Subprojects | Concluded Projects

Doing Mini-publics: the translocalisation of politics


Since the 1970s, “deliberative mini-publics” have spread across the globe. As part of a larger movement to innovate democracy, this interactional model is based on moderated processes of deliberation among a group of representatively sampled citizens with the aim to realise Habermas’ theory of communicative action in specific situations. Our research project Doing mini-publics: the translocalisation of politics takes this example of organising citizen participation as a case study in order to address broader issues: What is the relevance of ‘knowledge spaces’ for late modern politics? How do expert-led articulations of policy models actually shape political reality? How do certain models that describe what politics is and how it is to be done actually circulate? How are citizen-selves and imaginaries of politics (re)produced by these models and their enactment? We argue that the network of sites, in which different versions of the ‘mini-publics’ model are developed and deployed, constitutes a new space of democratic culture cutting across and interfering with various regionally established cultures of politics. This newly constituted space includes sites, where the model is applied in actual deliberation processes, as well as sites, where it is scientifically theorised and experimented with, or negotiated as professional standard, or even marketed as a tool for policy-makers. For the sake of studying the emerging translocal knowledge spaces of politics, we will depart from approaches of “experimental world-making” and “mediation” (in science and technology studies), and from studies on “policy mobilities”, “translations”, and “translocal assemblages” (in praxeologically inclined globalisation studies). We will follow the model of deliberative mini-publics as it moves and transforms through different contexts, and analyse how practices of doing deliberative mini-publics are linked across various sites on a material and discursive level, and how these translocal connections shape local practices and in turn theories about participation. Our research project in practice In order to understand how the model of mini-publics circulates, we will combine ethnography and discourse analysis in an innovative methodological approach, situated within a broader pragmatist and practice-theoretical perspective on social life and on questions about how complexes of practice become constituted across time and place. We plan to do ethnographic field studies in three different places where work is undertaken to develop and articulate the procedure of doing mini-publics (e.g. research projects, professional capacity building, formulation of best practice standards at commissioning institutions like the EU), and in four contexts of implementation (across different politico-cultural contexts in Europe, USA, Africa, Asia). This multi-sited and mobile ethnography addresses the following issues: How does procedural knowledge for doing mini-publics travel? How are practices connected through the circulation of (a) experts and moderators with embodied skills and sensitivities, (b) metaphors, concepts and rules, and (c) material artefacts like communication technology, or templates for seating arrangements, or even invitation letters? The discourse-analytical dimension of our project focuses on the representation of important places and spatial arrangements within which the mini-publics model is developed and applied, and which configure the ways in which it circulates. Second, it addresses how the implementation of mini-publics events is prefigured by discursive practices. To answer these questions, we will analyse widely circulating texts in the field of mini-publics as well as documents and interviews gathered during field visits. The combination of discourse analysis and ethnography serves to analyse the relation between the discursive and material construction of space through circulation, and is a contribution to recent methodological debates about discourse-ethnography. In addition, a database registering mini-publics projects from the 1970s to the present will be established. This allows us to geographically map the spreading of mini-publics practices over time and describe how the circulation of people, documents and artefacts connects practices in different locations. The objective is to analyse how a translocal community of democratic practice gradually evolves, how internal relations of power are shaped, and how this impacts the local political cultures with which the community interacts. In other words, we want to study mini-publics as a democratic innovation “in the making”, i.e. with regard to the practical work that goes into the articulation, establishment and spreading of a new technology of democracy – and with a view to the ontological assumptions that are inscribed in its design and acted out by its implementation.