Research Platform of Social Engagement Studies

Research Platform of Social Engagement Studies

Relying on the heritage of the Yugoslav Praxis School as a field of engaged thought, the Institute for Philosophy and Social Theory places the studies of engagement at the center of its research activities. The phenomena of Praxis philosophy and the Korčula Summer School, which emerged at the intersection of two societal paradigms of the 20th century, provided a unique space in which Marxists and non-Marxists, authors from the socialist East (Leszek Kolakowski, Karel Kosik, Gyorgy Lukacs, Agnes Heller, Ivan Varga etc.) and the capitalist West (Ernst Bloch, Erich Fromm, Jürgen Habermas, Herbert Marcuse, etc.) could engage in dialogue and polemics in a free and open atmosphere. Guided by this heritage, and exploring the possibilities of building a more humane society, the Institute sets itself the mission of establishing, through studies of engagement, an inclusive framework for critical thinking about the most important problems of society.

 

Why Social Engagement?

The fundamental theoretical premise that motivates the Group’s research and provides a unifying thread for the Group’s interdisciplinary structure is that “engagement” is the most heuristically fruitful term for the study of a whole range of different forms of value-rational social action. The foundational premise of our research of engagement is that every engagement is oriented towards others, so that engagment is an intrinsically social phenomenon. For this reason, we use the terms engagement and social engagement as synonymous, at the same time opening this view to further discussion.

We define engagement as a spectrum of ways in which the citizens of a given society reflect on the norms and rules of social action (legally institutionalized, culturally dominant or specific to certain spheres of social action: professional, private or economic), which constitute the structure of their institutional reality, and ways in which they act, on the basis of this reflection, either in order to change parts of this institutional reality, or in order to reinforce them. Thus, engagement is any collective practice characterized by the following “double movement”: 1) reflection on the existing social norms and rules, and consequently, 2) acting upon or against their modification or change.

In that respect, the concept of social engagement has the potential to both encompass various narrower concepts (protests, movements, civic activism, public intellectual engagement, resistance etc.) and to preserve the differentia specifica of each one of them through further specification.

Starting from the premise that the analytical potential of the concept of social engagement has so far not been fully realized within the contemporary humanities and social sciences, the Group tackles the difficult task of conceptualizing and operationalizing this term.

 

Conceptualization – what, exactly, is social engagement?

A central task of the studies of engagement is the conceptualization of this multi-layered and complex phenomenon. The different disciplinary and theoretical backgrounds of the Group’s members (from philosophy and theory of literature to sociology, economics and psychology)  provide a variety of analytical tools and perspectives from which we attempt to understand, define, and, in an empirical sense, apply the concept of social engagement. Questions such as the following guide us in this endeavour:

  • How is social engagement of any group possible in light of the irreducible idiosyncrasy of individuals? We pay particular attention to the sociality of the group dynamics; we ask why individuals want to be part of any group and how is that will or desire linked to the potentials of change of the group itself, seen either as a mere amalgamation of individuals or as a social unit with its own specific capacities.
  • Where is the proper locus of engagement? In what capacities do social actors reflect on norms of common conduct (as citizens, as activists, as “the common people”, as intellectuals, as bearers of institutionalized social roles, etc.)?
  • What is the ethics of social engagement? Are social actors morally obliged to get socially engaged (and if they are, when?) Is there a right to disengagement or non-engagement?
  • Is there social engagement without a vision? Are comprehensive visions of the good society indispensable for normatively oriented social action, or does it suffice to simply focus on “concrete” issues? What is the relationship between engagement and the key concepts of social theory such as social justice, equality, solidarity, etc.? Is social engagement a means to achieving the good society, or is it an integral part of the latter?
  • What are the structural impediments and facilitators of social engagement? What is the role of institutions? Are institutions characterized by in-built permanent reflexivity possible? Finally, what is the theoretical/practical link between engagement and political community?
  • To what extent does every engagement entail violence? Which vocabularies of justification and social critique are used to justify the use of violence within processes of inducing and/or preventing social change?
  • Is engagement necessarily public? Can we observe reflection on the existing norms and rules in ‘private sphere’ of social reality, and in what respects does social engagement potentially undermine the fixed divide between the public and the private?

