ideas in progress

During the inaugural workshop of the publics then, now and beyond network in June 2013, participants formed working groups to elaborate common themes and interests. The result of these discussions were four different research strands, which are summarised here.

Serendipity / intentionality

Guillaume Gourgues, Tobie Kerridge, Philam Nguyen, Tehseen Noorani

Serendipity can be characterized as a productive gap between what we imagine will happen and what actually happens in our attempts to convene publics. Etymologically connected with ideas of luck and sagacity, serendipity presents a constitutive tension. On the one hand, luck refers to outcomes that emerge by chance, while on the other hand, sagacity entails outcomes that can be anticipated, much as the sage ‘sees’ far into the distance. Recent attempts at developing methodologies and designs that embrace the latter value the co-productive features of research ‘in the wild’ (Callon & Rabeharisoa, 2003). Here we will briefly describe two frameworks that can be constructed around these concepts.

The serendipity-intentionality axis can be understood as re-presenting the problem of ignorance. Carefully-designed products and spaces might appear as serendipitous to users who are not aware of all the planning that went into the design. In the case of a well-designed technical artefact like a mobile phone, designers intentionally draw upon various sets of data and metrics about use and users, who then encounter for themselves the pleasurable fit of a well-designed product. Design failure comes about through phenomena that are not anticipated by the designer (Gaver et al., 2009), or through the unwarranted delegation of power through use (Law, 2000). Here, publics are seen to perform to, or to resist, the scripts that are incorporated in objects or plans (Akrich, 1992). A governmental lens, concerned with the ‘conduct of conduct’, is confounded by such unexpected outcomes, even when they are seen as positive. This partly accounts for the managerial turn in public policy and helps drive technocentric agendas to transform serendipitous moments into intentional ones.

However, the serendipity-intentionality axis provokes conversations that go deeper than problematising ignorance and (re)affirming the need to always know more (and more) in order to make publics just as we want them. After all, who are ‘we’? All research frames are able to include only by excluding, and the serendipitous emerges when we are able to make ill-fitting data productive in new ways. This includes reformulating the research problems, such as in Michael’s (2004) discussion of a disastrous public understanding of science interview, where he reconsiders the value of the data when the respondent ‘misbehaves’ and her pets ‘intervene’. Also, can we distinguish the experience of the serendipitous encounter from that of the intentional encounter? Serendipity acts with the anonymous force of a collective or an event, as opposed to the well-defined linearities of intentional design, where ‘they’ designed it like ‘this’ so ‘we’ would engage like ‘this’, and so on. We might hypothesise that the serendipitous, while unexpected, is more alluring than the intentional because it is harder to find the origins of responsibility that can then be resisted.

A second framing emerges, where rather than fixate on serendipity as a problem of ignorance, we can invent ways of engaging with serendipity as ways of engaging the unknown (cf. Jasanoff’s (2003) technologies of humility). Such an ‘ethics of serendipity’ might be especially useful if the problems we face are too complex to allow total control, if we accept that the intentions of the other are always inaccessible, or if we agree that the affective force of serendipity (qua anonymity) is valuable in its own right. Ways of articulating an ethics of serendipity in research on and with publics include slowing research down and prompting new forms of sense-making through play. The conceptual figure of the idiot might be useful (Michael, 2011; Stengers, 2005; Garfinkel, 1967). We have to be responsive to non-involvement (Barry, 2000), the development of pliable habits, the ‘hunt-like’ quality of the creative process and forms of active listening that help make new publics around localized problems (Alinsky, 1971). Such an ethics also contests overly-rationalistic approaches to engaging social reality and policy development.

