How can theories of the public help actual or prospective engagers respond to proliferating demands for engagement? Well, just as with publics themselves, the theoretical literature on the topic of the public certainly does not speak with one voice. This literature also does not offer engagers an uncontested set of guidelines regarding how the public can be understood, what the public is, or should be, or how it needs to be addressed or engaged. What this theoretical literature nevertheless certainly does offer the engager is an extremely rich stock of ideas, debates and resources. In my own work I’ve found it helpful to make a distinction between three strands of this literature on the public.
The first of these strands is concerned with the enumeration of publics. This work offers techniques that claim to allow researchers to accurately and objectively investigate, quantify and represent characteristics of a public. These techniques take many forms, including surveys, segmentations and polls. They are used for a wide variety of purposes including social marketing, communications and behaviour change and campaigning.
The second strand of the literature is geared to the development of normative frameworks (and counterfactual idealisations) of the public. This work, which has primarily been undertaken in the domain of political philosophy, is preoccupied with: what the capacities, or virtues, of public actors should be; the problem of how (around which norms, values and practices) the public should be constituted/enacted; and, the problem of what democratic role the public can or should play (e.g. in issue formation, public-policy making or decision-taking).
The third strand of the literature is one that has given rise to non-essentialist approaches to understanding publics. Rather than offering techniques for representing actually existing publics, or privileging normative theories of what the public should ideally be, non-essentialist accounts offer analytical resources for exploring how versions of the public are constituted, mediated, supported or contested in particular time-frames and within and across diverse settings of practice.
I have found that distinguishing between these three strands of the literature on the public can help to open out a certain kind of space for thinking about engagement. This is a space in which engagers can pragmatically consider the effects of (intentionally or inadvertently) taking up or making use of particular sets of ideas, or versions of, the public (and not taking up others). These different sets of theoretical resources are not mutually exclusive but they are now differentially useful, in my view. In a contemporary context where ideas and versions of the public are multiple, shifting and unsettled, my view is that non-essentialist approaches may provide the most valuable starting point for engagers who are looking to think about the publics of public engagement.
The work I’m involved in at the moment points to how ideas of and ways of being public can develop in and through engagement; emerging, gaining credibility, substance and momentum through interactions between the engager and the engaged. Normative and enumerative approaches can provide a very valuable contribution here, whether this is by aiding the engager with processes of reflection or evaluation; or by helping to track what happens, where and when in a particular setting. Enumerative or normative approaches do not therefore necessarily need to be used to provide an overarching theoretical framework that drives or legitimizes a given engagement process. Perhaps quite the contrary is now true? As if new and possibly more generative ways of being public are to be supported in the current context, these are perhaps more likely to emerge as a result of more distributed, situated and on-going collective processes.