Pragmatism, Knowledge Production and Democratic Renewal: The E14 Expedition
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Western democracies are characterised by a significant level of distrust and widespread feelings of disenfranchisement amongst ordinary citizens. The rise of populist political parties, figures and movements reflects the gradual development of a strong and increasingly vocal anti-establishment sentiment amongst millions of people who feel that the ideas and actions of political elites and experts are at odds with and do not represent their own lives. As sites where political elites are educated and socialised, universities (and the knowledge they produce) have a role in both causing and potentially solving this democratic deficit. There is a role for universities to alter their epistemological practices in ways that respect and give voice to the multiplicity of experiences, beliefs and issues in the world. There is also scope for universities to engage in civic education both on and off campus. This thesis reflects on an experiment that attempted to do this, applying the principles of philosophical pragmatism and the democratic vision of John Dewey in a participatory research project in east London to convene publics of citizens around pressing social issues and develop their power to effect change. This experiment highlighted the importance of having an underlying, place-based, civic infrastructure comprising relationships and sociality to do this work. There were further challenges in adequately respecting pluralism in a diverse world, and building citizen power in a context where experts are deemed to know best. The thesis ends by examining the wider lessons of this experiment. It looks at the potential of community-university partnerships to act as vehicles for democratic renewal, arguing that universities have the potential to re-cast themselves as mediating institutions to facilitate democracy in their local communities.
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