Challenges remain. For example, how can an ethics of serendipity, which embraces the open and unfinished, be made to square with the value accorded the ‘fully-finished’ product, like the chic and shiny mobile phone described above? This problematises the deeply-held idea that completion has intrinsic value (cf. Simondon, 1980). Another problem is that in practice, the serendipitous and the intentional may not be separable. For example, the public spaces that we might anticipate will be used in myriad unexpected ways are increasingly populated by individuals on their mobile phones, including those who are pretending to be on the phone in order to perform being ‘otherwise-engaged’. Intentionality and serendipity are interwoven, cross-embedded and differentially perceived by different actors. Perhaps the two frames we have presented here are most useful when linked together. Regardless, we suggest a serendipity-intentionality axis throws up new ways of connecting social science concepts to explore issues around publics and public-making.

Making / doing / being / becoming public(s)

Panagiota Alevizou, Aristea Fotopoulou, Hannah Jones, Alice Mazeaud, Brenda McNally, Helen Pallett, Hilde C. Stephansen

This research stream focuses on processes of public-making and of making public. It is concerned with the practices, infrastructures and forms of mediation through which publics are brought into being and through which things are made public. Research in this stream starts from the assumption that publics and publicness have no essential qualities but take different forms in different contexts. That is, there are different modes of making public(s) – assembling, articulating, constructing, co-constituting – which may involve different degrees of intentionality and in which agency may be differently located. Moreover, processes of public-making and making public(s) can occur across a range of sites, involve a multiplicity of actors occupying different social locations, and be differently supported by material and non-material resources and infrastructures. Finally, these processes involve different kinds of knowledge and expertise, as publics and public issues emerge and are defined differently in different contexts.

Assessing the character of any given public formation is therefore first and foremost a matter of empirical exploration. The following ‘circuit of making/doing/being public(s)’ might provide a starting point for comparative  or other empirically grounded research across different contexts of public-making. Thinking this set of research questions as a circuit, rather than a list of questions, reflects our understanding of these processes to be interconnected, and informing each other.

“The circuit of making/doing/being public(s)”

  1. What are the processes of making publics? What are the different modes of public-making and what are their imagined, practiced & material elements?
  2. What are the processes of public-ness/of making something public?
  3. Where is agency located in the processes of making/doing/being/becoming public(s)? What implications does this have for our understanding of agency?
  4. How might processes of public-making and of making public(s) create conditions for the emergence of public spheres that support democratic knowledge production?
  5. At each of these points in the circuit, is it possible to identify obstacles and resistances to public-making? What are the potential ‘breaks’ in the circuit of public-making? How might publics be disrupted, unmade, and – possibly – remade?

This preliminary ‘circuit’ for analysing processes of public making has emerged out of discussions among an interdisciplinary group of researchers that brought together specialists in media, communications and cultural studies; sociology; science and technology studies; social policy; political science and human geography. Our research interests include activism, knowledge production, digital culture, emerging technologies, (mediated) participation, community cohesion, multi-culture and policy-making. This interdisciplinarity, combined with our experience of tracing the emergence of publics in diverse settings, was what prompted and necessitated the development of a model that foregrounds processes, practices and context.  

Grit / play

Our group considered various sorts of actions that facilitate public formation. We framed these actions in terms of a spectrum, with ‘grit’ at one end and ‘play’ at the other. ‘Grit’ describes actions that hinge on a point of disagreement, grievance, or uncomfortable confrontation; ‘play’ describes friendlier sorts of actions, characterized overall by a disposition toward experimentation, improvisation, and imaginative openness. As our spectrum framework suggests, certain forms of public-making activities may involve elements of grit and play working off of each other in complex conjunction—a football game is one of the examples we considered in this regard. Notably, the original focus for our discussion was ‘grit and fun’, but from the very outset we decided to replace ‘fun’ with ‘play’. Although we do not want to lose the emphasis on raw enthusiasm and pleasure that ‘fun’ suggests, we agreed that ‘play’ does a better job of describing the imaginative, low-stakes opportunities for engagement that define a great variety of public-making forms. Upon further consideration, we also noted that ‘play’ does a better job of capturing the range of affective responses that might color the experience of public action.  Anger can be a part of play, for example, and the same is true for any number of emotional responses.


[summary to follow]


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