When it comes to public engagement, many advocate for ‘shared definitions and frameworks’. Nick Mahony explores what the obstacles are to achieving this in practice and why the debates are unlikely to de-escalate any time soon. Rather than focusing on an unlikely agreement, the real challenge is of generating public-centric approaches to engagement in the current context of an undefined ‘public’.

There always seems to be a moment, at least during the events about public engagement that I attend, when a call is made for a ‘shared definition and framework’. I’ve seen these calls emerge out of disagreements about what constitutes public engagement; watched them pop up when conversations turn to the subject of how to evaluate public engagements’ value, impact or effects; and, heard them arise in response to disputes over whether public engagement is a genuine academic concern. It is easy to see the allure of such calls. The prospect of a shared definition and framework for public engagement seems to offer engagers and publics (as well as those interested in engagements value and effectiveness) the possibility of a clear, collectively agreed upon structure for communication across differences; for interaction and dialogue (and even the evaluation of these processes).

Why is there now a need to move beyond these calls? The short answer is because agreement on what constitutes a public is now slight and increasingly far-off. In terms of the literature, now is a time when the number and variety of theoretical accounts of the public is spiralling. In the realm of practice, the quantity and heterogeneity of enactments of public action is also growing fast.

Even if the obvious difficulties of arriving at some kind of public agreement about a shared definition and framework are put to one side (which they shouldn’t be) the complications of the current context mean that any agreement it may be possible to broker is unlikely to be deeply held, enduring or have any kind of broad appeal. And, if any attempt is made (e.g. by a governing actor or institution) at enforcement, in the current context this could only ever be deemed public-centric in the thinnest or most hollowed-out sense.

On a more prosaic level, what of the increasing plurality of research specialisms and the claims to public authority and public value that are now associated with many of these? And what of the incessant multiplication of approaches to and demands for public engagement currently being resourced by new and emerging technologies of interaction? In case it is overlooked, this is a time when an increasing proliferation of crises (democratic, environmental, financial, educational, social welfare, institutional/epistemological) now also overshadows our everyday lives. In the context of the complications and peculiarities of the current moment, there are therefore few signs that the current intensity of debates and struggles over what it means to be public (or indeed over what it means to act as, or for, the public) is likely to de-escalate any time soon.

What is left here, beyond calls for shared definitions and frameworks, is a challenge: that of generating public-centric approaches to public engagement, in the context of the complications and peculiarities of the current context. Rather than bracketing out (or perhaps ‘black boxing’) these complications and peculiarities, the public-centric approaches to public engagement to come may need to work to do more to explore and address them.

This article was first published on the Creating Publics blog.

Note: This article gives the views of the author(s), and not the position of the Impact of Social Sciences blog, nor of the London School of Economics.

About the author:

Dr. Nick Mahony is Research Fellow at the Open University and currently leads Creating Publics project, which aims to research, pilot and support collective thinking about new and emerging ways of mediating the publics of public engagement with social science research. The Creating Publics project has emerged out of conversations between members of the Publics Research Programme, which was established in 2010 with support from the Open University’s Centre for Citizenship, Identities and Governance. Visit the project blog or get in touch with Nick (nick.mahony@open.ac.uk) for further details about the project, project resources or details of past and future Creating Publics events.

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