recent report notes a significant increase in the number of Americans using social media to promote a political issue, encourage voting, communicate with an elected official, or address a political problem (from 3% of adults in 2008 to 12-17% in 2012).

The study encompasses both passive forms of engagement (following a political figure or liking a page dedicated to a particular cause or issue) and active forms of engagement (posting links to political stories). But Pew’s understanding of “civic engagement” does not appear to extend beyond engagement with formal politics. In fact the term “political engagement” often appears as a synonym for “civic engagement” in Project reports.

I think of civic engagement more expansively. As a public historian, I practice history as a form of public service. Like the vast majority of my colleagues, I work collaboratively with various organizations and individuals for whom a more nuanced understanding of the past can have immediate, practical applications for establishing a viable community identity, understanding the roots of a pressing problem, or adding a sense of authenticity to a neighborhood or landscape. In my field, we use the term “civic engagement” to describe the value of collaborative, community-based historical work. This expansive perspective also permeates UMBC’s BreakingGround initiative, which recognizes that community engagement might transcend formal politics and that research from a variety of fields and disciplines can have immediate, practical applications.

As I read the Pew report, I wondered: How many of the 39% of American adults who use social media have “liked” a particular museum? How many have posted information about a local arts event? How many have encouraged the members of their network to read a new work of fiction? Arguably, actions like these can shape a sense of shared identity and community.

As engaged scholars, then, it seems we must more actively and critically define what it is we hope to accomplish by putting our work in service to the community. What behaviors do we imagine when we use the term “civic engagement?”

Contact the author, Denise Meringolo, at


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