Academic journal article Tamara Journal of Critical Organisation Inquiry

Democratic Engagement through the Ethic of Passionate Impartiality

Academic journal article Tamara Journal of Critical Organisation Inquiry

Democratic Engagement through the Ethic of Passionate Impartiality

Article excerpt


Building on conceptions of democratic engagement, we explicate the epistemological and political commitments of engaged scholarship tied to deliberative democracy that responds to the neutrality challenge of doing impactful political work without advocating for a particular political position. The Colorado State University Center for Public Deliberation (CPD) provides a model of democratic engagement by serving as an impartial resource for its community, in part by training students to be facilitators of public processes. This type of democratic engagement can cultivate mutual benefits for students, professors, universities, community organizations, and citizens. We offer a principle of passionate impartiality for guiding process-design and facilitation. Passionately impartial scholars and students are passionate about their community, democracy, and solving problems but are nonetheless committed to serving a primarily impartial, process-focused role in order to improve local communication practices. Drawing on challenges from critical theory and the academy, we offer a nuanced account of what it means to negotiate the tensions between serving an impartial role while also upholding democratic values of equality and inclusion.


Democratic engagement

Passionate impartiality



The scholarship of engagement (Boyer, 1996) has been performed under a variety of names, each of which highlights a particular aspect of the nature of engagement. Barker's (2004) typology-public scholarship, participatory research, community partnerships, public information networks, and civic literacy scholarship-organizes different practices by theory, problems addressed, and methods. Distinctive university-community connections are cultivated within the traditions of service learning, local economic development, community based research, and social work initiatives (Fisher, Fabricant, & Simmons, 2011). Social justice work uses a problem-orientation to gain understanding through research and then advocate based on this understanding (Miller, 2011). In this paper, we focus on what has broadly been called the civic engagement movement, at times going under the terms community engagement, democratic education, education for democracy, and democratic engagement (Hartley, Saltmarsh, Clayton, 2010). Specifically, we explicate the epistemological and political commitments of democratic engagement tied to deliberative democracy.

A foundational tension within the civic engagement movement is how to best negotiate what has been called the "neutrality challenge" (Thomas, Ball, Carcasson, & Shaffer, 2011): how to balance the competing desires to support politically neutral processes while also working for more equitable outcomes. This challenge is often encountered in the classroom where instructors seek to present all sides of an issue (political neutrality) yet advocate for a more just, equitable society (social justice). Peter Levine (2011) connects this challenge to a larger question about the proper relationships between democratic reform and partisanship: do civic reforms have an inherent political ideology? Should democratic reforms-can they-be politically neutral?

Building on the work of John Saltmarsh, Matthew Hartley, and colleagues (Hartley et al., 2010; Saltmarsh & Hartley, 2011; Saltmarsh, Hartley, & Clayton, 2009; Sturm, Eatman, Saltmarsh, & Bush, 2011), we offer a model of democratic engagement informed by a principle for responding to the neutrality challenge. In this essay we provide a model of democratic engagement: the Colorado State University Center for Public Deliberation (CPD).1 We offer the CPD as a model of how a university center can serve as a catalyst that helps the community work together to address difficult public problems by helping design, convene, facilitate, and report on deliberative processes. Through reciprocal and collaborative relationships, this model cultivates mutual benefits for several key stakeholders. …

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