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The Local Public Sphere: Deliberation and Community Engagement

Linda Flower and Elenore Long

The Local Public Sphere: Deliberation and Community Engagement 

Linda Flower, Carnegie Mellon University
Elenore Long, Arizona State University 

The resurgence of interest in public spheres has given us competing theoretical, normative models of how public discourse should work.  Should such discourse aspire to the critical rationality of Habermas’s deliberative democracy or to the creation of community in Dewey’s problem-solving discussions of consequences? Or should pride of place be given to problems of power and difference as in Young’s communicative democracy or to the process of interaction and response as Hauser’s rhetorical democracy recommends?   

Furthermore, this current concern over competing models of public life begs an even more pressing question: Are these theoretical norms adequate guides to “actually existing democracies” (Fraser) and the practice of deliberation in the “ordinary democracy” of town meetings (Mansbridge; Tracy), in forums organized by NGOs (Fishkin), or in the unplumbed variety of local publics and counterpublics called into being through grassroots groups, through discourse, through community/university partnerships (Warner; Long)? 

Starting with this debate in theory and practice, the seminar will explore the rhetorical/ deliberative practices of local publics broadly defined—and the promises, contradictions, and challenges they pose.  For example: 

  1. What real roles can ordinary people take in framing policy and or building knowledge around complex problems?  (The broad deliberative democracy versus expert question)
  2. Are there things “local publics” can do best—such as posing or re-framing problems, calling counterpublics into being to circulate new ideas and identities, creating schools for citizenship. . .? If so, how does one define such outcomes and impact? (The social significance question)
  3. What are some of the challenges within local public deliberation: e.g., Is this public actually deliberative (by whose definition)? What form does the discourse of deliberation take: reasoned argument, testimony, narrative, performance, consensus, or conflict-seeking? Does face-to-face (or online) dialogue mean equal participation? (The nature and quality of discourse question)
  4. How should deliberative publics deal with difference?  How should they manage/support/suppress conflict? (The justice and rhetorical challenge)
  5. Finally, what roles can academics play in supporting an energized local public sphere? (The community engagement decision)

Workshop leaders will present an overview and bibliography of issues and arguments in this emerging area as well as examples of research from rhetoric and literacy studies.  Participants will be asked to submit a research question with a statement of a motivating problem or conflict and plan for inquiry, linked to a sketch of (or data from!) the discourse of an actually existing local public. We will use these cases-in-point to test alternative answers to the questions above and to share and develop research plans.

Questions? Contact Linda Flower, lf54@andrew.cmu.edu

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