Celebrating 50 years of publishing a Radical Journal of Geography, 1969-2019
[i] “Nothing about us, without us, is for us”: making explicit the purpose of a public engagement
The discrepancy between “making public geography” and “making geography public”; the “nothing about us, without us, is for us” approaches to scholarship as opposed to approaches that are only interested in, or required to do some form of “dissemination” to, “the public” (e.g. projects having a “public” requirement due to funding emerged at IGJ, like like David Wachsmuth’s and Beatriz Bustos’). These approaches engage in contrasting conceptions of what the public and public engagement means, whereby the conception, approach, methods and results of a project are different. These approaches conceptualise the idea of a public differently, as “nothing about us, without us, is for us” (a South African disabilities slogan during the struggle against apartheid) situates the public as knowledgeable co-creators. The public is therefore involved; they are shareholders in organising a project, side by side with any researcher, shaping how the project progresses and what they want to find out, where their knowledge is valued. This is different from an approach that focuses on sharing information with a group from which the researcher is separate, after it has been researched.
[ii] Active and passive public engagements–who decides?
Undertaking research there is a difference between “active” public-ness and “passive”; the first is an indispensable and transformative component of the research, while the second is trying to communicate research to the public (a one-way transfer where the research itself isn’t transformed, regardless of the public’s reaction). In other words, the active is a form of bilateral channel between scholarship and public, and the passive is a unilateral relationship.
The discussion of the Chilean lakes region presented at the IGJ emphasises the differences between passive and active publics within research. Passive public engagement can often be compulsory (e.g. a requirement of a grant-maker, or for it to benefit from the endorsement of a public institution), and can involve merely making content or setting up an interface that is, in principle, accessible to anyone, without necessarily being required to pursue exposure or exchange. In this example, the passive component was the blog (as in the Chilean case, mentioned during the session: “the community that I work in doesn’t follow blogs. That’s not the kind of engagement that they want”). However, actively-sought “public moments” would have to prioritise engagements that were open to the public, things they wanted to engage (e.g. located in accessible places to the desired public, in ways that do not alienate them). In this example the active component could be the seminars, or maps that they collectively developed.
Another way to approach active and passive public conditions is to understand how the research is structured to facilitate these “public moments”. An active public research approach would facilitate an open interface where the public will be able to dialectically transform (the research project) and be transformed (by it). A passive public condition would be to engage in dissemination strategies that do not directly affect the project in question, but help the researchers to receive input from a certain public for the benefit of their own experience and possibly of the following projects; this is regardless of whether the public moments take place before, during, or after the research process. In this case, the role of researcher and researched, and the divide between them, is maintained.
[iii] Neoliberalizing and counter-neoliberalizing public scholarship
These interactions with public-ness foster different forms of engagements, organising even citizenship as Margit Mayer (2010) addresses in Social Movements in the (Post-)Neoliberal City. Here Mayer locates the origins of “participation” in the 1980s when the state, after the experience of protests in the 1960s and 70s, decided to turn contestation into cooperation and invite protesters to participate. In this way a public participation in the production of the city was a way to co-opt movements and reduce conflict, whilst also changing the ability of radicals to dissent.
Requirements to have public consultations could in theory provide opportunities to democratise institutions and give locals a say. However, as Meyer identifies, this can also be employed as a strategy to justify action after the fact, whether or not the public is listened to. This instrumentalisation of engagement can be a method of allowing an outlet for public responses, which have very few results in terms of action.
Therefore, the use and understanding of active or passive publics in research is very powerful; as a neoliberalizing strategy, it relies on its justification through “public engagement” in order to foster a legitimate image. However, understanding this difference can also be an important tool in changing and addressing these neoliberal policies.
Mayer M (2010) Social Movements in the (Post-)Neoliberal City. London: Bedford Press