Monthly Archives: October 2013

Participatory public engagement: reshaping what it means to be public?

[text reproduced here first published on new ‘debate, comment and analysis’ section of Participation Now website 30 Oct 2013]

By Nick Mahony and Hilde C. Stephansen, The Creating Publics project, The Centre for Citizenship, Identities and Governance, The Open University, UK.

What is most inspiring but also awkward about the initiatives that we have begun to collect together on the new Participation Now site is their diversity. As researchers who are intrigued by the question of what being active in the public sphere means today, we find this diversity exciting but important to understand if we want to see how these activities might re-shape what it means to be public in the longer term.

We are certainly not the only people engrossed with the potential of participation and public engagement. Three major events (Borders to Cross , The Participatory Condition , and RETHINK Participatory Cultural Citizenship ) this autumn in different countries will add to a longstanding and ongoing set of debates and arguments, some of which have been supported by openDemocracy, both recently (such as the guest week in September 2013 on The Struggle for a Common Life ) and over many years.

One of the best-rehearsed of these debates arises from the sense that democracy is in crisis, and that, as a consequence, deeper and more effective forms of public participation are required. But there are other tributaries to this conversation.

Borne out of experiments with forms of participatory practice, there has been a wide range of rather more local, domain or issue-specific debates about public engagement. Activist groups have a long history of experimenting with participatory modes of organization.

But now many governmental actors are claiming that they too encourage citizen participation in decision-making; art practitioners have demonstrated the appeal of participation as a medium for public intervention. Many of the aforementioned and other actors as well have been testing out the possibilities opened up by new media technologies. Each of them has its own contribution to make.

Participation Now will provide a public platform for researchers, practitioners, students and citizens interested in these developments. Its core contribution is an expanding, freely accessible and easily searchable collection of contemporary participation initiatives. The collection is still in its infancy, but is already starting to reflect the sheer heterogeneity of contemporary ways of practicing public engagement and imagining its possible futures.

Participation Now has been carefully designed to support exploration, debate, critical and creative thinking, networking and innovation. The aim of this new partnership with openDemocracy is to kick-start this process – our hope is that this page will become a hub for conversation and knowledge sharing and exchange.

Exploring the public

As researchers, we have begun to draw on three differently useful ways of approaching and understanding ‘the public’ within the academic literature to help us explore these issues.

One strand of this literature offers a set of tools for calculating what the public is. How do different participatory public engagement initiatives work to organise and represent real, pre-existing publics? Are these real publics local, national or transnational? What makes for a ‘live’ issue? Will it appeal to specific interest groups, demographic segments, or whole populations? How do some initiatives mobilise ‘mini-publics’, representing the (often fluid) concerns and (dynamically shifting) identities of larger and more dispersed populations?

A second strand of this literature considers what the public could or should be. This more normative literature considers issues such as how and where public exchanges should ideally take place; what the role of the public in the polis should be; and the social, economic and cultural conditions that are needed to support an equitable and inclusive ‘public sphere’.

Prompted by this second strand of thinking, we are starting to consider some of the different ways that the assumed desires, capacities and needs of the public today are being supported and channeled by different initiatives; how initiatives go about summoning-up, publicising and shaping specific normative programmes; and how, by doing this, different initiatives offer their own imaginaries of what participatory public engagement could, should (and shouldn’t) be.

A third strand is monitoring the emergent qualities of publics. The focus here is on the capacity that publics can have to generate unpredictable outcomes. Consciously becoming a member of a public may not be confined to realizing certain pre-agreed aims, but might also involve an expectation both of autonomy and for possibilities for collective ‘self-organisation’.

The value of forms of public engagement lies partly in their capacity to generate novel or unanticipated outcomes. This approach takes a particular interest in initiatives that claim to be ‘participant-led’, ‘open’, ‘bottom-up’ or ‘user-driven’. How precisely do these initiatives support forms of indeterminacy and the creation of outcomes not wholly anticipated in advance?

What works: opening up and developing participation

Participation Now offers tools that help investigate these and other lines of enquiry. To the collection of database entries featuring a rapidly growing range of participatory public engagement initiatives, Participation Now has added a search mechanism that offers different ways of identifying particular sets of initiatives, whether by issue, type of organiser, different organisational approaches, or by scale.

In the months ahead, as the site and its functionality develop, we hope it will be used to support many new and eclectic conversations about the public value of different forms of emerging practice.

Our aim is not to collectively develop a ‘technical fix’ or new ‘best practice’ template. Nor do we think a new universally applicable theoretical model, or a political programme for participatory public engagement, is what is required.

Our aim in initiating this project is rather to support the emergence of contextually specific reflections on what works; conversations between actors involved in different domains; and analytical work that looks across different areas of emerging practice to investigate how these developments may (or may not) be re-shaping what it means to be public today. We also want to support critical and creative debate about contemporary forms of participation and public engagement.

In exactly what ways can participation and public engagement address the contemporary crises of democracy, expertise and legitimacy? Who are the actors behind different initiatives and in what ways are they, or are they not, ‘public’ actors? To what extent can such initiatives really be inclusive and transformative (and do they need to be)?

Participation Now is therefore a participatory public engagement initiative in its own right. It has just begun and is open-ended, so we do not yet know how this engagement initiative will turn out or whether it too may somehow contribute to the much longer-term and more collective project of re-shaping what it means to be public. However, we have taken inspiration from the creativity, criticality, hope and excitement that we find in wide-ranging contemporary developments in this area.

