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Group for Social Engagement Studies

Research Platform for 2017-2020

Over the next four years, the Group for Social Engagement Studies plans to develop a nuanced
conceptual apparatus for the study of social engagement in a comparative European perspective. In
the past year, the Group has engaged in an extensive survey of the existing literature on the
phenomenon of social engagement, and has attempted to both identify the most fruitful
contemporary approaches to engagement in philosophy, sociology, political science and
anthropology, and to determine their limitations and potential for further elaboration. Below we
present our research platform in the form of several key questions that structure our work.

Why Engagement?

One particular limitation of the contemporary literature on engagement concerns the conceptual
unclarity and unelaborated nature of the term ''engagement''. ''Engagement'' is often used as a term
synonymous with political protest, new social movements, civic activism, etc. The fundamental
theoretical premise that motivates the Group's research, and provides a unifying thread for the
Group's interdisciplinary structure, is the view that ''social engagement'' is the most heuristically
fruitful term for the study of a whole range of different forms of value-rational social action, given
both its comprehensive nature and its openness for internal differentiation – let us clarify.

The term ''engagement'', in our understanding, can be understood as a subtype of a broader


concept of value-rational social action (action characterized by the following or questioning of
norms and rules of conduct) which involves all forms of action directed towards social change, but
also the attempts at preventing change, i.e. stabilizing existing societal structures through the
legitimation of existing institutional arrangements. Whether it aims at some form of social change
or at the strengthening and preservation of existing societal structures, social engagement always
requires reflection on the existing norms and rules of social action. In that respect, the concept of
engagement has the potential to both encompass all the above mentioned narrower concepts
(protests, movements, civic activism, public intellectual engagement etc.) and to preserve the
differentia specifica of each one of them through further specification (each one of the above
phenomena constitutes a qualitatively distinct form of engagement that needs to be fleshed out
conceptually). Thus, 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, in the following period the Group will tackle the difficult task of conceptualizing and
operationalizing this term. The results of this research will be presented in a series of papers,
workshops and conferences.

Conceptualization – what, exactly, is engagement?

Conceptualization of engagement requires the double movement of abstraction and


differentiation in order to develop this term into an analytical ''grid'' that the Group intends to use in
empirical research. The concept of engagement has to be theorized adequately against the
background of phenomena that are closely related to it, such as the broader terms of value-rational
action, institutional reality, action-guiding norms and rules, collective intentionality, legitimacy,
violence and others.

The Group will aim to conceptualize social engagement through the prism of the fundamental
questions of social ontology and theory such as: how is society possible in light of the irreducible
idiosyncrasy of individuals; is there any legitimate role for violence within the processes of securing
and contesting institutional orders; can any social actor claim an epistemologically privileged
position in the public sphere; are comprehensive visions of the good society indispensable for
normatively oriented social action, or should we simply focus on 'concrete' problems; are
institutions necessarily 'stabilizing' action and reducing the complexity and contingency of social
reality, or can they also be 'experimentalist' to some degree (be characterized by in-built reflexivity);
should social actors reflect on norms of conduct only as 'citizens' in the public sphere, or should
they also be reflexive as bearers of institutionalized social roles (professional or other)? The
conceptualization of engagement against the background of these fundamental social-theoretical
perspectives will constitute the core of the Group's research programme in the following period.

Within the existing literature, 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. Rather than arriving at a final, unproblematic definition, 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 order to adequately
respond to the above mentioned task of reflecting on engagement through the prism of fundamental
social-theoretical questions and expanding the narrow liberal perspective, the Group relies on a
variety of authors including Kant, Simmel, Dewey, Popper, Gramsci and Horkheimer.
The task of conceptually differentiating ''engagement'' will require the elaboration of a number of
qualitatively distinct types along two analytical lines:

1) Engagement as a unity and plurality of forms of action

First, the Group will distinguish types of engagement as qualitatively distinct forms of value-
rational social action that aim either at social change or at the preservation of existing institutional
arrangements through reflecting on the existing institutionalized or informal rules and norms of
action (protests, initiatives, civic activism, public intellectual engagement, etc.). Our aim will be to
articulate a set of criteria for classifying forms of engagement according to their structural
properties and relation to institutional reality – for example, whether the engagement is individual
or collective, whether it aims at reform, transformation or legitimation of institutions, and whether
an individual or group engage ''for themselves'' (on the basis of their own interests) or ''for others''.

2) The normative spectrum of engagement

Second, we will try to distinguish types of engagement along a normative line of differentiation –
dealing, for example, with the question what constitutes ''progressive'' engagement as opposed to
''conservative'' or ''reactionary'' one, and whether this kind of distinction is theoretically fruitful at
all. This problem will further require the examination of the normative claims of various types of
engagement – are they universalist or particularistic, and how do the normative claims themselves
relate to the given institutional reality (for example, do the actors articulate a universalist critique of
institutions or a universalist defence of institutions against particularistic forms of critique, are their
normative claims underpinned by epistemologically authoritarian premises, and are the engaged
actors prepared to test the validity of their normative claims in an open public debate). This
question is of utmost importance for what one might call the Group's ''practical'' or ''emancipatory''
orientation – namely, the notion that, through a complex and multi-dimensional understanding of
the phenomenon of social engagement, the Group might eventually contribute to the fostering of
''progressive'' types of engagement.

Operationalization – engagement as an analytical grid

Finally, the Group will aim to further operationalize the above conceptualization, that is, develop
a complex set of criteria that will allow for the mapping of particular empirical instances of
engagement (how they relate to a variety of other instances) and the analysis of their formal and
normative characteristics. The analytical prism of ''engagement'' should allow for the examination of
what a certain empirical phenomenon (e.g. protest movement) shares with a variety of other
phenomena (certain related instances of public intellectual engagement or engaged theory, for
example) that might escape a narrower perspective that focuses only on protest movements (or
''social movements'', or ''democracy''). At the same time, the rigorous conceptual model that we
hope to develop should enable one to draw a complex picture of the internal structure, dynamics
and normative aims of a particular instance of engagement and thus grasp its uniqueness as well.

The Group plans to begin carrying out comparative empirical research of social engagement
towards the end of 2017. Relying on our existing ties with the relevant actors and academic
institutions in Europe, and working towards further expanding these ties, we aim to undertake a
comparative research of what we consider to be new forms of democratic social engagement in
Europe (for example, the recent radical-democratic protest movements in countries such as France,
Germany, Slovenia, Serbia and Bulgaria).

Methods/Tools of analysis

Being an interdisciplinary group of researchers, we naturally tend to approach Engagement through


various angles and relevant parameters for research …
- social composition of actors
- legal/political/economic contextualization
- discourse analysis
- emic/etic perspective

Subtopics – individual research areas

- social activism – forms, agents, scopes


- state-economy-society: searching for new paradigms
- horizontal movements – programmes and realities
- violence and change
- gender