Civic Studies and Network Science

I had the delightful opportunity today to return to my former place of employment, Tufts University’s Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service, for a conversation about civic studies.

The “intellectual component of civic renewal, which is the movement to improve societies by engaging their citizens,” civic studies is the field that set me on this path towards a Ph.D. Civic studies puts citizens (of all legal statuses) at the fore, bringing together facts, values, and strategies to answer the question, “What should we do?

Ultimately, this is the question that I hope to help answer, as a person and as a scholar.

So, perhaps you can appreciate my former colleague’s confusion when they learned that my first semester coursework is in physics and math.

These are not, I suppose, the first fields one thinks of when looking to empower people to improve their communities. I am not convinced that bias is well founded, but irregardless, civic studies did primarily grow out of the social sciences and has its academic home closest to that realm.

So if my interest is in civic studies how did I end up in network science?

I hope to some day have a clear and compelling answer to that question – though it’s complicated by the fact that both fields are new and most people aren’t familiar with either of them.

The most obvious connection between civic studies and network science is around social networks. Civic studies is an inherently social field – as indicated by the “we” in what should we do? Questions of who is connected – and who is not – are critical.

For example, in Doug McAdam’s excellent book Freedom Summer, he documents the critical role of the strong social network of white, northern college students who participated in Freedom Summer. These students brought the problems of Mississippi to attention of the white mainstream, and these students went on to use the organizing skills they learned in the summer of 1964 to fuel the radical movements of the 1960s.

But networks also offer other insight into civic questions. Personally, I am particularly interested in network analysis of deliberation – exploring the exchange of ideas during deliberation and exploring how one’s own network of ideas influences they way draw on supporting arguments.

More broadly, networks can be seen throughout the civic world: not only are there networks of people and ideas, there are networks of institutions, networks of power, and the physical network of spaces that shape our world.

Networks and civics, I think, are closer than one might think.

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