Research Article: Conceptualizing 20 years of engaged scholarship: A scoping review

Date Published: February 28, 2018

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Marianne Beaulieu, Mylaine Breton, Astrid Brousselle, Fiona Harris.


Engaged scholarship, a movement that has been growing steadily since 1995, offers a new way of bridging gaps between the university and civil society. Numerous papers and reports have been published since Boyer’s foundational discourse in 1996. Yet, beyond a growing interest in orienting universities’ missions, we observed a lack a formal definition and conceptualization of this movement. Based on a scoping review of the literature over the past 20 years, the objective of this article is to propose a conceptualization of engaged scholarship. More specifically, we define its values, principles, and processes. We conclude with a discussion of the implications of this new posture for faculty and students, as well as for the university as an institution.

Partial Text

The use and relevance of evidence produced by research are a major concern for researchers and, increasingly, for universities. There are several reasons for this: the impermeable wall between public policies and scientific knowledge [1, 2], the increasingly utilitarian view of the university’s mission [3], and increased scepticism in the public around certain areas of scientific consensus [4], among others.

We conducted a scoping review, which “is a form of knowledge synthesis that addresses an exploratory research question aimed at mapping key concepts, types of evidence, and gaps in research related to a defined area or field by systematically searching, selecting and synthesizing existing knowledge” [10, p.1293-1294]. We followed the five-stage framework proposed by Arksey and O’Malley [11]: 1) identifying the research question; 2) searching for relevant studies; 3) selecting studies; 4) charting the data; and 5) collating, summarizing, and reporting results. To these stages, Arksey and O’Malley [11] add an optional sixth, which involves consulting with stakeholders to inform or validate study findings.

In this section, we present the values and principles underlying engaged scholarship, as well as the processes put forward in the literature in which it is conceptualized.

Our analysis of the conceptual literature on engaged scholarship, and more specifically, on its underlying values and principles, and on its implications at the individual and institutional levels, sheds new light on this movement. Engaged scholarship is a new academic paradigm that affects not only the researcher’s role, but also those of the student and the university in society. In fact, recent years have seen significant changes in the academic environment. It is now widely recognized that, for faculty, working in isolation has become outdated and collaborating with other settings has become essential. As such, new streams are emerging that offer alternatives to traditional scientific approaches. Joining the engaged scholarship movement means voluntarily abandoning a paradigm of objective, neutral, and apolitical science for an engaged paradigm, in which problems under study are presented in new ways and innovative solutions are legitimized. Calling into question faculty’s neutrality and objectivity [17] is, in fact, a reaction to the more traditional post-positivist perspective. Therefore, “[community-engaged scholarship] reflects a differing epistemological basis and a wider set of values, goals, skills, and results” [40, p.65]. It suggests that the faculty role is not limited to knowledge production but expands to becoming “actors” of change who participate actively in creative intellectual activities with various stakeholders [21]. This unusual position requires engaging in knowledge production and building partnerships that foster knowledge and resource exchanges with civil society with a view to democratizing knowledge [24, 42]. It thus involves broadening academic functions [60] and supposes a decentralized expertise outside universities to formulate solutions for reducing the gap between scientific knowledge (university) and practice (civil society). To do so, “faculty members can create knowledge that contributes to civic development; teach and train people in areas of civic expertise; aggregate knowledge to make it more useful to civic agencies; disseminate knowledge to broad public and professional audiences; [and] advocate on issues” [21, p.12]. Engaged faculty seek actively to contribute to the common good through a variety of means that fall within their researcher and professor roles, but also their role of citizen, which they consider intrinsic to the others.

Engaged scholarship appears to represent a turning point in what it means to be an academic today. This scoping review of the literature on engaged scholarship over the past two decades shows that the movement is not anecdotal, and that it is based on solid, coherent, and complementary foundations. Our analysis clarified the roles of faculty, students, and the university in society, the values underlying them, and the principles that support not only teaching and research, but also service activities. Our analysis indicates that this posture relies on institutional support in various forms (mission, reward structure, logistical support, support to students) to facilitate this role, to give greater exposure to engagement activities, and especially to ensure that faculty who adopt this posture are not penalized. This review has raised other questions that merit closer examination. Is it possible for faculty to adopt an engaged posture in a non-supportive environment? Can one become an engaged researcher without institutional support, and if so, at what cost? Should engaged scholarship be supported by a community? If so, which one—that of the society partners, or a community of faculty? Our analysis provides a clearer picture of the actors’ roles and responsibilities. We see that engaged faculty and students are the essential link between an institution—the university—and civil society. The interfaces between these two poles call for further exploration. Beyond discourse or theoretical principles, it would be important to identify the most promising practices, at both the institutional and individual levels, to actually achieve the ultimate objective, which is to influence and contribute to the well-being of our societies. Our contribution here has been to offer a conceptualization of this growing movement of engaged scholarship as a foundation for exploring its meaning in greater depth, analyzing its implementation in academic contexts, and further examining its specific features in comparison with other emerging movements aimed at giving scientific knowledge a greater role in building our society.




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