(re)framing “public engagement”



This is from something I wrote a long time ago, but it still seems to have relevance. My writing ‘voice’ betrays its origin in a formal academic publication. However, the notion that academic work and academics’ learning continues in, through and as a public conversation – as opposed to having “impact” or “engagement” – is something I (still) find compelling.

Philosopher Linda Alcoff (2002) offers a comprehensive way of understanding the public obligations of scholarship. She notes that while in countries such as the USA and the UK public intellectual work can be at expense of career/tenure, this not the case in all countries – for example, Latin America has an expectation of scholarly engagement in public life. She argues that public work is devalued in the academy because it is seen as lacking rigor and challenge and often as compromised. But the term public intellectual is equated with elitism and with celebrity intellectuals who have made it onto primetime TV and newspaper columns. She proposes instead the notion of the ‘publicly engaged intellectual… who spends a significant portion of his or her time engaged with the non-academic public (p 524) in more local contexts (p. 525).
Alcoff proposes that there are three ways in which a publicly engaged intellectual can be understood:

  • as a permanent critic. But she says, there are dangers here. Advocacy is not only seen as compromised but is also often worthy of derision. The feminist social critic for example is almost always cast as a moral prude or a closet authoritarian. Therefore the permanent critic may be ineffective. Furthermore, the so-called independence of the university based critic is not necessarily any more intellectually autonomous than those who offer defense of organizations or specific agendas from ‘inside’ ‘Pure neutrality’ she argues, ‘is an illusion that excuses the refusal to engage in self-reflexivity’ (p. 527). And the fear of cooption which is expressed through the advocacy of independence assumes that‘ one can devise a politics free from potential cooptation’ (p. 528). Everyone argues from somewhere she suggests, and it behoves all who claim to speak on behalf of or to the public to consider where that is and what it stands for.
  • as a populariser. Alcoff is more approving of this category of action. A populariser is someone who has taken ideas from the academy and translates them for a wider public. Critics of popularising activities assert that this ‘sacrifices nuance and rigour in favour of clear examples and unambiguous claims’ (p. 528) This idea, Alcoff notes, is based in a normative idea of the academy as a pure monastery cut off from the world. While popularisers are seen as unoriginal and antitheoretical, Alcoff argues that the aim is valuable and need not sacrifice all nuance.
  • as a public theorist. This is Alcoff’s preferred position (and also mine). Alcoff comments that theoretical development and creativity do not just happen ‘back at the monastery‘ (p. 530) but happen in most walks of life. She argues for a notion of ‘doing theory in public’ (p. 531). As she puts it:

The public arena can be a space where intellectual work is done, where problems emerge to be addressed, and where knowledge and experience are gained that can address a variety of issues, such as speaking for others, labor/academic alliances, public and democratic deliberation, the nature of white or male supremacy and heterosexual … one can receive vital feedback (p. 530)

This is public activity in which one is simultaneously teaching and learning (p. 533) and contra to the view that what happens in public is the corruption of academic rigour, Alcoff suggests the reverse:

…publicly engaged work is actually one of the BEST sites from which to engage in at least certain kinds of intellectual work, not because one is merely applying and testing theory developed in the academy to the public domain nor because one can simply gather raw data from which to build theory, but rather because the public domain is sometimes the best or only place in which to alter one’s thoughts… and thus to engage in intellectual work. (p 533).

Alcoff conceives of knowledge ‘transfer’ or ‘mobilisation’, not as transmission, but as the testing of metaphors, beliefs and theories in and with the public. She sees the public domain as more than a sphere ‘for gathering data, proselytizing or popularizing’ (p. 534) but as a site where there can be reciprocity, conversations, debates and mutual respect.

This is a far cry from thinking that all we need to do with our research is to write a public engagement plan – a plan for how to tell various publics what we’ve done, and the implications for them, not us. 


Alcoff, L. M. (2002). Does the public intellectual have intellectual integrity? Metaphilosophy, 33(5), 521-534.