Monday, 25 November 2013

A month of thinking and writing about democracy

Image credit: University of Brighton
I've been doing a lot of writing elsewhere this month, so it's been a bit quiet on the Topograph. This is partly because of my position as a news editor on the Royal Geographical Society's Geography Directions blog, which involves writing posts twice a month which relate current news stories to perspectives from papers in the archives of the RGS journals. It's been a great experience so far, but can sometimes sap my energy for other writing. I've also been commissioned to write a few extra posts by some other research blogs who have picked up on my work.

Though there was no clear project or agenda in my head when I was working on these different posts, I realise now that I have unwittingly been working through some of my thoughts about the nature of the democracy and representations of 'the public'. And this has in turn been very helpful in redrafting a paper I am about to submit to a journal, focussing on democratic practice. So this post is my attempt to synthesise and crystalise some of these thoughts for your perusal and responses and with one eye on my thesis write up which will start in January.

My perspectives on democracy have been strongly shaped by the time I spent studying with STS scholar Sheila Jasanoff, and her constant reminders that democracy is what W. B. Gallie would have called an essentially contested concept. That is a concept which is widely used and recognised with a basic definition holding together its users, but its ultimate meaning is vague and contested, with no agreement on its essential components. Therefore I am not concerned with holding up ideals of democratic practice, against which to assess the government practices I study. Rather I am interested in democracy as an object struggled and contested over in multiple contexts - constantly being made and remade by those who strive for it, and those making claims to democraticness.

I tried to bring this stance out in this piece I wrote for the Democratic audit blog about attempts to institutionalise practices of public participation in UK science policy (this piece was also later re-posted on the LSE Impact blog framed more as a story about the use of 'evidence' in policy making). I described different developments within the organisation Sciencewise - the government's public participation body which runs public dialogues around decisions in science policy - as a series of experiments in democratic engagement, each trying to improve on the last in an attempt to grapple with the complex and shifting terrains of UK citizens and science policy.

I have also been trying to bring a similar form of analysis to bear on the recent debates around open government and open policy. In a piece for my research group's blog, the Merton Stone, I talked about the potential for the discourse of open policy, which has been taken up strongly by parts of the British government, to create space for the development of more radical and inclusive forms of democracy. I argued that whilst the idea of open government has offered a useful way in to policy discussions for civil society actors and advocates of more 'direct democracy', its still ambiguous and contested defitinion is both an opportunity and a danger to such groups; where government claims to openness may be made against a very different set of assumptions and goals, and could act to close down other possible forms of democratic practice.

I offered a similar caution in this piece on the Geography Directions blog where I warned academics and other analysts not to assume the existence of novel democratic practices without further empirical study of the 'new openness' of open data, open access, crowd sourcing and the rest. Drawing on earlier scholarship around the decline of localism in the late 1990s, the post argued that innovations in democratic practice often display more continuities than differences despite the radical potential of new practices and technologies.

In another Geography Directions post I used the example of the mobile phone to illustrate how new technologies simultaneously have the potential to empower and enrich personal freedoms, as was discussed around the Arab Spring, but also to enable forms of control and surveillance, as illustrated by the recent NSA revelations and other news stories.

The final strand of my various writings this month has been to think about the various techniques which governments use to know their citizens in the name of democracy. In this post on the Geography Directions blog I explored how techniques like public opinion polling and focus groups are used to create certain stable representations of public views and attitudes, with diverse impacts. I argued that these techniques create representations which are highly conditioned by the framing of the issue and the choice of method,  and that they can be used both to bring out the 'public voice' and hold government actors to account, but also to close down or even close off areas of public debate.

I developed this argument in my most recent post, which is part of the new partnership between the comment site openDemocracy and the Open University project Participation Now. In this piece I explored how different kinds of publics are created and mobilised through diverse techniques for knowing about citizens, from protest to opinion polls or public dialogues, around the issue of fracking. I argued that it was not possible or helpful to identify the technique which offered the best or truest representation of UK citizens. Rather it is more important to be aware of how all of these publics have been conditioned by the techniques which made them and to anticipate how they might be taken up to empower, exclude and transform in various political struggles.

1 comment:

  1. Its been good blog and i hope it will be a good sample for democracy writing..