The Centre for Citizenship, Identities and Governance (Open University funded) Creating Publics project investigates what is (and what can be) set in motion by the current intensification of demands for public engagement with social science research. These demands currently come both from the ‘top-down’, from research funders through the ‘impact agenda’ and via HE institutions; and from the ‘bottom-up’ – from activists, practitioners, academics and students resisting higher education reforms and working to realize alternative political agendas; and, from the growing momentum of ‘participatory’; ‘engaged’ and ‘action’ research approaches. There are now significant tensions at the intersection between these and other different contempoary desires, demands and pressures for public engagement.
It is in this context that the three-year (2011-14) Creating Publics project is investigating how competing demands for public engagement are translated, negotiated and enacted in settings of contemporary social science research practice. The project is also working to collaboratively innovate new approaches to, and frameworks for, public engagement with social science research. The aims of the Creating Publics project are to support social science researchers who are looking to mediate and create the publics of their research; and to more clearly codify the conditions, capacities and forms of support required for researchers to experiment in this way.
As well as gaining impetus from the recent intensification of demand for forms ‘publicly engaged’ social science research, the Creating Publics project is also propelled by the need to address significant gaps in the contemporary literature on public engagement, particularly when it comes to conceptualizing its ‘publics’.
Currently the prevailing and most used academic and policy literature on this topic tends to mobilise rather thin understandings of ‘the public’. This work is typically loosely informed by a combination public sphere theory and quantitative social science conceptions of what it means to sample, target, represent or communicate with either the public, or segments of it. Debates about public engagement have not yet been systematically brought into relation and conversation with a body of more recent work on public mediation and public formation.
This work on public mediation and public formation emerges against the background of more familiar and long running philosophical and normative debates concerning the character, purpose, location and historical conditions of ‘public spheres’. It is also informed by a critical engagement with common-sense ideas of the public, many of which are underwritten by long-standing social scientific approaches including public opinion polling, focus groups or public segmentation techniques – whose authority rests on claims to be able to discover and represent what ‘the public’ thinks, feels, believes, is motivated by or is susceptible to at any given moment in time.
In a set of significant respects, a swathe of recent work on publics has made a break from these more established approaches. Its focus has been on the processes through which publics are summoned, formed and mediated and the up-close investigation of how these processes are reliant on, and subject to, varied, contingent and contextually specific processes of translation, support, enactment, reconfiguration and innovation. By researching and relating diverse settings, this work has begun to show how publics, public institutions and public values are constituted, distributed, mediated and set in motion in highly differentiated and often unpredictable ways.
There are two key insights from this work that are of particular relevance to current debates about public engagement with social science:
1. The first insight is that, when conceiving of or enacting forms of public engagement, neither the status of whole publics nor systemic public spheres should be in any way taken for granted.
2. The second insight relates to the importance of mediation and the need to systematically question the feasibility of the prevailing idea that public engagement means working to directly access, interact with or impact publics.
The Creating Publics project is engaged in the process of taking up these insights and translating them into debates and practices concerned with public engagement. Doing this calls for a shift of emphasis: from the current prevailing emphasis on targeting and engaging publics to an emphasis on public mediation and public formation; from an emphasis on communication and dissemination to one on analysing the desirability, use and viability of forms of collaboration, interaction, participation and encounter; and from an emphasis on public representation to one on public creation.
The Creating Publics project is exploring what comes into view when the emphasis is shifted in these ways. It is doing this in order to make a break with a set of dominant, often stolid, reductive and sometimes rather technocratic discourses around public engagement. However, as well as clearing a path for new possibilities, this way of working on the public engagement agenda also raises new questions. The most pressing of these is perhaps the question of whether or not there is actually scope for experimentation with processes of public formation and mediation in contemporary settings of ‘live’ research practice; especially given the ways that current contexts are being shaped by the REF, ‘impact’ and other pre-existing institutional demands?