There is a crisis of engagement in democratic politics, or at least the particular forms of politics which are legitimated and institutionally underwritten, such as the formal party system. This topic has been hotly debated by policymakers and academics across decades and continents. This concern about engagement with - inevitably linked to the legitimacy of - the political process is the policy background to the research project I'll describe later on.
Nostalgia blinds us to the need to address a number of paradoxes concerning public connection, which, if not always new or unnoticed, certainly take an acute form today:
- the paradox (which challenges some diagnoses of the public sphere) that the crisis of democratic politics (if that is the right word) involves not so much a loss of meaning but rather a saturation of meaning ... not so much a series of disconnected individuals, but rather multiply-connected individuals whose difficulty is not isolation in any simple sense, but rather how to find, across the various narrative streams in which they are situated, a common connection which is public and shared with others ... the paradox summed up by Oscar Gandy with nightmarish clarity when he suggests that we are approaching a situation where 'individuals may actually feel better about knowing less and less about the world around them'.
- A version of that paradox was expressed back in the 1930s by John Dewey when he wrote of the problem not of the absence of a public, but rather the existence of 'too much public', 'a public too diffused ... and too intricate in composition' for it to 'find and identify itself'.
- We see a specific application of the same paradox in the combination of a huge multiplication of media flows within and across the expanding range of significant media (and hence an exponential growth in individuals' possible paths of connection to a public world) - and, fragmentation, the challenge of sustaining across those countless trajectories some public connection that we can assume is shared between us.
- The French sociologist Alain Touraine in his book Can We Live Together? paints an even grander version of this paradox, a paradox of both globalisation and individualisation. He writes, rather drastically, that 'we are on the one hand world citizens who have neither responsibilities rights nor duties and, on the other, defenders of a private space that has been flooded by waves of world culture.'
- Touraine's paradox is too facile perhaps, but even if we step outside it (arguing that on a daily basis we do find ways of connecting our globalised allegiances to our local practice), there remains a further paradox in the wake of two decades of post-structuralist debate: how can we reconcile our tendency towards scepticism and anti-foundationalism with the need to go on thinking, indeed to rethink, the basis of democratic engagement?
The Public Connection Project
This project, which focuses on what we call 'public connection', aims to grasp (in much greater detail than possible through surveys alone) the range of ways in which people are orientated, or not, to a public world and whether or not media consumption is important to sustaining those orientations.
The project is funded by the UK's ESRC/ AHRB under their Cultures of Consumption programme and its full title is 'Media Consumption and the Future of Public Connection'. It's a 30 month project, we're six months in, so I can share with you the issues we are dealing with, not any results. The background is widespread concern at a policy level with the future of democratic politics: declining voter turn-out (in countries where voting is not compulsory), declining allegiance to formal political parties, declining interest in the formal political process. There are, different, more positive, readings of all this (for example by Sidney Tarrow) in terms of a shift of focus of politics away from institutions towards networks, away from parties and towards single-issue campaigns. But there remains an interesting question which serves to frame our research: what will be the basis of political legitimacy if politicians' usual working assumption that when they speak, a majority of the population is potentially paying attention ceases to be a plausible assumption?
I'm not a political scientist, but I have been intrigued for 3 years or more about the media's role in sustaining or not the level of shared attention necessary for democratic politics. Because it is not only politics that might be changing; we are all familiar also with parallel concerns about the decline in an older media world where prime time television could be assumed to be prime-time, to provide a primary focus for national attention. This of course is a long-term shift, linked to the multiplication of outlets within media and the multiplication of media themselves. How this shift plays out in conditions of cultural diversity (as obviously in the case of Australia and less so the UK) is itself of course a complex question. But the hunch underlying our research is that, as media and cultural analysts, we have a major opportunity: to try to grasp the possible interactions between these two large-scale processes in which the social centrality of both formal politics and broadcast media are (possibly) being eroded over the long-term.
Let's move onto the Public Connection project in more detail. So what is our empirical research strategy? I can explain this most directly by saying that we are concerned to investigate the empirical validity of two connected and widely made assumptions.
First, that, in a democracy such as Britain, most people share an orientation to a public world where matters of common concern are, or at least should be, addressed (we call this orientation 'public connection').
Second, that this public connection is focussed principally on mediated versions of that public world (ie that 'public connection' is principally sustained by a convergence in what media people consume, sustained by what we might call 'shared media consumption').
The first assumption is, we would argue, implicit in most political science and political theory (especially republican and civil society models of democracy, but also liberal models and even, it can be argued, elite models of democracy). For it is only on the basis of this first assumption that the assumption of the legitimacy of democratic political authority can be built: consent to political authority requires that people's attention to the public world can be assumed, or at least that a general orientation to that world can be assumed which from time to time (including the times when consent is explicitly requested) results in actual attention! This orientation (which itself can be analysed into many aspects, including cognitive and emotive) is what we mean by 'public connection'.
The second initial assumption is detachable from the first - you could believe that public connection is sustained by processes other than media consumption, or even (as in Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone thesis) that aspects of media consumption undermine public connection. This second assumption, nonetheless, is also, in some form or other, implicit in much political science and media sociology, so once again it is worth examining to see what basis it has in people's lives.
Now you might react that these assumptions are formulated in a quite general, abstract fashion (itself distant from the language we might use in everyday life). The reason is our concern with the empirical validity of a frame of public orientation that could be shared by people even if they disagreed over any of the following more specific issues:
This is an edited extract of a public lecture delivered at the Centre for Cultural Research, University of Western Sydney, April 2004.