Keywords for the Age of Austerity 13: Engagement

On Detroit Future City and the limits of so-called “participatory planning.”

“Community engagement” and “civic engagement” are phrases that first appear in English sometime in the mid-1950s, according to Google’s ngram database.  Before then, one might naively assume, there was no need for the thing, like the  cliché about camels not showing up in the Koran, and so the concept became popular once everyone noticed it missing. Yet the basic problem—political atomization and fraying community ties—is not new or unique to our times. What particular meaning, then, does the word “engagement” have for us now?


The term “civic engagement” is usually attributed to Robert Putnam’s influential 1995 Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, which argued that American civic life had deteriorated since roughly the 1950s, the dawn of “community engagement” as a term in print. Putnam’s basic argument was that Americans had become less likely to join community organizations, from the PTA to the Elks to neighborhood bowling leagues, and more likely to join passively when they do, by writing an annual check or signing a petition.

The argument, at least in these broad strokes, isn’t new. The sociologists Robert Staughton Lynd and Helen Merrel Lynd discussed the problems of “apathy,” “standardization,” and “isolation” in Muncie, IN in their famous book 192X book Middletown: A Study in Modern American Culture. For them, “apathy” referred to a lack of class  consciousness and political participation, while “standardization” and “isolation” pointed to the regularization or deterioration of social forms of leisure. So back in your Granddaddy’s day, the neighbors always used to visit more.

Putnam and others in the sociology and management studies world use civic engagement roughly synonymously with “social capital,” a dreadful phrase that itself encapsulates a broader trend many of these keywords document: the quantification and commodification of both virtue and social life. One goes to church for salvation, fellowship, and “social capital,” and not necessarily in that order.

“Social capital,” says the World Bank, “refers to the institutions, relationships, and norms that shape the quality and quantity of a society’s social interactions.” Meanwhile, the Kennedy School of Government—I’m still waiting for my job interview—writes:

Social capital refers to the collective value of all “social networks” [who people know] and the inclinations that arise from these networks to do things for each other [“norms of reciprocity”]…The term social capital emphasizes not just warm and cuddly feelings [No, it doesn’t—ed.] but a wide variety of quite specific benefits that flow from the trust, reciprocity, information, and cooperation associated with social networks. Social capital creates value for the people who are connected and, at least sometimes, for bystanders as well.

It’s an example of the proliferation of metaphorical “capital” (which supposedly “produces” metaphorical “value”) in academic and non-profit jargon. (“Human capital” is especially odious for the way in which it unwittingly recapitulates the traffic in humans as capital.) 

These may be an attempt, as the sociologist Claude Fischer suggests, to claim for the softer social sciences the prestige of economists. It also reflects the way in which formerly informal, individual, or creative forms of work, thought, and life—simply everyday neighborliness, formal cooperation, creativity itself—can be mined for whatever “value” they hold. So civic or community engagement is, in this sense, a measurable assessment of social interaction. The “engagement of the community,” as one often hears, refers to a community’s participation in its affairs. (I often use the word as a synonym for “participation” on my syllabi, with the idea that it emphasizes a collective responsibility for a class’ success).

“To engage” is also used to connote some action taken withthe public, as in “to engage the community in x.”


As with “innovation,” the noun is often used abstractly, with no clear object of the engagement nor subject doing the engaging. Take, for or example, the mission statement of the grant-making Knight Foundation, which funds arts and other projects in Detroit to promote “community success by supporting civic innovation, founded on robust civic engagement.”

The need for more “robust engagement” presumes, of course, that there isn’t enough of it, and perhaps that there used to be more, once. Why that might be is a longer story that depends on how you define the concept, but I think it’s no accident that “engagement” thrives in a moment of polarization and demobilization. The word and its usage simultaneously expresses a democratic faith in collective participation and a hierachical faith in individualization, a contradictory combination that a more detailed reading of its use might clarify.

The Oxford English Dictionary gives a broad set of definitions for “engage” and “engagement,” but all of them involve some sense of a formal covenant, a contract, or a conflict: the marriage contract, some other legal agreement, or a military “engagement” between armies. (It is this last meaning, of course, that Capt. Picard is drawing upon.)

However, it’s hard to find one that suits the way many civic institutions routinely use the word, as participation or “buy-in.” The participatory idealism that Putnam’s “civic engagement” summons for us belongs to obsolete meanings: “the fact of being entangled,” for example, last common in the 16th century.  Others point to the talents of charm—“to gain, win over, attach by pleasing qualities”—a kind of seduction. “If you engage his heart,” wrote the Earl of Chesterfield in 1751, “you have a fair chance for imposing upon his understanding.” “To engage” here has an explicitly social yet also manipulative meaning.