We have learnt first hand that participation can be a frustrating, complicated and even exasperating experience, but we have also experienced its pleasures and its possibilities and feel that these too should not be underestimated. We, too, want to try and pre-figure forms of public change.

More practically, we want to know, for example, how certain emerging forms of practice can be adapted, scaled up or made responsive to settings other than the ones in which they were created. What forms of practice are most suited to particular forms of public action? How should emerging developments be subjected to greater public scrutiny?

We grasp the fact that emerging forms of participatory practice will not develop solely as a knock-on effect of scholarly work in this area. As a project, Participation Now, supported by The Open University, wants to contribute to a more collective debate.

This partnership between Participation Now and OpenDemocracy will support different ways of exploring, keeping up with and contributing to these and other such lines of enquiry, pathways of experimentation and debate.

Follow developments on Participation Now: @NowParticipate

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Public memories, public knowledge? Movements, media and shifting formations of publicness

Thursday 7th November, 12.30-14.00
Room NAB 1.14, New Academic Building, London School of Economics

The Publics then, now and beyond network, which was founded at the Open University in June this year, will be kick-starting its 2013-14 ‘travelling seminar series’ with a seminar at the London School of Economics on Thursday 7th November.

The Publics, then now and beyond network is convened by Dr Nick Mahony and Dr Hilde C. Stephansen. It is supported by CCIG’s Publics programme, the Creating Publics project, and the Making Publics Across Time and Space project. The travelling seminar series is also supported by the Faculty of Social Science at the Open University. This seminar is hosted by Media@LSE in collaboration with The Open University and the Publics then, now and beyond network. It will also be part of the Media@LSE Research Dialogues series.

Chair/discussant: Nick Couldry (LSE)
Pollyanna Ruiz (LSE) ‘Memories, secrets and digital archives’
Hilde C. Stephansen (The Open University) ‘Global communication activism and shifting formations of publicness’

About the seminar

This seminar will explore key questions about the making of publics and publicness through the use of media and communications technologies by social movement activists. Focusing on the practices, infrastructures and forms of mediation through which publics are brought into being, it will examine the shifting formations and imaginaries that result from such processes. Moving beyond the more immediate effects of activists’ communication practices on the mobilisation and organisation of protest action, we will consider the potential of such practices to support publics that can facilitate longer-term processes of identity construction, memory formation and knowledge production, at different scales. Papers will explore the uneven and often contradictory dynamics surrounding activists’ communication practices, raising questions about the relationship between ‘mainstream’ and ‘counter’-publics, openness and secrecy, and politics of knowledge.

Memories, Secrets and Digital Archives

Pollyanna Ruiz

This paper will reflect upon these contradictory dynamics surrounding the use of digital archives and in doing so explore the relationship between the past and the present, the activist and the non-activist, the alternative and the mainstream. The digital archive appears to span the ruptures, continuities and discontinuities of contemporary protest by creating a mechanism through which the past is accumulated in the present in order to shape our experiences of the future. According to this view, open archives constitute a space in which contemporary protest movements can draw upon the experience of previous activists and equip themselves with the necessary skills to engage with the mainstream. However digital archives can also be understood as potentially problematic. Archives remove protest discourses from the secure realm of ‘dusty back numbers’, ‘forgotten publications’ and ‘oral interviews with aged political veterans’ (Downing, 2003, p.252) and places protest discourses within a transparent, open and centrally organised system. Consequently digital archives fix, frame and expose alternative ways of thinking which are fragile, untried and still evolving. Digital archives can therefore also be understood as compromising the very existence of counter publics free from the ‘supervision of dominant groups’ (Fraser, 1990, p. 66).
Global communication activism and shifting formations of publicness

Hilde C. Stephansen

This paper explores shifting formations of publicness and globality in the context of the World Forum of Free Media (WFFM) – a process, connected to the World Social Forum (WSF), which aims to support the formation of a global grassroots movement of communication activists. Through a combination of prefigurative politics, organising and campaigning, activists involved in the WFFM are working to achieve the conditions for more democratic public spheres – at local, national and transnational scales. The paper proposes that an emergent version of a decentred ‘global public’ – constituted through a myriad intersecting publics at different scales – is discernible in the WFFM’s efforts to bring together a diversity of actors and media forms under the umbrella term ‘free media’. Such a version of a ‘global public’ contrasts with more liberal – and increasingly institutionalised – notions of publicness implicit in conceptions of the WSF as ‘open space’ or ‘global civil society’. The paper concludes by proposing an understanding of ‘free media’ as central actors in a broader project concerned with ‘cognitive justice’ (Santos) and as informed by an emergent logic of epistemic plurality.

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Public crises, public futures

Co-authored with John Clarke and just published in latest issue of the journal Cultural Studies (Vol. 27, no. 6, 2013) this article begins to map out a novel approach to analysing contemporary contexts of public crisis, relationships between them and possibilities that these scenes hold out for politics. The article illustrates and analyses a small selection of examples of these kinds of contemporary scenes and calls for greater attention to be given to the conditions and consequences of different forms and practices of public and political mediation. In offering a three-fold typology to delineate differences between ‘abject’, ‘audience’ and ‘agentic’ publics the article begins to draw out how political and public futures may be seen as being bound up with how the potentialities, capacities and qualities that publics are imagined to have and resourced to perform. Public action and future publics are therefore analysed here in relation to different versions of contemporary crisis and the political concerns and publics these crises work to articulate, foreground and imaginatively and practically support.

If you’re unable to access this journal, there’s also a preprint PDF version available here.

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