Civil Society, Community, Culture, Europe, Identity, Mobility, Politics, Professor Howard Davis, Society

Civil society and participation: reactions to the European Parliament elections

By Professor Howard Davis, WISERD Co-Director.

The recent European Parliament elections grabbed the headlines across Europe as some remarkable results were announced. Protest is in the air, coming from all political directions. Voices of reaction have been most strident but we should not forget that the almost universally low turnout of voters also indicates a kind of sullen refusal. Commentaries have been full of references to disillusionment with the European project, disaffection and general lack of trust.

What I find most striking in all the talk is the failure to recognize the depth of the social and cultural transformation of European societies since the early stages of international cooperation after the second world war. The popular themes of protest such as immigration, economic austerity and loss of sovereignty are framed as problems which could be made to go away  if we just turned the clock back. Clearly this cannot happen.

As a sociologist I have to ask the question: what sort of ‘society’ exists at the level of Europe as a whole and how does it relate to our everyday experience in more limited spaces of interaction? Part of the answer is that society is no longer national, and members of society are no longer just citizens of one territory. Economic integration, technology-based networks and political treaties all mean that we are subjects in multiple regimes. We can also say that the lives of individuals are becoming more diverse, unequal and culturally idiosyncratic. This is what Alain Touraine, the French sociologist, describes as the growing separation of system and actors, the conflict between efficiency and freedom.

These are ample reasons to search for a more integrated social scientific understanding of how forces for change operate locally, regionally, nationally and supranationally. Colleagues in the social sciences at Bangor University have a record of engaging with these issues through empirical investigations of community (Day), identity (Davis), belonging (Stoetzler) and nationalism (Mann). Numerous doctoral students based in Bangor have conducted locally-based studies in Wales on these themes. On the broader scale, one example of collaborative research is the EuroIdentities project funded by the EU 7th Framework programme. Using in-depth biographical data from across the continent it showed how deeply Europeanness permeates people’s thinking and action, especially when they are faced with decisions about education, work, relationships, recreation and mobility. But certainly this view of being European does not envision a society ‘for’ Europeans or automatically entail support for EU institutions.

As we look forward to the launch of the new WISERD/Civil Society research programme, we are preparing to frame the issues in terms of ‘local civil society’, the spaces of organized social relationships which are neither market-driven nor state directed. There is a strong connection with previous studies of communities, identities and social movements in Wales, where the region has been a useful laboratory to investigate forms of associational life and participation in grassroots organizations, including the labour movement, religious non-conformism, language activism and cultural cooperation.  We know that forms of associational life and participation have undergone profound changes in recent years, not least in rural and peripheral settings at some distance from larger civic centres. Some organizations have declined while new ones have emerged. At the same time, the forms and textures of participation have been affected by technological changes, social and geographic mobility and local economic fortunes. These changes to the ‘field’ have had a de-structuring and disorganising effect for some forms of community participation. But they also create new opportunities for actors who have skills and experiences in running organisations (Mann et al 2011).

One of the first projects in WISERD/Civil Society will be led by the Bangor team, using carefully selected sites in Wales to examine continuity and change in participation in grassroots civil society organisations at the local level. We will explore how civil society actors work, interact, build alliances and resolve conflicts. We will find out whether allegiances are stable or not, and how far local civil society is related to class, age, ethnicity and other social identities. We will use mainly qualitative methods including biographies to explore what kinds of local civil society activities exist and how they are connected to civil society at different scales. We do not assume that ‘local’ civil society is necessarily anchored in territorial localities, although it will be expressed locally. We expect to find examples of organization where technologies and increased mobility contribute to more extended forms of civil society.

It would be surprising if we were to uncover strong attachments to a European level of civil society. Research on post-national Europe indicates very slow progress indeed towards common spaces of communication and action in the civil sphere. The European Parliament election results highlighted the sharp contrasts between national patterns of voting, suggesting that the primary basis for people’s response remains local and national. It makes the question of participation in civil society at all levels a live and challenging one.

Mann, R., Plows, A. and Patterson, C. (2011) ‘Civilising community? A critical exploration of local civil society in North West Wales, Voluntary Sector Review 2 (3): 317-335.

Miller, R, with Day, G. eds. (2012) The Evolution of European Identities: Biographical Approaches. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan

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