Defining civic and reconsidering critical theory

This post has been provoked by reading “The Political Web: Media, Participation and Alternative Democracy” by Peter Dahlgren (Kindle edition, 2013) as part of the viva prep.  Rather than a full write up (which I will do at a later date I hope as the book was excellent) its more a set of notes as a basis for a discussion of what I mean when I talk about ‘civic’ participation as this is very much central to my thesis.

I have also been thinking a lot about multidisciplinary working and research as I think its both one of the strengths and a weakness of my thesis.  The weakness is obvious – multidisciplinary work covers breadth rather than depth and this brings with it the risk of a subject expert challenging a particular argument.  However I think the strength outweighs this in a number of ways (which is a good thing as I will need to defend this in the viva) but the one that is most relevant here is the requirement that it makes to examine commonly used terms from different perspectives.  In my work the three terms that get most exercise in this way are ‘space’, ‘identity’ and ‘civic’.

As I look back over my work to date it’s the term civic which requires most discussion because my conclusion points to a need to ‘hold’ this term as sitting in the between space of community activity and political/democratic participation.  Reflecting back on some of the language I used in the thesis I also think I was drawn to use ‘civic’ rather than ‘civil’ or even ‘community’ because of its nuance towards the built environment which is another aspect of civic which I draw on (Parkinson 2012).

Irrespective of what I call it (though I will come back to that definition of terms point) the activity I have been looking at  – informal civic participation online – is drawn on by a number of different disciplines from political theorists (Coleman, Bluhmer), to sociology (Habermas, Wellman, Castells) or broadly speaking political communications (Chadwick, Flinders, Dahlgren and others).  As I write this list I think its striking that very little of the community engagement literature I have looked at is concerned with what’s happening online – but please tell me if there is something I have missed here.

Dahlgren writes about what he calls  “alternative democracy – efforts aimed at attaining social change by democratic means while circumventing electoral politics” (location 129) and in doing isolates the fact that arguing that democratic deficit is a result of either apathy or contentment is ineffective when we have so many people politically engaged outside of the electoral system.  There is much in what he is saying that I will include in a longer piece I want to write on political parties bit in short we can’t call people apathetic when they chose to participate in alternative ways.  The reason I was drawn to his work is the way in which he expands and bends the scope of political participation to include activities and also acknowledges power that is outside of current structures and elites.  This can be found in his discussion of the redefinition of the role of the public intellectual as well as his description of the relationship between civic and political cultures.

However, in capturing this activity he is most specifically looking at political campaigning or activism – not the wider civic participation which I have been concerned with which is wider but less focused.

He discusses the frustrations and the delays and gridlocks of the political process and the way in which the ability to exert direct power (in the form of media and also direct communication) on specific individuals within the democratic process is creating frustration and a break down of trust with a system which (and these are my words not his) is not responsive enough in the face of a more networked society.

In discussing civic participation Dahlgren points out that “The concept of participation is used in a number of different fields and discourses in the social sciences, and its meaning thus remains at times somewhat fluid, varying with the context of its use. (location 345)” .  His concern is with political participation but describes democracy and being something beyond this which is anchored in the cultural patterns of society.  It is in this reference to cultural patterns that he presents a definition of the kind of activity I have been looking at:

“I have elsewhere (Dahlgren, 2009) treated the process as akin to a continuum, where talk can be seen as moving from the pre-political, to the para-political (which manifests races and potential), and then to the full-blown political (location 368)” and goes on to say “Political talk – that actually engages with the political – such as in a face-to-face discussion, or in an online forum or on Facebook, would be seen as participation; it is the enactment of the public sphere, where opinion can take shape (location 372)

There are many ambiguities here as to the boundaries between the political and non-political and there is also an ethical privacy issue around the definition of public space and the degree to which informal civic participation can be considered to be public in the sense of public sphere.  For my purposes I have been considering it to be so (and certainly best practice around online research would say the same) however with increasing concern and sensitivity around surveillance form the state this is not something we can take for granted – especially if one intended purpose is to build trust in the democratic process.

