Monday, 1 December 2014

"Publics" or an amorphous mass?

If you want to get people to engage you need to differentiate between them and that's what Andrew's done in his previous posting on draft questions, referring frequently to "publics".  "Publics" is a new term to me.  In ordinary life, I'm used to hearing phrases like "in public" or "the public" but not the plural form "publics". Yet in his posting, Andrew talked about engaging with publics.  For example,
"the publics can be engaged...", "the publics we need to focus on...",  "how do the publics ...understand...?"  and "how do members of these publics communicate...?"
Yet, the term is not in Holliman's dimensions of engagement, despite it being another 'P'. (Holliman's dimensions are: people, purposes, processes, participation, performance and politics). I found a relevant paper by Nick Mahoney, "The work of public engagement". Nick highlights three different ways of viewing of the public, and in doing that perhaps his paper gives the reader a better understanding of what academic social scientists mean by "publics", because that's what I think the term is - a specialist one for academic social scientists.
The three perspectives that he introduces are:
  1. "emergence-oriented" - the public comes out, shows itself through talking (discourse and reflection)
  2. philosophical and normative in its approach - how the public should be and should act (democratically)
  3. calculative - a real and pre-existing entity that allows researchers "to investigate, quantify and represent"
So if you're an academic engager (!) taking these different perspectives into account might be useful when you want to engage with the publics.
I don't think the publics would appreciate these academic perspectives. Dr Alice Bell, when asked for her top tips for public engagement,  had a more cynical view on the term 'public', analysing both 'public' and the term 'engagement'.  ON publics, she said, simply,
"People who work in public engagement sometimes prefer to talk about publics, to emphasise that it isn’t one big lump."
That I understand.   People can't be lumped together.

And that's what Andrew's done in his posting on draft questions.  He's identified:
  • students
  • teachers
  • researchers
with different perspectives on each of them. People are not one big amorphous mass.

Bell, A. (2014). Public Engagement with Science: Top Tips. [online] Available at: [Accessed 1 Dec. 2014].
Mahoney, N. (2013) 'The Work of Public Engagement', Comunicazioni sociali, Vol 3, No 349-358.

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