July 16, 2013, by Beverley Gibbs

More Thoughts on Citizens and Publics….

Last month Sciencewise-ERC published a report we’ve been working on this year, with input from Sciencewise and some other members of the policy and academic communities. “Which Publics? When?” (pdf) teases out and explores the policy potential of involving different kinds of publics in processes of public dialogue around science and technology.   This post doesn’t set out to cover the content of the report, because you can download it and we have blogged about some of the issues previously (as Part 1 and Part 2). We hope you will register for the webinar on 25th July 12pm to discuss some of these issues with us and others interested in the questions we raise.

Rather than set out the issues in stone, the report aims to provoke discussion, exploration and debate of these thorny issues across and within disciplines and professional domains.   In this post, we’d like to build on the questions raised by Sciencewise Executive Chair Roland Jackson in his blog “Citizens and Publics” that accompanied the report’s launch.   In his post, Roland asked whether the word ‘citizen’ might prove more useful than ‘public(s)’ when discussing science and technology dialogue, “….It seems a more inclusive term, with immediate resonances of democracy and participation”.   Brigitte Nerlich also blogged, looking at contemporary usage and meaning of the words ‘public’, ‘publics’ and ‘citizens’, finding that semantically, ‘citizen’ was used in more active ways.  In the report our choice of the word ‘publics’ over ‘public’ or ‘citizens’ was purposeful, and in this blog post we share a few thoughts as to how citizens and publics might differ.

Firstly, whilst ‘citizen’ might invoke the idea of active participation it also assumes a certain level of homogeneity, a uniformity in cause or values that the use of the word ‘publics’ tends to avoid. If we are to talk of citizens in the democracy of science and technology then we have to be able to talk about this citizenship in its fullness – of what am I a member? What are my rights and responsibilities? How can I participate? It is not necessarily the case that the citizen ‘existed’ before the chance of participation was offered; in some senses it is the opportunity of participation that has made the citizen, not the other way around….you cannot be a citizen if you have nothing to do.

Another way in which the concept of ‘publics’ may offer something above and beyond ‘citizens’ is in their plural and differentiated nature. One can be a member of multiple publics – a student, sufferer of a particular disease, feeling passionate about climate change, opposing GM food – these are all issue that can bind us into a temporary and fluid community. It is this dynamic, unpredictable element of publics that is a true reflection of how people tend (actively) to form around certain issues and interests and whose values or interests may change as a result of dialogue – all dynamic possibilities that aren’t really captured by the use of the more formal ‘citizens’. One ‘citizen’ can simultaneously be a member of all these publics, can participate in them in different ways and there will be many more issues and interests that our singular citizen is not participating in. Acknowledging this directly challenges ideas of representativeness by binding publics to issues – stakes differ according to the individual and the context.

The idea of citizenship also has strong connotations of participation based on the ‘common interest’ – indeed, this is what has made the concept so appealing to policymakers. The idea of individuals who can be taken to be representative of the population at large, can speak for the population at large, who (between them) will act in the interests of the wider population and are ready and willing to participate in formal dialogue processes is very alluring. However, as we discuss in the report, this view of representativeness can neglect minority but important points of view.  When we start to acknowledge that citizens can make their own meanings, have their own priorities, make their own relationships with institutions and knowledge, we must also acknowledge that any truly dialogic process will also be instrumental in continuing to shape these. A dialogue has the power to change all participants and  ‘publics’ encourages recognition of the subjective, dynamic, plural and unexpected interactions that can occur within a dialogue. Isn’t exploring these as they arise the very best rational for doing dialogue?.

Of course Roland’s post has a hint of provocation (as does our paper!), and as well as exploring how we might use these different words accurately he asks how we can use them politically. Our choice of word frames our understanding of engagement, shapes our expectation of the process, and maybe it would change who got involved and how. In this sense, his question strikes at the heart of it.  In our report we discuss three parameters of good dialogue: interactivity, diversity and inclusivity. ‘Publics’ does more than ‘citizens’ to keep these keep these elusive yet desirable aspects in sight, and really – if a word is a little awkward in use, isn’t is a good thing that this encourages us to actively think about what it might mean?

Dr.Sujatha Raman will be sharing some of her own perspectives on these topics on this site over the next week and Dr.Alison Mohr will be presenting the work in Dr.Nick Mahony’s panel ”Public Engagement and the Emergent Politics of Public Mediation” at the Science in Public Conference at Nottingham next week (Panel 8, Tuesday 23rd July, 14.15).

Posted in public engagement with sciencepublics