The changing role of citizen engagement

European Consortium for Political Research

The Changing Role of Citizen Engagement in Today’s Challenges: Participation, Movements, Protest


This Section aims to bring together panels around current issues in the study of political participation and social movements. Scholars of democratic theory, participation, social movement mobilization and political parties have pointed to the fact that understandings and expectations of the (political) engagement of citizens are constantly evolving. As a consequence, pathways of critique and opposition to power assume new forms: movements and protests emerge and develop differently than they have in the past. The contemporary rise of right-wing populism as well as shifting movement landscapes and repertoires of political participation bear witness to these moving grounds. This ever-changing landscape of citizen participation demands ongoing research into who becomes active, why, how and to what effect. At the same time, citizen engagement is also hotly debated from various normative standpoints. Many theories of democracy consider citizen engagement to be the solution to multiple crises of democratic legitimation or efficiency. Others see it as a cause for democratic inequality, and point out that it can lead to decreasing democratic problem-solving capacities when the expectation of (direct) democratic influence by the people or social movement organizations make decision-making slow and consensus unlikely. 

With this section we want to take a closer look at topics that enable to better understand citizen’s shifting demands for, and patterns of, participation, and how social movement organizations and other actors, including governments, media, and companies respond to these demands. We call for panels, which speak to both, the more established core interests in the study of political participation and social movements as well as the more recent or emerging areas of academic enquiry. In line with the scope of the standing group on participation and mobilization, this section particularly aims at bringing the literature on political participation and social movements closer together. 

The panels in this section seek to explore several topics for which citizen engagement has long been highly relevant, or where their role has recently changed dramatically. We expect that such a topical focus will facilitate discussions that are empirically coherent and theoretically innovative.

Proposed panels

The following list of panel titles provides a preliminary overview of possible areas to be covered in this section, as well as panel chairs apt to leading the respective discussions. We strongly encourage colleagues to propose panels as well as papers that go beyond these topics as well.

1) Do Social Movements improve Democracy? Internal Democracy, Organization and Individual Participation in Political Activism
Social Movements and protest groups voice critique of existing power relations and claim to embody alternative forms of democratic legitimation and decision-making. To ask how inner-organizational democracy contributes to the democratization of societies has therefore been a long-standing subject of social movement and participation research. This panel seeks to explore how the relationship between organizational democracy and the democratic expectations of members contributes to the functioning and acceptance of democracy in a society and how this relationship is contemporarily evolving.
Potential chair: Felix Butzlaff, Vienna University of Economics and Business

2) Social Movements and the Politicization of Diversity
Societies are often described as becoming increasingly diverse. This panel explores the role of social activism in the politicization of diversity, including topics such as migration and gender.
Potential chair: Laura Morales, Sciences Po

3) Populist Movements. A New Tale of Organizing Emancipation Through Movements?
Populists across the world call for the rule by the people and portray themselves as redefining notions of emancipation. But does that also mean that populism is related to greater citizen engagement or direct democracy and how so?
Potential chair: Ondřej Císař, Institute of Sociology of the Czech Academy of Sciences

4) The expanding repertoire of political participation: Causes and Consequences
The repertoire of political participation seems to be constantly expanding. What forms of participation are emerging, how, why, do they replace of ‘old’ forms, and what are the consequences? And why do some social groups prefer specific forms of action over others?
Potential chair: Yannis Theocharis, University of Bremen/Julia Zilles, University of Göttingen

5) Environmental Movements: Can Citizens Address ‘Humanity’s Existential Threats’?
Environmental crises from climate change to mass extinction are becoming more immediate by the day, but many question whether governments are able to address them. What role is there for citizen engagement in tackling these crises?
Potential chair: Joost de Moor, Stockholm University

6) Labour, Social Classes and Inequality
This panel seeks to explore how social stratification, persisting inequalities and social classes predetermine the political opportunity structure of social movements today. It asks for the conditions for social movement alliance building, how learning processes between actors across movements and classes play out as well as which social groups are able to form broad cross-movement alliances and which don’t. Who is included in movement struggles – and who is left aside.
Potential chair: Sabrina Zajak, University of Bochum

7) The Right to the City: Urban Movements between Anti-Capitalist Resistance and Neoliberal Uptake
Urban space has long represented the materialization of society’s most fundamental struggles. Many contemporary urban movements, however, face a neoliberal state seeking to appropriate movement repertoires, identities and the notions of democratic legitimation and transformation urban movements provide. What do current urban struggles tell us about politics today? And how what can we learn from the urban realm about the transformatory potential of movements?
Potential chair: Margaret Haderer, Vienna University of Economics and Business

8) It’s the economy, stupid? Political economy, activism and democracy
Many economists have depicted the unsustainability of the current global political economy. More than a decade after ‘the end of the global justice movement,’ does activism still play a role in reshaping political economy? Under which conditions can social movement activism mobilize economic struggles and inequalities – and which democratic and economic potential to transform societies can be found within (which form of) movements in times auf austerity politics?
Potential chair: Lorenzo Zamponi, Scuola Normale Superiore

Felix Butzlaff is an Assistant Professor at the Vienna University for Economics and Business and member of the steering committee of the SG on Participation and Mobilization.

Joost de Moor is a Postdoc at Stockholm University and convenor of the Standing Group on Participation and Mobilization.

The deadline for Panel and Paper proposals is midnight UK time on 18 February 2019.

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