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Political Theory, Political Science and the End of Civic Engagement

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  15 May 2009

Ben Berger
Swarthmore College. E-mail:


Within a span of fifteen years civic engagement has become a cottage industry in political science and political theory, but the term has now outlived its usefulness and exemplifies Giovanni Sartori's worry about conceptual “stretching.” This article traces civic engagement's ascension as a catch-all term for almost anything that citizens might happen to do together or alone, and illustrates the confusion that its popularity has occasioned. It proposes that civic engagement meet a well-deserved end, to be replaced with a more nuanced and descriptive set of engagements: political, social, and moral. It also examines the appeal of engagement itself, a term that entails both attention and energy. Attention and energy are the mainsprings of politics and most other challenging human endeavors. But they can be invested politically, or in associative pursuits, or in moral reasoning and follow-through, and those types of engagement can, but need not, coincide. We should be asking which kinds of engagement—which kinds of attention and energetic activity—make democracy work, and how they might be measured and promoted.

Research Article
Copyright © American Political Science Association 2009

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