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 social engagement at the centre 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.
Our fundamental methodological premise is that engagement is the most heuristically fruitful term for the study of a whole range of contemporary forms of social action. Theoretically speaking, our research programme is underpinned by the insight that every act of engagement is oriented towards others, which means that engagment is an intrinsically social phenomenon. For this reason, we use the terms engagement and social engagement as synonyms, at the same time opening this view to further discussion.
We define engagement as the spectrum of ways in which citizens of a given society reflect on the values, norms and rules of their own action which constitute the basis of their institutional orders and the whole social reality, and ways in which they act on the basis of this reflection. Engagement is therefore any collective practice characterized in a constitutive way by the following “double movement”: 1) reflection on the existing societal values, norms and rules, and 2) action that aims at modifying or preserving these values, norms and rules.
Defined in this way, the concept of social engagement has the potential to both encompass various narrower terms (civic participation, protests, social movements, activism, public intellectual engagement, resistance, engaged art and culture, etc.) and to preserve the differentia specifica of each one of them.
Key Themes of Social Engagement Studies
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, Social Engagement Studies tackles the tasks of conceptualizing and operationalizing this term. The Studies are fundamentally interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary, and the different disciplinary and theoretical backgrounds of researchers, from philosophy and theory of literature to sociology, cultural studies, political science, economics and psychology provide a variety of analytical tools and perspectives from which we aim to understand, define, and, in an empirical sense, apply the concept of social engagement. Social Engagement Studies are thus guided by the following questions:
- How is social engagement of a certain group of actors possible in light of the irreducible idiosyncrasy of individuals? Why do 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 basic social unit with its own specific capacities.
- 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.)? Are these roles mutually complementary or antagonistic?
- What is the ethics of social engagement? Are social actors morally obliged to get socially engaged (and if they are, in which situations)? Is there a right to disengagement or non-engagement, and what is it based on?
- Are comprehensive visions of the “good society” necessary for normatively oriented social action, or does it suffice to simply focus on “concrete” issues? Is social engagement a means to the realization of the good society, or is it an integral part of the latter? Finally, is social engagement without a vision possible at all?
- What are the structural impediments and facilitators of social engagement and what is the theoretical/practical link between engagement and the political community?
- Is it necessary to act publicly for something to qualify as engagement? Can we identify instances of reflection on the existing societal values and norms in everyday life? In what sense does social engagement potentially undermine the fixed divide between the public and the private?
Within the existing literature on the phenomenon of engagement, one might identify a tendency to restrict this term to the actions of individual or small groups that aim at “improving” the existing institutional systems through piecemeal reform, rather than actions that question the basic principles of these systems. In comparison to this common analytical frame, the goal of our theorization of engagement is precisely to expand this restricted meaning of the term so that it can encompass and explain a much greater variety of normatively oriented social action.
Research Areas of Social Engagement Studies
In addition to conceptualizing engagement, the goal of Social Engagement Studies is to develop a complex set of criteria that allow for the mapping of different practical modalities of social engagement, and to analyse their formal and normative characteristics. One particular aim is to reflect on the issue of democracy and 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 identify four research areas as being of key importance for Social Engagement Studies:
This research area focuses on a broad range of issues related to the social engagement of citizens from below (bottom-up), in order to formulate a critical perspective on the forms of organization, effects, and the potential for social change of these types of engagement.
- Exploration of the global and local contexts of citizens’ (dis)engagement, the causes and history of engagement
- Classification and conceptualization of various forms of social engagement with bottom-up characteristics, including formal and informal grassroots organizations, new social movements, civic protests and NGOs.
- Analysis of the structure of different forms of citizens’ engagement, primarily with respect to modes of organization (vertical and horizontal), dynamics (short-term and long-term activities, planning and effects), scale (small, medium, large and massive), and, finally, examination of the mechanisms and goals of these forms of engagement.
- Examination and assessment of 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 transforming the existing relations of power.
The area of public engagement is thematized through systematic research of the “performative” dimension of engagement. We analyse 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.
- Tracing the role and impact of intellectuals, politicians and media within the public.
- Advancing new theoretical accounts of the capacity of actors to mobilize or demobilize the public on the basis of representative key studies, and focusing in particular on the function of intellectuals as spokespersons of society, on the dialectical and mutually constitutive character of social engagement and politics, and on the role of media in setting the agenda and enabling “audience” engagement.
- Examining the potential of old and new forms of intellectual, political and media (digital) engagement, and reflecting on the conditions of their applicability in a variety of contexts.
- Analysing the relationship of literature and the field of culture in the broadest sense to social engagement, especially their role in the formulation of new perspectives on, and visions of, society.
This area thematizes different forms of engagement which focus on the production and dissemination of knowledge. We thereby aim to also encompass different aspects of engaged philosophy/theory, engaged (social) science and engaged research and educational practices.
- Critical assessment of current tendencies and ideologies within the process of knowledge production, circulation and dissemination within the academia, the expert and educational communities and the public. Exploration of the sites and practices of engagement both at the formal and informal levels, and detection of the structural as well as accidental barriers to accessing knowledge, participating in its production and formulating social critique.
- Identification and conceptualization of the existing modes and styles of engagement within the field of knowledge, with a particular focus on how contemporary processes radically reshape the social role of the university, and investigation of the consequences of this reshaping.
Pointing toward new tendencies of theoretical engagement and giving visibility to engaged practices in research and education.
The focus of this area is on the private aspects of social engagement, with the aim of unveiling the dynamics of domination, subjection and resistance in everyday life contexts, focusing specifically on how practices of social engagement impact or may impact a variety of social roles, and how these roles produce differentials between the actors of civic, scientific and public engagement.
- Analysis of the private/public dichotomy and inquiry into the most suitable approaches that try to critically examine and unsettle this dichotomy, with a special focus on the concept of the common.
- Assessment of existing empirical data on the impediments to active social engagement of certain social strata, especially those based on gender, class, race, etc.
- Analysis of engaged actors: affective and emotional dimension of engagement, lived experiences and biographies, values that social actors uphold and motives that guide them in their engaged acts, and resources they have at disposal.
- Integration of the private dimension of everyday life into the broader understanding of social engagement and identification of various barriers that engaged actors face when they strive for social change.
- Special focus on the politics of gender and their role in enabling or disabling all forms of engagement.