Dhalgren cites Carpentier (2011) who suggests “Participation should remain an invitation – permanently on offer and embedded in balanced power relations – to those who want to have their voices heard’ (Carpentier,2011 (location 385)

Dahgren also says this about the way in which participation online blurs some of these boundaries:

“Participation via the media takes us into social domains beyond the media. Participation in these domains is facilitated by the media, but the focus of engagement lies with the contexts and issues that media connect us to. Increasingly our relation to the social takes this route, hence the contemporary attention accorded to the concept of mediati-sation. A crucial point concerning this concept is that the media never serve as neutral carriers that simply mirror something else, but always, through their various logics and contingencies, impact on the relationship between media user and that which is mediated. Thus, democratic participation via media involves encountering power relations, yet the emergence of the political will always in some manner be shaped by mediasation”(location 426)

[I was also pleased to read Dahlgren drawing the distinction between media based and e- participation and basically excluding it from a discussion of alternative democracy (location 437)]

He discusses the importance of ‘Civic cultures’ that rely on trust between citizens to function as well as communicative spaces where collaboration and the exchange of ideas can take place.  He does not explore the social interactions that are also part of that culture but this is more about scope I think than omission.  He does feel its important that the individual considers themselves to be an civic actor – and this is something that I need to consider more and perhaps draw out in further interviews in the future with civic content creators.  Those I have spoke to (and there are a lot!) certainly consider themselves to be part of a civic culture but I am not sure that they would consider this to be part of a wider political conversation as many of them identify against politics.

While I have drawn some lines between community engagement, political participation and media analysis Dahlgren is more nuanced (as you might expect!) and talks of three ‘challengers’ to the public sphere:  consumption, popular culture, and civil society.   He discusses the way in which these ‘seep’ and influence each other (location 1001).   I have been mulling for a while the role of ‘social’ consumption and services which are not social media but which have the affordances of the participatory culture and so this really solidifies this thought in my mind.

Dahgren’s definition of ‘civil society’ is reassuring close to my own definition of civic and (not in this quote) discusses the porous nature of the relationship between civic and political activity:

With ‘civil society’ I signal a terrain that in some way or other involves free association for a common purpose outside both the market and the private sphere of the home. There are no doubt lingering issues with the concept, but the idea of civil society emphasises that in a democracy people can exercise the freedom to communicate, assemble, and interact in pursuit of their shared interests. This is the foundation for democratic public communication. For instance, dealing with colleagues, communities, associations, and social networks for non-commercial purposes are all a part of civil society. There is an almost infinite realm of participation in meaningful and pleasurable activities around sports, music (e.g. amateur contributions on YouTube), fandom, wikis, and so forth – though it is often not possible to completely keep market logics of consumption out. While the political conflicts may emerge within any such constellation, the idea of civil society suggests that the purposes and goals of such groups need not by definition be directed at politics, and most often are not. However, the freedoms associated with civil society are absolutely essential for democratic public spheres; rather than collapsing the two concepts, I see it as more useful to treat civil society as a prerequisite for public spheres and for democratic political life, a perspective underscored by Cohen and Arato (1992) (location 1023)

He also references Bakardjieva (2010) who uses the term ‘subactivism’ to describe the kind of activity I have been looking at – defined here as “a form of civic preparation among people at moments in everyday life, where norms are questioned, challenged and negotiated, where moral horizons are applied to the social world, where issues of justice are raised – before the political has surfaced or any connections with politics have been made (location 2035)

Why do I find this so useful?  Because it’s a useful counterpoint to the attempt to define civic participation online as being a form of journalism.  Dahgren again brings nuance to the activity of civic actors in the media sphere and the way in which the mainstream media should adjust to incorporate them in a more meaningful way than simply as content sources:

The civic subject is at bottom the human being acting in political contexts, and from the standpoint of theory, humans have proven themselves to be rather slippery creatures who (perhaps fortunately) continue to resist neat and total theoretical enclosures. Yet this is not to say that it does not matter which model(s) of the civic subject we operate with. It does make a difference, and I will try to show the implications in terms of democratic theory of some different versions.(location 2506)

I want to end this quote as I think it draws out  the vibrant nature of informal civic participation and the importance on not constraining it with a mainstream media or political framing:

Adherence to what we might characterise as a ‘straight-jacket’ of rational speech for the civic subject thus undermines the potential richness and vibrancy of political discussion in favour of an illusory ideal, and is likely to actually deflect civic engagement rather than enhance it. Certainly we value the civic subject’s capacity for rationality the closer we come to formal decision-making processes, but subjects characterised by strict rationalism and/or affective incompetence will not enhance the vitality of the public sphere. This is markedly true in the age of Web 2.0, with all its possibilities for creative expression (location 2572)


One comment
  1. the leeds citizen

    November 24, 2013 at 9:31 pm

    Interesting stuff. Subactivists vs journalists. There’s only way to decide! Hope you well.


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