Public Engagement Symposium.

Discourses of Public Engagement Symposium. 20th September 2012.

This half-day symposium addressed the practical, theoretical and conceptual issues and challenges arising from researching public engagement. The aim of the workshop was twofold. Firstly to bring together a number of projects actively investigating forms of public engagement in order to identify common themes and issues. Our second aim was to ask what engagement could, should and does look like particularly within the framework of communities and culture. Indeed, from creative co-curation, innovation or production, to leisure forms and practices, from action groups to civic consultation, public engagement has become a catch-all phrase that is meant to encapsulate many practices including communication, participation and empowerment. It is also a term that has been used to refer to service and information delivery, creative performance and iterative dialogue between communities, groups and individuals.

The half-day symposium included a number of representatives from a range of ongoing research projects all investigating forms of engagement including:

  • Catalyst: Citizens Transforming Society: Tools for Change (EPSRC)
  • Media, Community and the Creative Citizen Project (AHRC Connected Communities)
  • Understanding Everyday Participation (AHRC Connected Communities)
  • Cultural Intermediation in the Creative Urban Economy (AHRC, Connected Communities)
  • Public Engagement and Cultures of Expertise (Digital Economy Communities and Culture Network+)

One of the issues to come out of the workshop was the need to carefully identify communities not in relation to some sort of deficit (an assumption usually embedded in the rhetoric of public engagement) but in terms of already connected and perhaps even meaningfully organized. As many of the projects demonstrated, engagement is in part defined through the conceptualization of the community, and the latter definition shapes the understanding and approach to the former.  This constructs public engagement less as an ideology, and more as a method or approach. Public engagement becomes the means through which communities are engaged with, rather than the object of enquiry.  To some extent this allows for the multifaceted understanding of the term, but it also reconceptualizes it as something other than a civic or societal aim, a facet of democracy, or an ideological imperative. Instead it embeds a problematic power relation into method and approach – a power relation that constructs the public in a particular way (most notably, as lacking) and engagement in another (as data mining, as service delivery, as single statement or iteration). It also introduces a paradox – one where ‘public’ is seen as a collective, a group, a place/space, or a network; but engagement is seen in individual terms, and singular experiences are extrapolated and then returned to ‘benefit’ the public.

This is not a new issue – but it is one that technology seems to have exacerbated rather than resolved. Partly this is because of the discourses embedded in new technology particularly around the user-as-autonomous/individual, partly it is because technology is already embedded in these power relations so it is naïve to think it can resolve them. Public Engagement becomes a simultaneously reductive and expansive term – one that is appropriated in many different ways for different purposes. One of the continuing questions then, is the extent to which this matters: what does it mean for society, for research and for ideologies of democracy, if public engagement can be made to mean in so many different ways? Has this always been the case or do we want to make a claim of the civic, democratic or even legislative ideas underpinning the term?  Finally, if public engagement is a tool or an approach to communities, then is there not a danger that we find evidence of its’ supposed success or failure in those tools used, rather than in continued or iterative engagement or participation? In the era of digital media, does this not return us to a technological determinism, oversimplifying engagement as delivery or representation?