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New Research on Public Engagement Practitioners

This blog post was submitted by NCDD supporting member Caroline W. Lee, associate professor of Sociology at Lafayette College and author of Do-It-Yourself Democracy: The Rise of the Public Engagement Industry. Caroline’s announcement came via our great Submit-to-Blog Form. Do you have news you want to share with the NCDD network? Just click here to submit your news post for the NCDD Blog!

There has been a recent explosion of research interest in public engagement practitioners, much of which uses qualitative research methods and ethnography to capture the rich practices and processes in the field (see, for example, Oliver Escobar’s work here). In this vein, I wanted to share with readers of the blog about a symposium on public engagement professionals I participated in at the International Political Science Association conference in Toronto in July.

Organized by Canadian and French researchers Laurence Bherer, Mario Gauthier, Alice Mazeaud, Magalie Nonjon and Louis Simard in collaboration with the Institut du Nouveau Monde, the symposium was unique in that it brought together international scholars of the professionalization of public participation with leading practitioners of public participation from the US, UK, and Canada like Carolyn Lukensmeyer.

You can find the program schedule and more details about how to access the papers here. Topics covered participatory methods and strategies in a variety of public and private contexts in North and South America and Europe.

The organization of the symposium made use of participatory practices such as Open Space and a dialogic round table format bringing the scholars and practitioners together to comment on each others’ work. There was honest discussion at the symposium over the areas where practitioners and researchers might collaborate with and learn more from each other, and the areas where the goals and aims of researchers and practitioners may diverge. Of course, there was also acknowledgment that some researchers are also practitioners, although there seemed to be near universal rejection of the term “pracademic”!

Despite some tough criticisms of the results of participation efforts on the part of scholars, practitioners were extremely generous and open to debate. Simon Burall from INVOLVE and Peter MacLeod from MASS LBP in Canada both inviting interested researchers to study their organizations, practices, and processes in-depth (grad students, take note of this amazing opportunity!). Public engagement practitioners are eager to talk about the larger politics and micropractices of the field—even when some of the symposium attendees acknowledged that being subjects of ethnographic study was an odd and sometimes uncomfortable experience.

Despite the overview of exciting international research on participation, I left the conference with the sense that our work thus far has just scratched the surface of what it is like to be a democracy practitioner in a world of deep inequalities. The opportunities for additional research in the field and dialogue between researchers and practitioners are expanding—and even more essential at a time when participatory practices are proliferating across the globe.

For those interested in studies of the impacts of the public engagement field, many of the researchers at the IPSA Symposium have books on participation and deliberation coming out in 2015. Jason Chilvers has a volume coming out from Routledge with Matthew Kearnes entitled Remaking Participation: Science, Environment, and Emergent Publics. Genevieve Fuji Johnson’s book, Democratic Illusion: Deliberative Democracy in Canadian Public Policy, includes comparative case studies of “best case” deliberative efforts and their sometimes disappointing outcomes.

My own book, Do-It-Yourself Democracy: The Rise of the Public Engagement Industry, focuses primarily on participation professionals in the U.S. and how they manage D&D processes that are increasingly popular at times of economic crisis and retrenchment. For more on the prospects of all kinds of democratic participation in a landscape of economic and social inequalities, see my edited volume with Michael McQuarrie and Edward Walker, Democratizing Inequalities: Dilemmas of the New Public Participation.

The work of Laurence Bherer, Alice Mazeaud, and Magalie Nonjon presented at the conference looks more broadly at participation professionals in Europe and Canada, and is a valuable complement to prior work focused on Australian practitioners by Hendriks and Carson. Bherer is even organizing an edited volume with Mario Gauthier and Louis Simard on participation professionals in North America and Europe. The new French-language journal Participations has many articles that should be of interest to blog readers, as does the English-language Italian journal Partecipazione & Conflitto.

Do you know of new research on the growth of public engagement in the 21st century? If so, please share links in the comments!

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This post was submitted by a member of the NCDD community. NCDD members are leaders and future leaders in the fields of public engagement, conflict resolution, and community problem solving. You, too, can post to the NCDD blog by completing the Add-to-Blog form at www.ncdd.org/submit.

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