Within the existing literature on the phenomenon of engagement, we have identified what one might term a “liberal” bias in the study of engagement – namely, a tendency to restrict this term to mostly individual or small-group types of social action that aim at “improving” the existing institutional systems in liberal democracies through piecemeal reform. In comparison to this relatively narrow analytical frame, the goal of the Group’s theorization of engagement is to expand this restricted meaning of the term so as to encompass a much greater variety of normatively oriented social action. In so doing, we will stick to the two analytical lines:

Operationalization – social engagement as an analytical grid

In addition to the task of conceptualization, the goal of engagement studies is to develop a complex set of criteria that will allow for the mapping of particular empirical instances of engagement and the analysis of their formal and normative characteristics. One particular aim is to develop a set of criteria for distinguishing what we call the types of social engagement that “have the aim to improve/radicalize the existing forms of democracy” from those which “have the aim to diminish/dismantle them”.

We particularly focus on four research areas:

Street

Our research area entitled “Street” has in its focus a broad range of issues related to the social engagement of citizens “from below” (bottom-up), in order to produce a critical assessment of its forms of organization, effects, and the potential for social change.

  • We focus on global as well as local contexts of citizens’ engagement, its causes and history, by making use of case studies and comparative analyses.
  • We analyse engaged actors: the affective and emotional dimension of engagement, lived experiences and biographies, values that they uphold, motives that guide them in their engagement, and resources that they possess.
  • We classify and conceptualize various forms of social engagement with bottom-up characteristics, including grassroots organizations, new social movements, protests and NGOs. To analyse the structure of citizens’ engagement, primarily with respect to the modes of organization (vertical and horizontal), dynamics (short-term and long-term activities, planning and effects), scale (small, medium, large and massive), deliberation mechanisms and goals articulation.
  • We examine and assess the impact of various forms of citizens’ engagement: their capacity to create spaces for reflecting on social problems and articulating solutions, their influence on public opinion, and their potential for shifting the existing relations of power and strengthening democratic processes in society.

Classroom

We analyse different forms of engagement focusing on the production and dissemination of knowledge. We thereby aim to also encompass different aspects of engaged philosophy and engaged (social) science.

  • We conduct critical assessment of the current tendencies in knowledge production, circulation and dissemination within the academia. We explore sites and practices of engagement both at the formal and informal level, and detect structural as well as accidental barriers to access, participation, and critique.
  • We detect and conceptualize existing modes and styles of engagement within the academia, with a particular focus on how the standardization, commodification and managerialization of education may radically reshape the social role of the university, and hence its capacity to provide a forum for free, open and informed discussions about salient common issues.
  • We point to new directions of theoretical engagement and try to give visibility to promising practices in education, with a view to stimulating further theorization of, and empirical research on, issues of social engagement.

Stage

We systematically explore the performative dimension of public engagement. The Group analyses the strategies and practices of representation employed by public intellectuals, politicians, and the media, in order to evaluate their capacity to mobilize (or demobilize) the public around issues of common concern.

  • We trace the role and impact of intellectuals, politicians and the media on the public by looking at a set of representative cases.
  • We build upon case studies to advance the new theoretical accounts of the capacity of actors to mobilize (or demobilize) the public, focusing in particular on the intellectuals’ function of social spokespersons, the dialectical and mutually constitutive character of social engagement and politics, and the role of (mainstream and non-mainstream) media in setting the agenda and enabling audience engagement.
  • We try to examine the potential of old and new forms of intellectual, political and media engagement, and discuss the conditions of their applicability in a variety of contexts.
  • We analyse the relationship of literature and art to social engagement, especially their role in the possible formulation of new perspectives on, and visions of society.

Kitchen

We focus on the private sides of social engagement, in order to unveil the dynamics of domination, subjection and resistance in everyday life contexts, focusing specifically on how practices of social engagement impact or may impact on gender roles, and how these roles differentially produce actors on stage, in the classroom, and in the streets.

  • We look into the vast corpus of knowledge on the private/public divide and search for the most suitable approaches that try to critically examine and unsettle it. We also assess the existing empirical data on the impediments to active social engagement of certain strata, organised around gender, class, race, etc.
  • We include of the private dimension of everyday life into the broader understanding of social engagement, and strive to demonstrate that socially engaged actors face various deterrents in their willingness to produce social change.

 

Realization

In the realization of our mission, we devote special attention to:

  • Collecting and analysing academic and professional literature;
  • Publishing academic and professional publications;
  • Designing and conducting research (theoretical, empirical and applied) projects;
  • Planning and organizing academic conferences, schools, seminars, training courses, workshops, public lectures, reading groups and other similar activities that enable productive discussions about engagement;
  • Designing the curriculum of an interdisciplinary academic programme of engagement studies;
  • Creating networks with other scientific and educational institutions, professional associations and other organizations in Serbia and abroad that engage in similar activities.