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ResearchThe Groningen Research Institute for the Study of Culture (ICOG)ResearchOnderzoeksprojectenSustainable citizenship

Project Background

One strand in the new FP7 programme for the Social-Economic Sciences and Humanities issued in July 2012 calls for applications which address the topic of “Citizens’ Resilience in Times of Crisis” (SSH.2013.5.1-1.). In the accompanying rationale the reader is reminded that “the economic and financial crisis has proved a difficult test in terms of the pursuit of European integration and its legitimacy in the eyes of citizens, who are forced to accept cuts in wages and welfare provision. In addition, falling political participation and the rise of populist groups and rhetoric in various European countries even before such a crisis, suggest that the crisis of European democracies is possibly more 'endemic'. The ability of citizens to develop resilience in the event of crises – rather than opting for fatalism or rejecting any involvement in public life - is thus a fundamental issue for the EU, its Member States and beyond.” These observations echo worries expressed, for instance, after the very low voter turnout at the last Irish European Fiscal Compact Referendum on 31 May 2012, where just over 50% of the Irish electorate went to the polls, a figure significantly down from the previous EU referendum. It also reflects Jürgen Habermas’ recent observations on “insufficient mutual trust [which] has developed among European peoples” leading to an atmosphere of “mutual national prejudices” (Jürgen Habermas in an interview with Francis Fukuyama, The Global Journal, 18/05/2012). Habermas firmly blames the political elites for the lack of transparency in politics and processes that gave rise to citizens’ suspicions in regard to European issues. It is this lack of transparency as well as an increasing political recourse to what had originally been labelled as the late Margaret Thatcher’s TINA (There Is No Alternative) syndrome – which, according to Habermas and others, undermine an active democratic process of critical and informed debate engaging all citizens. It is quite poignant that in the public debates following Thatcher’s death on 8 April 2013 her single-minded policy without alternatives was praised by both supporters of her own party and also members of the opposition in the main BBC round table discussions, while dissenting voices were largely restricted to reports on protests in former mining villages. (While TINA is, thus, alive and well in the United Kingdom, it has also been noticed as an increasingly utilized discursive strategy of Germany’s Angela Merkel).

However, that citizens have developed strategies in difficult times to adapt to and to learn from transformations and to find sustainable alternatives to ensure a functioning community is not a recent phenomenon. Responding successfully and innovatively to the challenges of the times is a characteristic of society itself. It is by focusing on these alternatives that the study of the past, and in particular the study of the premodern world, can be employed as an antidote to the above-mentioned alleged lack of alternatives in policy, or the equally prevalent assumption that “we are in uncharted territory”, when dealing with today’s problems. Studying the past provides us with an inventory of past experience. John Tosh has rightly pointed out that “the principle of difference” –and we would add, in particular the difference between the present and the more remote past of the premodern world – “is what explains history’s continuing capacity to instruct and to unsettle – by bringing accumulated experience to bear on current problems, and by reminding us of missed opportunities and paths not taken” (John Tosh, Why History Matters, p. 141). It teaches a healthy scepticism against claims of inevitability or omniscience and allows a fresh view on the present and into the particular conditions that might facilitate change in the future.

The title of this workshop, the second in our three-year-programme of Sustainable Citizenship, which echoes the above­mentioned SSH strand, needs further qualification.

Firstly, we understand citizens not in the narrow legal sense of members of the polis but as all those individuals and groups living in a certain area, town, region or nation and participating in public life without necessarily being members of the political elites or of official governmental institutions.

Secondly, we need to further specify the term “Crisis”, which is a multi-layered concept and one that has been in inflationary use in recent years. As early as the 1980s Reinhart Koselleck has cautioned us against the ambiguous nature of the concept. While the term was initially used in Greek terminology in the spheres of medicine, law and theology, “Crisis” used as a metaphor gradually expanded from the seventeenth century onwards into the fields of politics, economics, history and psychology. There is now virtually no area of life that has not been examined and interpreted through this concept. It has long entered everyday language; it has become a central catchword, with accelerated usage since 2008. Crisis, according to Koselleck, is a term of reflection, which (through different media –texts, images, plays etc.) not only records historical developments and changes, but also arranges them in a meaningful order. The recognition (and description) of a crisis is preceded by the awareness that experience and expectation of a particular scenario are no longer congruent. Recognizing a crisis denotes the recognition of a loss of structural certainties and the acknowledgment of a state of contingency. Describing a crisis offers the possibility to link past, present and future in a (potentially) meaningful narrative. Accepting crisis as a phenomenon thus offers at the same time means of interpretation in which the precariousness of the events or scenarios described (or experienced) is put into a long-term perspective. Discourses on crisis, reflecting current events or applying meaning retrospectively, thus, historicize these events. They also require an approach that facilitates “solutions”, be those catastrophe and extinction or resilience and renewal.

Which brings us to the third term applied here. Resilience is also a concept that has gained increasing currency in recent years. In a way it is a partner of the ever-present sustainability. The Resilience Alliance, a consortium of international universities and organizations interested in issues of social- environmental sustainability (of which the Netherlands Environment Assessment Agency is a member) de­fines resilience as: "…The capacity of a system to absorb disturbance, undergo change and still retain essentially the same function, struc­ture, identity, and feedbacks." (The Resilience Alliance, 2011, par. 9)

The OED defines resilience as: 1. the ability of a substance or ob­ject to spring back into shape; and 2. the capacity to recover quick­ly from difficulties. While resilience is a term which is predomi­nantly used in environmental and physical context on the one hand and in terms of personal development and health on the other, there is a growing trend, as expressed by the SSH call, to look for resilience in larger social units, such as families, city environs, regions and nations.

The three strands of this workshop will address this capacity to absorb disturbance: to acknowledge a crisis (with the implications outlined above), to react to it in effective and creative ways (or other­wise) and to reflect on a crisis as a transformative experience.

In the first strand the speakers investigate the social fabric of past communities. They will analyse changing social networks, family ties or community practices which foster or erode solidarity in times of crisis. These include practices of and reflections on migrants, minorities and Diasporas. They also include the use of historiography as a means to come to terms with a crisis and as a strategy of moral resilience in a changing and threatening political situation.

The second strand we have devoted to the “soft powers” of (political) communication and the formation of a premodern public sphere and public opinion. These may take the form of an investiga­tion into new artistic expressions as forms of resilience, the (chan­ging) role of rituals, religious worship, theatrical and other public performances. They include the study of the use of language(s) in day-to-day interaction as well as in literary and translation activities.

The third strand is concerned with the “hard powers” of economics, (high) politics and their respective institutions, and citizens’ responses to changes and challenges in these areas. It will also address the dialectical relationship between citizens and institutions in times of crises and reconstruct the redefinition of their mutual connection as part of a process of negotiation of meanings and power relations.

As for “Civic Mirrors”, contributors are invited to reflect on their own practices as lecturers and researchers both when undertaking and presenting their research, and in the way in which we as an academic community can develop strategies of resilience against a world of increasingly diminishing resources – not just for the academy, but also in terms of energy supply, and general institutional support in the face of a retreating state. How can we provide leadership as guardians and agents of the citizens’ resource: the long record of human creativity in times of crisis.

Last modified:06 September 2013 2.45 p.m.