Creating publics, opening democracies: introducing the week

Calls for democracy echo around us, but what kind of democracy are people calling for? Some focus on the accountability of government to represent the people, while others are demanding new forms of access to democratic participation. Both of these demands hinge on another idea: publicness - that is, how issues are made visible as questions of collective concern, how resources are shared and how collective decisions are made. 

The world around us is in the grip of multiple crises—economic and political cultures that gave rise to global capitalism are buckling under the financial, social, and environmental tensions that are paradoxically created by it. Waves of collective action are responding to these challenges, emerging, swelling and crashing from both expected and unexpected places and from familiar and unfamiliar publics. 

Calls for democracy echo around us, but what kind of democracy are people calling for? Some focus on the accountability of government to represent the people, while others are demanding new forms of access to democratic participation. Both of these demands hinge on another idea: publicness - that is, how issues are made visible as questions of collective concern, how resources are shared and how collective decisions are made.

It is clear that we can’t speak of democracy without speaking of ‘the public’: democracy needs its citizens and requires a public ethos. However, the wide-ranging political tensions witnessed in recent years have brought into being multiple and diverse publics; the relationship between democracy and publics is a complex one; and the publics that raise democratic concerns are many and varied. 

A shared interest in these themes led to participants from a range of social science disciplines including anthropology, political science, sociology, media studies, social policy and geography and from countries including Austria, Canada, Denmark, the Netherlands, Poland, Sweden, the UK and USA to come together for a two-day workshop in June 2012. This week we have presented a selection of their cutting edge work on a range of cases.

The shared starting point is the observation that many of our most tried and tested ways of thinking about publicness, like those of ‘public services’, ‘the general public’, ‘public spheres’ and ‘public spaces’, are not up to the job of understanding contemporary developments. The contributions explore how public entities are being formed in different contexts; the conditions of possibility of different kinds of contemporary public action; and how innovative possibilities for public engagement and future publicness are being resourced.

Power is a crosscutting concern, both in terms of the ability to act collectively and in the sources of legitimacy. We return again and again to questions of how people in their various contexts are challenging existing conditions or confronting the barriers that prevent involvement in collective decisions. How exactly are collective decisions made through the forms of direct democracy being enacted in public spaces? What are the divisions of labour and other forms of mediation involved in such practices? What ways of being public are authorized or viewed as insurgent? How are people using public institutions to represent conflicting social interests? When does the inclusion of groups and issues within public institutions become a form of co-option or exclusion? Power is also discussed in terms of legitimacy and authority. In our crisis-ridden times, how are we looking to the street or to professionals to create or validate new social practices or policies? What kinds of events, processes or performances are being used to establish public independence, create public visibility, make a public drama or generate credibility for new public endeavours?

The workshop ‘Creating publics, creating democracies’ was co-organised by Nick Mahony, Susan Pell, Liza Griffin and John Clarke and involved a collaboration between The Publics Research Programme, which is situated in The Open University’s Centre for Citizenship, Identities and Governance; the Centre for the Study of Democracy at Westminster University; and, the Centre for the Study of Global Media and Democracy at Goldsmiths College.

Nick Mahony introduces this week's guest contributors:

This Monday, we began with three contributions that trouble commonplace idealisations of ‘the public’. Ludek Stavinova shone a light on the elusive spectre of the public that haunts contemporary global trade politics. Britta Ohm reflected on some of the wider-ranging implications of the anti-democratic public that emerged during the Gujarat Pogrom of 2002. Christoph Haug tackles the thorny subject of how forms of public action geared towards achieving consensus inevitably involve an element of coercion. 

Andrew Byerley and Jonas Bylund followed with a story set on Toboggan Hill, Tanto park in Stockholm, to explore how and why a certain amount of friction is a requirement in public life if publics are to exist at all; while Helen Graham unfolded a recent museum experiment enquiring whether human courtesy isn’t a better basis than rights for reimagining our public services. 

On Wednesday, Hilde Stephansen explored how participants in the World Social Forum make use of media and communication practices to create publics and globalize politics; and in her piece on the creation of publics, Marian Bredin examined how Aboriginal people in Canada made their own media to network and develop opportunities to participate in national political culture, after a housing crisis video was circulated on YouTube. 

Marianne Maeckelberg continues the series, by reflecting on how emerging practices of ‘horizontal’ democracy, most recently developed in the context of Occupy, attempt to realize new and more profound forms of equality by embracing diversity and conflict. Liza Griffin brings it to a close by analysing how fishers and our common fisheries are being re-imagined in the EU’s proposals to reform our common fisheries policy: this attack under way on the earth’s ‘commons’ should be subjected, she says, to a much more wide-ranging democratic and public debate. 

This guest week launches an ongoing discussion on 'Creating publics' on openDemocracy. Watch this space.

This article is part of the Creating Publics, Opening Democracies partnership, funded by the Open University. Read more about openDemocracy's editorial partnerships programme.

About the authors

Liza Griffin is a lecturer at the Bartlett's Development Planning Unit at UCL. She writes about environmental politics and the governance of 'wicked problems'. Liza is also currently exploring and critiquing the concept of resilient communities.

John Clarke works at the Open University. He is currently involved in research and writing collaborations on governing public services, public making, and citizenship disputes.

Nick Mahony is a Research Fellow in the Centre for Citizenship, Identities and Governance and PoLIS at the Open University. He leads the ‘Creating Publics’ and Participation Now projects and is Director of CCIG’s Publics Research Programme. Nick’s research focuses on the mediation and formation of contemporary publics and emerging forms of public participation. He has a background in design and social science.

Susan Pell has conducted research on publics, democracy, and knowledge production as a visiting fellow at Goldsmiths College, funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Council of Canada.