For a specific example, let’s look at Detroit Future City, the strategic framework for the city’s planners, released in 2012 after 4 years of research. The project drew on the technical expertise of urban planners from around the country and was shaped decisively, or so the report claims, by the “engagement” of average Detroiters. The plan’s basic premise is that given Detroit’s vast surplus of idle public land, property development and the attraction of entrepreneurial investment will be the material basis of the future city. From the beginning of the report, one can read an anxiety about anticipated criticism of the urban planning process by a citizenry with a deep historical memory of destructive, racist urban renewal initiatives of the past. Words like “collaborative,” “collective,” and “engagement” appear throughout the report. The first paragraph emphasizes that the project “has been a collective journey, inviting diverse input from technical experts within Detroit and around the world and, most importantly, the community experts and everyday citizens.”

For an example of what the “strategic vision” of the DFC seems to define itself against, see this excerpt from a film that has circulated widely online. Detroit: A City on the Move was produced in 1965 in a clumsy predecessor of the more successful city-branding campaigns pioneered by New York City a decade later. In the section below, narrated by the doomed liberal mayor, Jerry Cavanaugh, urban planners emerge as the stars of the show, manipulating buildings around a scale model of the city like chess players arranging their moves.

Note the allusion, first of all, to a “resurgence” and a “renaissance,” an acknowledgment of Detroit’s post-war economic slump and a reminder to local reporters and headline writers that skepticism of “rebirth” metaphors should really be one’s default position when writing about the city.“Planning with a Purpose” is the credo: efficiency and progress, not engagement and innovation, are the bywords here. So in the move from grandiose “renaissances” to humbler “revivals,” from linear “progress” to speculative “innovation,” from the birds-eye view of “efficiency” down to street-level “engagement,” we can see the retreat from the “master plan,” with its top-down initiatives and illusions of control. But a retreat to what?

Detroit Future City proposed a more inclusive planning process with this history in mind. My friend Joshua Akers, a geographer at U-M Dearborn, recounts how embattled and stage-managed the “engagement” process was in a forthcoming article. After the first meetings drew large crowds  angry about poor city services, later events were carefully stage-managed: emcees ran the floor, and  audience participation was technologized in various ways. Attendees were given clickers that allowed them to “vote” on choices presented to them: did they think that education, for example, was their neighborhood’s greatest priority, or was it jobs or transportation? (There was no button for all of the above). There were in-person film booths where residents could record messages, and an interactive video game, called Detroit 24/7, which is regrettably no longer available to play online.

Regardless of the intentions of the project’s organizers—and the move away from authoritarian models of imposed reform seems laudable enough—what happened in practice is that community “engagement” is managed to suit expert models, rather than the expert models being shaped by popular participation. In the final report, community comments appear regularly in the form of pull-quotes, usually designed as a speech bubble from some silhouetted figure. See, for example, this comment on two of the report’s neighborhood typologies:


“Green Residential” and “Live+Make” are not Alexandra’s terms but the planners’. The mysterious Alexandra is simply saying whether they seem like a good idea or not.

Engagement as “participation” suggests a dynamic, two-way exchange, but Lord Chesterfield’s motivated seduction is clear in the DFC’s own explanation of their term: “Why engage?” the authors ask. You might wonder why a planning document of an ostensibly democratic polity even has to ask, but here’s what they say:

Civic engagement yields lasting benefits. This is true of any development endeavor or long-term initiative, including the Detroit Strategic Framework. Here’s why: first, civic engagement helps strengthen and expand the base of support for a given effort. More people become informed, activated and mobilized through engagement efforts. Opposition is less likely because concerns are addressed within the process. […] 

Lastly, and perhaps most significantly for the Strategic Framework, civic engagement actually improves the substance or content of an initiative. An effort that has been supported by civic engagement will more accurately reflect the ideas of the people it affects… (327)

What is rather bluntly acknowledged here is that engagement is valuable because it blunts opposition and strengthens support—in other words, it’s political and performative. What is important is that it feels rewarding to an audience. While the report concludes by arguing that “engagement” improves the work,  it’s hard not to read this second paragraph as a mere gesture, with the intentions laid out in the first.

The point of engagement in this sense is not to involve the public in making decisions, but make them feel involved in decisions that others will make. That this may be done with the best of intentions is important, of course, but ultimately besides the point. Like “stakeholder,” “engagement” thrives in a moment of political alienation and offers a vocabulary of collaboration in response. So if civic engagement is in decline, one thing that is not is the ritualistic performance of civic participation. The annual election-cycle ritual in American politics is a case in point here. In one populist breath, we routinely condemn the corruption of politicians who, it is said, never listen to the average voter. And in the next, we harangue the average voter for failing to participate in a process we routinely describe as corrupted. So it’s not the “apathy” or “disengagement” of the public that we should lament or criticize—it’s the institutions that give them so many reasons to be disengaged in the first place.


Engagement and participation: defined here as informing the public about the project